As another national election cycle heats up, inevitably news stories will focus even more on “Christian Nationalism.” The term first emerged in broad circulation over the last several years as a critique by the political and religious left of several different developments: the overwhelming support of Evangelicals for President Trump; various incidents such as the presence of overtly Christian symbols and signs at the January 6 riot at the Capitol and a “Jericho March” in Washington in support of President Trump’s claims of election fraud; and a trend toward increased legal protections for religious liberty and religious expression in the public square.
In response to the Christian Nationalism critique, various Christians have pointed out that the “blood and soil” nationalism of many Trump supporters is more pagan than Christian, that the overtly Christian expressions at incidents like January 6 are idiosyncratic and unremarkable in a country as large and diverse as ours, that such expressions do not seem to have much traction with most Christians, and that religious liberty developments are positive gains in a religiously pluralistic country like ours that protects religious liberty in its foundational documents.
But where many Christians have challenged the aptness of the term, others—including some writers and bloggers in my own Reformed tradition—have embraced the term “Christian Nationalism” and are arguing that it is a good thing to fuse our Christian and national identities and aspirations. And at the popular level, a regional road show called ReAwaken America that is part election fraud and COVID conspiracy theory showcase and part Christian Nationalism boosterism may not be filling stadiums, but is filling large churches and other meeting venues with enthusiastic crowds.
So, what are Christians in the United States to make of all this? Part I of this article argues that the alarmism about Christian Nationalism is overblown, and often manipulated as a political weapon or to try to undermine the legitimacy of recent advances in religious liberty protections. But it nonetheless is also true that many people identifying as Christian are also drawn to exuberant and sometimes troubling forms of nationalism. Christians should thus be paying attention to this debate. Further, the embracing of some in the Reformed tradition of Christian Nationalism as the way to pursue the Reformed concern with culture and society calls us to reflect carefully on the boundaries between tending to God’s earth and idolizing earthly kingdoms.
Part II will analyze how an American Christian today might think about how national citizenship relates to Christians’ duty to seek the good of the society where God has placed them and to use the tools available to them to advance human flourishing, justice, and the advancement of the gospel. It will trace Scripture, the principles of the Reformation, and how these were put into place by Anglo-American thinkers and the Founders of the United States, thereby providing a model for the pursuit of faith-inspired action while respecting the separate spheres of the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Man.
The term “Christian Nationalism,” which had circulated in academic circles for some time in discussions of church/state concepts in Europe and the United States, broke into public discourse in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. Sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L, Perry, and Joseph O. Baker authored a 2018 study entitled “Make America Christian Again”, arguing that adherence to Christian nationalism, a fusion of Christian and American identity, was a strong predictor of support for Trump. They described Christian nationalism as an ideology based on “parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism.” The questions they used to detect adherence to Christian nationalism included support for the government allowing religious displays in public spaces and prayer in schools, opposing “strict separation of church and state,” a belief that “the success of the United States is part of God’s plan,” and desiring America to be called a Christian nation and for the government to advocate for Christian values.
In response to this study, commentators and activists sounded the alarm about widespread Christian Nationalism. News articles containing the term “Christian Nationalism” rose from 275 for all years prior to 2017 to 2,906 hits for 2017 to the present in the Westlaw news database. The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty and Public Affairs, which represents various Baptist denominations, initiated a high-profile “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” effort to oppose this ideology, which it says “demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation.” Similarly, the former Washington, D.C. director of the National Association of Evangelicals now directs a group called “Evangelicals for Democracy” which claims “a group of rightwing ‘Christian soldiers’ . . . who are primarily white and represent about 20 percent of the public, believe that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.” The group claims that “[t]hese ‘soldiers’ made their debut at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, VA,” referring to the neo-Nazi march in 2017 that resulted in the death of a counterprotester.
But just how concerned should we be with the Christian Nationalism phenomenon in the United States, if it is a phenomenon at all? An October 2022 Pew study finds that the views of Americans are much more nuanced on this issue, and the points flagged by Whitehead and Perry can have various shades of meaning. For example, the Pew Research Center found that 45% of U.S. adults, including 81% of White Evangelicals and 62% of all Christians, think American should be a “Christian Nation.” But just what do people mean by a “Christian Nation?” Perhaps explaining the fear of non-Christians about Christian Nationalism, 30% of those who say they do not want the U.S. to be a Christian nation define it as Christian-based laws and governance. But only 6% of those who think the U.S. should be a Christian Nation define it as a nation with Christian-based laws and governance. Then what do the others who want a Christian Nation mean when they say that? They are thinking of “general guidance of Christian beliefs and values in society” (48%) or even a nation “guided by beliefs and values, but without specifically referencing God or Christian concepts.” (21%). As for the 6% of “Christian Nation” proponents who seem to want some form of theocracy? Well, 7% of atheists also responded that the U.S. should be a Christian Nation. They may just want the secular morality that comes with it, but who knows? Six percent of respondents of any poll probably think they are signing up for an extended car warranty.
