The Problems of Christian Nationalism

Divide & Rule

Should the bottom be split, our bishops would dread
That the mitre would never stick fast on their head:
And yet they have learnt the chief art of a sovereign,
As Machiavel taught them, “divide, and ye govern.”
—Jonathan Swift, On the Irish Bishops

Christian Nationalism is more than an ideological outworking of a Christian worldview. It is now a specific political brand emerging from within conservative evangelicalism. However, Christian Nationalism as both policy and branding presents insuperable obstacles to conservative victory. If the point of politics is power, and in our present system power is achieved by cobbling together winning coalitions, then Christian Nationalism should be rejected. At the very moment when Christian voters should exploit the contradictions inherent within the leftist identity voter coalition, Christian Nationalists are attempting to make themselves odious to moderates, atheists, independents, women voters, and conservatives uncomfortable with this new strand of identity politics. This is a recipe for disaster.

Much of the disagreement is clothed in theological guise. However, this is unfortunate as most of those debating Christian Nationalism believe in some level of Christian influence on government. Thus, what is really at issue is strategic (how much influence is warranted in the political environment) and tactical (the right electoral appeal.) If this is a wisdom issue, we should examine the best methods for achieving a Christian result. As such, let us put aside the theological language for a moment and focus on the practical.

Our approach to politics should be the same as Lord Herbert Kitchener’s approach to war as relayed by Winston Churchill: “One cannot wage war as one ought, but only as one can.” Thus, no matter how attached we might be to Christian Nationalism in theory, we must focus on the reality of American politics.

This practical evaluation of Christian Nationalism examines the branding problem of Christian Nationalism along with the challenges presented by the policy proposals to the creation of a winning electoral coalition. Finally, we examine the present survey data on several issues related to Christian Nationalism and show how the public is not supportive of these types of proposals.

Christian Nationalism’s Branding Problem

The arguments for Christian Nationalism are logical and compelling. As Christians, our identity in Christ should influence everything we do. So, it naturally follows that a politician who is a Christian should be known as a Christian politician and a philanthropist who is a Christian should be known as a Christian philanthropist.

We can then point out that in politics there are only two choices for the organization of international relations—individual, sovereign states or a globalism that subordinates states to supranational empires. In other words, regardless of what you call it, you get either nationalism or globalism.

The wise statesman worries about the concentration of geopolitical power into fewer and fewer hands. It presents dangers. When there are fewer powers working in a system, it becomes harder to balance them. (Henry Kissinger does a great job detailing how the European balance collapsed prior to World War I in his magisterial work Diplomacy.) There are good grounds for preferring a system with more actors because it is safer to construct a functioning balance so no one power can dominate all. The arrival of such a hegemon would threaten the liberty of everyone.

It is then tempting to launch into an exegetical argument from Genesis 11 (Babel) and Acts 17:26 (Paul’s sermon at Athens). Yet, what is the point? That God’s plan is for nations to exist and the rightness of them forming their own states according to their own customs and preferences seems uncontroversial except to Evangelical Elites.

Instead of laying out a carefully crafted definition of Christian Nationalism, we should deal with the central problem—the definition of Christian Nationalism is irrelevant to the rhetorical tricks used by our political opponents.

John Zmirak said it best, “Sticking to the plain meaning of words would be pedantic and self-defeating here. A Swedish supporter of democratic socialism in his home country might follow this logic and call himself a ‘National Socialist.’ He’d be technically correct, but rhetorically stupid.”

Zmirak makes the end game clear—the left intends to use the term to disenfranchise Christians, or at least render their political programs effete. He writes, “The term itself is a dogwhistle invented by leftists who hate Christianity and Christians. They want to evoke, on a semi-conscious level, the superficially similar term ‘White Nationalist.’ Why? To marginalize and scapegoat believers.”

James Lindsay argued similarly on a podcast with Allie Beth Stuckey. Lindsay urged Christians to be involved in politics and vote their beliefs, but to reject the label of Christian Nationalism. He told Stuckey, “The left has set a trap to get people to get conservative Christians to feel desperate…the most hardcore definition is going to get stuck on them and we are going to see something very much like January 6th again.”

