Over the last few years, the Christian nationalism discussion has largely involved promoting or else opposing the substance or semantics of the label “Christian nationalism.” Indeed, as the secular media of our day has chosen that title to mock Christians whether those Christians are self-styled Christian nationalists or not, that is the label that is on offer today. And it is something Christ Over All has sought to define and describe over the last month, and now that term and its various terms (concepts) are something we have begun to analyze.
That analysis began with Andy Naselli’s fine longform categorizing various views on religion and government. And it will continue throughout this month, as we look at key passages of Scripture, as well as concise essays that address the challenges directly in our day. In this piece, I want to help anyone who is just entering the debate to have a sense of where this conversation began and how it has developed. And so, I begin in 2021 and offer reflections from three key articles that are summarizing other articles—hence, the subtitle, “an article on articles on articles.”
As a pastor here is where I am coming from, and perhaps this piece can be most helpful for other pastors, lay elders, and thoughtful churchmen. In keeping up with the debate, I’ve read two kinds of pieces on Christian nationalism: articles engaging in the discussion and articles explaining the discussion. Both are needed. Here I point you to several pieces of that second kind that I found most helpful. Three to be precise, one for each year since the term dropped on the scene sometime shortly after January 6, 2021.
Each article is historically situated and, in that way, an orientation not only to the discussion but to how that debate has developed in our feeds. Though emerging from a specific moment in the timeline of this debate, each piece offers a timeless exhortation.
2021: An Insult Divides Christians
In 2021, Kevin DeYoung wrote a piece “What To Do With Christian Nationalism.” At that time, December 18, 2021 to be exact, he observes, a Google search yielded “one generic Wikipedia entry and nine articles denouncing Christian nationalism.”
I remember that time. Kevin, like many of us, heard “Christian nationalism” all over the news as a pejorative against Christians engaging in politics with Christian convictions. This smear emerged in force after the January 6 riots, a way of lumping together those in the crowd waving Christian banners with those who broke into the Capitol with everyday conservative Christians. Was someone against abortion? They must be a Christian nationalist! Were they concerned about the gender ideology in our schools? Again, Christian nationalist!
It was an insult.
We have been here before. In the 50’s it was “The Radical Right.” In the 80’s, “The New Christian Right.” Such labels are intended to divide an otherwise large coalition by making association with its central convictions a point of shame.
It worked. Quickly, Christians used this label to warn of Christians whose politics or political tone or strategies they found disagreeable. Used in this way, this term was a way of throwing shade on brothers and sisters rather than light on the issues at hand. Labels can offer a reasonable shortcut for summarizing a network of ideas. But something sinister was afoot, not only against us but among Christians.
In his article, DeYoung engaged two problems as he saw it at the time: “The first problem is that no one agrees on what Christian nationalism is. The second problem is that no one seems to argue for something they actually call Christian nationalism.” He did his research. In search of a definition, he quoted six of those writing on this subject. All, again, were writing against it, and with various definitions. By some definitions, most Christians would qualify. By others, it would be hard to find many Christians in most of our churches.
Christian nationalism (circa 2021) was an enemy with neither definition nor defenders. The discussion and the label have evolved quite a bit and Kevin has made his own mark. But Kevin’s conclusion stands:
Does this mean we are wrong to criticize Christian nationalism? Not necessarily. But it would be better to critique the beliefs and behaviors we find objectionable instead of employing an ill-defined ism and projecting its existence into every nook and cranny of the evangelical church.
For all that “Christian nationalism” might justly warn against, the label can also function as a convenient dismissal of conservative concern over an ascendant and aggressive liberalism. I’d rather not be in a culture war either, but sometimes the opposite of war is not peace and quiet; it is surrender and loss. Surely there must be some way to seek Christian influence in the political realm that falls short of heresy and idolatry. Surely it is not wrong to speak about the Christian underpinnings of our Founding and desire to see our country guided by Christian principles and undergirded by Christian truth. … There must be some middle ground between a theocratic Christian nationalism and a culturally-acceptable Christian nothingism. I think most Christians are seeking to avoid both nationalism and national destruction.
So ended 2021. The tide of Christian nationalism was beginning to rise, but full immersion would require a few more full moons.
2022: An Emerging Identifier Raises Old Questions and Historic Differences
Enter 2022. And in this new year, as the pejorative continued to come with opprobrium, many Christians rejected the label. Yet, others took a different strategy and began to take up the insult and wear it as a badge of honor, or at least a term that could be defined with a few sentences and a bit of slapdashery.
