Christian Nation? Which one?

President Donald Trump listens to a prayer offered by the Rev. Franklin Graham on September 20, 2019. Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead, available via Wikimedia Commons.

Dan Piller was a business reporter for more than four decades, working for the Des Moines Register and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He covered the oil and gas industry while in Texas and was the Register’s agriculture reporter before his retirement in 2013. He lives in Ankeny.

“Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name and will deceive many.” Jesus Christ, Matthew 24. 

“Evangelical Christianity has been hijacked by people who, if Jesus appeared at their door, would give him the boot.” – Former President and former Baptist Jimmy Carter

Devout Christians who hoped they could get through the Holy Week between Palm Sunday and Easter free from politics were sorely disappointed.


In midweek Donald Trump (who else?) offered a solution for declining church attendance in the form of a new “God Bless the U.S.A.” Bible put together two years ago by country singer Lee Greenwood. The Bible (“my favorite book”) is licensed through the same property-rights setup that is backing Trump’s gold sneakers and sells for $59.99. Trump proclaimed that “putting a bible in every American home” is the key to restoring the church’s power.

Trump’s apparent misconception about the lack of Bibles in American homes notwithstanding, his bible will join the 4.4 Bibles already in every home. He said nothing about the real problem American Christians have with the Bible; most seldom read it.

Closer to home last week, some lawmakers took time from their duties in Des Moines to attend a Prayer Breakfast that featured a talk by Governor Kim Reynolds, who declared her happiness that “every day, I am amazed at how people of faith make our state better.” Some other legislators went to the “All Are Welcome in Iowa” event at the capitol sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Iowa, where Senate Minority Leader Pam Jochum decried a Christian movement “that is perverting my faith and subverting democracy.”

Jochum likely had in mind the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” which both chambers approved in February on straight party line votes. Reynolds signed that bill (Senate File 2095) on April 2 at a closed-door event held by the Christian conservative organization The FAMiLY Leader. The measure will make it easier for individuals or entities to win lawsuits against state or local governments over regulations that “substantially burden” their exercise of religion.

Opponents have warned the new law will allow Iowans to discriminate against others, using religious beliefs as a pretext. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2022 that First Amendment freedom of speech can be violated if a citizen is confronted with a behavior that violates those “religious practices.”

Thoughtful Christians with a legal bent may have flashed on that precedent when Republican State Representative Steve Holt said during the Iowa House debate that the bill “would give people of faith a fair shake” in future courtroom battles.


Then as Christians sat down to their Easter Sunday dinners, Republicans took to their keyboards to slam the Biden White House for recognizing “Transgender Day of Visibility.” The event has occurred on March 31 for fifteen years; this week, that date happened to coincide with Easter Sunday.

Outraged Republicans, led by Trump and U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson, saw the White House statement as “offensive” to Christians, despite Jesus’ frequent exhortations in the Gospels that God’s love is available to all. U.S. Representative Ashley Hinson (IA-02) declared the Transgender Day of Visibility to be “a slap in the face,” showing the Biden administration’s supposed “contempt” for Christians and people of faith.

Despite the Gospel message, there is precious little love among Christians even while they are seemingly on their way to establishing a “Christian nation.” American Christians, never a monolithic group, are divided as never before over the question of what exactly is a “Christian.”

Major U.S. Christian denominations are rent by the same bitter divisions over abortion and same-sex marriages (with ordination of gay clergy thrown in) that have evenly split America’s two political parties and deadlocked Congress and state legislatures.

The Republican Party has a lot to lose if Christians fall to Reformation-like divisions. The newfound alliance of Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics, mostly inspired by shared views on sexual and reproductive issues, now makes up fully 60 percent of the Republican vote and has replaced big business as the party’s main fundraising engine.

Those divisions call into question exactly how the Republican Party, if it takes control of both the White House and Congress after November, 2024, can achieve the dream of a “Christian America.” Such a political rapture presumably would scrap America’s longstanding separation of church and state in favor of a religion-dominated politics and government based less on science and sociology in favor of strict interpretation of scripture and tradition.

That’s where things get sticky because much of what Christians believe and practice is actually less scriptural than tradition. Jesus said nothing about homosexuality. The word “homosexual” wasn’t even used until the late 19th century. The scriptures offer several verses supposedly condemning gay sex,  yet the Apostle Paul, whose first century writings were the foundation of organized Christianity, proclaimed in Galatians “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Jesus described marriage as being between a man and woman, but neither he nor Paul ever married or fathered children. Wealthy Christians accumulate assets warily mindful that Jesus said a rich man has no better chance of entering heaven than a camel passing through the eye of a needle. Jesus admonished disciples to pray in private, behind closed doors, not in public “like the hypocrites, who like to be seen.”

