Why Christian Nationalism Is a Feminist Issue

The cultural phenomenon of Christian nationalism isn’t a new concept that has recently taken root in our personal, public, and political spheres. Its presence has been ingrained in the fabric of the United States since English settlers arrived in the early 1600s. John Winthrop, a founding Puritan of the Massachusetts Bay colony, articulated the vision that the United States must be a “city on a hill”.1 This is clearly a reference to Matthew 5:14, when Jesus speaks to his disciples, as according to the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition, “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid”.

In 1961, President-Elect John F. Kennedy reiterated the iconic quote attributed to John Winthrop during an address to the Joint Convention of the General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.2 This phrase has continued to resonate and gained further prominence when President Ronald Reagan, a notable evangelical figurehead, referenced it in his Farewell Address of 1989. Concluding his two consecutive terms and having appealed to a robust Christian evangelical base throughout his presidency, Reagan ended his time in office with these words:

I’ve thought a bit of the “shining city upon a hill.’… I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open.3

President Reagan paved the way for this imagery to persist and be invoked by subsequent leaders, including President Barack Obama, Senator Mitt Romney, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Even Chair of the United States House Select Committee on the January 6th Attack, Bennie Thompson, opened the first day of the hearing with these remarks: “January 6th and the lies that led to insurrection have put two and a half centuries of constitutional democracy at risk. The world is watching what we do here. America has long been expected to be a shining city on a hill, a beacon of hope and freedom”.4

With the belief that God has designated the United States to be a beacon of hope rising among the nations, it is not surprising to witness the continued integration of biblical imagery into American politics. Equally unsurprising is the finding from the Pew Research Center, indicating that sixty percent of all adults in the United States believe the country should be a Christian nation. This belief is defined as having “the general guidance of Christian beliefs and values in society”.5

Advocating for a civic religion, particularly Christianity, involves practices such as placing crosses in public spaces, mandating prayer in public schools, and displaying religious texts like the Ten Commandments in courtrooms. Christian nationalism, endorsing and propagating violence in the name of religion, represents a distorted interpretation of the essence of Christianity. Amanda Tyler of the Baptist Joint Committee, a religious organization committed to preserving the separation of church and state in the name of religious liberty, succinctly captures the ethos of Christian Nationalism,

At its core, this idea threatens the principle of the separation of church and state and undermines the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. It also leads to discrimination, and at times violence, against religious minorities and the nonreligious. Christian nationalism is also a contributing ideology in the religious right’s misuse of religious liberty as a rationale for circumventing laws and regulations aimed at protecting a pluralistic democracy, such as nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQI+ people, women, and religious minorities.6

Normalizing this distortion, a survey published earlier this year by National Public Radio revealed that over half of the Republican Party supports Christian Nationalistic ideals. The survey notes, “Most Republicans qualify as either Christian nationalism sympathizers (33%) or adherents (21%), while at least three-quarters of both independents (46% skeptics and 29% rejecters) and Democrats (36% skeptics and 47% rejecters) lean toward rejecting Christian nationalism. Republicans (21%) are about four times as likely as Democrats (5%) or independents (6%) to be adherents of Christian nationalism”.7

This aligns with statements from U.S. Representative Lauren Boebert, as reported by the Denver Post: “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it…I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution. It was in a stinking letter, and it means nothing like what they say it does”.8   U. S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene added, “We need to be the party of nationalism, and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists”.9 Former United States National Security Advisor Michael Flynn also expressed, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God.”10

This is a feminist issue; Christian nationalism is a feminist issue. The imposition of laws, policies, and governance under a doctrine that not everyone subscribes to is a feminist concern. The violence United States citizens face in the wake of Christian nationalism is also a feminist issue. Christian nationalism spans various areas, including abortion, reproductive care and access, LGBTQ+ issues, and voting access, among others. These areas of concern are the ones that the National Organization for Women’s mission seeks to uphold, solidify, and protect women’s rights.

Christian nationalists target abortion clinics, hindering access for women in need of care. A New York Times article documented Chelsey Youman, a leader at an anti-abortion organization based in Texas, and the ongoing Christian nationalist efforts against reproductive care.11 Their most recent celebrated victory since the overturn of Roe?  A challenge to pills used in medication abortion, a case that will be reviewed by the Supreme Court this term.

An eyewitness account vividly describes the Christian crowd outside a Planned Parenthood clinic, stating, “The protesters appeared to want sexual expression and gender roles to be governed by conservative Christianity. They wanted this control not only within their church but also over anyone seeking an abortion or birth control”.12 This illustrates the depth and breadth of Christian nationalist thinking: everyone must conform to a specific interpretation of scripture. This is a dangerous practice, specifically when it involves access to life-saving reproductive health care.

Christian nationalists target LGBTQ+ issues and people. Specifically, with headlines mentioned by Time Magazine:

Over the last few months, several preachers across the country have called for the execution of LGBTQ people. This summer, thirty-one members of the Patriot Front were arrested in Iowa before they could invade a Pride gathering shortly after a preacher there said from the pulpit: “God told the nation that he ruled…Put all queers to death.” Similar sermons have recently made news for being preached in Tennessee, Texas, and Arizona. In North Carolina Lt. Governor and pastor Mark Robinson has said that being gay or transgender is “filth,” “garbage” and “perversion.” He is currently a popular choice to run on the Republican ticket for the governor of North Carolina.13

Not to mention the Christian attacks on drag shows, the banning of books—specifically LGBTQ+ history books—the use of fearmongering by employing phrases like the “gay agenda,” and the propagation of baseless accusations, labeling individuals in the LGBTQ+ community as “pedophiles” and “groomers.” This is far from the truth; every person in the LGBTQ+ community seeks life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, just like every other American.

