As Hillsdale’s Thomas West notes, a serious Christian nationalism must engage in a potentially unpopular challenge to existing civil rights laws, which “frequently limit religion as practiced outside of the narrow realm of ‘religion as such’…. Civil rights laws protect the right of unwed mothers, gays, and transgenders to nondiscrimination—which means religious schools or businesses may be required to admit them or hire them, contrary to their Christian moral convictions.” In such a situation, where Christianity cedes the public square to state atheism, it can become functionally impossible “to follow and teach in daily life the moral beliefs of Christianity as understood by most believers.”
A time for choosing.
Advocating Christian nationalism may seem, at first blush, like a futile enterprise. We live in a country that is de-Christianizing rapidly. America is expected to lose its Christian majority by 2050 and be just 39 percent Christian by 2070. As even Mike Sabo acknowledges in his introductory piece on the subject, “Absent a nationwide crack-up, it could take a century or more for the Christian nationalist project to have any measurable effect at scale.”
Yet despite this, the debate over Christian nationalism has taken on mythic proportions in certain corners of the Right. Christian nationalism has a variety of definitions among those versed in the relevant arcana. As a layperson (literally and when compared with the initiates in these debates) I will adopt a broad and basic but serviceable definition: Christian nationalism is the view that America’s institutions should bear the influence of, and move people toward, Christianity. This definition could obviously include a large variety of policies and perspectives, but it has the virtue of encompassing the vast majority of the Christian nationalist project, while being broadly comprehensible to the average churchgoer.
Before examining the positive case for Christian nationalism, it is instructive to examine the arguments of some of its fiercest critics. Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University and author of Jesus and John Wayne, perhaps the most popular current critique of the white evangelical community, told an interviewer that “at the core of Christian nationalism in contemporary politics is really the idea of privileging certain views over others, in terms of determining our laws, in terms of even interpreting our Constitution, and in terms of implementing our democracy.”
Well yes, that’s actually the idea. As Christians we should privilege a Christian viewpoint, I think, rather than the godless viewpoint that has been forced on America, largely illegitimately, by the courts over the past several decades. Of course, this approach could be taken too far. Russell Moore, editor of the liberal quasi-evangelical magazine Christianity Today, cites the case of the Russian Orthodox patriarch who recently implied that military sacrifice in the war versus Ukraine would wash away all sins. Or witness the tight integration between church and a conservative state that can ultimately damage both, as we recently saw in Poland. But while a state which embraces Christianity too closely can cause a collapse in Christian faith from without, a fully-secularized state such as our modern one can also rot the moral foundations of a society from within.
That is to say, while Moore’s attack on Christian nationalism in Russia is fair, he goes too far when he claims that Christian nationalists use “Jesus’ authority to baptize their national identity in the name of blood and soil.”
This is not a description of Christian nationalism that those Christian nationalists I know would embrace. Of course Christianity is a universal religion—there are obviously certain core beliefs. But, as missionaries have learned over many generations, Christianity’s ability to embrace particularities is often as powerful as its universality. What leads people to the Gospel and keeps them in the community of believers can be almost infinitely varied depending on the cultural and national context. Simply put, “nationalizing” Christianity in the sense of localizing, particularizing, and institutionalizing it in a particular place and culture is necessary for the very real work of saving souls. A Christianity that excludes a national mission or that does not integrate with an existing cultural context is a Christianity that will likely fail to save souls for Christ.
Or, as noted Presbyterian theologian Carl Trueman wrote in a balanced and perceptive article: “To love one’s country, to be patriotic, is…not to sneer at every other nation or to look with scorn upon other peoples. It is simply the appropriate response of gratitude and love for the place where one belongs, that gives one an identity, that provides one with community and with purpose.”
Our Christian Nationalist History
So why promote Christian nationalism? One reason is that it has been shown to work in an American context previously. A version of Christian nationalism grew America from an obscure collection of colonies hugging the Eastern seaboard of North America in the 17th and 18th centuries to the world’s greatest economic and political powerhouse by the early 20th century. No founder seriously disputed the goal of encouraging Christianity among the populace.
Even the two most famous early examples of the alleged “separation of church and state” were public diplomatic gestures, not forthright descriptions of reality in the founding generation. Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, in which he famously alluded to a so-called “Wall of Separation” between church and state, came from the least religious founder to a denomination concerned about their unfavorable treatment in Connecticut. And the notion that America is “Not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” is found in the Treaty of Tripoli (1797) made with a Muslim power, a public declaration that was possibly shrewd diplomacy but did not really reflect American reality.
By contrast, the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, began by invoking “the Name of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity.”