By Dale Chamberlain, Crosswalk.com
In recent years, Christian nationalism has become something of a buzzword in both political and religious circles, with passionate debate on either side.
While Christian pastors, politicians, and pundits have long advocated for the idea that their Christian convictions should form the basis for their civic engagement, until recently, most have avoided being identified with Christian nationalism, given the movement’s historical associations with white supremacy and illiberal views of government policing with regard to religious life in America.
However, a marked turning point came when Congressional Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested that Christian nationalism is the future of the Republican Party.
“We need to be the party of nationalism,” Greene said at a conference for conservative students in July 2022. “And I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly: we should be Christian nationalists.”
While her comments sparked controversy, they did represent a pivotal moment in which the nation saw a number of political and church leaders begin to move away from reticence toward embracing the term, with many coming out to give a full-throated defense of the ideology.
Among them is Stephen Wolfe’s book-length argument, The Case for Christian Nationalism, in which Wolfe advocates for the establishment of a “positive prejudicial regard for the gospel” in “law and custom.”
Additionally, while respected evangelical theologian Albert Mohler had expressed in January 2021 that “nationalism is always a clear and present danger,” he later said in a YouTube video in June 2022 that being labeled a Christian nationalist is not something he is “about to run from” (Conservatism, Religion, Nationalism, and Current Cultural Crisis).
Arguments against Christian nationalism have also been given book-length treatments, as in the case of The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism by Paul D. Miller, a scholar of international affairs and former White House staffer for presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He is also a conservative, evangelical Christian.
In this conversation, definitions are important. Indeed, they are often the very point of contention. Therefore, before diving into the possible dangers of Christian nationalism, establishing a definition for it is vital.
Defining Christian Nationalism
Some see Christian nationalism as no different from being an American patriot who is also a Christian and who votes according to their Christian convictions.
To that effect, Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress has said that if the belief “that we ought to use elections to help return our country to its Christian foundation” is Christian nationalism, “count me in. Because that’s what we have to do.”
Similarly, Christian ethicist Andrew T. Walker has written, “In some corners, ‘Christian Nationalism’ is used as a synecdoche to dispense with anything unpopular about Christianity. If one does not like something about Christianity — say, its teaching on sexuality and family relations — just accuse it of self-serving power-seeking, and it can be discredited.”
However, detractors of Christian nationalism are quick to point out that the term is not synonymous with Christian engagement in public affairs. Nationalism, and specifically the American expression of Christian nationalism that is currently rising in popularity, has a distinct history and philosophy.
Contrasting nationalism with patriotism, Miller writes, “[Nationalism] is not merely love of country: it is an argument about how we define our country, about how we draw the boundary lines and say who is part of the nation and who is not, and it is also an argument about the nature, purposes, and duties of government.”
To American Christian nationalists, an essential duty of government is to protect and preserve not merely the defining principles of a nation as outlined in its founding documents (for example, individual liberty), but also the culture of the founding fathers themselves — naming what Miller and others refer to as “Anglo-Protestantism.”
Here, “Anglo” isn’t a reference to “whiteness” per se but rather the general moral and cultural values of the American colonists, whose heritage was British and largely Protestant.
In their book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian nationalism as “a cultural framework — a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems — that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life.”
In essence, Christian nationalism is defined by the belief that America is a Christian nation, not only by virtue of the fact that a majority of Americans are one stripe of Christian or another but by government creed or fiat.
Christian nationalism, defined this way, is the governmental system for which Wolfe and others have argued. It is also the source of at least three dangers.
1. Christian Nationalism Is a Quest for Political Power Rather Than an Embodiment of the Christian Mission
In the intervening centuries, the Church operated from the margins, subverting the values of the pagan empire that violently persecuted it, not by military subterfuge or political protest, but by virtue of their unwavering belief in who Jesus is, their radical generosity, their inexplicable care for the people whom everyone else had forsaken, and their undeniable love for one another that knew no cultural boundaries.
Christian nationalism seems to turn this ethic on its head, setting its sights firmly on political power for a specific subset of Americans, disregarding those outside its particular theological tradition and ethnocultural heritage.
To Christian nationalists, individuals who live in America but fall outside their specific definition of America’s “Christian culture” are seen as something less than fully American.
Buttressed by the belief that America is unique among the nations and enjoys a special covenant with God, Christian nationalists believe that security and significance for their tribe is necessarily a sign of God’s favor on the nation as a whole.
Christian nationalism, far from being a missional effort to make the name and way of Jesus known in America, is fundamentally a battle for cultural recognition and legal privilege.
Some of the battlegrounds include the institution of Christian (specifically Protestant) prayer in public schools, Christian symbols on government buildings, and “sabbath” laws that would require businesses to remain closed on Sundays — admittedly mixed in with other more traditionally conservative values such as a traditional view of marriage and the protection of the unborn.
