A Guide and Some Advice for the Uninitiated
Unless you’re fortunate enough to be blissfully offline, you’ve no doubt become aware of the Christian Nationalism dispute within conservative evangelicalism. The debate has become pretty rancorous in recent months, with accusations and memes flying back and forth across a growing divide. If you’re new to this discourse, it can all be overwhelming. This is an attempt to step back from the fray and explain the various perspectives in the hope of avoiding unnecessary division as this conversation inevitably spills over into the local church.
What is Christian Nationalism?
First and foremost, Christian Nationalism should be thought of as a label that is being applied to a wide variety of perspectives. Just because someone describes themself as a Christian Nationalist is no cause to start church discipline proceedings. Similarly, just because someone expresses concerns with Christian Nationalism doesn’t mean they’re a woke progressive Christian. Much of the disagreement is between good people who hold different definitions of the term.
While the concepts of a Christian Nation goes back centuries, Christian Nationalism as label is a more recent development, although not as recent as you might assume. First appearing in print in the late 1800s, the term Christian Nationalism has seen a gradual increase in usage since the mid-20th century. In 2006, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote Kingdom Come: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, in which she fearfully chronicles the rise of conservative evangelical political involvement. However, it wasn’t until the January 6th Capitol protest that Christian Nationalism exploded into the national consciousness.
With images of protestors waving Christian flags and carrying crosses juxtaposed with rioters pouring into the Capitol building, the media began referring to the event as an insurrection carried out by White Christian Nationalists. With the race-based qualifier unilaterally inserted, mainstream media supercharged the label with racism even as nothing about January 6th itself indicated racist motivations for the protest.
Appalled by what they were seeing in the media, many Christian leaders were quick to denounce Christian Nationalism (‘white’ being quickly dropped as the protesters weren’t exclusively white). In the ensuing weeks and months, the media capitalized on this aversion to Christian Nationalism by running numerous pieces explaining the ascent of this “dangerous” ideology which, at this point, had expanded to include any conservative political involvement by Christians.
This expanded application of the Christian Nationalism label is where the present rift within evangelicalism originates. Those who had already staked out an anti-Christian Nationalist position recognized that the term was now being applied to their beliefs and began to try to distinguish Christian Nationalism from run-of-the-mill conservative evangelical political activity. Other Christians, however, began to embrace the label in an attempt to rob the accusation of any rhetorical power.
Though not entirely the case now, early on, these two reactions to the label largely fell along generational lines, with Boomers considering the term a slur evocative of the ethnic nationalism we defeated in World War 2 and younger generations considering it descriptive of what we all seemed to want before this division. For the former group (henceforth referred to as Anti-CNs), Christian Nationalism represented an alarming siren call to dangerous far-right extremism. For the latter (henceforth referred to as CNs), Christian Nationalism converged with an incipient post-liberal movement and represented an invitation to reconsider long-held assumptions of politics and power derived from the post-war liberal consensus rather than Scripture and church history.
For the first year or so, both groups operated more or less independently of each other, with Anti-CNs mostly dismissing CN as a distraction or media slander while those more comfortable with CN associations quietly developed their ideas online and in newly formed publications like American Reformer. This rift would split wide open with the release of The Case for Christian Nationalism by Stephen Wolfe.
Although not the first pro-CN book to market, Wolfe’s book was the first to explore the big ideas unencumbered by current hot-button political issues, instead focussing on retrieving historic reformed church teaching that has been largely forgotten by modern-day evangelicals. To the uninitiated, his references to a Christian Prince and apparent preoccupation with ethnicity, which most evangelicals today read as “race,” were extremely alarming. Add to that an imprudent discussion on Twitter about interethnic marriage (a subject never addressed in his book and that he eventually clarified and retracted), and that was enough for Anti-CNs to begin actively opposing the burgeoning CN movement.
Despite the growing animosity between these two camps, to the outside world, they are virtually indistinguishable. Both groups are anti-abortion. Both groups would outlaw gay marriage. Both groups favor increased political involvement from Christians. Progressives would consider both groups CNs. So, what are the disagreements? There are some significant ones, but there is also a lot of talking past one another. Anti-CNs often argue against things that most CNs would also be against. Much of what CNs want could easily be affirmed by Anti-CNs. With so much misunderstanding in this debate, a closer examination of arguments for and against CN is warranted.
The Anti-CNs have put forth a variety of arguments against CN that typically take one of five different forms.
1. The God and Country Argument is a rejection of God and Country Christianity with its star-spangled worship services celebrating America and stump speeches by regularly invited politicians in place of sermons. The most extreme version of this sees America as a chosen nation like Israel. This is probably what your average offline evangelical pastor thinks of when you say CN.
