But many of the tour participants I spoke with hated how they felt like outsiders in Washington. The monumental scale of the nation’s capital is intended to make even those who like big government feel small. They came to resent being treated as suspect by security officers at every building. And their chief complaint was about the lack of “real Christians” in the federal government, as evidenced by lawmakers who supported abortion rights, prohibited school prayer, and failed to defend traditional marriage. In many ways, D.C. embodied what they saw as the nation’s decline from its righteous past.
Although not all of Trump’s white evangelical supporters embrace Christian nationalism, the ideology is prominent among a wide range of American conservative Christians. Since the 1970s, leaders of the Christian right have been calling for Americans to rise up and retake their country from the forces of evil. They have shared this message in many forms, including sermons, films, and art. Christian heritage tours, which draw a few thousand people to D.C. every year, are an ideal recruiting opportunity: As participants tour the city, they learn the key arguments of white Christian nationalism and are called to join the cause.
As they visit Arlington National Cemetery and the war memorials on the National Mall, they learn that their job is to step into the shoes of the soldiers who died for God and country. One guide connected these memorials to John 15:13: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” That’s what these soldiers did, she explained, and it’s what Christians are called to do to defend the nation. They were learning America’s Christian history so that they could set the nation back on the right course—even if they sacrificed their lives in the process.
One mother told me that she’d brought her two children on a Christian heritage tour to prepare them for what lay ahead: “I truly believe they will be persecuted in their lifetime,” she said, explaining that when that happened, she wanted them to know what they were fighting for. (Consistent with academic norms, I agreed not to publish the names of the individuals I interviewed.) To her, persecution was not something to be avoided. Persecution was a sign that Christians were doing God’s will, despite the oppression of a hostile world.
Robert P. Jones: White Christian America needs a moral awakening
Some Christian nationalists believe that Christians should welcome persecution and the loss of political power, as did one leader of a conservative Christian nonprofit I met on a tour. “If we end up as a minority group without the power we once had, we will be stronger for it. We have to rejoice that a family member is chosen to die,” he said. “We are suffering for Christ.”
But white Christian nationalism also unites nostalgia for a lost age of Christian power with a profound sense of victimization, and it baptizes death as a heroic sacrifice for the nation. No one should underestimate how dangerous this combination is, particularly among those who decide that their faith requires them to retake their nation.
Adherents are right about one thing: The fate of this nation is at stake.