Taken from the title of the 1944 film Gaslight, the term “gaslighting” has firmly entered the American lexicon over the past several years. The film, an early entrant in the psychological thriller genre, features a husband who works to slowly convince his wife that she is experiencing delusions, convincing her not to trust what she is seeing with her own eyes. It’s from this origin that we arrived at the modern use of the term to describe a form of psychological manipulation in which someone is made to doubt their own senses and sanity. It is a technique most often employed by conmen and abusers. Now, it is being adopted en masse by the Christian nationalist movement in America to defend their political project from hard-earned criticism.

Christian nationalism – at least in the contemporary American context – is an attempt to merge American identity with Christian identity. As I wrote in January, it is “less accurate to think of Christian nationalism as a coherent belief system than as a movement; a joint venture between religious and political actors seeking power.” In the broadest terms, adherents to Christian nationalism tend to believe that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation,” but has drifted away from God. Polling shows that Christian nationalists also tend to believe that Christians are persecuted in the United States. In its current incarnation, the overarching “goal” of American Christian nationalism is to restore the nation to its “Christian origins,” and, in the imaginings of some movement adherents, to impose laws which will force American society to adhere to “Biblical morality.” This latter part, the imposing of an explicitly Christian framework on our legal structures, is one of the goals of Project 2025, a Christian nationalism-inflected effort to supercharge a second Trump administration. Despite what Christian nationalists like to claim, these are not beliefs shared by all American Christians (though they are reflective of the beliefs held by a majority of white evangelical protestants). They are the beliefs of a discrete political movement.

All of that to say, Christian nationalism is real. It is definable, identifiable, and manifest in ongoing political efforts like Project 2025, Mike Flynn’s ReAwaken America Tour, and many others. If you were to ask many of the movement’s major mouthpieces about Christian nationalism, though, they would say something different: they would say that Christian nationalism does not exist. They would say that it’s a terminological attempt to make Christians sound extreme. Some would even say that the term “Christian nationalism” is actually a slur. This is the newest wave of Christian nationalist rhetoric, gaslighting the public about the very existence of Christian nationalism – and, as their movement gains more recognition, and comes under more criticism, the gaslighting is accelerating.

You don’t have to take it from me. Take it from them. “The aim of the ‘Christian nationalist’ smear is to bully – so that when you count the cost of faithfulness, you conclude it is too high,” the right-wing outlet The Federalist claimed two months ago. “The goal of all these assaults, whether verbal or legal, is the same. It’s to bully faithful Christians out of participation in public life.” In early February, when I gave a presentation about Christian nationalism in Woodland Park, dozens of protesters affiliated with Truth & Liberty – the political arm of nearby Andrew Wommack Ministries and Charis Bible College – came out to communicate the same message to me: Christian nationalism is not real. Shortly after that encounter, Truth & Liberty’s executive director, Richard Harris (who led the protesters to my speaking engagement the previous week), published an article deeming the term “Christian nationalism” the “latest left-wing bigoted slur tactic.” Calling it a “pejorative label,” Harris claims that “leftists” who use the term Christian nationalism “hope to delegitimize and disenfranchise Christians who advocate for public morality, free speech, family values and the right to life,” and seek to disenfranchise more than 100 million Americans “simply because they believe the teachings of the Bible.”

As they say in my home state of Tennessee, a hit dog’ll holler – and Harris and the others are hollering. Believing in Biblical teachings is not at issue in the discussion of Christian nationalism. Whether Biblical teachings should trump popular will in the formation of American laws is. According to Pew, only 38% of American Christians – but 65% of white evangelical Christians – believe that the Bible should have more influence than the will of the people on U.S. laws. When Harris says that those of us wary of Christian nationalism secretly want to disenfranchise everyone who believes in the Bible, he is attempting to shield his own movement behind the entire body of believing Christians, saying “if you attack me, you’re attacking them!” But saying it does not make it so. In fact, some of the voices speaking out most strongly against Christian nationalism are coming from inside the church

But this is the new rhetoric for many Christian nationalists: Christian nationalism doesn’t exist, and you’re actually just using it as cover to attack all Christians. 