Christian nationalists target voting access. Paul Weyrich, a key figure in the Moral Majority, observed that when the voting population decreases, American Christians gain more influence. This phenomenon has been studied by sociology professors Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead, as well as psychology professor Joshua B. Grubbs:

It is the combination of all three elements [(1) moral traditionalism rooted in hierarchical social arrangements (e.g., patriarchy, heterosexism), (2) authoritarian social control that justifies violence and militarism, and (3) strict ethnoracial boundaries surrounding national membership, civic participation, and social belonging] that lead us to expect Christian nationalism would lie at the heart of contemporary ideological justification for legally restricting the vote to a select group of Americans deemed “worthy” to hold the reigns of governance―namely, those most likely to preserve a “conservative” status quo with white, natural-born, “Christian” citizens atop the hierarchy. The moral traditionalism rooted in social hierarchies leads Americans to view citizens in terms of being more or less “worthy” to participate in American civic life. Participation in the political process is viewed less as a right to which everyone should have equal access.14

The interconnected issues of abortion and reproductive care and access, LGBTQ+ rights, and voting access collectively form a web that significantly influences the lives of women in diverse ways. The debate surrounding abortion and reproductive rights, for instance, directly impacts a woman’s autonomy over her body and reproductive choices. Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ issues encompass a wide range of concerns, from discrimination and violence to equal rights and acceptance, affecting women within and beyond the LGBTQ+ community. Additionally, voting access plays a pivotal role in shaping the policies and leaders who make decisions impacting women’s lives on various fronts.

These issues are not isolated; they overlap and intersect, creating a complex landscape of challenges for women. Whether by experiencing these challenges directly or indirectly through friends, family, or community members, every woman is touched by the reverberations of these societal debates. Christian nationalism, with its influence on policies and public discourse, adds another layer of complexity to these challenges.

Feminist organizations across the United States have been at the forefront of advocating for and preserving women’s rights in these domains. However, they now find themselves confronting a shared challenge posed by Christian nationalism, which often seeks to impose a particular set of values and beliefs that can directly contradict the principles of gender equality and individual autonomy. 

In essence, Christian nationalism becomes a feminist issue because it directly impacts and impedes the ongoing struggle for women’s rights. The collision between Christian nationalist ideologies and the goals of feminist organizations underscores the importance of addressing the broader societal context in which these issues unfold. In this dynamic landscape, the fight for women’s rights becomes not only about specific policies but also about preserving the principles of equality, autonomy, and justice for all women.

By Keegan Beamish, Intern to NOW President  

Works Cited

[1] Winthrop, John. “City upon a Hill”, 1630.”, The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2013, https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/Winthrop%27s%20City%20upon%20a%20Hill.pdf

[2] Kennedy, John F. “The City Upon a Hill Speech.”, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, 1961, https://www.jfklibrary.org/learn/about-jfk/historic-speeches/the-city-upon-a-hill-speech

[3] Reagan, Ronald. “Farewell Address to the Nation.” Ronald Reagan Foundation, Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library., 1989, www.reaganfoundation.org/media/128652/farewell.pdf

[4] Thompson, Bennie. “Opening statement as prepared for delivery.” , 9 June 2022, s3.documentcloud.org/documents/22057379/thompson_openingstatementpreparedfordelivery.pdf

[5] Pew Research Center. “Views of the U.S. as a Christian Nation and Opinions about Nationalism.” Pew Research Center, 27 Oct. 2022, https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2022/10/27/views-of-the-u-s-as-a-christian-nation-and-opinions-about-christian-nationalism/

[6] Weissman, Rachel. “Christian Nationalism Is the Single Biggest Threat to America’s Religious Freedom“, Center for American Progress, 13 April 2022

[7] Public Religion Research Institute. “A Christian Nation? Understanding the Threat of Christian Nationalism to American Democracy and Culture.” Public Research Institute, 2023. https://www.prri.org/research/a-christian-nation-understanding-the-threat-of-christian-nationalism-to-american-democracy-and-culture/

[8] Peiser, Jaclyn. “Lauren Boebert’s old church believed in the separation of church and state. Now she attends one that doesn’t.” The Washington Post, 28 June 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2022/06/28/lauren-boebert-church-state-colorado/

[9] McNamee, Win. “The Growing Threat of Christian Nationalism to Democracy.” Time, 27 May 2021, https://time.com/6201483/christian-nationalism-threat-democracy/

[10] Burge, Ryan P. “Michael Flynn, Trump, and America’s Christian Nationalism Threat.” NBC News, Think Opinion, [Publication Date if available], https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/michael-flynn-trump-americas-christian-nationalism-threat-rcna50289

[11] Stewart, Katherine. “Christian Nationalists Are Excited About What Comes Next”. The New York Times, 5 July 2022. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/07/05/opinion/dobbs-christian-nationalism.html

[12] Skinner, John. “Planned Parenthood Clinic Escort.” The Washington Post, 1 July 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2022/07/01/planned-parenthood-clinic-escort/

[13] House, Silas “Christian Nationalist Forces Terrorized Me as a Child.” Time, 1 October 2023, https://time.com/6229171/christian-nationalist-forces-terrorized-me-as-a-child/

[14] Perry, S., Whitehead, A. L., & Grubbs, J. B. (2021, August 2). “I Don’t Want Everybody to Vote”: Christian Nationalism and Restricting Voter Access in the United States. https://doi.org/10.31235/osf.io/rfye8