The Many Dimensions of Christian Nationalism - Providence (2024)

I attended theBaker Institute’srecentconferenceon Christian Nationalism, featuring notable speakers including Tim Alberta, Paul Miller, Samuel Perry, and Andrew Whitehead. While the conference emphasized Christian Nationalism’s ethnic dimensions, particularly concerning the declining percentage of non-white Hispanics in America, Christian Nationalism is actually a multifaceted phenomenon, tied to a variety of often overlooked contexts.What follows is a brief summary of the factors that have led to the Christian Nationalism of today.

Global Trends—Christian Nationalism in the United States is clearly part of a global wave of post-liberal religious nationalism.Specifics vary,but Victor Orban, Vladimir Putin, Marine Le Pen, Jair Bolsonaro, and Narendra Modiare clearly benefiting from the same tailwinds.Some have even suggested the radical Islamic movements of the 1990s/2000s were forerunners of this now-global phenomenon.The common theme is a rejection of globalization; the “Jihad” attempting to forcefully reestablish a traditional culture, economy, and religion undermined by the “McWorld” of secular, international, values and global economic integration.This is to say, we would expect the United States to give birth to some form of post-liberal religious nationalism regardless of the country’s unique characteristics.The question is not whether a movement would be formed but what sort of movement it would be.That said, a variety of specific national factors are shaping the movement.

American History—The American church has a long history of waging culture wars; to some extent, the country was born of one.Many colonists were fleeing cultural battles between Puritans and High-Church Anglicans that culminated in the English Civil War and later the Restoration of Charles II.Once in America, colonists sometimes saw themselves as holy warriors fighting to save North America from the “godless” French Catholics and Indians.A similar albeit fratricidal zeal would drive bothAbolitionists and Confederatesand, in the 20thcentury, the American church would wage two culture wars:the Social Gospel movement and the Religious Right.The political goals of these movements varied greatly depending on the circ*mstances of time and place, but a similar theme of godly vs. the ungodly can be seen in them all.Christian Nationalism is therefore not an entirely new phenomenon but rather the latest in a series of culture wars waged by the American church.Writers like David Barton (who erroneously cast Thomas Jefferson as aheterodox Christian)have found a market for narratives that align with the latest culture war perspective.[1]

Contemporary Politics—While Christian Nationalism is influenced by global and historical trends, contemporary politics also matters.Most notably is the decline of Christianity in the United States.AsRyan Burgeand others have noted, self-identification with Christianity began declining in the 1990s, supplanted by a growing number of religious “nones.”These individuals adhere to no particular religion and their rise has dramatically changed the tone of American political and cultural discourse.Conservative Christians (including Christian Nationalists) speak of a “post-Christian” America as exampled by Aaron Renn’s “negative world” where the culture is decided anti-Christian.Thus, one way of reading Christian Nationalism is as a reaction to this cultural shift.Within these overarching national trends are specific policies that have contributed to the sense of embattlement that leads to support for Christian Nationalism.The Obergefell decision, which determined same-sex marriage to be a Constitutional right, is one clear example of a sudden political change that came less than 20 years after strong bipartisan passage of the Defense of Marriage Act.The Bostock ruling, which extended employment protections to trans individuals, occurred shortly thereafter (2020).Both of these rulings angered traditionalists.The War on Terror represents another issue that hasradicalizedsome veterans including retired generalMichael Flynnwho regularly speaks at Christian Nationalist events. Similarly, the pandemic-inspired lockdown of churches galvanized many Christians into action.Pentecostal pastor Ché Ahn, whose “Jezebel” speech fired up Christians in Washington DC on January 6th2020, was at the time entangled in a lawsuit with the State of California over the forced closing of his church.

Theology—Theologically, Christian Nationalism has not one but three theological variants, though not all adherents can be neatly categorized into one of them.Many Christian Nationalists, moreover,rarely attend churchand may have only vague theological ideas on the subject.Nevertheless, the theological variations matter because they shape the movement.

One theological group is disproportionately drawn from the Reformed Church and includes figures like Stephen Wolfe and Doug Wilson.Though few in number, they are neverthelesssignificantlyinfluential inevangelicalcircles through their prolific writing.They are generally Calvinists, picking up where Francis Schaeffer and R.J. Rushdooney left off.[2]Arguably, the most important distinctive about this group is their post-millennial eschatology.They believe that the world will inevitably Christianize as the Second Coming of Christ approaches.This makes them both more confident and more patient—victory is inevitable because it has been foreordained.They don’t necessarily need a detailed plan to achieve their goals.You might wonder how a Christian state will be established in an increasingly non-Christian nation, but they simply trust that God will do so in his own way and timing.Whether the result of a nationwiderevivalor a“Protestant Franco”(or perhaps both)—they simply trust it will one day happen.

