Given the ongoing smears of newly chosen House Speaker Mike Johnson, among many others, because they dare to bring their faith into the public square, The Stream’s John Zmirak decided to interview scholar Mark David Hall. He is a Professor in Regent University’s Robertson School of Government and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy. His most recent book is Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: How Christianity has Advanced Freedom and Equality for All Americans.
John Zmirak: Since the unexpected, perhaps Providential elevation of Mike Johnson to the position of Speaker of the House, the attacks have come fast and furious — and have included predictable claims likely to persuade the under-educated voter. Your colleague at the Religious Freedom Institute, Eric Patterson wrote:
A loving father and husband, and a champion of religious freedom for all Americans, [Johnson] has been savagely attacked for the last two weeks as a bigot, fundamentalist, and “Christian nationalist.” These ugly attempts at character assassination are directly tied to his religious faith and, therefore, are deeply troubling in a country rooted in pluralism and religious liberty.
Are you at all surprised by the vitriol and ignorance of these attacks? Are they a sign that the climate in America is becoming intolerant to orthodox Christianity in any form?
Mark David Hall: I’m not surprised at all. Progressive polemicists routinely call conservative persons of faith involved in politics intolerant “theocrats,” “Christian nationalists,” and/or “Christofascists.”
Demagoguery from an Ivy League Professor
John Zmirak: Perhaps the most comprehensive collection in one place of the ill-informed charges against Johnson can be found at The Guardian. I speak of a column by Marci A. Hamilton with the balanced, thoughtful title, “Mike Johnson, Theocrat: The House Speaker and the Plot Against America.” Since so many mistakes and unjust judgments appear here, it seems like a good starting point. Staggering as it is to consider, Hamilton is not some enflamed “Jezebel” blogger, but a professor of religion at an Ivy League college.
Mark David Hall: Before we begin, let me note that Hamilton can be a good scholar but that recently she is more likely to be a polemicist. Consider her overuse of adjectives and adverbs in this article, e.g., “far right,” “extremist,” “wildly extreme,” “insidious,” “fervent,” “reactionary.” I think it’s fair to say that she’s trying to alarm her readers, not inform them.
“Extremist Christian Beliefs”
John Zmirak: You wrote a fascinating and persuasive book, Did America Have a Christian Founding? In it, you dismantled the ACLU-inspired false narrative of America as a secular, Deist-founded society that has prevailed in secular culture, and sadly often been echoed in Supreme Court decisions. Drawing on that and your upcoming book on the “Christian Nationalism” bogeyman, I’d like you to just offer brief responses to some of Hamilton’s claims, if I may. Then we’ll talk about Christian Nationalism, which may or may not in fact be a real “thing” at all outside tiny cliques on Twitter. Does that sound good? First claim:
“Those who thought Roe would never be overruled should understand that the reasoning in Dobbs v Jackson is not tailored to abortion. Dobbs was explicitly written to be the legal fortress from which the right will launch their attacks against other fundamental rights their extremist Christian beliefs reject. They are passionate about rolling back the right to contraception, the right to same-sex marriage and the right to sexual privacy between consenting adults.”
What percentage of that is true?
Mark David Hall: By almost any measure, Roe v. Wade was one of the worst decisions ever handed down by the United States Supreme Court. By overturning it, justices return the issue of abortion to the states where it always belonged. States may choose to ban, limit, or permit the practice. Since Dobbs, too many states have chosen the last option. I wish they didn’t, but such is the nature of democracy.
Hamilton is troubled because over the past fifty years many of her policy preferences have been protected by highly dubious Supreme Court opinions. I think there is almost no chance that the Court will overturn decisions regarding contraception, etc.; indeed, Justice Alito emphasized in his majority opinion that “our decision concerns the constitutional right to abortion and no other right. Nothing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”
A More Insidious Threat to America
John Zmirak: Here’s Hamilton’s second claim:
[T]here is a more insidious threat to America in Johnson’s embrace of scriptural originalism: his belief that subjective interpretation of the Bible provides the master plan for governance. Religious truth is neither rational nor susceptible to reasoned debate. For Johnson, who sees a Manichean world divided between the saved who are going to heaven and the unsaved going to hell, there is no middle ground. Constitutional politics withers and is replaced with a battle of the faithful against the infidels.
Mark David Hall: I don’t know Mike Johnson, but I know plenty of conservative Christians and Hamilton’s description applies to none of us. Religious truth is not irrational, although there are religious truths that we know through revelation rather than reason. Anyone who really believes that religious truths can’t be rationally articulated and defended should read St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica or John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.
For two thousand years, Christians have been inspired by their faith to advocate for biblical values such as justice, peace, and equality in the public square. Does anyone really wish that American abolitionists like Frederick Douglas or civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. were apolitical?
Christians appropriately advocate for and promote biblical values, but no one thinks that that the Bible contains a “master plan” detailing, for instance, what the top marginal tax rate should be or whether America should commit to defending Taiwan.
“Imposing a Theocracy”
John Zmirak: Here’s Hamilton’s third claim:
When rulers insist the law should be driven by a particular religious viewpoint, they are systematizing their beliefs and imposing a theocracy. We have thousands of religious sects in the US and there is no religious majority, but we now have a politically fervent conservative religious movement of Christian nationalists intent on shaping policy to match their understanding of God and theirs alone. The Republicans who elected Johnson speaker, by a unanimous vote, have aligned themselves with total political rule by an intolerant religious sect.
