In the aftermath of the January 6 riot and attack on the Capitol, onlookers and commentators are seeking to explain and, in turn, to fix blame on the parties responsible for these actions. Enter the now-ubiquitous phrase “Christian Nationalism” into the popular lexicon. Journalists and social media are now in a frenzy to explain the eccentric trappings of a worldview accused of fomenting revolution.
I write not to dismiss all criticisms of Christian Nationalism or to wave away such criticisms as wholly imagined by secular elites to wield against Christians. Instead, I write to plead for accuracy. It is appealing to grasp for an uncluttered, monocausal explanation. What we truly need to do, however, is to disentangle what is theologically eccentric and noxious from faithful and historical Christian political theology. In other words, the need is twofold: (1) to identify the theological problems with actual Christian Nationalism; and (2) to reflect better on what the Bible refers to as our “heavenly citizenship” and how it rightly has an impact on our earthly citizenship.
These tasks are essential, because failing to distinguish between illegitimate and legitimate uses of Christian faith in the public arena will erode the longstanding democratic ideals that suffuse the relationship between religion and democracy. This, in turn, leads to the mistaken conclusion that orthodox Christianity is incompatible with liberal democracy.
“Christian Nationalism” vs. Christian Political Theology
In some corners, “Christian Nationalism” is used as a synecdoche to dispense with anything unpopular about Christianity. If one does not like something about Christianity—say, its teaching on sexuality and family relations—just accuse it of self-serving power-seeking, and it can be discredited. If two thousand years of teaching on the complementarity of the sexes can be dismissed as “Patriarchy,” one need not wrestle with exegesis or theology. One may simply dismiss the concept as yet another social contagion stemming from corrupt teaching. Rather than see Christianity as imbued with implications for political order, one can just cast all attempts to bring “society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love” as a form of Christian Nationalism.
In other words, the fact that Christianity would dare to call liberal society to repentance or claim that certain social implications spring from its theology is seen as proof that Christianity is obsessed with “power” or “dominion.” Too many secular critics construe every vestige of orthodox Christian expression in public as inherently self-interested and self-aggrandizing.
Consider journalist Katherine Stewart’s recent New York Times op-ed about Senator Josh Hawley, “The Roots of Josh Hawley’s Rage.” Stewart is not known for nuance when it comes to conservative Christianity, and this piece is no exception. In her recounting, any form of Christianity that does not parrot mainline Protestantism’s social liberalism is guilty of anti-democratic subversion.
Criticizing previous religious remarks by Senator Hawley, Stewart writes that “Mr. Hawley’s idea of freedom is the freedom to conform to what he and his preferred religious authorities know to be right.” This, we are to believe, is all that is necessary to prove an incipient authoritarianism.
Of course, anyone familiar with Christianity would understand that Christians believe in objective truth and the responsibility to live out the truth of Christianity in all aspects of life. Stewart casts such sentiment as incompatible with modernity, but underneath her criticism is her unquestioning confidence in her definition of freedom as laissez-faire choice. Stewart’s criticism fails to reckon with the absolutism behind her worldview, a worldview given to its own form of illiberalism. To make Senator Hawley the poster boy of Christian Nationalism, Stewart engages in motivated reasoning.
Elsewhere, Stewart quotes Senator Hawley quoting the polymathic Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper, whose theology was famously summarized in his declaration that, “There is not one square inch of all creation over which Jesus Christ is not Lord.” That a sitting United States Senator would recite such a “neo-medieval vision,” writes Stewart, proves that Hawley and his ilk’s political vision is “incompatible with constitutional democracy. . . .” What is fascinating is how Stewart misses the history, as scholars consider Kuyper a champion of democratic order. For Kuyper, the nature of human existence is variegated, and the temptation for aggrandizement by one institution of society over another led to his insistence on the pluriform nature of social relations, i.e., “sphere sovereignty.” For Kuyper to insist that Christ was Lord over “every square inch” was not to erode civil liberties or enact a form of theonomic rule, but for Christians to reflect Christianly on how their faith relates to the social order.
