The term Christian Nationalism has become something of an epithet amongst enlightened evangelicals and Christians of various stripes, especially in light of the travesty at the Capitol. We are told these people were guided by CN and that evangelicals are largely responsible for allowing this heresy to fester in its midst unchallenged. CN has become a synonym for white supremacy in its insinuation that race and ethnicity are primary drivers in the current evangelical support of President Donald Trump and his nationalist agenda.
For a certain segment of the electorate, I think this is probably accurate. In the heads of those misguided and delusional protestors who stormed the Capitol, I suspect something like what their critics have in mind, though it should be stressed the absence of any real thought. Watching the protestors shout out slogans of grievance and anger, the overwhelming impression was that of people who have constructed a false reality. One in which the election was stolen and they were fighting for the very existence of freedom. Such a parochialism inhabits both extremes of the political spectrum, where a seemingly never-ending crisis is invoked to justify extreme ideology and behavior.
What is Christian Nationalism? The critics describe it in wholly negative terms. Two primary ingredients seem essential: a divine and political one. First, there’s the claim that America and a certain reading of our past is connected to larger divine origins and purposes. God, if not exactly central to this narrative, plays an important role in authorizing this form of political religion. Secondly, the politics and values that make up the Anglo-American culture and tradition are the outgrowth of this divinely sanctioned nation. America plays a specific role in promoting the divinely given freedoms recognized and promoted throughout American history—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
This legacy is now under threat from the left and the Democratic Party, so the narrative goes, and thus the true patriots are rising to take America back from these malicious powers.
The nationalism that the critics have in mind is usually the fascist variety found in 1930s Europe. It is unhistorical to claim that Nazism was “nationalist,” since it was aggressively imperialistic and recognized no legitimate claims of nation-states that stood against the aims of its racist goals. To state the obvious, nationalism of this variety is not the sum total of nationalism. And the sins committed against African Americans throughout American history are not reducible to nationalism. In fact, Martin Luther King Jr. would often invoke the Founding Fathers and Abraham Lincoln as a way to summon Americans back to the true creed and vision of the nation.
Nationalism has been a galvanizing force in American history for good more often than ill. The republican tradition that is America’s legacy stressed the importance of independent and free nation-states of citizens over and against the monarchies and empires of the Old World. Equality before the law of all citizens is a uniquely republican ideal that requires a free and independent nation-state for its realization.
While maintaining that the critics have an important point, what they call Christian Nationalism is neither Christian nor nationalism. Quite the opposite. It’s a heretical form of Christianity paired to an idolatrous form of nationalism. Critics then go on to paint this picture of the whole of anybody on the right or “evangelical.” This just is the political theology of evangelicals, so they argue.
In reality, this criticism is a gross overgeneralization. Rarely do I come across people who claim the label evangelical who hold to this idolatrous form of political religion. There are die-hard Trump supporters, and there are public enablers that claim Trump is somehow Christian. But most evangelicals support Trump with the explicit understanding that he is defending them and their faith from an aggressive and dangerous cultural left who are hostile to Christianity and traditional moral beliefs.
Furthermore, they make the error of thinking most evangelicals, Catholics, or progressives, for that matter, actually have well thought out political convictions. They do not. Most people hold an admixture of inchoate assumptions, convictions, and intuitions that are not systematically or rationally deduced. We are the product of our upbringing, of family, friends, community, region, and nation. We are influenced by a host of factors and events that shape our unconscious and conscious worldview.
The fact that many evangelicals hold the belief that God is providentially involved in American history and our present is a conviction that has been held by most Americans, including the most revered figures of our history. Of course, there is a serious danger here, but the claim, on the face of it, is not heretical. Augustine of Hippo, hardly considered a cheerleader for Roman Empire, believed God had uniquely used Rome to bring about peace and order to the ancient world. He could even admire the qualities of Roman virtue and society while criticizing their idolatry and lust for domination that overcame them.
Further, the critics, as far as I can tell, are not offering a substantive political theology in its place that is not a string of platitudes or generalized theological statements. They are against idolatry of the state and ethnicity. America does not have a special place in God’s salvific plan, they tell us. We must keep the kingdom of God and the temporal political order separated. That’s true enough, but it really does not offer us a real substantive alternative. Deconstruction is easy. Construction is hard.
Some will argue this is just a term, and there is no need to defend a term. True. But terms and words matter. Some terms are worth defending; others are not. “Christian Patriotism” or “Christian Republicanism” or “Christian Democrat” (not the party but idea) would work just as well. Maybe. I am not wholly committed to the term Christian Nationalism, but neither am I willing to abandon it to its critics as a completely negative phenomenon.
Too much of the serious debates today revolve around invoking linguistic taboos as a weapon to silence or punish enemies. Those who wield CN as a pejorative do so not from analytic clarity but as a weapon to defeat whatever generalized phantom they imagine as their enemy. The invocation of Christian Nationalism is imprecise precisely because those who wield it often have a particular subset in mind that does not fit the whole. Growing up an Episcopalian and Lutheran in the Midwest, the narrative rings hollow to me. Even when I was a part of more low church evangelical congregations, voting and political action were rarely, if ever mentioned, aside from abortion or marriage issues. If anything, these evangelicals were woefully apolitical, to the point of being quietist.
Can Christians be nationalists? Yes. Loving one’s nation can be right and good, as long as we understand the nation to be one of our fellow citizens, regardless of race or creed, and that the flourishing of the nation involves the flourishing of the whole. True Christian Nationalism will not allow the nation to become an idol because its loyalty is above that of the nation. And in this way, Christians play an essential role in public life because they are accountable to truth above their temporal loyalties to nation, family, and community, and can thus genuinely speak the truth in love.
But to deny the duty to love our national wellbeing by insinuating it is inherently idolatrous is wrong and misguided. Right love of God and neighbor drives one to care and be concerned first and foremost about the neighbors closest to us with whom we share the bond of citizenship. That is not nothing. This bond is not ultimate, but it is a bond nonetheless. To ignore one’s neighborhood and city out of the claim that it detracts from care of the nation is failure of love. Rather, it is through our commitment to our neighbors that we seek the wellbeing of nation and those beyond our borders. A rightly ordered nationalism desires national flourishing, though it is cognizant of the attendant dangers of collective tendency to seek one’s prosperity at the expense of others. There are goods above the nation, and the true good of the nation will be realized not as domination but as a service to those within the political community and without in concentric rings of obligation.