Is “Christian Nationalism” Christian?
Many observers of culture have noted the rise of “Christian Nationalism” among conservative, American Christians in recent years. This has provoked what can only be described as an unfair characterization by many critics on the left, and some on the right. Due to its primarily negative use of the left, Christian Nationalism connotes much more than it denotes and can lead to all kinds of confusion when debating its merits. While I will admit up front to being a critic of this political theory, it is only fair to present an honest account of what Christian Nationalism entails before any response is given to its claims. The question then follows: what is Christian Nationalism and is it Christian?
While “Christian Nationalism” can take many forms, the core idea asserts that the state should seek to be explicitly Christian in character. It should discourage false beliefs and immoral behaviors, by force if necessary, and encourage orthodoxy and morals. One of the best summations of the core tenets of Christian Nationalism can be found in the pages of Stephen Wolfe’s book, The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe’s book has become a bestseller and is a thoughtful, scholarly defense of Christian Nationalism. Wolfe defines his thesis on page 9 as such:
Christian Nationalism is a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good for itself in Christ.
While the definition is somewhat abstract, it highlights a key aspect of the theory we will focus on in Wolfe’s work, the use of coercion to privilege the Christian religion in society. Wolfe makes this strategy clear when he says, “The classical Protestant position is that the civil magistrate can punish external religion– e.g., heretical teaching, false rites, blasphemy, and Sabbath-breaking– because such actions can cause public harm…” (Wolfe, 35).
This is the core issue. Should the ideal government style itself as an explicitly Christian nation, such that it, through fiat, promotes true religion and punishes those who violate its religiously inspired laws? However, before answering this question, it is worth asking why this belief is being increasingly mainstreamed in conservative Christian circles.
The first cause is easily identifiable. As the radical left grows ever more militant and powerful, many Christians seek a forceful response by both social and political means. Whether it is the collusion between government and social media to censor COVID “misinformation;” teaching Critical Race Theory at the highest levels of education and foisting it onto kids as early as kindergarten; or, most despicably of all, attempting to slip “porn literacy” into the sex education curriculum for elementary school students; the left is increasingly militaristic in its attempts to win the culture war. As these beliefs not only become more widespread but are often taught without parental support, one understandable reaction is to support a militant, unashamedly Christian government to step in and crush these evils.
A second, perhaps less obvious cause of Christian Nationalism’s popularity is the failure of libertarianism to provide a compelling response to leftist dogma. For a long time in American politics, freedom, specifically from state action, was seen as the highest good in government. But should an action be legal merely because every concerned party has “consented” to it? This political theory has led to some dangerous consequences in Canada, where physician-assisted suicide was legalized in 2016. Originally, only those with terminal illnesses were eligible for euthanasia. Now, in 2023, the Canadian government is seriously considering expanding access to medical assistance in dying (MAID) to those with psychological issues and chronic, nonlethal illnesses. Imagine a thirty-year-old man that loses his wife, or suffers the loss of a child, and soon is diagnosed with clinical depression. As tragic as that loss is, should the government really allow a doctor to end the man’s life, simply because he doesn’t want to deal with the pain of life anymore? Surely, consent is not the only variable the government should consider when crafting these policies. A Government that allows such behavior in the name of “freedom” assumes that a state should be a value-free zone. But human beings were not made to live for nothing but unbridled political freedom. Increasingly, Christian Nationalists are becoming aware of this amoral theory of government and are attempting to address its flaws.
Would the Bible Advocate a Religious Nationalist State?
Christian Nationalism can find some support for its views in the Old Testament, but it fails to take into account the political theology of Jesus and the apostles. A complete survey of the New Testament reveals that the apostles dealt with theological disputes through the church, apart from government action. Consider the strong language the apostle Paul used of the false teachers in Corinth. The context of the passage is Paul’s stinging reply to the “super-apostles” who charged Paul with preaching an unauthorized gospel given to him by men. In response, Paul had no hesitation in using this language of his critics: “So it is no surprise if [Satan’s] servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds” (2 Cor 12:15). Despite unmasking these churchmen as Satan’s servants, he never advocates turning them over to the authorities for punishment, though clearly, the issues at stake in Corinth were matters of eternal significance. In those days, professing Christians suffered persecution from Jewish authorities and, increasingly, the Roman Empire. If Paul viewed theological disputes as being within the legitimate purview of the state, he could have easily suggested that the Corinthian Christians turn these false teachers over to the Jewish leaders or Roman authorities. He doesn’t.
Perhaps the most significant teaching relevant to this discussion is recorded in Matt 19. In the preceding verses, the Pharisees had been told by Jesus that in the marital union, husband and wife are joined together by God as one flesh: therefore man should not separate what God joined. They respond by asking why Moses allowed them to divorce their wives at will. Jesus responds, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning, it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt 19:8-9).
Jesus makes it clear that, even in theocratic Israel, God made legal exceptions for certain immoral activities, here, illegitimate divorce (Matt 5:32). This was done because of the hardness of the Israelites’ hearts.
This concession is relevant to the discussion of Christian Nationalism. If even in theocratic Israel certain sins were tolerated by the government because of the people’s hardness of heart, it would seem even more appropriate that we who live under the new covenant begun by Christ should tolerate some sins and theological errors because of a similar hardness. I would argue that external religious practice would fall under this category. Religion is one of the things people keep closest to their hearts, and is the most difficult thing to change, even under threat of government action. Ephesians 2:1 describes unbelievers as being dead in their sins. Isn’t this the epitome of a hard heart? Arguing from the principle of the lessor-to-the-greater, if divorce was allowed because of hardness of heart, shouldn’t the exercise of false religion be as well?
There are very practical dangers to a Christian government that punishes the practice of heretical views through state action. The likely result of forcing heresy underground and creating a black market of ideas instead of addressing falsehood head-on in the open debate should concern Christians thoughtfully considering these issues. Giving the government the power to determine what is and what is not heresy can also have dangerous consequences, as seen in the Inquisition, witch trials, and numerous examples of abuse of power. Even today Christian churches disagree on theology and morality and who can say that the brand of Christianity the nationalist state supports is your brand?
Pragmatic reasoning aside, Christ and His apostles teach that false doctrine and unbelief, while serious matters, are things that should be left out of the government’s hands. If we wish to apply the Bible’s teachings faithfully in this subject, we should repudiate Christian Nationalism and seek a better way to address the issues plaguing modern society.
Mason Dees is an aspiring writer, interested particularly in the intersection of politics, Christian theology, and economics. He is currently a 1L student at UCI Law School.
This article is reprinted with the permission of the author and originally appeared at The Pepperdine Beacon (4/3/2023).