To Lindsay’s point, if you do not see a Ray Epps around every corner, then you are not nearly paranoid enough heading into the 2024 Presidential Election. Leftists are going to use every trick in the book to discredit conservative Christian voters—and more importantly their candidates.

Lindsay and Zmirak both pointed out the goal of leftists is to link Christian Nationalism with White Nationalism. This is easily verified in much of the leftist literature on Christian Nationalism. For example, a new book on J. Edgar Hoover, The Gospel of J. Edgar Hoover: How the FBI Aided and Abetted the Rise of White Christian Nationalism, uses the term “white Christian Nationalist” repeatedly to describe the longtime FBI Director.

J. Edgar Hoover was not, according to historians, a born-again Christian. Lerone A. Martin tells a story of a man who grew up in a Christian home and identified as a Christian but did not offer the evangelical transformational story of a decision for Christ. Yet, Hoover is called a “white Christian Nationalist.”

Now, many will say, such attacks on Christians are going to happen regardless. This is true. Yet, the prevalence of leftist attacks also leads to misunderstandings of nationalism by conservative Christians. For example, Breakpoint from the Colson Center offered this critique of Christian Nationalism, “It is simply unwise to take up a term that has been historically associated with some of the worst villains of the last century or so.”

What term (Christian or nationalism) is being critiqued here? Both have faced the same type of smear from leftists. Let us assume it is nationalism that Breakpoint is advising against. Who are those “worst villains of the last century?”

Communism and Marxism? Those are not nationalist but internationalist ideologies. They even had a hymn explaining it—The Internationale, which declared:

This is the final struggle
Let us gather together, and tomorrow
The Internationale
Will be the human race

You cannot get much more globalist in scope than that. The Soviet Union attempted with great struggle to deal with the national questions presented by the integration of various peoples into the Soviet Union. Stalin was the expert on this topic and even today the lingering national questions loom large in post-Soviet Russia.

As for Nazism, it is true the Nazi Party exploited nationalist rhetoric, but their goal was imperial. Hannah Arendt explains in The Origins of Totalitarianism, “The Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism, the provincialism of the nation-state, and they repeated time and again that their ‘movement,’ international in scope like the Bolshevik movement, was more important to them than any state, which would necessarily be bound to a specific territory” (pp. 3-4).

Another example of how leftist critiques muddle the discussion among conservative Christians is this article from Virgil Walker. He writes, “Has combining Christianity with nationalism purged it of its symbiotic relationship with ethnocentrism and ethnic pride?” And again, “there is a biblical response to these issues that does not require embracing nationalism.”

It prompts one to ask, “What is wrong with nationalism?” And if conservative Christians who claim to reject globalism and support the primacy of the nation-state in international relations also reject pursuit of the national interest, then what chance does anyone have of promoting nationalism as a movement beyond a small circle of evangelicals, fundamentalists, and reactionaries?

The internecine struggle over Christian Nationalism testifies to its divisive powers. For the last few months, conservative evangelicals fresh from discrediting Critical Race Theory (CRT) and Intersectionality are bogged down yelling at one another over the virtues and demerits of Christian Nationalism.

Who benefits most from this fight among anti-Woke evangelicals? Big Evangelicalism. Without question, the very people who spread CRT and Intersectionality within evangelical churches will find it easier to rehabilitate their image when the anti-Woke evangelicals are so busy squabbling among themselves that they ignore Woke elites. This is a good time to remind evangelicals that the Woke forces still lead Southern Baptist and PCA seminaries. Have the anti-Woke forces completed the conquest of evangelicalism? Hardly. So, why move on from this task to the broader culture, when you cannot even secure your own base of operations?

While Walker’s critique of Christian Nationalism has its issues, the essay does hit upon one serious problem facing Christian Nationalism—it is easy to brand as racist. This is made easier by proponents of Christian Nationalism who make Twitter arguments against interracial marriage. Such a controversialist approach might gain followers; however, it is guaranteed to alienate a massive block of voters in the middle and on the right. A 2021 Gallup study shows that interracial relationships are supported by 94 percent of the American public.

Such comments make the work done by leftist academics and mainstream media to portray Christian Nationalism as religiously clothed White Nationalism all the easier. Is this wise?

