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Is America a Christian nation? Pastors at odds about fusion of faith and politics

The Right's Fight to Make America a Christian Nation
CBS Reports | The Right's Fight to Make America a Christian Nation 27:45

Watch the CBS Reports documentary "The Right's Fight to Make America a Christian Nation" in the video player above. 

Outside the Capitol insurrection in January, a group of protesters carried a large wooden cross and a flag flew reading "Jesus is My Savior, Trump is My President."

Some in the crowd embraced Christian nationalism, an ideology that combines Christian and American identities and promotes Christianity as the reigning religion. Research has found that adherence to Christian nationalism was a significant predictor of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election.

Like other White evangelical Christians — a reliable Republican voting bloc for decades — they saw their support for President Trump rewarded with conservative judicial nominees and policies promoting "religious liberty." But hundreds of evangelical leaders have condemned the "radicalization" emerging among those who identify as Christian nationalists.

The debate over what role religion should play in public life has never been more contentious, with some promoting a vision of Christian primacy that critics say tramples on the rights of everyone else.

Several pastors with very different points of view shared their thoughts in the CBS Reports documentary, "The Right's Fight to Make America a Christian Nation."

Ken Peters – Knoxville, Tennessee

Ken Peters
Ken Peters founded the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee. CBS News

A Bible sits on Pastor Ken Peters' desk, its cover graced with an American flag and inscribed with the words "FOR GOD AND COUNTRY." His church has an American flag painted across its roof. 

"I believe we are the greatest country next to Israel. I got to give God Israel as His chosen people in the Old Testament," he told CBS News. "But we've proven it, America's the greatest country that's ever existed in the history of the world, and it's because of Judeo-Christian values."

In September 2020, Peters founded the Patriot Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, one of a network of three "Pro-America" non-denominational congregations that "desire to see a land infiltrated by the Holy Spirit."

He said his goal for the Patriot Church is to avoid tiptoeing around political issues like he believes other churches do.

"At the pulpit, we preach strong against things like abortion, things like gay marriage," said Peters. "We talk about religious freedom and we endorse candidates. We endorse President Trump. We endorse people that we feel are running on a platform of righteousness."

At a Patriot Church service a month after Mr. Trump's defeat, Peters called out to his congregation, "Who won the election?" The crowd shouted back in unison, "Trump!" 

Ken Peters
Ken Peters prays with members of the Patriot Church that he founded in Knoxville, Tennessee. CBS News

For Peters, the stakes are high: he believes religious liberty is under attack in America and a Biden victory means the further loss of religious freedom.

"We're about to lose this country as we've always known it. It's about to become something completely different. … I don't want it. My parents don't want it. My grandparents don't want it," he said. 

"It's not according to our heritage," he continued. "That's why I'm fighting so hard to keep it a Christian nation."

Peters said he wants the country to have "Christian principles and Christian laws and Christian ways," a stance that Christian nationalists, who believe Christianity should have dominant influence on American life and politics, would agree with.

However, Peters rejects the label — though he added that he does consider himself a nationalist as opposed to a globalist.

"I think [Christian nationalist] has a connotation of some sort of racist, or I think America is better than every other country. I hate that term," he said. "I do believe America is special. I believe she's beautiful. I believe her roots are great. … So I will never say that I'm a Christian nationalist, but I will say I'm a Christian that loves America."

Brian Kaylor – Jefferson City, Missouri

Brian Kaylor
Brian Kaylor served as a pastor at a Southern Baptist church but believes in the separation of church and state. CBS News

"I have seen the look of surprise on legislators when I will announce at the beginning of a testimony in a hearing that I'm a Baptist minister, and I am opposing this bill to promote Christianity in public schools precisely because of my faith," Brian Kaylor told CBSN Originals. 

Kaylor grew up attending a Southern Baptist church and went to school at Southwest Baptist University. He pastored a Baptist church for a couple of years and in that time realized that he was better suited for a different part of the ministry, which grew to include advocacy for the separation of church and state. 

Kaylor, who lives in Jefferson City, Missouri, has testified against several bills in the Missouri State Legislature, including one in 2019 that pushed Bible literacy classes in public schools and another in 2020 that would require public universities to provide official recognition and benefits to religious student associations. 

"Separation of church and state is really important because it's really the only way that we can protect the purity of not just the church, but also of individual faith," said Kaylor. "I also think it helps the state to remain focused on the welfare of all people, not just those of a privileged class, be that religion or be that some other special class."

Kaylor sees a timely lesson in the history of the 1950s, when the U.S. adopted "In God We Trust" as the national motto and added "under God" to the Pledge of Allegiance.

"It's not happening in a vacuum. It's happening because we're in the middle of a Cold War against that atheistic Soviet Union. And so we need to conjure up that God is on our side," he said. "We saw this in the '50s and we are definitely seeing another wave … I think this time it's this concern that we, the White evangelicals, White Christians, are losing control of our country."

He opposes policies promoting Christianity in public life and the so-called "religious freedom" laws that would allow business owners to cite their religious beliefs to turn away members of the LGBTQ community.

"There is just the psychological, personal, spiritual level of being constantly treated as if you're not really accepted in your own community, and I think that can be very damaging," he said. 

Kaylor said he doesn't believe that the separation of church and state is an attack on religious liberties. 

"Some people almost seem to act, 'If I can't establish my religion, then you're violating my free exercise of it,'" he said. "Establishing your faith is not religious liberty for someone else. Because if someone else's liberty is endangered, then all of us, all of our liberty is in danger."

Michael Walrond Jr. – New York City

Michael Walrond Jr.
Michael Walrond Jr. is the senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem. CBS News

Michael Walrond Jr., the senior pastor at First Corinthian Baptist Church in Harlem, wants to see America live up to its ideals.

"America may be a Christian nation in language, but it's far from it in practice: how we treat people, how we manipulate, how we take advantage of, how we live in a country of so much wealth, and there's so much poverty," he said. " I could go on and on. If we were a quote-unquote 'Christian nation,' there are certain harsh realities that in many ways define this country, that would not exist."

For Walrond, the rising Christian nationalist movement and the intermixing of Christian and American exceptionalism "is really a shroud for bigotry and prejudice" — a way to justify the denigration of people of color, immigrants, and people of other faiths. 

"All of that has theological undertones that are deeply rooted in a dysfunctional and distorted view of Christianity that really serves as a covering for ideas and notions of supremacy, superiority, and racial supremacy and superiority," he said. 

Walrond believes young people are turned off by the intolerance, and nationwide their church attendance is down. According to Gallup, only 19% of 24-year-olds attended church weekly or almost weekly in 2019, down from 33% in 2002.

At his own church, Walrond has seen the opposite trend: when he started preaching at First Corinthian there were maybe 100 attendees, and now they're reaching thousands. He attributes it to the kind of teachings provided there. 

"There are a lot of young people here, in spite of what the statistics say, because they don't find a space that is intolerant and rigid. They find a space that is open, that affirms the dignity of human beings and affirms them," he said.

Walrond speaks openly of political issues that he said other pastors may prefer to avoid.

"There are issues that are political that impact the everyday lives of our people," he said. "It would be theological and homiletical malpractice for me to stand in this pulpit, right, and preach a salvation that doesn't take seriously the lived lives of individuals, right?"

In 2014, he even ran for Congress but lost the Democratic primary. In the end, Walrond said his focus is on living the teachings of God.  

"I hope that in the future, we actually take love seriously and make it be the lens by which we view the world. I hope that in a way, human beings can begin to live the lives we were created to live, that we will love beyond the limits of our prejudices, and understand our responsibility to serve and take care of one another."

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