The ongoing ‘Christian nationalism’ debates among the American talking class may be hyper-Twitterized and therefore increasingly wearisome, but one persistent critique of the idea deserves note: Many opponents of Christian nationalism allege that it is a form of idolatry, and as such, threatens not only the mission and health of the state, but also the Church. This charge is profoundly revealing, for it gestures, knowingly or not, to a foundational question in Christian political theology: What does it mean for the Church to fulfill Jesus’ description of it in John 17, and be in the world but not of it? We can find insight on this question in a surprising place: 17th-century debates about monarchy.

To be grossly reductionist, the history of Christian political thought contains a dialectic between two impulses: one toward transformationist pursuit of earthly justice, the other toward otherworldly pietism. The first of these views sees in Scripture a mandate to impose heavenly justice on earth. The disposition here is to take the words in the Lord’s Prayer “on earth as it is in heaven,” very seriously. The second regards human political projects with pessimism, looking only to the realization of the Heavenly Kingdom; it is ever wary of “immanentizing the eschaton.” The watchword for this group is “My kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)

As it happens, the debates between absolute monarchists and republicans in the 17th-century Anglophone world get to the heart of this complicated dialectic by presenting us with two opposing stances. This debate shows that the defining tension in Christian political theology revolves around the legitimacy of human authority.

In the first camp are the divine-right absolutists, represented by such figures as Robert Filmer and King James I and VI of England and Scotland. For these men, a king’s rule over the body politic exactly mirrors God’s rule over the cosmos: Both are absolute, unaccountable, rightful, and benevolent. King James connects his monarchy to God’s in a work called The Trew Law of Free Monarchies: “Kings are called Gods by the prophetical King David, because they sit upon [God’s] Throne in the earth, and have the [account] of their administration to give unto him.” This rule is paternalistic, for the good of those below. In fact, it is literally paternalistic, for the benevolent and absolute rule of kings over their realms, like God’s rule over the cosmos, is extended into every sphere, bringing discretely ordered authority to every relationship, including the familial. As Filmer writes, “If we compare the natural duties of a Father with those of a King, we find them to be all one….” Justice lies in an integrated, harmonious order knit together by relations of hierarchy between God and man, king and subject, husband and wife, priest and layman, parent and child.

This view, sharpest in the 16th and 17th centuries, met with a radical new challenge from a few republican theorists. Its most famous champion, rather than a king, was the great poet John Milton. In both his political writings and epic poetry like Paradise Lost,a bold thesis emerges: Kingship is idolatry.

As Eric Nelson documents in The Hebrew Republic, Milton and republican thinkers such as Algernon Sidney and James Harrington used the Bible (especially 1 Samuel 8, in which the Israelites are indicted for requesting a king) to argue that to enthrone a human as monarch is to dethrone God. Milton writes that “it is not fit for a man, but for God only to exercise Dominion over men.” A republic, such theorists contended, is the only legitimate regime because it acknowledges God’s kingship; it is the truest form of theocracy. The Puritan evangelist John Eliot, in a tract called “The Christian Commonwealth,” expressed his desire to “set the Crown of England upon the head of Christ.”

In sum, the first view, the divine-right stance, emphasizes man’s role as imitator, or image-bearer, of God; the second, republican view emphasizes that man is not God, and is fallen. The first recalls nature as created, aiming at an ideal; at its best it is aspirational. The second dwells on nature as fallen; at its best it is realist. 

Now, of course, the English republicans were theocratic conservatives by the standards of today, and it isn’t accurate to say that their worldview comprehensively opposed that of the divine-right theorists. C.S. Lewis argued that Milton essentially shared the old vision of organic, harmonious hierarchy notwithstanding his political republicanism. But ensuing political thinking winnowed out the hierarchical aspects of their vision, and elevated the concern about human authority: that contra the absolutists, fallen people cannot be trusted with god-like authority. A human king does not symbolically testify to God’s rule, but usurps his sovereignty. This notion has been distilled into a still broader principle: To erect earthly hierarchies with sinful men at their head is to invert, not mirror, the cosmic order. 

It’s easy for us moderns to see how a greater suspicion toward given nature brought a desperately needed correction to a complacent absolutism. Humans cannot be confidently trusted with unilateral, unconstrained authority; rulers, clergy, husbands, and parents are all eminently capable of horrific abuse. There emerged in the modern era a recognition that, by aiming at a ‘natural ideal,’ humans will inevitably fall short because they are fallen. As people realized the need for this correction, the Miltonic skepticism of human rule as idolatrous won a near-total victory. Locke wrote his Two Treatises of Government in response to Filmer’s Patriarcha, sweeping him away. 

Today, within American Christianity, this hierarchy-critical view is dominant on both left and right. Liberals may soften their skepticism of human power when it comes to big government, and some conservatives certainly do the same when it comes to male headship of households. But both regard the exercise of authority with suspicion, even hostility. Brad Littlejohn has explained how this bipartisan rejection of authority unfolded in 2020.

Although a certain realistic skepticism of authority and hierarchy is certainly healthy, perhaps the pendulum has now swung too far. It requires no endorsement of ‘post-liberal’ ideas to suggest that the recent growth of anti-proceduralist, state-friendly ideas on the religious right and a greater desire for racial justice on the Christian left represent a reaction against the Miltonic ideal. Many Christians on both sides seem to feel that their churches have grown too otherworldly and their governments too reticent to engage in the muscular pursuit of God’s justice ‘on earth.’ That some proposed corrections—Christian nationalism or CRT, depending on your partisan alignment—are injudicious or extreme is not an excuse to dismiss this broader concern. 

David Eisenberg follows many scholars in describing the modern political project, including the American experiment, as founded on a realism that gives up on perfecting man. But traditionalists and progressives alike are now voicing a rejoinder that must be answered: If you give up on pursuing an ideal, don’t be surprised when you stray ever further from it. The challenge that confronts Christian political theology today is how to guard against the abusive tendencies of fallen human authority figures while not destroying authority itself; how to acknowledge that nature is fallen, while remembering that nature was created good.