Divide & Rule: The Balkanization of Christian Nationalism

“The Lord Treasurer’s strength consisted, according to Briançon, in his supreme gift for applying the maxim ‘Divide and govern.’ His skill lay in the management of business in such a way that, immediately any party assault on the Ministry threatened to become dangerous, some question would be raised to set the Tories and Whigs by the ears” (Churchill, Marlborough: His Life & Times, Vol. 3, p. 335).

America is divided and dividing. Red States and Blue States are but the latest example. Racial, sexual, gender, and class are but stops along the way of political polarization where the end goal is the atomization of all political opposition. Opposition to? The ruling class. America’s elites may be incompetent at managing the rise of China or leaving Afghanistan, yet they have mastered a basic of politics—Divide and Rule.

One of the great modern American political scientists Francis Fukuyama took on the problem of Identity politics and its threat to America in his book Identity. Fukuyama explains, “Identity politics thus engenders its own dynamic, by which societies divide themselves into smaller and smaller groups by virtue of their particular ‘lived experience’ of victimization” (p. 164).

This division of a people into smaller and smaller groups presents a ruler (or elites) with the advantage of making it harder to form for concerted opposition. This is the danger of Christian Nationalism. It embraces not only political methods but also the elements of the very corrosive essentials of identity politics that anti-Woke forces fought for years.

Christian Nationalism feeds off Christian alienation from the broader culture sparked by the decline in moral standards combined with feelings of persecution. In 2016 the PRRI survey showed almost 80 percent of evangelicals felt persecuted in the US. About 70 percent of Republicans said the same thing—that evangelicals are discriminated against in America, according to Pew in a 2019 survey.

Such feelings of estrangement from a rapidly degenerating culture are normal. Who does not watch aghast the growth of “comprehensive gender clinics” for children from what The New York Times described as “a handful” in 2012 to over 60 today? Christians regularly are irritated by the “War on Christmas” as national retailers attempt to exploit the holiday season for even more profit while ignoring the Reason for the Season. Nostalgia for a pre-1960s radical America is natural, and yet often mocked by younger members of the right as being nothing more than the longings of Boomercons (Boomer Conservatives). There is even a parody Twitter account on that theme.

There is a fine line between the Bible-believing Christian’s realization that they are a minority in America that is subject to oppression whenever the Left possesses sufficient strength in an area to do it and the full-fledged adoption of what is nothing more than a non-economic version of Marxist class consciousness. The adoption of this oppressed mentality furthers identity politics—or put another way, it encourages division.

Christian Nationalism is dangerous because it encourages Christians to embrace a politics of balkanization. Andrew Torba urges this acceleration of Balkanization in The Path Forward: Balkanize and Build, “We must move to deep red states, push them further right, build, and secure a future for our families. Forget politics at the national level. That rigged game is over. Focus on state and local elections, not what is going on in DC.”

This is bad advice on several levels.

First, ignoring the greatest power in domestic politics is foolish. Consider this like playing a football game and leaving the best wide receiver uncovered. Or, in war, facing a multi-theatre war and refusing to place any troops in one theater—such a move would give an enemy a significant advantage. Even if you think the game is rigged or fighting is forlorn, some opposition is necessary to at least stem the tide. Rear guard actions have their utility.

Christians should not be lulled into thinking that federal power does not matter. Those preaching such division believe the local can trump the national. This is belied by history. One should remember the sixteenth century Edict of Nantes—allowing Protestants to exercise their faith openly—was revoked when the French state possessed sufficient power to do so. The American experience shows in the “Verdict of 1865” the inherent power of the national over the diffused and local. The local power only becomes dominant when forces cause the breakdown of the superior power (this can be either internal collapse or external conquest.)

Second, there is wisdom in moving out of deep blue states. This is particularly true for anyone with children. When a state will take a child away from a parent who refuses to embrace gender madness, leaving is not only wise but likely a parental duty. However, Red States are not a panacea. There are deep divisions within many Red States with significant pockets of Blue power. Also, Red States are not always as Red as they might appear. Tennessee’s governor is pushing a Red Flag Law and Texas is a jumble of competing forces including some of the most leftist cities in America where self-defense gets one convicted by a Soros-funded DA.