Another distinct group is the Charismatics.This group has a lower profile because it is less engaged in public discourse but is probably numerically the largest and anecdotally appears to comprise a large portion of the people who actually show up in person to vocally support their causes.Theologically, their views are sometimes referred to as the New Apostolic Reformation.They generally reject post-millennialism and Calvinism but believe the spiritual gifts of prophecy and speaking in tongues never ceased (which the Reformed group rejects.)Modern-day prophets like Ché Ahn are thus on par with Biblical prophets like Jeremiah, Moses, etc. in terms of authority.As a consequence, failed prophetic predictions that Trump would be re-elected in 2020 don’t simply cause political disappointment but theological crisis.How can a prophet who speaks for God be wrong?In addition, the Charismatic camp strongly emphasizes supernatural, “spiritual warfare” against demonic spirits.They believe that demonic forces occupy territorial spaces and must be driven out by the prayers and praises of the faithful—ideally at the same territorial location.This has led to the practice of “JerichoMarches” where Christians will pray, praise, speak in tongues, and blow ram’s horns in a practice inspired by Old Testament Jews marching around Jericho.These events were simply an extension of gatherings held around the country where praise, prayer, and politics freely intermingle.

An important corollary to this is the belief that demonic forces strategically occupy centers of power and influence, often referred to as the 7 Mountains.Demons are thus present in places of power like the U.S. Capitol and battling them is key to expanding a Christian influence within the nation.Many Christians who came to Washington on January 6thwere there to conduct a Jericho March on the Capitol and combat the demons who were presumed to be influencing the electoral vote certification process.This accounts for the many peculiar images of the day where groups like the Proud Boys were wearing tactical vests while Charismatics in the background spoke in tongues.

A third group of Christian Nationalists is comprised of Catholics who espouse integralism, the idea that the state should recognize and promote Catholicism as the one true religion.This puts them theologically at odds with their Protestant compatriots and also in tension with the Catholic church’s modern embrace of religious freedom and pluralism inDignitatis Humane.This group includes authors like Patrick Deneen and has been the most academically influential.Deneen’s earlier work, Why Liberalism Failed, was praised byBarack Obama(although Obama acknowledged that he disagreed with most of the conclusions).

Political Philosophy—Philosophically, Christian Nationalism marks a departure from earlier political movements within the American church.It has long been acknowledged that John Locke’s political philosophy played a particularly influential role in the nation’s founding.Historically, the American church has held that Locke’s philosophy was at least consistent with if not directly inspired by Biblical principles.[3]In modern times, this assertion has been challenged leading to a debate over the secular vs. Christian founding of the nation.The emergence of Christian Nationalism marks an evolution in the debate because Christian Nationalists, in a sense, side with secularists on this question.They argue Locke’s philosophy isnotconsistent with Biblical principles and that the nation’s problems are the inevitable result of basing the government on a non-Christian philosophy.They speak of an elite-controlled “regime”comprised not just of “left-liberals” but also “right-liberals”—political conservatives who espouse Locke’s philosophy.Correcting the wrongs of the past requires the nation to reject Locke in favor of a truly Biblical philosophy.Many “post-liberal” writings are an attempt to define what a Biblical philosophy would look like—thought experiments about a new, philosophical basis for American government and society.

Separation of church and state, which Christian Nationalists reject, is central to this debate.They may affirm that church and state are two separate entities functionally or theologically, but they want the government to explicitly endorse (if not promote) some form of Christianity.They philosophically reject the idea that governments can be meaningfully “neutral” between different conceptions of human flourishing.Governments must be based on a set of values, they argue, the question is whether they will be based on Christian or non-Christian ones.Again, they believe the American government is currently based on non-Christian values and therefore the central political issue is the establishment of an explicitly Christian state; this is the defining trait of Christian Nationalists and what separates them from politically conservative Christians generally.Some harken back to the historical practice of conducting prayer and Bible study in public schools or a European-style endorsem*nt of Christianity by the state.For others, however, the state should go far beyond such measures, which raises the question of religious toleration.

Christian Nationalists like Doug Wilson (who are the ‘moderates’ of Christian Nationalism) will generally argue for religious toleration even if they don’t categorically rule out civil or criminal penalties for heretics.Others, like Stephen Wolfe, are far more comfortable with these measures and broadly challenge the political role of non-Christians in society.Of course, such notions cannot be clearly defined given the theological diversity among Christian Nationalists as well as wide disagreements even within their respective camps.

So where does that leave us?Christian Nationalism, as movement, has multiple dimensions socially, politically, and theologically.This complexity makes it difficult to concisely define, but we must resist the temptation to use the term “Christian Nationalism” too broadly or too narrowly.It does not encompass all politically conservativeChristians, but there is more to it than just the demographic changes underway nationally.My hope is that this brief sketch is helpful for all to understand the various points of origin of Christian Nationalism.

[1]Jefferson himself was not immune to such temptations.In an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, heblamedGeorge III for “allowing” the slave trade to continue.

[2]R.J. Rushdooney and other Christian Reconstructionists expected society and government would organically Christianize in tandem, culminating with a decentralized, Christian, state that enforced the Mosaic Law.Francis Shaeffer strongly criticized the ending prayer in public schools but nevertheless affirmed John Locke and religious toleration.“There is no New Testament basis for a linking of church and state until Christ, the King returns.” (A Christian Manifesto)

[3]Francis Schaeffer notably considered Locke’s philosophy to be a “secularized” version of Samuel Rutherford’s political theology.

The Many Dimensions of Christian Nationalism - Providence (2024)
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