In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, Tolkien famously wrote about the Council of Elrond, which gathered the leaders of the free peoples of Middle Earth to determine the fate of the Dark Lord Sauron’s powerful One Ring. Should it be destroyed? Could you use it?
The great wizard Gandalf who sought the Ring’s destruction declared, “The Ring is altogether evil.” But Boromir, the representative of the Men of Gondor, had another view: “It is a gift. A gift to the foes of Mordor. Why not use this ring? Long has my father, the Steward of Gondor, kept the forces of Mordor at bay. By the blood of our people are your lands kept safe. Give Gondor the weapon of the enemy. Let us use it against him.”
And while the Council ultimately decided to destroy the Ring, Boromir tried to forcibly take the Ring, succumbing to its power, leading to his destruction. Boromir seemingly had good, honest motivations to save his people, but he, like the men who had come before, was corrupted by the alluring desire for power.
As I reflect on the interviews and ongoing debate around the diverse Christian nationalist viewpoints, I noted an interest around legal enforcement of the “first table” of the ten commandments (commandments one through four). This entailed some arguments for the establishment of an official state religion, relative comfort with laws against heretics (including the death penalty), and church attendance requirements to name a few.
As an American lawyer, it is very tempting to simply hear such statements and write off many of these goals as “unrealistic” or “unconstitutional” with little practical utility other than an academic exercise unmoored from reality. But as I reflected further on the arguments made by the Christian nationalist and the attempts to lay out a vision for government, civil society, and the church, I observed that the Christian nationalist often appears vastly overconfident in his ability to wield government power. In fact, a subtle, underlying message was the idea that if the Christian nationalist could just hold the levers of power or if Christians could wield the sword and exercise control over our governing institutions, we could right our current wrongs and govern for the good of society.
1. It’s undeniable that all the above-named policies are not permitted under the U.S. Constitutional framework for both federal and state governments. The only conceivable way for this vision to be implemented would require an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which requires supermajorities in state legislatures or in Congress. This is not a realistic outcome.
And in this regard, the Christian nationalist sounds a lot like Boromir who naively believed that if he could just wield the One Ring, he could stop the forces of evil.
I have no doubt that, like Boromir, the Christian nationalist has the best of intentions. Who among us is not frustrated and angry at our current ruling class? If our politicians aren’t actively seeking to enact unbiblical policies, they are like King Hezekiah—cognizant of the challenges ahead, but content only because of the belief that it will not affect them in their lifetimes.
2. In 2 Kings 20:19, after King Hezekiah showed the envoys of Babylon all of his wealth, the prophet Isaiah tells him of the coming Babylonian destruction of Judah and the future carrying off of his descendants, who will become eunuchs in the palace of the King of Babylon. Upon receiving this message, Hezekiah replied: “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good.” For he thought, “Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?”
But even with the best of intentions, any person who pursues power and authority with a glorified view that the State can resolve our society’s woes will fail. Christians—more than anyone else—should understand their own sinful nature with hearts that are corrupted by sin, and should act accordingly. To do otherwise would accomplish nothing more than replacing one form of authoritarianism on the Left for an authoritarianism on the Right.
So, as I reflect on Christian nationalism, and as I reflect on its eagerness to embrace the levers of political power to effectuate change in the context of the American political system, I want to make three brief points in reflection. In so doing, I hope to express a grave word of caution for the Christian nationalist.
Christian Nationalists Should Follow The Example of The American Founders And Reject Authoritarianism And Unlimited Use Of Power
In seeking their authority and power, Christian nationalists, particularly those in the United States, appear to often claim their agenda is “conservative” by invoking a return to America’s founding principles.
And while a return to the American Founding principles is a worthy endeavor, I don’t believe the American Founders would have embraced the use of power in the way that the Christian nationalist contemplates. In fact, the American Founders exercised grave caution in the use of power and the state as the solution, setting up a system that tried to make it as difficult as possible to wield power.
As I explained in a previous essay, the United States constitutional system deliberately separates power horizontally and vertically because the accumulation of all powers in one earthly entity is the very definition of tyranny.
But it is important to remember that the American Founders did not seek the implementation of this system in a vacuum, but reflected the theological principles of the Great Awakening rooted strongly in the belief of the total depravity of man and the idea that government on this side of the fall is a necessary evil to restrain evil.