Mark David Hall: There are a handful of Protestant Christian nationalists and Catholic integralists who want to create something approximating a theocracy. To date, exactly one elected member of Congress, Marjorie Taylor Greene, identifies herself as a Christian nationalist and no member identifies as an integralist (some critics claim that more than one member of Congress identifies as a Christian nationalist, but they have not, to my knowledge, named a second example). Both are fringe movements with few followers.
Note how Hamilton distorts the facts to make it seem as if Republican members of Congress enthusiastically supported a “theocrat.” Anyone following the controversy over who would be Speaker knows that Mike Johnson was far from the first choice for the vast majority of House Republicans. If only a handful of Democrats had supported Kevin McCarthy, he would still be Speaker today. But that doesn’t keep Hamilton from insinuating that House Republicans coalesced around an “extremist.” She writes: “The Republicans who elected Johnson speaker, by a unanimous vote, have aligned themselves with total political rule by an intolerant religious sect.”
Is Mike Johnson Looking to Re-Boot the Inquisition?
John Zmirak: Here’s Hamilton’s fourth claim:
The primary drafter of the first amendment, James Madison, was keenly aware of these realities as he reflected on the dangerous history of theocracies in his famous Memorial and Remonstrance, opposing Virginia taxes for Christian education, asking: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?
Madison further invoked the Inquisition, stating that a bill funding religious education through taxes “degrades from the equal rank of citizens all those whose opinions in religion do not bend to those of the legislative authority. Distant as it may be in its present form from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last in the career of intolerance.” US history is proving him correct.’
Mark David Hall: The controversy in Virginia Hamilton references concerned a proposal by Patrick Henry to have tax dollars support a variety of churches (known as a plural or multiple establishment). Madison and other founders opposed the proposal because they believed that such support hurt rather than helped Christianity. Hamilton’s suggestion that they opposed state funding of “Christian education” is misleading, at best.
As I argue in Did America Have a Christian Founding?, America’s founders opposed the creation of an established church at the national level, and many were turning against state establishments as well. But that doesn’t mean they desired to build a wall of separation between church and state. For instance, they had no objection to legislative and military chaplains, having church services in the U.S. Capitol, presidents issuing calls for prayer, or providing federal funds to build a church and pay a minister in a federal territory.
The Christian Nationalist Dog-Whistle Nobody Can Hear
John Zmirak: The claim that “Christian Nationalism” is a rising and dangerous movement seems to be key to the political messaging of aggressive secularists. Since you have a new book on the subject, could you please address it? I’ve written at The Stream that the term itself was a dog-whistle invented to stigmatize patriotic Christians with a term that unconsciously evokes “White Nationalism,” as “election denier” gets used to evoke “Holocaust denier.” What can you tell us about the history of the term? What meaning if any does it have? How tiny is the movement that in fact meets the description bandied about of this ideology?
Mark David Hall: Almost no one used the phrase “Christian nationalist” in the United States until 2006, when critics began to use it to describe a scary group of theocrats who desired to take over America for Christ. According to the most influential book on the subject, 51.9% of all citizens fully or partially embrace this:
ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture [that] includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.
If accurate, this would be a terrifying finding. Fortunately, as I’ve argued elsewhere and in my forthcoming book, Who’s Afraid of Christian Nationalism, these figures and the dangers of Christian nationalism are grossly exaggerated.
By my calculations, about 20% of Americans are reasonably called Christian nationalists. They desire to favor Christianity above other faiths by, for instance, having Congress formally declare America to be a Christian nation and by returning teacher led Christian prayer to public schools. I think these are bad policies and offer constitutional, prudential, and biblical arguments against them, but I also show that there is no good reason to conclude that Americans who embrace these views pose an “existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States” as critics claim.
Should Christians Even Have the Right to Vote?
John Zmirak: How do we clearly distinguish the advocacy of moral positions based on natural law, which are echoed in the Bible and Christian tradition, from “theocracy”? Given attacks on parents’ rights and even custody in states like California, are we facing the rise of a secular theocracy, along the lines of Revolutionary, Jacobin France or the Soviet Union?
Mark David Hall: Christians have every right to make biblical or theological arguments for their preferred policies. Such arguments might convince our fellow believers, but they are unlikely convince the 37% of Americans who do not identify as Christians (or Christians who are not particularly serious about their faith). As you suggest, it behooves us to make arguments based on shared moral standards and factual evidence to persuade citizens who do not share our religious convictions.
I think you are correct that we are facing an aggressive, intolerant secular theocracy. Take, for instance, the insistence that public schools must encourage young children to embrace LGBTQ affirming views rejected by their parents. Rather than object that such views are unbiblical, we should contend that schools have no business teaching young children anything about sex and instead concentrate of teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic. Such arguments have the potential to convince parents from a wide range of religious traditions and those who reject religion altogether.
John Zmirak is a senior editor at The Stream and author or co-author of ten books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Immigration and The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He is co-author with Jason Jones of “God, Guns, & the Government.”