Similarly, as religion writer Kelefa Sanneh recently wrote in the New Yorker the responses to Whitehead and Perry’s questions about separation of church and state, school prayer, and religious symbols in public places “examined individually . . . aren’t hard to defend” without raising the specter of theocracy. He points out that school prayer “has been the subject of a series of fine-grained Supreme Court decisions.” This includes, he notes, a recent decision upholding the general constitutional bar on school-sponsored prayer but allowed an assistant football coach on his own initiative to pray after games, with some players choosing to join him. Similarly, the Supreme Court recently held that government religious displays for religious purposes are forbidden, but the continued display of a World War I memorial that mostly consisted of a large cross and had stood for a century could be allowed. And as for the question about the success of the United States being part of God’s plan, Sanneh notes that “even someone with nuanced views about Providence and predestination might nevertheless hope so.”
And what to make of January 6? One of the strongest “Christian nationalist” occurrences on that day (perhaps other than a placard with Jesus wearing a MAGA hat) was, as Sanneh recounts, a rioter praying on the Senate floor: “Thank you for filling this chamber with patriots that love you, and that love Christ.” Troubling to Christians? I think it should be. But an example of Christian Nationalism? Hardly. As Sanneh explains, the man giving the prayer was the self-described QAnon Shaman seen by millions bare-chested and wearing buffalo horns, and who has referred to himself as being part of a “light occultic force.” Wiccan nationalism would be just as apt.
Indeed, if Christian Nationalism were such a potent force in American politics, where are the politicians capitalizing on it? Other than Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who has embraced the term, no politicians are calling themselves Christian Nationalists (Rep. Lauren Boebert has said some things that sound quite similar to Christian Nationalism but has not embraced the term). While there are marginal public figures, like retired General Michael Flynn, who served as President Trump’s National Security Advisor for 22 days before being forced to resign, and Eric Trump, who have appeared around the country as part of the “ReAwaken America” tour, they are not elected officials.
And while Christians are among those packing churches and similarly sized venues for regional roadshows of the ReAwaken America tour, or hoping for another Jericho March, I think it is helpful to look around and ask if we truly see more melding of Christianity and nationalism today than in the past. Twenty-five years ago I was a member of a mainline PCUSA church, and there was a flag in the front of the sanctuary and we regularly sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic and America the Beautiful during worship. The evangelical PCA church of which I am now a member removed its flag from the sanctuary a dozen years ago, and a patriotic song would leave congregants puzzled if inserted between the hymns and worship songs.
But beyond my personal anecdotal evidence, can Christians honestly look around and conclude that there is more nationalism melded with their faith than in the past? In 1941 President Franklin Roosevelt distributed a pocket New Testament to soldiers throughout the Armed Services, with the inscription: “As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Throughout the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration.” In 1954, “One nation, under God” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, and in 1957 “In God We Trust” was added to the currency as a national motto, all to advance national unity against Communism during the Cold War. In the next few decades, we saw near-universal shows of piety by political leaders and a general assumption of Christian hegemony in public rhetoric. I think Christians should look around at their own churches, statements by denominational leaders, and the writings of popular Christian authors, and evaluate whether they see an increase of a nationalistic Christianity, or if they see more emphasis on piety, winsome evangelism, and seeing oneself as part of a global church with particular growth in Asia and Africa. If anything, Christianity appears to have moved away from a nationalistic tenor.
Historical and personal anecdotes aside, the data bear out this move away from nationalistic Christianity as well. In 2013, the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that 64% of Americans agreed with the statement “God has granted America a special role in human history.” In 2021, that number had fallen to 44%. Similarly, the Pew Research Center found that those saying that it was important to be Christian to be “truly American” dropped from 51% to 35% from 2016 to 2020.
And what about the argument that Christian Nationalism is a threat to religious liberty? Last year, the Center for American Progress published an article with the title “Christian Nationalism is the ‘Single Biggest Threat’ to America’s Religious Freedom”, that typifies the claims being made. The article featured an interview with Amanda Tyler, Executive Director of the Baptist Joint Committee and its “Christians Against Christian Nationalism” initiative. Tyler cited January 6 as among “the most violent expressions” of Christian nationalism but also cited state legislative efforts “to promote the teaching of the Bible in public schools or to require the posting of “In God We Trust.” The authors of the Center for American Progress article accused Christian Nationalism of leading “to discrimination, and at times violence, against religious minorities and the nonreligious” and claim that Christian Nationalism is “a contributing ideology in the religious right’s misuse of religious liberty as a rationale for circumventing laws and regulations aimed at protecting a pluralistic democracy, such as nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQI+ people, women, and religious minorities.”
There is a lot to unpack here, but it illuminates much of the misinformation circulating which conflates Christian Nationalism with other things. The notion that January 6 was an expression of Christian Nationalism is, as noted above, misguided and inaccurate. And the claim that Christian Nationalism is to blame for hate crimes against religious minorities and the nonreligious is a blatant falsehood. I was Special Counsel on Religious Discrimination for the U.S. Department of Justice from 2002 to 2021, and among my responsibilities was coordinating the federal response to religious hate crimes. This included testifying on behalf of the Department of Justice to the Senate Judiciary Committee on religious hate crimes in 2017. I saw many trends during my tenure: the large spike in hate crimes against Muslims and those perceived to be Muslim in the wake of 9/11 and a smaller spike during the build up to the war in Iraq; the persistence of anti-Semitic hate crimes, by far the largest category of religious hate crimes in the U.S.; attacks on African-American churches such as the shooting by neo-Nazi Dylann Roof of attendees at a Bible study at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston; and the emergence of active shooting attacks on churches.