3. Regrettably, I do not have the space to argue this point, but suffice to say, the first Great Awakening took place in the decades leading up to the American Revolution and vastly influenced the culture of the American people. While all the American Founders and the American people were not regenerate, the secondary benefits of these theological principles influenced the underlying mores of the populace.
John Adams, a Unitarian and key leader, in the American Founding summed it up quite well: “All men would be tyrants if they could. . . . That the selfish Passions are stronger than the social and that the former would always prevail over the latter in any Man, left to the natural Emotions of his own Mind unrestrained and unchek’d by other Power extrinsic to himself.”
Similarly, Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense, one of the key influencing documents in the American colonies, drew an important distinction between society and government:
4. See John Adams, An Essay on Man’s Lust For Power, With The Author’s Comment in 1807, Boston Evening Post; August 29, 1763.
Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness positively by uniting our affections, the latter negatively by restraining our vices…Society in every state is a blessing, but government even in its best state is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one.”
5. Thomas Paine, Common Sense in Classics of American Political and Constitutional Thought Vol. I. Ed. Scott J. Hammond (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2007), 267–68.
You can also see it underlying the intent behind the United States Constitution. James Madison, the author of the United States Constitution, famously argues in Federalist No. 51:
It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abused of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections of human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
We should all want our politicians and government officials to be faithful Christians, but even if a politician says he is a Christian or will pursue Biblical truth in the public square, we should certainly laud such public commitments, but also recognize that the Christian statesman (like all men) is nonetheless a fallible, human being that is prone to the corruption of power.
In this sense, if the Christian nationalist wants to hearken back to our Founding principles, their Christian “prince,” Christian legislator, or Christian President should be just as limited in power both in size and scope as every other sinful, human being this side of the Fall.
Beware the Temptations of the French Enlightenment and the Use of the State
Secondly, Christian nationalists should be skeptical over the use of government to effectuate control of consciences and the shaping of men’s souls. As noted above, the American Founders cautioned against the accumulation of power, but the American Founders also had a skeptical view of government’s role. James Madison’s Federalist No. 51 (quoted above), noted that “if men were angels, no government would be necessary.” The Declaration of Independence echoes a similar view of the state:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…
Government inherently is instituted for the “security” of God-given unalienable rights that transcend government. This is inherently viewing government as a “negative” in that government is needed for security and protection. Consistent with Romans 13, the state bears the sword to punish the wrongdoer and to restrain evil.
Let’s return then to the effort by some Christian nationalists to enforce the “first table” of the ten commandments, encompassing policies like the imposition of an established state religion, required church attendance, blasphemy laws, etc. This undoubtedly is a departure from an American Founding view of government, appearing to embrace a more “positive” view of government to affect the souls of men by the promotion of true religion.
Interestingly, it is hard to distinguish this view of government from the failed endeavors of enlightenment France and its practical outcome in the French Revolution. Jean Jacques Rousseau, the “hero” of the French Revolution, noted that the imposition of law in society was to have a perfection-attaining attribute:
He who dares to undertake to give institutions to a nation ought to feel himself capable, as it were, of changing human nature; of transforming every individual, who in himself is a complete and independent whole, into part of a greater whole, from which he receives in some manner his life and his being…we may say that legislation is at the highest point of perfection which it can attain.
6. Jean Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, Book I Chapter VII, 180
And while it would be highly reductionistic to argue that the Christian nationalist is the mirror image of the Jacobin, it is worth exercising a word of caution. The more central your governing institutions are to determining the course and fabric of your society, the more you look to the state as your solution —even your savior—as the means by which you right the wrongs of your society. For the French Revolutionaries, the state became their god so it became necessary to silence detractors with the blade of the guillotine.
The more the Christian nationalist fuses the role of the state and the role of the church, the more danger lies in the uses of power to effectuate solutions that ought not be given to the government. In this manner, Christians, who should know the wickedness of their hearts and threat from the state, ought to be the ones leading the charge for placing limits around the government and the use of power.
The Christian “Nationalist” Should Be Shrinking the Size and Scope of Washington, D.C. Instead of Seeking Further Centralization of Its Power
The very term “Christian nationalist” invokes a focus on the “national” rather than the local. Herein lies a fundamental question for the Christian nationalist: Does your policy vision require expanded uses of centralized authority in Washington, D.C.?