While Andrew Torba’s and Andrew Isker’s book on Christian Nationalism praises non-Christian allies and lauds the work of Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians, there are needless sectarian attacks on fellow foot soldiers in the Culture War. For example, Torba and Isker scapegoat Dispensationalism—a view held by a broad swath of evangelicals including a mass of Southern Baptists.

“Dispensational Zionism and its eschatology are spells cast over the American Christian mind,” Torba said. (p. 56). He continued, “We can’t and won’t disciple a nation of dispensational doomers.”

Ignoring the theological merits or demerits of this claim (for the record I would identify more with John MacArthur’s view), a large segment of Americans believe Israel’s re-establishment fulfills Bible prophecy. According to Pew, 36 percent of Americans believed this in the mid-2000s. Also, the scapegoating of dispensationalism for the failure to disciple our nation ignores the decline of Christianity throughout the West—even in states where dispensationalism was not as widely popular. One might be tempted to argue the widespread popularity of dispensationalism in the US was a reason for the slower decline of Christianity in America compared with Europe.

Be that as it may, this view of dispensationalism as part of what is a political and cultural movement serves to illustrate how easy it is to create smaller and smaller circles of activists condemning their co-belligerents and potential allies.

Louis XIV fatally weakened France by his revocation of the Edict Nantes and the persecution of the Huguenots. Hundreds of thousands of these hardworking and brilliant French minds fled the Sun King and brought with them technical skill and wealth to the Dutch Republic and England. This is always the result of religious intolerance. History shows that in the examples of the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Venice and later the United States that power increases with toleration. 

These are the historical facts. Like Machiavelli, we must follow the facts and not our wishes. Since at least the 16th century, religious toleration appears to correlate with improved state power and religious intolerance served to weaken Western states relative to their competitors.

One last word about the political ramifications of religious bickering and politics. During the years when England rose to the pinnacle of its political power at the very start of the 18th century following on the years of impotence under Charles II and James II, political parties utilized religious questions in attempts to seize power. During the very height of the world war against Louis XIV, the Occasional Conformity Bill was introduced to make religious dissenters (like Baptists, Lutherans, etc.) who took one Anglican sacrament once a year ineligible for public office. “One can hardly conceive an issue better adapted to make a quarrel,” Churchill wrote of the mischief making between the religious factions in the realm. Churchill says such a move would have disqualified about one-half the political class of England at the time who preferred “the Chapel” over “the Church.” It would have fatally weakened the nation and its war effort.

Those pondering what it means to balkanize should consider this warning from Francis Fukuyama. He explains in Identity, “The extreme example of what can happen absent national identity is state breakdown and civil war, as in such cases as Syria or Libya…But short of this, weak national identity creates other serious security issues. Large political units are more powerful than smaller ones and can protect themselves better” (p. 128-9).

Bluntly, Christian Nationalism will make the United States of America weaker. This will only embolden challengers seeking the overthrow of the present World Order. The result would be the increase of China’s power and enabling the CCP to bid for hegemony not only Asia but globally. Just as experts pointed out that Woke ideology is a threat to national security, so too is Christian Nationalism if it balkanizes the population.

The facts are adverse to a Christian Nationalist electoral program

What would be the result of policies advocated by Christian Nationalists? Would a campaign to revoke the suffrage from women be a winning election platform? Would the demand for Blue Laws to ban Sunday commerce (or liquor sales) be a winning issue on the hustings? Would the call to create a state church, unite or divide? Some, or even all, of these things could be theoretically unobjectionable and still be unwise to defend in our present situation.

Many of the items discussed as parts of Christian Nationalism would result not in winning elections but losing them. Further, even the promotion of these ideas would divide conservative Christians into smaller camps. Consider the discussion about a state church. Obviously, state churches existed into the 19th century in America. Yet, if one were to consider establishment today, what denomination would gain favor? Is this not a way for elites to have Southern Baptists fighting Presbyterians? If such a fight is not necessary, why do exactly the one thing that would bring it? Is wishful thinking about establishment a great idea when there are more pressing matters?