One can strongly disagree with Senators Hawley and Cruz’s recent actions in the election (as I do) and still believe that Stewart is operating on a multitude of mistaken and biased conclusions about the symbiosis of Christianity and democracy. Her column reflects the widespread tendency to equate any expression of Christian public ethics with Christian Nationalism.
Such rudimentary and simplistic caricaturing of the whole of Christian political theology undermines the trust to which The New York Times aspires. Christianity bequeathed the very desacralization of politics that Stewart and like-minded liberals take for granted. Jesus Christ himself taught the dual jurisdictions of temporal authority and eternal authority—that temporal authority does not mediate saving rule. From the Prophet Jeremiah’s insistence to “seek the welfare of the city,” to an insistence on natural law morality that serves the common good of all, to Martin Luther’s Two Kingdoms theology, Christian political theology is inextricably bound up with the development of the separation of powers, the rule of law, constitutionalism, and human rights. This is the tradition that Hawley stands in.
Renouncing Real Christian Nationalism
None of this is to insist that criticisms of Christian Nationalism are always illegitimate or that Christians should not take such criticisms seriously. Nor is it to deny that Christian political history has had a checkered past marked with corruption and illiberalism. Nevertheless, the solution to bad examples of Christian political theology is not to reduce all modern examples of Christian statecraft to simplistic, self-serving narratives. It is to refine that theology and advocate better frameworks.
The truth is that Christian Nationalism exists, and it is deeply problematic. The nature of that problem, however, demands careful definition, not non-specific denunciation. Instrumentalizing religion for the sake of political power is indeed wrong. As a Baptist, I believe that the fruit of religion is not primarily the moral benefit it accrues for society but the fruits of conversion and regeneration. Where theological systems or historians assert that Christianity is divinely fused with American destiny, correction is warranted.
We should not deny the moral foundations of Christian thought present at America’s founding or ignore the significance of Christianity to the Western tradition. Even so, we must remember that America was not chartered as a “Christian nation” united under a covenant. Where Christianity is used as a cudgel to claim legal, political, or cultural privilege over other memberships in society, rebuke is necessary. Where Christianity is understood to be the unifying force for government’s legitimacy, correction is warranted. Nowhere in the New Testament is the church’s faithfulness tied to the state’s legitimacy or vice versa.
The very best of the Christian political tradition entails a fervent seeking of the common good, and that entails recognizing certain moral goods consistent with Christian moral tradition. This will always be interpreted as a malevolent expression of Christianity when those with the most cultural power have a different definition of the common good. If, however, all expressions of Christian faith that color one’s political activity are reduced to “Christian Nationalism,” that only leaves space for Christian faith to function as mere private piety. On this view, William Wilberforce, who labored to abolish Britain’s slave trade, and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose professed Christianity ignited the Civil Rights Movement, were Christian Nationalists who should have been silenced.
It is hypocritical for secular critics to accept only those religious claims that conform to liberal sentiment and to label any disfavored religious claim as Christian Nationalism. Christianity cannot be permissible to polite society only when it meets with the approval of its cultured despisers. Such oscillation is not only hypocritical; it is fundamentally out of alignment with the Constitution.
After January 6, everyone was awakened to the severity of how online conspiracies sparked what happened at the Capitol. If we are to have a shared project of rooting out conspiracy, it is incumbent that all parties bear certain responsibilities. It is the responsibility of orthodox Christianity to speak plainly and truthfully about the dangers lurking behind internet-induced conspiracy theories and to call loved ones back from the brink of delusion. We should renounce Christian Nationalism where it is indisputably present. We should rightfully warn against and teach against what is rightly defined as Christian Nationalism. At the same time, secular and liberal audiences who wish to protest the dangers of Christian Nationalism would do well to represent Christian political theology accurately.