The people who attend these sorts of churches are not involved in the CN discourse at all. They might occasionally use the CN label to describe themselves as US Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene has done, but this version of Christianity is nothing new, and something that the CNs we’re talking about would thoroughly reject as well.
Ironically, CNs commonly hit with this argument are often accused of being anti-American by Anti-CNs for daring to question the infallibility of the US Constitution and our form of government. If anything, the Anti-CNs are more closely aligned with this branch of Christianity that holds America sacred.
2. The Theology Argument maps the CN discourse onto pre-existing theological debates over eschatology and theonomy. The Anti-CN assumption in this argument is that all CNs are post-mil theonomists who want to replace the Constitution with Old Testament civil law so they can usher in the Kingdom of God on Earth.
While it’s undeniably true that the CN moniker has been adopted by some who hold to post-millennial eschatology and others who would consider themselves theonomists, it’s just as true that there are plenty of post-mils and theonomists who reject the CN label and many who embrace the label but reject post-millennialism and theonomy. Stephen Wolfe, for instance, rejects both.
This argument against CN, like the underlying theological debate it’s a proxy for, often relies on cartoonish versions of post-millennialism and theonomy to argue against positions the CNs, even the ones who are post-mil theonomists, don’t actually hold. The CN movement is not interested in using the state to bring about the Kingdom of God through forced conversions. The more substantive versions of this argument contend that a Christian Nation would have to enforce the first table of the law, which would be tantamount to forcing belief and, therefore, unbiblical.
3. The Adjective Argument objects to Christian Nationalism on the grounds that the word “Christian” should never be used as an adjective to describe anything other than regenerate Christians, either individually or in a group. According to this perspective, best articulated by Jonathan Leeman, a nation can only be Christian if every citizen of that nation is regenerate. Therefore, a Christian Nation is not something we can expect this side of Jesus’ return.
More of a semantic argument, this does, however, raise some legitimate theological concerns that CN would give unregenerate sinners the false belief that they are Christian just because they are citizens of a Christian Nation. This is the same concern shared by critics of “Cultural Christianity” who would argue that pagan citizens are easier to evangelize.
Although there are some consistent stalwarts that reject any use of “Christian” as an adjective, proponents of this argument don’t typically have the same objections to Christian Schools. They rightly recognize that a school can be instituted to provide a distinctly Christian education and that calling it “Christian” in no way implies that the students at that school are all regenerate. Why couldn’t the same be true of a nation?
4. The Historical Argument relies on the historical record to argue that every time CN has been tried throughout history, it has failed. Some proponents of this perspective cite atrocities in history, like the Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition, as the inevitable outcome of Christian Nationalism. More measured arguments point to “Christian” countries like the United Kingdom with its liberal Church of England as an example of how explicitly Christian Nations are no longer Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.
This argument suffers from a selective reading of history that ignores the fact that many of the atrocities and injustices referenced were aberrations in the long history of Christendom, which established a thriving civilization and spread the gospel throughout the Western world. Also neglected in this historical argument are the teachings of theologians, church fathers, and reformers that support CN arguments for a more robust relationship between church and state.
Looking to formerly Christian nations as examples of the inevitability of decline tells us little about how we should order society. In a fallen world, no worthwhile endeavor is going to be perfectly executed and resist the inevitable decline. That’s just the state of the world we live in. To go back to the Christian School comparison, one could easily point to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale as examples of why Christian colleges never work, but that shouldn’t stop us from trying to provide a Christian alternative to secular Universities. While there’s much to learn from history, we should take care not to let past failures prevent us from starting new endeavors. Given a long enough timeline, you could easily conclude that Paul’s missionary endeavors were pointless because many of those areas are now dominated by Islam.
5. The Ethnic Nationalism argument is concerned that CN is really a cover for White Nationalism and Kinism. Many Anti-CNs suspect that CNs desire to purge our nation of non-Whites in order to protect white bloodlines and preserve white culture. They bristle at any language suggesting it’s good to love one’s people or nation over and above other people or nations. The most intense form of this argument maintains that Christ obliterates all earthly distinctions and that a Christian’s only loyalty is to the family of God regardless of nation or culture. Prioritizing one’s nation or people is considered rank heresy.
This angst about ethnic nationalism seems to underlie much of the discourse. No matter which argument is being used initially, the debate often ends up with heated exchanges about CN’s failure to address perceived racism within the CN camp. While much of it is overblown and alarmist in nature, the concerns are not unfounded. Any movement that operates (at least partially) outside the Overton Window is bound to attract people with views that actually belong outside the window of acceptable discourse. There are kinists using the CN label who believe that interracial marriage is a sin. There are also dissident right figures with questionable tactics and beliefs who, though they are not Christian, share a similar analysis of our current political moment and end up a part of the conversation.