In 2022, therefore, assuming the title “Christian nationalist” became a rhetorical maneuver to neutralize the insult and provoke discussion. It worked. In Andrew Walker’s 2022 piece on the subject (“What Does ‘Christian Nationalism’ Even Mean?”), he observed the confusion and tension brought about by the incoming waves of Christian nationalism, and he offered counsel to three approaches to Christian nationalism.
First, to those claiming the mantle “Christian nationalism,” he wrote with this plea:
Convince me this isn’t just a theology used to sacralize the culture or impose exclusionary political power. Get specific on what particular arrangements and applications would be entailed. … How will your movement not excuse, or worse, justify, the misuse of Christianity when and if it is used to perpetrate social harms as in the past? What self-corrections are built into the system? How will the ideal Christian nationalist state not simply be yet another handmaiden to state power that ends up diluting vibrant religion?
Next, to progressive non-Christians who criticize “Christian nationalism”:
Convince me that your skepticism about Christian nationalism isn’t just a cover for wanting Christians out of politics and out of power. Convince me that Christian nationalism is not just another progressive epithet hurled against conservative Christians. Convince me that your opposition to Christians having political power is not really just a blanketed opposition to what others might simply call the natural law. … Where, exactly, does the line differentiating opposition to “Christian nationalism” in particular, and opposition to biblical morality in general, begin and end?
Finally, to Christians skeptical of “Christian nationalism”:
Convince me you have a political theology that isn’t merely rehashed Anabaptism, a political theology that is high on pietism but averse to wielding political power for the common good. Show me that you have a political theology born not only of redemption, but also creation.
In these wise cautions, we must also beware the Troll Fallacy: if an internet troll is involved, then the discussion is fruitless. Maybe that’s the case with some debates. But sometimes an online debate reveals divisions even as it exacerbates them. That is the case here. Internet discussions can chase good people off from needed and even historic debates.
Many of Andrew’s questions were not new, but old questions. These questions pitched to new hearers revealed historical differences not only between Christians and those who oppose Christian truth but also between Christians of different traditions. Andy Naselli’s “Proposed Taxonomy of Seven Views on Religion and Government” goes a long way to showing where these differences fall. And honestly, these distinctions continue to charge debate today.
2023: Guarding and Guiding Our Churches
Most recently, in the fall of 2023, Josh Daws, host of the podcast The Great Awokening, published a clarifying explainer that sought to identify some of these emerging distinctions. In his American Reformer article, “Christian Nationalism: A Primer for the Layman,” he offered “A Guide and Some Advice for the Uninitiated.” More than an inquiry into the rising tide of Christian nationalism, Daws’s article is the best summary to date of where our differences fall, and why we are reading the waves so differently. Even more, after rising temperatures have plagued the CN debate, Daws’s approach is reasoned and charitable. He calls us to consider “various perspectives in the hope of avoiding unnecessary division as this conversation inevitably spills over into the local church.”
Daws is warm to the label “Christian nationalism,” but he writes to clarify arguments and sides, not to reinforce a cause. In that irenic spirit, he begins by categorizing the arguments being made against CN. Here’s an abbreviated version of his summary. He represents each argument being made and then shows at least one weakness of that argument, not so much to defend CN but to show why these arguments aren’t persuading opponents or advancing the discussion.
- The God and Country Argument rejects any Christianity with star-spangled worship services and stump speeches. But these kinds of Christians aren’t involved in the CN discussion at all, and most CN proponents reject this expression of church.
- The Theology Argument concerns itself with pre-existing debates over eschatology and theonomy. But hardly all CNs are postmillennialists, and hardly all postmillennialists are CNs.
- The Adjective Argument objects to the label “Christian nationalism,” since only individuals can be properly described as “Christian.” It’s a legitimate point, yet most proponents aren’t consistent when it comes to describing “Christian Schools,” so why not speak this way about nations as well?
- The Historical Argument cites historical examples of attempts at a Christian nation and the subsequent failures. But, says Daws, we could just as well cite Harvard’s abandonment of the Christian gospel as reason to give up on forming institutions of higher education to advance Christian higher education.
- The Ethnic Nationalism Argument critiques CN as a cover for White nationalism and Kinism. These concerns are not unfounded, but it’s also true that views outside the Overton Window tend to attract people whose views really do belong outside the window of acceptable discourse.
From there, Daws goes on to classify CN’s into two categories. As we will see, this distinction is helpful in understanding the cause of friction in today’s intramural discussions.
First, Practical Christian nationalists are those focused on the present situation in the West and in America and on solutions to these problems. This group insists on a conservativism that actually conserves marriage and gender and the dignity of life in the womb. They are not aiming at an established church, but for American’s return to its founding Christian assumptions and culture. 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.”
