I'm not sure what "Christian nationalism" is, but I know it's wrong
Should Christians seek high political office to lead a nation? Should adherents to Christianity rise to leadership through their light of righteousness and humility?
Whatever your personal experience with Christianity is, it’s wrong. Now that I’ve got your feathers ruffled, let me also say that whatever your personal experience with Christianity is, it’s totally true. Christianity is large, complex, and—this is most important—always viewed from the point of view of earth-bound humans. Just as mathematics cannot completely explain the nature of both the classical and quantum physical universe, the human experience cannot completely explain Christianity. Though there’s a big world beyond the faith, the faith in this world is but the tip of the iceberg of what Christianity claims to be, and who Christ is, biblically.
Our individual relationship with the divine is as off-limits to the historian, the theologian, and the sociologist as the contents of our unspoken thoughts. We can only explain what we can see, and we can only predict or describe what is visible.
Christianity’s visible spectrum ranges from the blood-soaked abuses of the Spanish Inquisition, to the Salem witch trials, to the divine providence that George Washington continually thanked for the birth of our nation, to America’s national struggles for civil rights and the dignity of all, to the most prolific missionary-sending nation the world has ever seen, to the great prosperity of our nation and the generosity of its inhabitants. The story of how we got here, and who suffered along the way involves both Christians and secular people, but is largely associated with American Christianity.
Historically speaking, that’s a lot of territory to cover, and it has led many to define “Christianity” in America in very different ways, more ways than it is in fact practiced as an organized faith. Therefore any effort to even explain what “Christian nationalism” is will be colored by the point of view of the person attempting the task. I recently bought the audio book for Kristin Du Mez’s book “Jesus and John Wayne.” In it, historian Du Mez, who is also herself a Christian, tries to offer a facts-based definition, and follow the trail of how we got to where we are.
In short, Du Mez tries to answer this question: “How did a libertine who lacks even the most basic knowledge of the Christian faith win 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016? And why have white evangelicals become a presidential reprobate's staunchest supporters?”
It will be interesting to dig into the historical, disciplined research and try to answer these questions. I’ve already read veteran political reporter Salena Zito’s book “The Great Revolt” where she uses seven “archetypes” supported by extensive personal interviews across the rust belt that propelled Trump to power to explain his appeal in 2016. That populist coalition did not hold in 2020, but it nearly did, and I believe it would have had COVID-19 not intervened.
Even so, the best Democrats could offer for 2020 was to take the old battleship Joe Biden out of mothballs, and keep him as quiet as possible while Trump sunk himself in a confusing and terrifying web of conspiracies, corruption, and lies. But those core supporters who still favor Trump over any other Republican for 2024 have made serious inroads into the GOP, and they punch well above their weight in political power.
Many of the politicians who speak Trumpism fluently to voters, privately revile it and the cult of personality of its chief. Some of them are simply inveterate liars. Some appear to have drunk the Kool-Aid. Some are opportunists, and some are committed to a form of evangelical Christianity that believes “contend for the faith” includes promoting a narcissistic womanizer who says he never sinned—who would, if he didn’t pander to hot-button political issues that have vexed these evangelicals for decades, be roundly condemned as a heretic.
I don’t know precisely how to define “Christian nationalism.” Is it a belief that Christians must “seek the welfare of the city” as 1 Peter 1:1 and Jeremiah 29:7 say? Bruce Winter gave a quick lesson in the sojourner’s mission and the social Gospel in an essay for The Gospel Coalition. I highly recommend you read it as a foundation.
Galatians 6:9 encourages Christians not to “become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” Some of the results of Trump-era policies are arguably good from a Christian perspective. It’s good to have more two-parent families, versus deconstructing families into some amorphous village of caregivers beholden to the State. It’s good to have less abortions—even from a secular point of view—in that abortion is a waste of human potential—a willful throwing away of a living being in favor of the person who bears that potential, living their own lifestyle. It’s related to the trend of healthy people of child-bearing age to prefer a childless life.
In most developed countries, the birth rate is below replacement value, meaning that the developed world only grows by immigrants coming from the less-developed world. How selective any nation and culture is in who is allowed to join a society is in fact important to that country’s future, whether you think the topic itself is racist or not. Trump elucidated some of these thoughts which are not so extreme in places like the Netherlands, Japan, and even Canada.
Going back to the definition of “Christian nationalism,” a few questions emerge. Should Christians seek high political office to lead a nation? Should adherents to Christianity rise to leadership through their light of righteousness and humility? We have examples like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were firm believers in the spiritual power of living righteous lives. Looking at history, it’s just as likely—and today more likely—that narcissists and cults of personality, through savvy marketing and piles of money, will win high office and lead the nation into depravity, as it is that one devoted to God will rise to the task.
We also have examples of Christian presidents like Woodrow Wilson, arguably one of the least moral (though outwardly pious) presidents in history, and Jimmy Carter, a born-again Southern evangelical, whose fumbling, controlling incompetence handed the 1980 election to Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a good example of a reasoning, moderate Christian who made errors, but was not the devil so many liberals made him out to be. Many conservatives now wish for Reagan, though the Trumpists have abandoned him as hopelessly compromising.
Was Jimmy Carter a Christian nationalist? Was Ronald Reagan? I seriously doubt any historian or theologian would make that leap. Was Woodrow Wilson? Very possibly, as he was both a committed Christian and a committed nationalist, who believed in progressive methods to bring God’s kingdom here to earth in a practical way, and that America was a God-blessed force for global good. Wilson also believed in segregation of the races, the superiority of white people, and he allowed the execrable KKK to flourish in his native South. Wilson was a racist.