Anti-CNs are not wrong to be concerned about CN being a gateway into aberrant theology. There are good Christians unwittingly being lured into heresy because they’re drawn to false teachers willing to question the reigning liberal orthodoxy and fight the ruling regime. However, the extent of the problem is still an open question. CNs have been reluctant to confront these issues for a variety of reasons. CN is a political movement focused on defeating the left. Most CNs just don’t recognize a legitimate threat coming from the right. They worry that any attention given to problems on the right ultimately helps the left, which, holding all the levers of power in this country, is an existential threat right now. CNs are also trying to push the Overton Window rightward and are hesitant to draw boundaries that would solidify its current position.
CNs should be careful not to be so politically minded that they ignore legitimate theological concerns developing on the right, such as the Nietzschian cultural analysis that traces our current societal problems not to liberalism but to Christianity, which is regarded as much too weak to prevent liberalism from consuming everything. As Christians, defeating the left shouldn’t be our only priority. It’s possible to make clear affirmations and denials (such as the Statement on Christian Nationalism and Doug Wilson’s thorough repudiation of Kinism) without participating in rightward cancelation campaigns that only benefit the left.
Anti-CNs should understand that there are plenty of topics and ideas outside of the Overton Window that are not in any way unbiblical or out of bounds for Christians to discuss. Much of the fear surrounding CN has been stoked by conversations happening outside the Overton that offend liberal sensibilities. Anti-CNs hear “ethnicity” and automatically think “race,” so a conversation about ordered loves, natural affections, and what it means to love your people in a multi-ethnic society barrelling toward globalism is interpreted in the worst possible way. They should extend more charity to CNs engaged in difficult conversations that wrestle with important problems. When addressing legitimate sin on the right, they should avoid painting with a broad brush and attributing the errors of one to the entire group. Don’t nutpick. Don’t assume guilt by association.
Now, having thoroughly discussed the Anti-CN position, let’s turn to the CNs. What are they actually about? Conservative evangelicals using the CN label can essentially be divided up into two groups.
The first is focused on concrete problems and immediate goals. They have come to realize that the neutral secular society is anything but neutral. Our laws and cultural norms are always based on an underlying moral framework. Wokeness has filled the void created as Christianity has been pushed further and further out of public life. This group rejects a conservatism that defends Drag Queen Story Hour as a “blessing of liberty” and has failed to conserve anything.
In its place, this group champions a more robust conservatism unafraid to exercise power to restrain evil and promote good according to a Christian moral framework. They believe America was founded as a de facto Christian nation (under a federalist structure) and seek a return to a proper understanding of our founding principles. They want Christians to recover the will to govern according to a Christian moral framework. They’re largely uninterested in Christian princes, established churches, or debating the contours of the Constitution, focusing instead on ending abortion and actively opposing LGBT+ ideology that is “transing kids” with legislation that bans trans surgeries and keeps indoctrination out of schools. If asked what CN looks like, these CNs would point to the bold policies of Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida, combatting wokeness, CRT, and radical gender ideology.
This group fully recognizes that we have transitioned into negative world and that many of the ministry models that flourished during neutral world are inadequate for (and perhaps left us unprepared for) the challenges we’re presently facing. As a result, these CNs are rethinking a lot of long-held assumptions about ministry and cultural engagement. This has been a point of contention between them and anti-CNs who have been slow to recognize “what time it is” and have a vested interest in neutral world ministry models.
For these CNs, Globalism is rightly understood to be a force for spreading wickedness around the world. They love their country and don’t want to see it subservient to the evil agenda of WEF or destroyed by open borders immigration. They want a strong nation based on Christian principles, as they believe the founders intended. They want a Christian Nation, and they’re opposed to Globalism, so sure, call them Christian Nationalists. Simple as that. This view represents the vast majority of conservative Christians adopting the CN label and plenty of others who are reluctant to embrace the label. Think of it as a reinvigoration of the Christian right that is throwing off the NeoCon shackles that have kept it from actually accomplishing anything.
The second group, while not unconcerned with more immediate problems, is primarily focused on political theology and answering big questions about the nature of power and the relationship between church and state, questions too long ignored by American Protestants. Stephen Wolfe’s book fits squarely in this category but is hardly representative of everyone occupying this space. These are largely scholars who seek to recover historic church teaching that has been replaced over time with beliefs derived more from the “post-war liberal consensus” than from Scripture or the Christian tradition.
This group is much more interested in determining what is permissible in terms of church-state relations and societal structure than it is in prescribing concrete changes to existing government. Talk of a “Christian Prince” is not these CNs expressing a desire to replace the Constitution with an all-powerful Christian monarch. The Christian Prince is an archetype for government authority, much like Plato’s Philosopher King or Machiavelli’s Prince, two staples of political philosophy. The Christian Prince could just as easily represent a constitutional republic as it does an actual monarch. It’s a philosophical exercise to imagine what a Christian Nation might possibly look like.
