On an unseasonably warm Thursday night in February, Sarah Palin’s helicopter landed in the multi-acre field behind the One Shot Distillery and Brewery in the Hill Country town of Dripping Springs. The small aircraft was dwarfed by most of the trucks in the venue’s impromptu overflow parking lot, where several hundred far-right pilgrims had joined a convoy on its way to the Texas-Mexico border. As the one-time Alaska governor and former vice presidential candidate stood in front of the hundreds of flag-waving Texans, she expressed love for the Lone Star State and the various strains of Christian-nationalist rebellion evident among members of the crowd.

Referencing the state’s southern border—where tensions were mounting between the Texas National Guard and federal law enforcement over Governor Greg Abbott’s multibillion-dollar migrant deterrent plan, Operation Lone Star—Palin revved up the crowd with praise for the patriotic, God-fearing Americans resisting the “treasonous” policies of the Biden administration. “Texas, you’re the epicenter of this.”

“This,” it became clear, is a vision of a United States government that is explicitly based on Christian religious principles—at least those as interpreted by a narrow group of American fundamentalists whose politics are far to the right. It’s a vision now widely known as Christian nationalism. While scholarly works defining the ideology and its origins have proliferated in the last five years, social scientist Ryan Burge—who studies trends in Christian culture—said it’s still too early to define Christian nationalism by a set of consistent, measurable beliefs. The term “Christian nation” has been common for a long time and is used to imply everything from a general shared morality to more radical beliefs about the country’s religious origins and what it takes to belong here.

Attendees listen to a speech at the
Attendees listen to a speech at the “Take Our Border Back” convoy rally at Cornerstone Children’s Ranch on February 3, 2024, in Quemado, about 25 minutes north of Eagle Pass. Sergio Flores/AFP via Getty
A man grabs a
A man grabs a “Jesus 2024” sign at the “Take Our Border Back” rally on February 3, 2024, in Quemado. Michael Nigro/Sipa USA via AP

Social media and spectacles such as the January 6 riots have made defining Christian nationalism less the quiet work of social science and more the chaotic work of public discourse, through every channel from book sales to Internet memes. That’s not to say that Christian nationalism isn’t real, or that it isn’t on the rise, Burge said, it’s just still in the “you know it when you see it” stage.

In Texas, we know it because we see it all the time. We have activist and self-described historian David Barton, a regular at the Texas Capitol, pitching a rollback of church-state separation. Barton, based in the small town of Aledo, about 25 minutes west of Fort Worth, pins his efforts on the belief that the United States was consecrated to God in 1607, when the first Protestant pastor touched down in Powhatan’s confederacy (near what would eventually be Virginia Beach), much in the same way that the Old Testament Hebrews were consecrated to God on the plains of ancient Ur. This special relationship between God and the United States, according to Barton, calls for explicitly Christian public school curricula and would curtail LGBTQ rights based on certain Bible verses.

But to limit Christian nationalism to Barton’s highly selective reading of history and Scripture would be to miss the potency of the political agenda that flows from it. You can hear the influence of Barton-style Christian nationalism in the rhetoric of politicians such as Senator Ted Cruz. To the Houston-based pastor’s son, America is special because the founding documents are, according to him, aligned with Christian belief, earning the nation a spot in God’s good graces, and sacralizing the Constitution. He turns the Second Amendment into an extension of verses such as Exodus 22:2, “If a thief is caught breaking in at night and is struck a fatal blow, the defender is not guilty of bloodshed.”

But from his legislative position, Cruz can’t single-handedly advance the Christian nationalist cause in the same way he could if he had executive office powers. Abbott, a Roman Catholic, doesn’t deliver sermons like Cruz. His Christian nationalism is a little less Bible talk and a lot more agenda-pushing action. He champions the school vouchers with which billionaire donors to the state GOP would like to fund private, religious education and undermine public schools that they consider hotbeds of Marxist brainwashing. However, when he toured Christian schools and small towns promoting the issue, he invoked the popular language of “parents’ rights,” making the Christian nationalist tent a little bigger. Abbott uses the “don’t tread on me” spirit of Texans who want the law to protect, and maybe even subsidize, their right to do whatever they want, to advance the Christian nationalist social agenda.

However you define it then, there are plenty of reasons for both Palin and those furthest from her on the political spectrum to agree: Texas is the epicenter of Christian nationalism. Which is why some are trying to make it the epicenter of a compelling countermovement.

Religion scholar Anthea Butler is probably the person you’d least expect to agree with Palin on anything, but the chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s department of religious studies definitely sees her native state as “ground zero,” she said. “Texas has been captured.”