Not all Christian nationalists have adopted the new gaslighting rhetoric, though. In fact, there is a growing minority among the movement’s vocal figureheads which believes that the movement should embrace the label. That they should be willing to tell us exactly what they stand for. Last week, one of those vocal figureheads laid out his case for embracing Christian nationalism – as both a term and a movement – on Colorado radio. Enter William Wolfe.

William Wolfe is a political operator in the process of reinventing himself as a pastor. Over the past decade, Wolfe worked for the Koch-funded Heritage Action for America and various Republican members of Congress before becoming a Trump administration appointee, ultimately serving as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense. After the Trump administration ended, he pivoted his public profile towards matters of faith. With a Masters of Divinity from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Wolfe currently serves as the founder and executive director of the Center for Baptist Leadership – an organization he created to influence the trajectory of the nation’s largest Christian denomination. Or, as one radio host laughably framed it last week, “to clean out some of the wokeness happening in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Wolfe is also an out-and-out Christian nationalist. Just ask him. “Christians should reject a Christ-less ‘conservatism’ and demand the political movement we are most closely associated with make a return to Christ-centered foundations,” Wolfe once wrote.

William E. Wolfe

Wolfe brought that frankness to Colorado’s airwaves last week, when he joined conservative radio hosts Jeff Hunt and Bill Thorpe on 710 KNUS’s Jeff and Bill Show. For half an hour, aided by solid prompting and pushback from the hosts, Wolfe openly discussed Christian nationalism, for once giving us an honest look at what movement leaders truly believe, cutting through the noise of the recent gaslighting. And while I will credit Wolfe for that honesty, that’s where the credit stops, because the vision he laid out for a Christian America is both frighteningly chauvinistic and shockingly naive. Its value is that it came straight from the horse’s mouth. 

“This is historical American political philosophy and an understanding of who we are as a nation,” Wolfe told the hosts about his view of Christian nationalism. “And you know what? It’s not such a bad or scary thing.”

Unlike his gaslighting contemporaries in the movement, Wolfe gladly provided a definition of Christian nationalism in the interview. And not only that, he accepted as valid a definition from an opponent of Christian nationalism.

“So there’s actually a critic of Christian nationalism who gave a very good definition of it, and he sort of speaks to the goal in it,” Wolfe told the hosts. “This is from a guy whose name is Paul Miller, [who is] not a fan of Christian nationalism, but this is how he defines it. He says that Christian nationalism is the belief that there’s something identifiable as an American nation distinct from other nations…and that American nationhood is and should remain defined by Christianity or Christian cultural norms, and that the American people and their government should actively work to defend, sustain, and cultivate America’s Christian culture, heritage and values.”

It’s a good definition. Working from that definition, Wolfe told the hosts that “the first goal of Christian nationalism is to help ensure that America is not subsumed and taken over by the globalist blob.” 

The hosts asked Wolfe about the area where the rubber meets the road for Christian nationalism: government. If Christians were in charge of the government, Thorpe asked Wolfe, are they not then “bound to use [their] religious doctrine in order to shape the laws that [they’re] going to put in front of people?”

“Do I think if a Christian has political authority in the United States of America they should govern as a Christian? To that I would say absolutely,” Wolfe replied. He provided a flimsy rationale. “The reality right now is whether you’re a Christian or an atheist or a Catholic or some radical progressive Marxist, everybody uses whatever authority they have in accordance to [sic] their worldview and their essentially religious belief system, whether they call it that or not.”

“So, yes, I think a Christian should govern according to their religious beliefs, because that’s what everybody does.”

It’s a telling comment: of course we would use governing authority to advance our religious worldview, because we assume everybody else would do the same in our position. A perfect closed-loop self-justification. 

To his credit, Thorpe, the co-host, did not let Wolfe off that easily, asking his guest if he could “see how there could be a problem with that” given that a Christian elected to office “also has to represent people that are non-Christians.” 

“The idea of the person since they’ve been elected saying, well, now I’m going to make the rules that are governing our society based on what my book says,” Thorpe said. “Isn’t that a problem given how America was set up?”

It’s an important question, the crux of the matter. Enshrining or even privileging one faith under the law would immediately and inevitably jeopardize the free practice of every faith. Freedom of religion can only exist when every faith has equal protection under the law. Unsurprisingly, Wolfe did not see the problem with Thorpe’s scenario.

