The death of Queen Elizabeth, the only head of state besides the Pope who also heads a church, recalls the Christendom of the past, which relates to current debates about Christian Nationalism.
Liberal Episcopal writer Diana Butler Bass today addressed “Bad History and Christian Nationalism,” faulting hagiographic Christian histories about America for the rise of what she recalls Dorothee Soelle calling “Christofascism.”
Bass typifies many writers of the left, religious and secular, who now discern Christian Nationalism in not just all conservative Christian political activism but also in traditionally bipartisan civil religion. They warn that any reference to God in relation to nation is dangerous. Essentially, if consistent, they would sanitize all public life of reference to religion, which is absurd.
Characteristic of our current age, in reaction to these polemicists of the left who obsess over any supposed hint of Christian Nationalism, there are now some on the right who provocatively self-identify as Christian Nationalist. The more thoughtful among them argue that nation states are divinely ordained and need a cohesively religious culture. America has been shaped by Anglo Protestantism so should, as a matter of state policy, strengthen this identity, they argue. Often these self-identified Christian Nationalists are thenomists. They mirror Catholic integralists, who imagine a society in which the Catholic Church is paramount politically, as in the Middle Ages. Typically Calvinist, they sometimes call themselves Reformed Establishmentarians. They romanticize state churches, which they often claim are intrinsic to Protestant magisterial teaching. After all, John Calvin and Martin Luther affirmed Christian states. Colonial America had states churches, and some states even after the U.S. Constitution, which precludes a federal religious establishment, maintained state churches. Prominent Calvinist theologian Douglas Wilson advocates establishment not of a church but of the Apostles Creed.
These Christian nationalists rely on somewhat more sophisticated versions of American Christian history than what Diana Butler Bass critiques. She cited the influential 1977 book The Light and the Glory (God’s Plan for America), by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, which I enthusiastically absorbed as a teenager. The book carefully chronicled how God had directly used key actors in American history: Christopher Columbus, the Puritans, the Founding Fathers, etc. The authors recalled struggling with not finding firm evidence that George Washington was a Christian, until they located what they believed was a prayer diary in which Washington recorded his devotion to Christ.
Many years later I asked Mary Thompson of the Mount Vernon Association, author of In the Hands of a Good Providence: Religion in the Life of George Washington, about this supposed prayer diary. She said the diary was actually written by another later member of the Washington family. But her carefully researched book shows that Washington took religion seriously, was a lifelong practicing Anglican, and he likely had traditional Christian faith, but it could not be specifically proven, since he left no theological treatises. Thompson’s narrative was not just better researched but also more interesting and real. Washington, like all humans, was complex, with spiritual shifts throughout his life. His faith was illustrated by his actions, not so much by written words. Contrary to The Light and the Glory, proving Washington’s theological orthodoxy is not required to illustrate that Christianity shaped America and even that America is a providential nation. God works through all kinds of people, not just theologically orthodox Christians, who are themselves flawed vessels.
Washington, through a difficult life of war and peace, was a realist about human affairs and a providentialist. He believed God was active among fallen men and nations. In this sense, he was a Christian Realist. He was a not a Christian Nationalist. Washington rejected a state church and, as he specifically told the Jews of Newport, the United States expects from its citizens only loyalty, not any religious test. Washington spoke frequently of religion’s importance in America, but he avoided theological specifics, as did nearly all Founding Fathers in their public remarks.
Their example was wise and Christian Realist. Christian Nationalism and Christian theonomy, whether Catholic integralist or Reformed Establishmentarian, are decidedly not Christian Realist. They aspire to a regime of the spiritually enlightened in which human sin is somehow minimized. In reactionary fashion, they romanticize a past Christendom that partnered church and state, and which no longer exists because of its failures. They assume that God’s sovereignty requires the state’s ratifying specific theological assertions. But the Deity speaks for Himself and does not need these assertions. And believers in religious freedom believe God is dishonored by allowing the civil state to define Him.
Christian Realism inclines towards religious freedom because it does not entrust Christian theological truth to state authority. The institutional church itself has enough difficulty safeguarding faithful articulation of the faith. Christian Realism understands that all civil societies are comprised of fallen humanity and characterized by competing interests, individual and social. Nobody is immune from self-interest. Even enlightened self-interest is plagued by human frailty and ignorance. Well-intentioned human exertions often have unintended and tragic consequences. Crusades for righteousness often wreak more havoc than the vices they targeted. There are never ideal situations in which one side embodies righteousness and perfectly defeats the opposition with the result of peace and justice for all.
For Christian Realism, there is no idealized past, nor is there an idealized future, short of the eschaton. Instead, in our fallen circumstances, we seek to follow God by seeking the greatest good possible in constrained situations, understanding that we ourselves lack absolute wisdom. The Christendom of the past, with its ostensibly Christian princes and state churches, was largely preferable to the pagan societies it replaced. God was at work then, as He is now. Those social arrangements no longer exist for good reason. The corruption, hypocrisy, and tyranny they often fostered were rightfully resented.
Christendom is not over. There are about 2.5 billion identified Christians in the world, more than ever before, who are influencing the political arrangements of their societies, sometimes as minorities, sometimes as majorities. The United States was not just profoundly influenced by Christianity in the past. It is profoundly influenced in the present and is a continuation of Christendom, making claims about human equality that originated in the Bible. We also are, as we always have been, a sinful nation, falling far short of God’s standards. We no longer tolerate slavery, or racial discrimination, or the subordination of women, or child labor, or poisonous food and drink, or dangerous and exploitative workplaces, or sexual exploitation, or slum tenements, or countless other injustices. We have our own contemporary sins and insanities. In our times, as in the past, Christians at their best strive to leaven our society, realizing we often still contribute to our nation’s failures. Yet we trust God is redeeming, even as we too often fail, so there is always hope for the future.
The past offers lessons but it rarely offers complete answers. State churches and authoritarian titularly Christian monarchs served a providential purpose in the past but don’t offer guidance for today. Queen Elizabeth headed a state church, as will her successor, at least for now. But this arrangement is about tradition and ceremony, not coercion. Nor does it make Britain of today meaningfully Christian. It didn’t fully do so 500 years ago either.
Christian Realism strives to appreciate these nuances. We anticipate God’s full redemption but are not yet living under its completion. Escapist fantasies about the past or the future do not comport with the Christian understanding of sinful humanity. Neither do apocalyptic rhetoric, absolutist demands, or ingratitude for what Providence has provided for today.
By exaggerating the glories of the past, and ungratefully ignoring providential blessings of the present, self-identified Christian Nationalists presume to accelerate God’s redemption through political nostalgia and utopian theonomy. Somewhat similarly, many obsessive leftist critics of Christian Nationalism imagine their own utopia by erasing traditional religion from public life, stigmatizing it as “christofascism,” among other epithets.
Christian Realism works to harmonize and reform society through mediating rival interests and leaning into Providence, whose works we know aren’t always visible to the human eye. It’s less theatrical than the polarities of our present times. But it is more attuned to human nature, patient about human affairs, and trusting in God’s purposes.