For many, Butler told me, an appeal to God as the ultimate authority is just a good way to get the government they want, which is “not a lot of government.” The rugged individualism in Texas’s state lore lends itself to an ideology with a supreme authority that can be easily molded into one’s own image. The most devout would argue that they are using a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible as their guide, but applying millennia-old Scripture to a world with cars and the internet requires some degree of interpretation. Most often, the Christian nationalists’ interpretation is conveniently aligned with the interests of a group concerned about losing power.

Butler has written extensively about the ideology, which in her work she specifies as white Christian nationalism. She argues that most of the interests and grievances represented are less distinctly Christian or American and more white supremacist—such as demonizing immigrants, promoting heavily carceral “law and order,” or privileging versions of American history that downplay the effects of racism or violence against Native Americans.

For some white right-wing Texans—including many Latinos who identify as white—demographic changes stir up anxiety about a loss of power in the realms of politics, business, and society. Butler has seen some Texans express anxiety about those changes for decades. So it’s not a surprise to her that issues around education and migration—both from more liberal states such as California and from Mexico and Central America—are serious concerns for those looking to maintain control of the state.

Texas is not the most conservative state in the U.S. Donald Trump’s 2020 margins were smaller here than in the swing state of Ohio. Texas is not the most religious state either—and it’s certainly not the most evangelical Christian. Lifeway Research, an evangelical research firm, ranked it below Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Mississippi. As Burge pointed out, social scientists are still test-driving the kinds of questions that would allow them to measure how widespread Christian nationalism actually is among voters. If the definition researchers use is too broad, it makes anyone with a favorable view of Christianity look like a Christian nationalist, Burge said. If it’s too specific (imagine asking survey respondents, “Do you believe that the United States has entered a covenant with God?”) then it misses how many voters support the policy agenda driven by Christian nationalism—which is arguably the most urgent issue needing to be measured.

In the twilight of their majority, religious and political power brokers built a system that all but guarantees Texas will be the vanguard for laws that enforce a Christian nationalist agenda. Republican-drawn districts have ensured that primary races are more competitive than general election races, which creates an incentive to distinguish oneself—and attract some ideological-donor money—by being more right wing than one’s opponent. Session after session, the heavily Republican Legislature has passed bills making it harder to vote, especially in Democratic strongholds, for young voters and voters of color who are statistically more likely to vote for Democrats. The Texas Democratic Party hasn’t managed to put forward a winning program or candidate in a statewide race in nearly three decades, so winning the Republican primary is now tantamount to victory. And those low-turnout primaries are typically decided by the 3 percent of the population that sits farthest to the right.

The laws created by this decreasingly accountable system are out of line with what most Texans actually want, according to polls. The majority of Texans support access to abortion in all or most cases, LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections, Medicaid expansion, and a tough but fair path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Yet here we are with one of the country’s most stringent abortion bans, a flurry of new anti-trans bills every session, the highest uninsured rate in the nation, and Operation Lone Star.

Tycoon evangelicals, such as billionaire Midland oilman and Christian nationalist Tim Dunn, use their money to exert massive influence on statewide officials and legislators and local school boards, funding the campaigns of those they like and bankrolling what often are misleading attacks on those they dislike.

Dunn tends to back candidates, such as former representative Bryan Slaton, who was expelled from the Lege for sexual misconduct, and Jonathan Stickland, who are already aligned with Christian nationalist goals. But once in office, those senators, representatives, and school board members have to deliver, or the support will be transferred to a better soldier. Drafting, filing, and supporting donor-favored legislation is a must, but another way the candidates tend to prove their fealty to donors is by using explicitly Christian language in public forums and following the lead of Christian nationalism’s most vocal proponents.

“David Barton has been writing the textbook of Christian nationalism for decades,” Amanda Tyler, executive director of the Washington, D.C.–based Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, tells me. Barton’s company, WallBuilders, promotes pseudohistorical accounts that purport to show the depth of Christianity’s influence over the founding of the United States. Its website includes an alphabetized catalog of statements of faith from generations of founding fathers, and a reservoir of sermons from various public events over the last three and a half centuries. There are certainly many references to God and Jesus—Christianity has been the religion of the majority of Americans since the country’s founding—but a lot of the sermons and speeches were given in the context of hoping and praying for victory in battle. This appeal to divine support amid armed conflict came long before Christianity. It’s one of mankind’s oldest impulses. Tribal gods responsible for prosperity and victory predate the universal gods of the major world faiths by millennia. Ironically, the Christian messiah was one of the religious figures who sought to end this kind of Homeric relationship to God as a divine prize fighter, instead emphasizing the role of self-sacrifice—hence his murder on a cross.

