Christian Nationalism vs. National Christianity

December brought a great deal of hand-wringing from Big Eva and mainline liberalism over the “threat” posed by Christian nationalism. The pieces range from attempts to be thoughtful to puerile scoffing that tries to tie Christian nationalism to things like racism, violence, and–even worse–wives submitting to their husbands. But wherever they fall on that spectrum, they all agree that Christian Nationalism must be stopped.

The volume on that shared note is peculiar, as I daresay there is more open opposition to Christian nationalism than there are people who embrace the label. Nevertheless, it’s worth noting just how threatened they are by us even when we’re few in number.

In any case, there are a multitude of faults in this latest barrage, but the one that seems common to them all is a simple confusion between Christian nationalism and some kind of “national Christianity.”

So what’s the difference between those two very similar terms? Well, remember that the adjective modifies the noun. So Christian nationalism is a nation-centric political philosophy altered by Christianity whereas national Christianity is a version of the Christian religion altered by nationalism. Those are two very different animals, and it does us no good to conflate them.

Let’s look at Christian nationalism first. At it’s core, Christian nationalism is a political philosophy that involves putting your own nation ahead of others—just as any other brand of nationalism is. However, because it is informed by Christianity, it changes many of the how’s and why’s behind that priority.

For example: Whereas some forms of nationalism have people putting their nation first because they believe it superior to every other nation on Earth, Christian nationalism has people putting their nation first because it’s the specific nation into which God has placed them. Effectively, it’s the same reason we prioritize our own children over others–because they’re ours and we have a special responsibility to them. As Jesus told the Canaanite woman who beseeched him as king of Israel, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.”

And this kind of modified priority brings another important implication along for the ride: Whereas some forms of nationalism view other nations as consumable resources for one’s own, Christian nationalism does not–anymore than caring for your own children means a freedom to exploit other children. We know that citizens of other nations have been called to serve their own country ahead of others just as we have, and we ought to respect that calling. Simple adjustments like this can make a huge difference to one’s national priorities—and limitations.

Another difference made by Christian nationalism is that it embraces Christianity’s judgements on laws and politics.  To be sure, the Bible does not endorse any particular political system, and it remains silent on many legal issues.  It does, however,  pass judgment on many others and it inevitably informs Christians as they go about their civic lives. Christianity may not have anything to say about whether we should have a republic or a monarchy or on capital gains, but it has much to say on whether we should value our children or murder them.

Lastly, Christian nationalism seeks to minimize the extent to which the Church and the state are in conflict with one-another.  Some nations have done this by means of establishing state churches–an arrangement which has generally gone very badly.  But America has chosen a better way of protecting religious freedom and respecting the different roles that church and state play. Nevertheless, we live in a time when many in the state seek to impose a fanatical false religion of gnostic hyper-individualism in violation of that religious freedom. Accordingly, it’s become apparent that religious freedom does not mean religious neutrality. Christian nationalism rejects neutrality to try and prevent situations where the commands of the state contradict the commands of our God–forcing us into disobedience to the state.

As a result of differences like these, Christian nationalism ends up encompassing beliefs that are more mundane than the current hand-wringing would suggest. For Americans, it means recognizing that Christianity’s influence over the United States has eclipsed the influences of other religion. It means believing that a Christian worldview should predominate over alternative worldviews in American civic life. And as a consequence, it means that American heritage is inextricably tied to Christianity. A nation that tried to remove or sufficiently dilute that heritage could no longer be called “American” in the same sense as before.

Such beliefs may indeed be controversial in 2021, but they are hardly beyond the pale in the way that the critics try to portray Christian nationalism. Only a few generations ago, they would have been broadly expected. But much of the ire directed at Christian nationalism by Christians doesn’t really come from beliefs like those. Rather, they come from beliefs that would more appropriately belong to the category of “national Christianity.” After all, for the most part, they are comprised of Christian religious beliefs altered by American nationalism rather than vice versa.

Some of those beliefs, I’ve never really encountered “in the wild,” and so I suspect them of being strawmen. I’ve seen, for example, condemnations of the belief that being a good American is a key part of the Christian’s path towards salvation or even a belief that only Americans can be saved. Those would, of course, be ridiculous heresies according to real Christianity if anyone actually taught them.

Other condemned beliefs, I have actually encountered–either in history or in person. For example, some American Christians (falsely) give America some kind of place of honor in their absurd misunderstandings of end-times prophecies or redemptive history. Others try to turn America into some kind of second Israel–taking many of God’s Old Testament promises to His people and applying them to the United States. These are likewise false religious teachings that Christians are right to condemn and avoid. God may have given us the task of caring for our nation, but He has not declared any such status to America today.

There is also so-called “Trumpism” to consider. There are evangelicals who suggest that the President has some kind of special “anointing” that goes beyond the ordinary civil authority that God ordains and which President Trump lawfully possesses. (After all, everyone in authority has been specifically appointed by God to rise to the challenges of the day which their responsibilities present–not just President Trump.) Here too, we must treat this as wholly speculative, for God has not declared any such special status for the President either. Believe what you will about the man, but only false teachers present that kind of personal speculation as divine writ.

To be sure, I support President Trump. I’ll even go a step further and point out my expressed suspicions that many of the forces contending against him are demonic in nature. I am grateful to him for engaging in that fight despite all that pressure against him. But it does not logically follow that he is therefore on the side of the angels. After all, as Luther put it, God will often use one knave to punish another. And even if he does end up prevailing over the electoral fraud for a second term, that’s only the continuation of America’s struggles, not the end. We cannot presume to know God’s mind or plans and must never conflate our speculation with His Word.

So the various voices opposing Christian nationalism are right to decry beliefs like these. Nevertheless, those beliefs are not best described as Christian nationalism at all for they conform our religion to our politics rather than our politics to our religion.

Neither, I suspect, are they held by most Christian nationalists. Those are all elements of an American civil religion that stands apart from Christianity even as it borrows from it. But Christian nationalism is not a matter of America using Christianity as raw material to cast a spiritual light on our civics. It is, rather, a nation of men who are both Christian and American serving their country according to both of those identities. That isn’t something which the Church needs, but it is something America needs—desperately.

Too many such men have set down their Christian convictions in public because of a false narrative of religious neutrality. Christian nationalism is rising only because that narrative has failed, and more of us are becoming willing to let our faith into that area of our lives again. And that is not something to be condemned, but embraced.

About Matt

Software engineer by trade; lay theologian by nature; Lutheran by grace.
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5 Responses to Christian Nationalism vs. National Christianity

  1. B.Gordon says:

    Contemporary America-first nationalism (and the European contemporary movements) is the exact opposite of 19th century European nationalism (the beginning of globalism). Contemporary nationalism seeks to undo globalism. Globalism isn’t Christian it’s of the devil.
    In the end, God will raise up people from all the nations which presupposes the existence of distinct nations. A nation isn’t the same thing as an empire.

    • Matt says:

      Exactly. Nationalism has a bad wrap precisely because of early attempts to take nations global. But nothing says it has to be that way.

  2. B. Gordon says:

    It’s funny but “National Christianity” made me think of the Eastern Orthodox.

    Their problem is they have no way to settle jurisdictional matters e.g. who’s authocephalous.

    And no definition of the Church that isn’t circular reasoning.

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