“No, actually, I don’t think it is,” Wolfe said. It was at this point that Wolfe started revealing the final card in his deck: the belief that Christian nationalists are simply better fit to govern than the heathen masses. It’s one of the oft-unspoken core beliefs of Christian nationalism, that their morality is superior to yours — even if you are simply a different kind of Christian, but especially if you’re of another faith. In a 2022 interview, Wolfe agreed that Christian nationalism is “a recipe for morality” (and, later in the same interview, implied that the world “overreacted” to the Holocaust).

Thorpe asked Wolfe if he would feel the same way if a Muslim elected official applied his or her own faith to the task of governing in the same way Wolfe suggests Christians should. Wolfe, of course, would not.

“The teachings of Islam and Qur’an are actually highly incompatible with the American political system,” Wolfe replied. “They have an allegiance to Allah, and they have a view of governing – I actually believe Islam is much more of a sort of theocratic fascist political system, more than just a standard religion.”

“I would expect that Muslims would rule according to their faith,” Wolfe said, “but I would politely suggest that it is actually quite incongruent with the American political system.”

Wolfe’s interview was a rare glance at the real face of Christian nationalism, the truth you get when you wrangle an honest enough spokesman and pepper him with serious enough questions. And, in that honesty, it was far from the kind of cry-bully gaslighting the movement’s other luminaries have been churning out of late. It was also a point-for-point substantiation of the definitions for “Christian nationalism” which I and other writers have used – the exact same definitions which outlets like The Federalist and Truth & Liberty have disputed and gaslit us about.

Consider Paul Miller’s definition, which Wolfe praised and co-opted in the interview: “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.”

Every sentiment Wolfe expressed in the interview dovetails with Miller’s definition of Christian nationalism – a movement which T&L’s Richard Harris, for instance, says does not even exist. 

“The belief that the American nation is a Christian nation”? Wolfe expressed it right off the bat, saying that Christian nationalism is simply “an understanding of who we are as a nation.” Or the second clause, that “the government should take active steps to keep it that way”? Wolfe embraced it in his co-opting of Miller’s longer definition: “the American people and their government should actively work to defend, sustain, and cultivate America’s Christian culture, heritage and values.”

Or take the simpler version that I use: “Christian nationalism is an attempt to merge American identity with Christian identity.” Wolfe’s interview affirmed this definition in spades. Wolfe not only believes that the United States is an inherently Christian nation, he believes that other faiths – and people of those other faiths – are “highly incompatible” with it.

But my point is not that Wolfe agrees with me about the nature and existence of Christian nationalism (albeit, while arriving at substantially different conclusions on whether it would be a good thing). My point is that the others, the gaslighters, do too – they are just unwilling to say it directly. If you look at the Federalist piece linked above, or the article by Richard Harris, they check all of the same boxes as Wolfe, but they do it while insisting that we cannot trust our lying eyes. Both articles repeatedly insist that the United States is a Christian nation, and heavily suggest that active steps should be taken to keep it that way. Both articles espouse a worldview which falls squarely within the confines of every available definition of Christian nationalism, while denying that any such ideology exists. 

This new rhetorical adaptation among many Christian nationalists is not an accident or a fluke: it is a communications strategy. One which they hope will get them across the finish line. One which they hope will hold scrutiny at bay long enough for their movement to return Donald Trump to the Presidency and use his administration to reshape the nation’s legal framework to their liking. They know that this hoped-for victory could be just six months away, and they cannot risk fumbling now. 

But it’s not just a communications strategy in a vacuum, it’s a communications strategy intended to work on liberals. It is intended to work on those who do not judge others’ worth by their faith or creed. That’s why they are attempting to cloak themselves in Christianity writ large – to protect their aberrant version of it. To advance their misunderstanding of both Christianity and America.

As Amanda Tyler, the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty and a powerful Christian voice against Christian nationalism, said, “We are concerned not only about the threat of Christian nationalism to American democracy, but also its threat to Christianity itself.”

Tyler is right: Christian nationalism is a threat to both democracy and Christianity. The gaslighting is just a strategy designed to advance that threat. When you criticize this dangerous ideology and the mouthpieces of Christian nationalism say “you’re attacking all Christians,” they are not saying it because they believe it to be true – they are saying it because they think it might make you stop.

Don’t stop.