This is relevant because this group has significant overlap with the dissident right, which has a very sobering analysis of the times we live in. Whereas the first group of CNs has an optimistic outlook on what is achievable within the current system, these CNs are more pessimistic about whether or not there’s any hope of righting the ship. Influenced by books like Christopher Caldwell’s The Age of Entitlement and Why Liberalism Failed by Patrick Deneen, they essentially believe America is a failed state on the brink of collapse, the Constitution having effectively been replaced in the 60s or earlier. They believe the only way out is through. Their project is much more focused on what might emerge from the rubble.
With their faith in democracy and our systems of power eroded, they are, to a large extent, indifferent about persuading normal people or “normies.” This gives them a certain devil-may-care attitude that, at its best, frees them up to have important conversations comfortably outside the Overton Window. At its worst, however, this aloofness has a tendency to devolve into a sometimes cruel cynicism and contempt for people who don’t know what time it is.
This group of CNs would do well to resist the cynicism inherent in the dissident right’s cultural analysis and take the time to patiently explain their ideas to other Christians unaccustomed to having their post-war liberal paradigm challenged instead of responding with juvenile and derisive memes. Humor and satire can be incredibly effective at spreading ideas (see Auron MacIntyre), but it should be at the expense of the left, not earnest normies trying to figure things out or misguided allies tilting at CN windmills that don’t really exist.
Anti-CNs need to stop assuming the worst of CNs exploring these ideas. We’re told in Scripture not to be conformed to the world. Most of us have grown up with assumptions about how the world works and what the best form of government is that are not directly derived from God’s word. It would serve us all well to identify those assumptions and hold them up for closer scrutiny. Whether or not they come to the right conclusions or not, this is one thing these CNs do well. Anti-CNs should be careful not to elevate the American ideals (as reinterpreted by the post-war liberal consensus or originally articulated in the founding era) to the level of biblical doctrine. Our founders were not inspired by the Holy Spirit. It’s not wrong to question their decisions or discuss where their project went wrong.
Of all the flavors of CN, this group is the most recently inaugurated. The vanguard of any movement is always a bit more raucous, but behind the rowdy facade is a sincere desire to answer and address the most interesting and important questions of negative world. Time will tell if this incipient movement can survive the growing pains to become something more formidable and mature, but it would be a mistake to dismiss them as immature trolls (or worse), particularly as more seasoned and careful voices are drawn to this conversation and elevate the discourse.
That’s the Christian Nationalism debate in very broad strokes. Most folks aren’t going to fit neatly into any one of the aforementioned categories, but it should serve as a helpful heuristic should you encounter any self-professed CNs or Anti-CNs in your church or choose to wade into the conversation yourself. Don’t feel like you have to choose a side right now. This movement is just beginning. Take some time to really listen to the arguments and think through your position.
Again, remember that CN is a developing label. Arguments for or against CN need to be extremely specific. There shouldn’t be any ambiguity about what you are advocating for or opposing. Otherwise, your opponent in this debate is going to fill that label with their preconceived notions of what Christian Nationalism is, resulting in a lot of miscommunication which our enemies on the left will be more than happy to exploit.
The vast majority of evangelicals remain undecided on Christian Nationalism. Most would love to see America restored to something resembling a Christian Nation of some sort where abortion is outlawed and our children are protected from LGBT+ ideology. Looking around at the rapidly degenerating culture we occupy, however, they just don’t believe that’s ever going to be possible without another Great Awakening. “Just preach the gospel,” they say. While we should all, of course, be evangelizing and praying that God sends revival, this line of thinking reveals a misplaced faith in numbers, as if God is unable to act to restrain evil without a popular majority.
Throughout Scripture, God delights in demonstrating his power through his people against superior forces. As the world grows increasingly hostile to the things of God, the church should not despair. God is not impotent in the face of growing evil. Regardless of where you land on the finer points of Christian Nationalism, Christians should not grow weary in the good work of opposing the wickedness that is destroying our nation and claiming so many innocent victims. We serve a big God who doesn’t need a supermajority of regenerate Christians to act on behalf of the most vulnerable. He can use a remnant to turn the hearts of unbelievers just as surely as he used Wilberforce to bring about the end of the slave trade in England.
Our political enemies are determined. They don’t let small numbers discourage them. Just look at what the LGBT+ movement has accomplished with less than 10% of the population. We have the King of Kings on our side. How much more confident and determined should we be? As Jonathan said to his armor-bearer as the two of them went to pick a fight with the Philistines, “Come, let us go over to the garrison of these uncircumcised. It may be that the LORD will work for us, for nothing can hinder the LORD from saving by many or by few.” Regardless of where you find yourself in the Christian Nationalism debate, may that sort of bold, audacious faith mark our cultural engagement as we reason together to determine the best path forward.
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