One thing I never saw was a trend, or even a single case, of a Christian engaging in a hate crime against a religious minority in the name of advancing a Christian nation or anything like it. There was no shortage of attacks by white supremacists and neo-Nazis and the like on Jews, Muslims, Blacks, and immigrants, but to call that Christian nationalism and lump it with things like advocating school prayer is inappropriate. Likewise, I am not aware of a single case where a “nonreligious” person was attacked because of his or her faith. Attacks on atheists do show up in the FBI hate crime statistics, which collect state cases as well as federal and include everything from bar fights and neighbor disputes to church bombings and shootings. There were 14 such attacks on atheists in 2022. But this compared to 1,124 anti-Jewish attacks, 181 anti-Sikh attacks, 157 anti-Muslim attacks, 107 anti-Catholic attacks, 78 anti-Eastern Orthodox attacks, 63 anti-Protestant attacks, and so on. This is simply not a significant societal problem, much less one that can be laid at the feet of Christians or Christian Nationalism.
The charge that Christian Nationalism is a driver in what the authors call the “misuse” of religious liberty to circumvent anti-discrimination laws is particularly noxious. There is a debate going on in society and the courts over the tensions between legal protections based on sexual orientation and gender identity and the legal protections for religious liberty. The Supreme Court, for example, held unanimously two years ago that Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia could not be required to certify same-sex and unmarried couples as foster parents in light of the First Amendment’s protections of free exercise of religion. This past term the Court, 6 to 3, held that the Free Speech Clause protected a wedding website designer’s right not to develop a same-sex wedding site in violation of her conscience.
There is an earnest debate over how to balance societal interests in nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation and the right to religious liberty. There is disagreement over how this balance should be made, but to call this “misuse of religious liberty as a rationale for circumventing laws and regulations aimed at protecting a pluralistic democracy” is something that should not be allowed to pass as honest debate, much less as evidence of growing Christian Nationalism.
As misguided, and in some cases deliberately manipulative, as many of those sounding the alarm about Christian Nationalism may be in piecing together their evidence, they are not making this stuff up. There were outspoken Christians in the mob at the Capitol on January 6; there are Christians among those calling for a nativistic and ethnically based nationalism; and many Christians long for the days of Christian cultural hegemony. Further, several Calvinist writers have seized on the attention given to Christian Nationalism and have been making the case that we should pursue a society where the government enforces virtue and suppresses heresy, pining for the days of the early Reformation in the 16th century and confirming the worst fears of the Christian Nationalist alarmists.
Kevin DeYoung wrote an excellent book review at the Gospel Coalition of the most prominent of these writings, The Case for Christian Nationalism by Stephen Wolfe. To cite but one example, DeYoung is critical of Wolfe’s call for a government that not merely would create conditions in which Christianity could flourish but which would have the power to “resolve doctrinal conflicts” and “direct people to the Christian religion.” DeYoung cites as especially troublesome Wolfe’s exhortation “that we should pray for God to raise up a ‘Christian Prince’—a leader ‘who would suppress the enemies of God and elevate his people; recover a worshiping people; restore masculine prominence in the land and a spirit of dominion; affirm and conserve his people and place, not permitting their dissolution or capture, and inspire a love of one’s Christian country.’” There is a similar strain in Roman Catholicism, called Catholic Integralism, calling for a return to fusion between the church and state, as described by Rod Dreher.
So where are we in 2023? The alarmism about growing Christian Nationalism is vastly overblown among some, and deliberately manipulated for political reasons among others. But there is a “there” there. Some Reformed writers are finding an audience for their full-throated embrace of a national identity explicitly built around Christianity and urging a move toward a Christian State. While there has been a significant decline in the percentage of the population seeing American identity as fused with Christian identity over the past decades, those embracing it in the last few years are particularly vocal, strident, and mobilized. So, what is a Christian today to make of this?
Part II will explore how the Reformers laid down principles, based on Scripture, asserting the primacy of conscience for the believer and a corresponding limit of the government in religious affairs. English and American thinkers took this concept and developed an understanding that authentic faith requires the individual to be free from governmental coercion in religious matters and freedom from compulsory support of religious institutions. Thus, we have a deep tradition of recognizing separate spheres of religious and governmental action.
At the same, the Founders did not call for strict separation of the life of faith and life as a citizen. Indeed, the fundamental principles of the new republic, including its understanding of religious liberty, grew out of faith itself. As we think about the role of nationhood in the faith of citizens of that nation, drawing from Scripture and from history, Part II will explore how the Christian might seek the Shalom of the nation where God has placed him and use his role as a citizen to advance the gospel without making the nation into a competitor for allegiance to God.
Read the companion article: Making Sense of “Christian Nationalism”, Part II: Should Christians Care About Nationhood?