Jesus’ taught his followers to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” But aggressive Evangelicals, confronted with America’s longstanding tradition of separation of church and state, have asserted their right to bring their faith “into the public square.”

Even Trump has promised “more religion in government.” House Speaker Johnson outraged many Christians with his description of the doctrine of separation of church and state as a “misnomer.”

(Jesus’ seeming endorsement of separation of church and state was likely reinforced by his own Good Friday experience, where authorities from both church and state came together to send him to his death. Christian interpretation of Jesus’ suffering on Good Friday—an atonement for mankind’s sins—was definitely not on the minds of his executioners that day).

The embrace of the indicted and divorced Trump by Evangelicals has divided Evangelicals, many of whom worry that their support of Trump threatens the credibility of their religious movement. In Iowa, prominent Evangelical Bob Vander Plaats endorsed Florida Governor Ron DeSantis for the January 15 Republican caucuses, as did Governor Reynolds. But the Vander Plaats-Reynolds endorsements didn’t stop Trump from swamping both DeSantis and Nikki Haley on caucus day.


But Christians have discovered that the more bipartisan “public square” is a different place than a church, and even in churches many disagree on scripture and tradition.

Not every Christian is committed to the idea of using tax money (or “vouchers”) to subsidize church schools. Many liberal Christians come down on the side of individual rights for women and gays instead of bans on abortion and gay marriage. The political drive for “family values” has collided with the reality that the more evangelical denominations, such as the Southern Baptists, themselves have the highest rates of divorce and unwed childbirths among Christians, according to data compiled by Pew Research.

While Christians have gained considerable political power, Christian practice appears on the wane in the U.S. For all the hype about the rise of evangelical movements, self-identified Christians have fallen from the traditional 85-90 percent of the U.S. population to about 60 percent, according to Pew Research. Weekly church attendance has dropped to less than 50 percent even in long-devout Iowa, amidst predictions that U.S. Christianity will fall to the minority, outlier status of European Christians.

Evangelicals and Catholics can turn on one another with a vengeance. In 2023 popular Evangelical author-pastor Rick Warren found his growing Los Angeles-area congregations kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention because he ordained women pastors.

In the last month of 2023, Pope Francis cracked the whip on two American bishops, Raymond Burke of St. Louis and Joseph Strickland of Texas, for promoting “disunity” in the Roman Catholic church. Burke lost his subsidized Vatican apartment and Strickland was removed from his post. Both had criticized what they considered Francis’ too-liberal views on homosexuality and abortion.

The 87-year-old Pontiff took some incoming from outside the Catholic fold as well, when Baptist evangelical leader Franklin Graham added his voice of protest against Francis’ recent blessing of same-sex marriages. Francis’ blessing stops short of official church recognition of such unions, but was still enough to draw a retort from Graham, who is the son of evangelical legend Billy Graham and a buddy of Donald Trump.

Protestant Graham declared himself to be, in so many words, more Catholic than the Pope, saying “there are millions of Catholics that believe what I believe.”

Graham has taken heat himself for his embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has turned Russia into an anti-gay stronghold. Lingering admiration of Putin by some American Evangelicals has jammed Congressional gears for the latest round of appropriations for U.S. military aid to Ukraine in its battle with Russia.

The December dustup over Francis’ blessing is the latest sign that Catholicism awaits a showdown over sexual issues when the time comes to name the successor to Francis, whose age and frailty makes a change in the Papacy a matter of time.


Time has run out for the United Methodist Church, which slammed against a December 31 deadline for voluntary disaffiliation. About one-quarter of the denomination’s 32,000 congregations voted to leave over a Methodist reaffirmation in 2019 of its longstanding ban on gay clergy and same sex marriages. In Iowa, 150 congregations, about 20 percent of the total United Methodism in the state, have voted to disaffiliate and join a new “Global Methodist Church,” which promises more vigorous enforcement of Methodism’s longstanding ban on same-sex clergy and marriages. The departing congregations will enforce the statement on social principles, which forbid gay ordination and gay marriage. The remaining churches need not consider themselves so bound.

The split—Methodists adamantly refuse to use the more theological term “schism”—is believed to be the largest such division in U.S. church history.

Disaffiliation is no simple matter, since departing congregations are obligated to pay fees to their church conferences and settle issues involving real estate. A crossfire victim of the Methodist split may have been the closing in 2023 of Iowa Wesleyan College in Mount Pleasant, founded in 1843 and the state’s oldest institute of higher education.