The political situation shows significant headwinds for those hoping to create or rebuild America as a Christian nation. According to a 2022 survey, 51% of Americans oppose the idea that America should be a Christian nation. The data also revealed, a fear by a significant number of Americans of religious beliefs influencing government. A striking finding in the poll is that 44% of Americans surveyed believe the Supreme Court justices allowed their religious views to shape recent decisions.  

According to Pew, “About one-in-five Americans (18%) describe a Christian nation as having Christian-based laws and governance.” Pew is careful to explain that there is no set meaning for a “Christian Nation;” however, that does not stop many from having a bad impression of it.

Pew asked respondents to describe what they thought it meant. The responses included are enlightening, “Often, these descriptions are negative. One respondent describes a Christian nation as ‘being controlled by only people of the Christian faith.’ Others say, ‘To me it means theocracy,’ or that a Christian nation means ‘imposing incredibly selective and often untrue to their own faith rules on everyone else, out of a perverse need to control others and feel better about themselves.’… In addition to negative views about theocracy, another 11% use other specific negative terms to describe the concept of a Christian nation, including 5% who mention things like bigotry, persecution or White supremacy, and 3% who mention authoritarianism or similar ideas.”

These views are adverse to the establishment of laws championed by many Christian Nationalists. And while the survey data is not all bad news, it is sobering.  

While ideas about a Christian Nation are split and lean negative, the Bible still retains significant influence, according to the survey. On page 7 of the Topline, 47% said the Bible should have a great deal or some influence on the laws of the US and a good number even supported the Bible having that influence when it conflicted with the will of the people. This provides a significant teaching opportunity for evangelical churches to explain to the public what the Bible says about significant moral issues intersecting with public policy. This makes it imperative that conservative Christians eliminate the influence of leftists like lifelong Democrat Russell Moore, David French, and similar leaders who corrupt the Bible’s teachings on key points to enable the election of godless politicians.

Another element being discussed under the label of Christian Nationalism is universal suffrage. Leftwing evangelical outlets proclaim that some Christian Nationalists “Question women’s right to vote.” The population appears to have a different view of women’s suffrage than many Christian Nationalists. Again, Pew Research shows contemporary views among all adults as mostly favorable to the gains for women coming out of the 19th Amendment. The 2020 survey alarmingly shows that about 78 percent of Americans favor adding the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) to the US Constitution. While it is doubtful support for the ERA is that high, it is a sobering reality that views held by Christian Nationalists are far from mainstream.

Conclusion: There are better choices than Christian Nationalism

Since Christians are commanded to be “wise as serpents,” it seems we should avoid a political philosophy that not only would weaken America but expose the Church itself to increasing political irrelevance.

Christian Nationalism could be acceptable if one carefully defines the terms. However, just because it could be does not mean that it is. Since this is not a doctrinal proposition such as penal substitution, we are not compelled to defend it against the hordes. Rather, Christian Nationalism is nothing more than a political convenience—and we only utilize it for as long as it is useful. It is not useful because it is easy for leftists to demagogue and because its adherents offer poorly considered political opinions.

A better path forward is to affirm the less controversial view that Christians should vote their conscience informed by the Bible. This offers the ability to make selective attacks on the absurd claims made by leftists—claims like men can be women. Adopting Christian Nationalism prevents this type of offensive political move and forces most of its adherents into a defensive posture. This is the wrong time for that. The leftist coalition is vulnerable. Feminists are attacked by radical trans activists. Why not peel feminist support from the left—or at least feminists who believe biology is a reality? Instead, Christian Nationalist adherents are determined to make the Right a greater threat to feminists than the radical trans activists of the left. This is folly.

Christian Nationalists talk a lot about building. Why not build a winning electoral coalition? If you care about politics and think it is a useful tool, then seize the present opportunities and adopt tactics suited for reality.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Alan Atchison

Alan Atchison is a Southern Baptist living in Chelsea, Alabama (a suburb of Birmingham). He earned a Master of Arts Interdisciplinary Studies History & Political Science from Western New Mexico University. He studied Church History at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a BA in Political Science from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Atchison is married to Paige and they have one son.