Wilson was president of Princeton University before he was POTUS. He was well-educated and well-read in the Bible. Today’s “Christian nationalists” include Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and GOP nominee for Pennsylvania governor Doug Mastriano. Mastriano has called the doctrine of separation of church and state a “myth.”
Many of these Trump-endorsed figures and their backers like Dinesh D’Souza also profess the adjacent QAnon conspiracies of the stolen election, like the claims of the easily debunked documentary “2000 Mules.” D’Souza has a Dartmouth education, and was president of King’s College, a Christian school in New York City, before an adultery scandal forced his resignation. He also served eight months of a federal sentence for illegal campaign contributions before Trump pardoned him in 2018.
I can’t define “Christian nationalism” by economic status, as MTG, D’Souza, and Wilson are/were all quite well-off. I can’t define it by education or lack thereof, as you can see, they come from all over the spectrum. I can’t define it by the denomination of Christianity, as Wilson was a Presbyterian, D’Souza is an evangelical, and most recently, a nondenominational who identifies with Reformation theology.
Many have tried to paint the “Christian nationalism” movement as one dominated by pentecostals of various stripes. There’s a lot of No True Scotsman hand-waving going on, as “respectable” evangelicals practice “defining away their embarrassing spiritual kin,” as Christian writer Timothy Gloege wrote. Just because one branch of Christianity considers speaking in tongues to be heretical, or the laying on of hands to be spectacle, doesn’t mean that these practices are the source of bad political thought. (They are also in the Bible.) Plenty of pentecostals have stood firm against Trumpism and its promotion of sin (have you read Susan Bagwell lately?).
But really, none of this definitional stuff matters. Like Justice Potter Stewart said about pornography: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description, and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and the motion picture involved in this case is not that.” With “Christian nationalism,” I can’t define exactly what it is, by who ascribes to it in a Biblical sense, or by what those people’s personal relationship with Christ is. Those private thoughts are not in the domain of the living and mortal to know. But I do know it when I see it.
What I can say with confidence is that it’s wrong. The Bible, and Christ’s own words, say that His Kingdom is not of this world. In John 18, Pilate questions Jesus:
33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”
35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”
36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”
37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”
While this drama was playing out, Peter was in the midst of denying he knew Jesus, as the Lord prophesied, three times. Peter, the denier, just hours before was zealous in his defense of the Lord, even to the point of cutting off the ear of Caiaphas’ soldier. But the Lord rebuked him. The problem of “Christian nationalism” goes all the way back to Christ’s passion. Not everyone who says they are zealous for God’s will knows what His will really is. Zeal without knowledge is frequently dangerous.
In the chapter preceding Jesus’ arrest (John 17), the Lord prays for His disciples, and He prays for us.
20 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, 21 that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. 22 I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— 23 I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
24 “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.
25 “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me. 26 I have made you known to them, and will continue to make you known in order that the love you have for me may be in them and that I myself may be in them.”
Two things I know are true. One: The world does not know, yet, that the Father sent Jesus. This knowledge will not be complete until the Lord’s return. Two: All Christians are not one in any kind of unity. We still have many Peters who have not met the risen Lord, but are quite zealous for Him in a political, worldly sense. They hear the truth Jesus testifies to, but they have not heard it with “hearing ears” and therefore judge their own spirituality by the tingling of their ears and the accusations of the world.
The true Kingdom of God, with Christ as its King, does not lie (or “manifest”) in the destiny of individual humans, nations, earthly kings, or governments instituted by men. The Kingdom is build by faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit, and is only experienced in its full glory when believers depart this mortal world. God’s hand lies in the selection and election of the world’s political leaders, and therefore Christians are instructed to pray for our leaders, and to obey the laws of the State—as long as those laws do not contradict God’s laws.
We can’t see all the plans of God in detail, but we do know the outcome. Our own academics, historians, philosophers and theologians can’t work out some grand equation to help us define the truth we seek, because that truth resides in a personal relationship with a living, loving God. There is no sociological equation for mother-love, and there’s also none to define God’s unconditional love—agape—for us.
What we do have is the Bible. The Bible is prophetic truth in written form, the projection in human communication—words—of the Word, who is Jesus Christ (John 1). That truth can’t answer all the questions of what isn’t righteous, but it does answer the question of what, and who, is righteous. “Christian nationalism,” like many forms of Christianity that are harmful, ignorant, and non-Biblical, isn’t specifically defined in the “book.” But I don’t need to define it to know it’s wrong.
And it is wrong.
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If I can take a stab at it, I'd define "Christian nationalism" as the political project where a minority of the population attempts to enact their preferred social policies by explicitly arguing for a "greater good" or otherwise divinely provided policy guidance at the expense of normal democratic processes and procedures, where the religious appeal and justification would be unnecessary since the proposed policies would already enjoy popular support. It's attempting to add democratically-unaccountable religious figures into the decision-making process solely based on their religious positions (or beliefs) and not because a democratically-elected figure appointed them.
It's only "Christian" in America because that's largest minority arguing that our current democratic processes are broken and the (classical) liberalism that informs our system of government only works when enough Americans are Christians themselves, and that the State has a duty and obligation to step in to ensure that the United States "remains" a "Christian nation". It's fundamentally the same idea as rule justified by the divine right of kings, but with those arguing for it believing that they are one of the anointed folks who God thinks should be calling the shots.
Voters should never expect politicians to meet their morality standards. Elected officials are there to govern legally in accordance with the Constitution.