What are we to make of contemporary Christian nationalists, in America and abroad?  How many people have earned the title, or claim it?  How long have these people or the term been around?

As a term to describe Americans who are skeptical of an internationalist foreign policy and a progressive domestic policy, it has not been around very long; perhaps twenty years, arising from dissatisfaction with the foreign policy of George W. Bush and just about all of the policies of Barack H. Obama.  I get the impression that the term emerged as an epithet used by the movement’s – if we can call it that – enemies.  Like many epithets throughout history, it has been at least partially embraced by those to whom it was applied.  Perhaps the Christian nationalist title now is claimed by some angry marginal people because respectable people do not want it anymore.  If so, that is a tragic development.

For there is nothing inherently wrong with being Christian, or nationalistic, or both.  In fact, Christian nationalists, if you think about what those two words together must denote, have been around for well over 1,000 years, with plenty of good and bad examples.  The good or bad outcome of putting these powerful myth and symbol systems together all depends on who does the mixing and for what purpose.

A good candidate for the first Christian nationalist would be Charlemagne, King of the Franks in the late 8th century after the birth of Christ, who eventually claimed the title of Holy Roman Emperor.  He was followed by generations of Christian kings throughout Europe who often reigned over polyglot regions of many different linguistic groups, but each of these royal families sooner or later found the need to consolidate their hold over a core region of people of the same language if they were to stay in business.  The French-speaking Plantagenet Kings of England gradually lost their French dominions, which they considered their rightful homeland, adopted the language of their core region, England, and contented themselves with being Kings of England, Scotland and Wales.

Nationalism as we know it today was infused with Christianity, for better or for worse, from the beginning.  Charles VII proclaimed himself “Most Christian King of France” in the 15th Century, a title that endured until the end of the line.  Louis XIV of France (1643-1715) reigned as Christian king with a vengeance, harrying Protestant Huguenot and heterodox Jansenist alike in order to forge “one king, one law, one faith.”  Henry VIII of England received the title “Defender of the Faith” from the Pope because of his forceful tract attacking Luther in the mid-16th Century.  King Charles III of England retains the title and is today the most obvious embodiment of Christian nationalism on earth, along with the remainder of the crowned heads of state of Europe.  

Christian nationalism was a broad public faith shared by British kings, prime ministers and commoners, Tory and Whig alike; shared as well by royalty and common people all over Europe.  Even the occasional atheists and socialists of the Enlightenment onwards occasionally admitted to the Biblical origins of their politics.

Every American president, up to and including President Biden, has been a Christian nationalist in this same obvious sense of the term.  They were Christians by personal and family heritage.  They had at least some allegiance to a recognizable branch of Christianity, attended church at least occasionally and expressed themselves personally and publicly in Christian terms.  They were also nationalists in the sense that they believed their nation was a force for good in the world.  These European kings and American presidents may not have been the most pious Christians or good-faith practitioners of the Christian virtues, but Christian they undoubtedly were, and nationalists, too, from start to finish, from baptism to some form of last rites.

Christian nationalism was certainly the operating system of Europe and the Americas for at least some 1200 years of history.  It still is, albeit in modified form.  What profoundly modified these states and the balance of power between them was World War I.  The longer the war dragged on, the worse every government looked.  Perhaps the nation-state was not such a good idea after all, went one line of reasoning after the Great War, leading to advocacy of world government.  Perhaps nationalism is still a good idea, but not in the form of entangling alliances that bring on world war, went another line of reasoning, leading to isolationism of varying forms.  Demonic ideologies like Naziism, fascism and communism each partook of these differing reactions to world war to create its own toxic ideological mix.

America avoided the worst of the post-war totalitarian reactions, but notable progressive Republicans like Hiram Johnson of California and Bob LaFollette of Wisconsin, as well as maverick Republicans William Borah of Idaho and Gerald Nye of North Dakota all advocated an isolationist foreign policy, only changing their minds when bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.  Their internationalist foes throughout the 30s were President Franklin Roosevelt and most Democrats; Henry Luce, editor of Time Magazine and spokesman for Republican internationalists, and Reinhold Niebuhr, this magazine’s patron saint.  

All of these gentlemen remained nationalists and Christians.  They disagreed about the exact role America should play in the world, but agreed that America was a great nation and had a great role to play.  Their Christianity was usually not overt.  The flamboyant Christianity of William Jennings Bryan never sold well enough, so few elected officials were comfortable displaying it again.  Yet, isolationist or internationalist, they were all Christians.  It was taken for granted.  As for American Christianity, plenty of preachers like Harry Emerson Fosdick and ordinary church-goers kept the faith alive and relevant.  It was the sea the statesmen swam in.

“Christian nationalist,” as the term is now used in America, refers to people of a decidedly go-it-alone foreign policy.  This position was indeed the norm for part of our history, but has not been the norm since World War II, and for good reason.  Let the military leader of our efforts in that war make a very contemporary case for prudent Christian nationalism in political and economic cooperation with other nations.

“The faith we hold belongs not to us alone but to the free of all the world. This common bond binds the grower of rice in Burma and the planter of wheat in Iowa, the shepherd in southern Italy and the mountaineer in the Andes. It confers a common dignity upon the French soldier who dies in Indo-China, the British soldier killed in Malaya, the American life given in Korea.

We know, beyond this, that we are linked to all free peoples not merely by a noble idea but by a simple need. No free people can for long cling to any privilege or enjoy any safety in economic solitude. For all our own material might, even we need markets in the world for the surpluses of our farms and our factories. Equally, we need for these same farms and factories vital materials and products of distant lands. This basic law of interdependence, so manifest in the commerce of peace, applies with thousand-fold intensity in the event of war.

So we are persuaded by necessity and by belief that the strength of all free peoples lies in unity; their danger, in discord.

To produce this unity, to meet the challenge of our time, destiny has laid upon our country the responsibility of the free world’s leadership.”

President Dwight David Eisenhower, Inaugural Address, January 20, 1953.