The Methodists’ travails follow similar de-couplings in the last decade among Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Episcopalians. But the magnitude of the Methodist partings-of-the-ways can’t be understated. Methodists are the second largest U.S. Protestant denomination, behind the Southern Baptists. But while the Baptists are concentrated largely in the south, Methodists have been the most geographically assimilated church. For generations, United Methodists have boasted of having at least one congregation in each of the 3,143 counties in the United States.

Methodism can be said to have literally grown up with the U.S., from its founding in Baltimore in 1784 by followers of John Wesley, a Church of England cleric and theologian who had started a movement in England for the church to systematically (hence the “Method” moniker) reach out to the public rather than wait for the faithful to come through the church doors.

With the Church of England in retreat in the former American colonies after the Revolutionary War, many American Anglicans switched affiliations to either the newly-organized high Episcopal Church or to the less-formal Methodist movement. The need for new congregations on the ever-expanding American frontier put the Methodist Church in the forefront of Christianity’s movement westward.

Methodists have never been as overtly political as the Southern Baptist/Republican alliance, or the longstanding partnership of the Roman Catholic Church with several big-city Democratic Party machines. But Methodists and Republicans worked shoulder-to-shoulder in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to bring about the short-lived Prohibition of liquor sales, a connection that survived scarcely more than a decade before repeal in 1933.


Methodism’s founding occurred in the same decade that Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote a prohibition in the new U.S. constitution against the kind of state-sanctioned religion that had been commonplace in most European and Middle East countries. By the time Iowa became a state in 1846, separation of church and state was accepted as the reason the U.S. enjoyed religious freedom and had been spared the horrors of sectarian warfare that had scarred the Old World.

Alexis de Tocqueville’s groundbreaking study “Democracy in America,” was published a decade before Iowa’s statehood. Tocqueville took proper note of the role of church-state “disestablishment,” as it was called. But he also asserted religion’s central role in a democratic republic. A shared agreement on the basics of personal, family and spiritual life was the essential glue that held a democracy together, Tocqueville said, and his words are now used by Evangelicals as justification for penetrating the church-state wall.

It was the rise of the religious right, a reaction to the sexual liberation of the 1960s with attendant loosening of old strictures against birth control, racial intermarriage, and then legalizations of abortion and same-sex marriage, that has made the contemporary evangelical revival as much a political movement as spiritual.

But the religious right is discovering anew the ultimate mystery of Christianity; Jesus left behind no writings, leaving to later followers beginning with the Apostle Paul to put spiritual and doctrinal meaning behind his verbal teachings. For 1,700 years, since Christian elders assembled the 69 books that make up their Bible, Christians have argued with each other (and often fought with deadly weapons) over the deeper meaning of the teachings of the scruffy Galilean.

In a “Christian nation,” those arguments will be played out in our state capitols and the halls of Congress.

About the Author(s)

Dan Piller

  • Remarkable

    One is selling bibles enhanced with the pledge of allegiance, while the other is promoting controversial gender theories on a major religious day.

    News is that Biden is now trailing Trump in six of seven battleground states. I guess people have their ways to rank poor judgments.

  • none of the above

    Between Trump selling his $60 Bibles and Biden and his tin ear extremists calling for transgender day of visibility on Easter Sunday(of all days!) I say “none of the above.” RFK Jr and Jill Stein are both looking and sounding better each day as we get closer to the election. Need to get RFK Jr on the Iowa ballot.

  • That gold eagle on the lectern...

    …reminds me that I wish real eagles could file lawsuits against the appropriation of their images. Eagles are increasingly being used as right-wing symbols, even as many real eagles die directly and indirectly from lead poisoning because the “right” to keep spraying toxic shot into the landscape outweighs concern for wildlife and the environment, a concern that is increasingly and unfortunately becoming a concern not held by Republicans, according to opinion polls.

  • Trans Day on Easter is a Coincidence

    Re: Karl M and ModerateDem and the Curse of Misinformation. Misinformation intentionally retold is disinformation.

    Did you read this essay? The author says, “Then as Christians sat down to their Easter Sunday dinners, Republicans took to their keyboards to slam the Biden White House for recognizing “Transgender Day of Visibility.” The event has occurred on March 31 for fifteen years; this week, that date happened to coincide with Easter Sunday.”

  • So much disinformation,

    so many coincidental Special Days, and so many Swing States leaning right. Besides Easter, March 31 was also National Cesar Chavez Day and World Backup Day. The President sets daily priorities, and the people vote every four years.

  • Russian troll content on BH?

    Maybe it’s just a coincidence that Karl and ModDem have the same false equivalence argument on Trump and Biden. Do y’all subscribe to the same Putinist newsletter, or do you just get that from Fox News?