Should We Expect to See a Rise in Christian Nationalist Violence in the US?

Glenn Youngkin & Kari Lake campaign in Arizona in October, 2022. Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Troubling new details regarding the violent propensity of Christian nationalism have been revealed by a new survey on American Christian nationalism released last month. According to the PRRI/Brookings Institution data, adherents of Christian nationalism are almost seven times as likely as those who reject it to support political violence. A stunning 40 percent of Christian nationalism supporters believe that “true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”

The revelations of the survey do not bode well for the future of Christian nationalist violence in America. Over the past decade, I’ve analyzed hundreds of religious militant groups around the world. My studies have consistently found that the tipping point toward violence occurs primarily when religious identity and national identity become intertwined. As these identities fuse, historically and culturally dominant faith communities come to see themselves as the victims of encroachment by minority faith traditions. This perceived victimization results in a “persecution complex,” with little regard for the degree of historical or cultural dominance the community enjoys. What matters is that majoritarian religious communities feel like they’re victims. 

Perceived victimization often stems from changing religious landscapes, like the unprecedented rise of “the nones” in the US. This new pluralism is seen as threatening to the privileged station of the majority religious tradition, often prompting the self-segregation of majority communities from the rest of society. The resulting echo chamber further reinforces the paranoia surrounding the victim narrative. 

Increasingly, members of religious majorities see violence as an acceptable way to beat back the threat posed by religious heterogeneity. Whereas religious violence is commonly believed to be a “weapon of the weak,” it’s actually more often a “weapon of the strong” wielded against marginalized and oppressed minority communities. We see evidence supportive of this thesis in countries as diverse as Brazil, Central African Republic, Pakistan, India, and Myanmar, where vigilantes from dominant religious communities routinely attack the homes, businesses, and houses of worship of religious minorities with impunity.

As I show in my recent book The Global Politics of Jesus: A Christian Case for Church-State Separation, similar dynamics appear to be unfolding in the United States today, where a combination of forces—new cultural mores surrounding gender and sexuality, increasing religious diversity, and declining numbers of Christians—are disrupting the religious landscape and leading to a sense of angst among American Christians that their country is turning its back on what they believe to be its Christian heritage. Accordingly, Christian nationalist rhetoric is deeply cloaked in threat narratives, prompting efforts to retain Christianity’s hegemonic status, sometimes through violence.

Consider the words of Kandiss Taylor, a former candidate for governor of Georgia: “The good thing about the First Amendment is that if you’re a Jew or you’re a Muslim or you’re a Buddhist, you still get to worship your god because you’re in America. But you don’t get to silence us,” she declared last year to an approving audience. She went on to proclaim: “we’re running the state with Jesus Christ first.” 

Taylor failed to mention that the United States is a Christian-majority country where Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists collectively comprise only about four percent of the total population. Similar sentiments have been expressed by a number of other prominent politicians with Christian nationalist inclinations, including Florida governor Ron Desantis, Georgia congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, Colorado congresswoman Lauren Boebert, and Texas senator Ted Cruz.

This fusion of religion and nation has created a fertile breeding ground for a culture of violence to take root. Of course, Christian nationalist violence in the United States is nothing new. In the 1990s, violent Christian nationalists carried out the bombing of a government building in Oklahoma City, the bombing of Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, and numerous bombings of abortion clinics across the country. 

But Christian nationalist violence has also experienced a resurgence in recent years. Christian nationalist ideology figured prominently in the violence of the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia; mass shootings at an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015, a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018, at three different spas in the Atlanta-area in 2021, and at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York in 2022; as well as dozens of other instances of vigilante violence against religious minorities. And, of course, it was on full display during the 2021 Capitol insurrection two years ago. 

Given the dynamics present in the United States today (just look at last week’s CPAC), we can expect Christian nationalist violence to increase in the future. Paradoxically, the thumping Christian nationalist political candidates took during the 2022 midterm elections—including the failed gubernatorial candidacies of Pennsylvania’s Doug Mastriano, Maryland’s Dan Cox, and Arizona’s Kari Lake—will likely deepen the sense of embattlement among Christian nationalists, prompting a backlash. 

Fortunately, not all is lost. My research also shows that religious violence dissipates when these narratives are discredited from within the religious traditions from which they arise. To see such a happy outcome, American Christians—and in particular the Christian communities where Christian nationalism is most likely to thrive—must offer a counternarrative that can demonstrate that there are other, equally valid expressions of Christianity that respect this nation’s diversity and secular foundation. The amplification of these voices is paramount to countering the scourge of Christian nationalism and the violence it has helped produce.