Barton is in the ears of lawmakers, offering support for bills that muddle the separation of church and state, particularly in public schools. In 2023 he testified on behalf of the failed Senate Bill 1515, which would require schools to display the Ten Commandments. On his podcast, Barton praised state senator Mayes Middleton’s vision for Senate Bill 763 to install chaplains as representatives of “God in government” in public schools.

David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, prays at The Response a day-long "call to prayer" in Houston on August 6, 2011.
David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, prays at the Response, a day-long “call to prayer” in Houston, on August 6, 2011.Bob Daemmrich

The resulting laws and their associated talking points are then replicated in other states. After Texas passed its school chaplain bill, about a dozen other states followed suit. “[Barton and his allies] have been pretty clear about their aims [to have] Texas leading,” Tyler said.

This trend bothers James Talarico, a 34-year-old Democratic state representative and progressive Christian from Williamson County, north of Austin. Christian nationalists in the state Legislature want to control “our minds and our bodies,” he said, referencing laws prohibiting certain books in schools, making obtaining an abortion in the state nearly impossible, and banning gender-affirming health care for transgender Texans. “That desire for control is just masked as Christian values.”

Talarico has had a front-row seat to the show since being elected to the Legislature in 2018, witnessing how major donors fuel candidates who will push their Christian nationalist agenda, which he clearly sees as “a cancer on our religion.” Talarico’s grandfather was a Baptist preacher in South Texas. At nineteen, Talarico’s mom left Laredo and migrated to Round Rock, where she joined St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, which would become a haven for progressive Christians. Talarico has attended St. Andrew’s since age two, he said, and he feels connected to both the fervor of the Baptists and the theological rigor of the Presbyterians. He’s always considered himself religious, but given how much time he was spending in the Legislature debating what the Bible did and didn’t say, he decided to enroll in Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in 2022. “It’s become so central in these fights that I felt like I wanted to get stronger in my own faith.”

A government based on the Bible would not necessarily promote policies favoring the interests of right-wing politicians and campaign donors, Talarico said. The Bible could just as easily make a case for forgiving debts (Deuteronomy 15:1), and providing universal health care (James 2:14–17) and other benefits to the poor (Matthew 25:31–40), he said. “Some of these folks who want to establish a Christian nation need to be careful what they wish for.”

Christianity did not start as a power-hungry movement, Talarico points out. The earliest followers of Jesus called themselves “the Way” and were known for being counterculturally loving, sharing their stuff, and even for being more inclusive and egalitarian than the surrounding cultures of hierarchical Jews and Romans. While Talarico doesn’t support using the Bible to draft bills, he sees Christianity as a natural complement to democracy—sharing power as widely as possible, rather than hoarding it among the few. But ever since Constantine declared the Roman Empire a Christian state, Talarico said, those seeking political power have been “taming this wild religion, domesticating it, making it less of a threat, and using it to advance their own goals.”

Amanda Tyler, from the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, believes that other Christians are tired of being tamed as well. This year the BJC hired its first field organizer and based her in the Dallas area, where they had seen the largest local response to their campaigns. Tyler, who lives in Dallas, said the goal for that organizer is to build a coalition, including Christians but not exclusively, to counteract increasingly organized Christian nationalist movements and messaging. This countermovement is in very early days, so it doesn’t yet have set strategies or actions planned. What it does have, Tyler says, is demand. Of the 35,000 Americans engaged in the BJC’s national campaign, Christians Against Christian Nationalism, 1,000 are in the Dallas–Fort Worth area, she said. Since the announcement of the field organizer position, groups from Austin and Houston have expressed interest in organizing as well.

Butler notes that those who would transform Texas into an exclusionary Christian state are well-funded and some are well-armed. Affiliated militia groups make themselves known from time to time. Butler thinks that anyone claiming to be concerned about Christian nationalism needs to appreciate the real risk of standing up to the ideology. “There’s got to be a period of real struggle,” she said. “I think people have forgotten the sacrifices of the Civil Rights movement.”

Such a comparison might seem strong, but Butler is unflinching in her assessment of the situation’s seriousness. While she understands those who would approach the matter as a sort of family feud among Christians, she believes the consequences go far beyond those of a philosophical disagreement. The rights of women, children, LGBTQ folks, political dissidents, asylum seekers, educators, atheists, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, and Muslims all stand in the crosshairs of the most strident versions of Christian nationalism. “It’s a threat to everything,” she said. “And it’s going to take more than just the Christians to figure this out.” 

Correction, March 6, 2024: This story has been updated to reflect that James Talarico’s mother left Laredo before he was born, not after.