Many of the above-named policies (death penalty for blasphemy, church attendance requirements, etc.) are unconstitutional in the U.S. system ultimately because the Founders did not want this authority given to the federal government? Do the proponents of Christian nationalism believe they are bound by the rule of law? Does their sense of “moral purpose” even for supposed Christian ends justify whatever actions they take? Even if you elected the “magic” number of legislators to enact your agenda and the Constitution allowed such an agenda, is a centralized federal government the proper means to enact such an agenda?
7. These policy proposals would also be unconstitutional if adopted by the States as well. While the original drafting of the 1st Amendment to the Constitution only applied to Congress—not the states—the adoption of the 14th amendment at the end of the U.S. Civil War resulted in the body of Supreme Court precedent that “incorporated” the requirements of the Bill of rights, including the first amendment, to the states.
In the end, the problem with the centralized power is that it produces a one-size-fits-all policy that binds all 50 states. Let’s say the Christian nationalist wins his needed seats in Congress (House and Senate,) and let’s say you also have a Christian President sitting in the oval office of the White House ready to implement a Christian nationalist agenda. And let’s assume that there is now a new federal law that imposes a blasphemy prohibition. Now the next election comes and the winds of power shift to control by the opposing political party who now having been given the tools, power, and precedent to enact such laws. In reaction, they enact a secular agenda in a manner that does the opposite and targets Christians and punishes churches across all 50 states. Are Christians better off? Is the church better off? Absolutely not. We’re better off with the federal government not having that type of power in the first place.
8. This is purely a thought experiment. I am not in favor of such a law at the federal, state, or local level.
The Constitution provides limited powers to the federal government, and Christians should not be advocating for an expanded scope of federal authority not contemplated under our Constitutional system precisely because it is prone to tyranny.
It is the states—not the federal government—that are supposed to be the central deliberative bodies of the people with the most accountability. Unlike the federal government, the states have a better understanding of the local community’s needs. Federalizing a decision is to increase its centralization in Washington, D.C., and this de-emphasizes the importance of our state and local officials and opts for federal solutions instead of state and local ones.
It may be more difficult and more time-consuming to advocate in every state capital and in every neighborhood and local community, but this is the best means to prevent long-lasting change and to prevent the accumulation of power and tyranny.
Some may write off my caution of governmental power as admonishment that Christians should withdraw from the public square and involvement with public life. Quite the contrary. Our Biblical beliefs ought both to change our hearts and affect the way we think about every aspect of the world, including the public square. That means Christians must have a public theology that calls us to action in seeking Biblical truth and justice in our governing institutions. It means that we vote, run for elected office, work in government, and advocate for Biblical truths to underly our laws.
But Christians cannot elevate the state to a solution that it is not and cannot be. Nor should they be naïve about how the state has historically been the most antithetical force to the church.
R.C. Sproul wrote of an important exchange he had with Francis Schaeffer in 1971:
“Dr. Schaeffer, what is your biggest concern for the future of the church in America?” Without hesitation, Dr. Schaeffer turned to me and spoke one word: “Statism.” Schaeffer’s biggest concern at that point in his life was that the citizens of the United States were beginning to invest their country with supreme authority, such that the free nation of America would become one that would be dominated by a philosophy of the supremacy of the state.
9. See R.C. Sproul, Statism: The Biggest Concern for the Future of the Church in America, November 12, 2012, Ligonier Ministries.
Over fifty years later, is not Dr. Schaeffer’s warning more relevant now to the challenges that we face? This cautionary essay is not a call to wane in our political advocacy, but a call to put it in perspective. The best system of government is a monarchy, but it is with our sinless King Jesus sitting on the throne ruling and reigning. I long for the day when Christ will return and make all things new, but until that day comes, Christians are to live as Christians. We seek biblical, just laws in the public square, and we boldly reason and debate with our secular society, pointing them to the God of the Bible.
But this side of the Fall, we must do all of these things with the full understanding of our own hearts while mindful that the government is not our solution to cure society. No matter how well intended, we should never turn over the levers or authority to unbridled or unchecked powers for anyone—Christian or non-Christian. In the end, anyone who chases after the example of Boromir will meet the same fate.