Because of their belief that America is a “new Israel” of sorts and needs to get back to its “Christian roots” in order to prosper, others advocate for establishing Christianity as the nation’s official religion, restricting immigration from countries they believe will dilute the nation’s “Christian culture,” and federally recognizing English as America’s official language.
In this seemingly endless culture war, Christian virtue is often surrendered as a necessary concession for Christian “victory.”
Since Christian nationalists believe that the nation itself is at stake, virtues such as kindness, gentleness, and compassion can be placed aside if doing so will advance the cause of “taking the country back.”
2. Christian Nationalism Is as Unconstitutional as it Is Unbiblical
While it is enough that Christian nationalism is a quest for power and control at odds with the New Testament’s depiction of Christ’s Kingdom being “not of this world,” it is worth noting that it is also unconstitutional.
And if Christian nationalists believe, as many do, that the founding documents of America are divinely inspired, or at least firmly Christian, then advocating for the violation of those documents becomes a self-defeating argument.
To be clear, I do not believe that the Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution is divinely inspired (the scriptures alone enjoy this distinction).
Nevertheless, by virtue of my American citizenship, I am loyal to our nation’s founding documents. I also recognize their wisdom, which I believe has resulted from God’s common grace.
And in the First Amendment of the Constitution, the government is explicitly prohibited from creating any law “respecting an establishment of religion.”
This principle has been reaffirmed across the centuries through numerous judicial cases, resulting in the robust and storied American value of religious liberty.
Every American has the right to worship, or not worship, in any manner they choose, apart from very extreme exceptions where their religious practice would harm or otherwise trample on the liberty of another.
Seeking to privilege Christianity above other religions violates this value, which Christians have certainly benefited from and many of whom have fought to preserve.
Protecting religious liberty is foundational to respecting the dignity of other humans created in the image of God. It also protects Christians.
If religious liberty were to be weakened or gutted, and leaders who disagree with Christian doctrine were elected, the opportunity for government persecution of Christians would, for the first time in our nation’s history, be real instead of merely imagined.
Additionally, if Christianity is established as the official American religion, it begs the question as to which Christian tradition reigns supreme. Baptist? Catholic? Pentecostal? Presbyterian?
If a specific religious agenda were set forth by the government, Christians could conceivably begin to persecute other Christians based on their doctrinal differences.
In so doing, we would create a version of the very government system of religious persecution that served as an animating reason for the creation of America as a new nation marked by freedom and liberty.
3. Christian Nationalism Is Inextricably Connected with Xenophobia and Conspiracy Theories
In his book, Miller points out that some advocates of Christian nationalism are explicit about the fact that their vision for the ideology is not intended to privilege a particular race.
Rather, Christian nationalism is meant to privilege a particular set of cultural values held by the founding generation of America, a culture to which people of any and every national or ethnic origin can assimilate.
Nevertheless, at a popular level, Christian nationalism almost invariably devolves into rhetoric and language that has elements of white supremacy, discrimination, and xenophobia.
And that is because, by its very nature, the Christian nationalist’s definition of “Christian culture” is collocated with white culture.
In fact, often conspicuously absent from the definition of the kind of “righteous” culture that would earn God’s favor is any mention of racial justice — something that is central to the political vision of many Black Christians in America who hold all the same theological convictions as their white counterparts.
By way of example, as Miller also highlights, we saw this play itself out in the origins of the private Christian school movement, which was wrapped in the language of returning to “Christian values” but was largely a response to racial integration in public schools.
To be sure, many who advocate for Christian nationalism do not leverage racialized language. However, many of their policy stances, in the name of Christ, produce racialized outcomes. This is certainly the case with many of their stances on immigration, healthcare, welfare, and police reform.
Additionally, Christian nationalist rhetoric is also often found alongside the perpetuation of conspiracy theories, such as the “Big Lie” that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump and “The Great Replacement” theory that global elites are colluding to flood the American population with people of color as a way to marginalize the white population.
Of note is that both of these conspiracy theories have resulted in real-world violence, as in the case of the Capitol Riot of 2021, wherein violent protesters sought to infiltrate the United States Capitol Building, many of them carrying symbols of QAnon, Christian identity, or both.
In the case of “The Great Replacement,” it was a defining feature in the manifesto of the shooter in a massacre that took place at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, in 2022.
Where to Go from Here
None of this is to suggest that Christians should retreat from political engagement, that we should renounce our national identity, or that we should deny or downplay the elements of Christian thought that have helped to produce the American values of liberty and justice.
We don’t need to stop talking about politics, but the way we speak about politics does need to change.
We don’t need to stop voting with our consciences, but we do need to allow our consciences to be directed by a desire to vote for leaders and policies that will best serve the common good rather than merely the ones that we believe will serve our own best interests.
For further reading:
Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Hleb Usovich
Dale Chamberlain (M.Div) is an author and podcaster who is passionate about helping people tackle ancient truths in everyday settings. He lives in Southern California with his wife Tamara and their two sons. Connect with Dale at KainosProject.com.
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