The second group, what Daws calls Theoretical Christian nationalists, is quite different though laying hold of the same label. This group may care about immediate problems, but their writing and debate is more concerned with larger questions “about the nature of power and the relationship between church and state, questions too long ignored by American Protestants.” They are pessimistic about what is possible given the current situation and so they are focused on a more philosophical exercise not unlike what Plato or Machiavelli were engaged in in their own day. This helps make sense of what seems an otherwise absurd proposal for a Christian Price. The whole enterprise is a thought experiment less than activism in our current environment. Fair enough.
Daws’ concluding exhortation is as gentle as the type of engagement he promotes:
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.
2024: Clarifying Positions and Catalyzing Partnerships
Approaching 2024, Christ Over All has accepted the fool’s errand of attempting to define Christian nationalism and to improve the dialogue. On the whole, we are not committed to the label for reasons we will spell out as the month goes on. But neither are we terribly bothered when others use it. In our thinking, we are grateful for the discussion that this label has provoked, and we are not looking to speak against those who take up the moniker or those who don’t.
While we do not share agreement on every point with brothers on either side, we believe that we need one another. For, whatever we call ourselves, the progressive Left in our day sees us the same: a threat by virtue of our Christian beliefs. Whatever we or other Christians may call themselves, we should be unashamed of the influence of the Scriptures and the worldview born of the Christian gospel on the minds and pens of those who shaped the West and America in particular.
Tragically, what started as a pejorative label thrown against Christians by those who hate Christ has become a cudgel that Christians have begun to use to fight against one another. While those most passionate in the intramural debates of CN share a passion to oppose secularism and its fruits (e.g., abortion, transgenderism, Marxism, globalism, etc.), all too many have taken the bait offered by the godless name-callers to fight against other Christians.
On this point, we find ourselves in hearty agreement with many brothers who affirm CN but who do so for reasons that we cannot affirm for various theological reasons. For example, we do not share the postmillennialism of Doug Wilson, but we appreciate his candor and we actually find ourselves agreeing with him on many points of practice.
We think the questions driving this discussion are of great importance: What is the foundation for human government and law? What’s at stake in the West and in America’s abandonment of its Christian heritage and framing assumptions concerning the dignity and sinfulness of humanity? What happens to a civilization when the state rejects any appeal to transcendent authority? Wilson has taken those questions seriously, and we have been helped by many, but not all, of the responses he has given.
Similarly, we can appreciate Stephen Wolfe’s philosophical and historical project, even if we have no intention of implementing his Thomist theology. We don’t believe he is the Kinist many have made him to be. But we do believe his (faulty) understanding of nations as rooted in creation rather than the fall (Genesis 11, in particular) opens a door for Kinists to camp out and find a home in his proposal.
Equally, we find ourselves in fundamental theological agreement with our Baptist brothers who diligently stand against establishing religion in the state. Yet, such a willingness to maintain a measure of separation between church and state does not necessitate that we deny the place of Christians to seek institutions, customs, or even laws that would improve the conditions of culture such that the primary work of the church (making disciples) would find better soil. In other words, while we agree with Baptists who stress religious liberty, we do not want to fall into the trap of separationism such that neutrality in the public square is the best situation for the church.
Thus, we find much agreement with many of the faithful brothers whom we interviewed. And we also find important differences. Still, in all that we have to offer this month, we are not seeking another form of third-wayism, or merely splitting the difference between two polarized views. There are important questions being raised that require time and expertise and careful handling. We are glad others have been engaging with energy and great heart.
As unashamed Baptists, we believe we have our work cut out for us. Our own movement was born and formed in a civilizational context already formed by Christian preaching and assumptions. Our best theologians after the Reformation were writing from within Christendom, and not seeking to create a place for Christians in a pagan culture. Speaking historically then, we know how to advocate for religious liberty in a world that holds Christian assumptions. But how do we make the case for religious liberty in an age that has rejected religion altogether and the Christian religion specifically?
That is the question that rests before us today, and it is one that will carry us through this month and into 2024.
Toward Biblical Nationhood and Beyond
The title of this post is a play on the title of the film Inception. This piece has sought to trace the recent origin of the CN terminology but also explore the nested nature of this discussion and the lessons we’re learning.
As with the movie Inception, we want to find our way out of confusion to the clarity of truth. We like our brothers who use the term, but we don’t think the label Christian nationalism is the way.
After a month considering the term and the terms of Christian nationalism, Christ Over All is moving ahead to consider “biblical nationhood.” Picking up this language from our podcast with Joe Boot and Andrew Sandlin, we believe “biblical nationhood” is a more helpful way to frame the conversation about Christ, his church, and the nations.
Not only does this label affirm the place of nations in our world and in God’s Word, but it also doesn’t carry all the baggage that comes when something holy (Christianity) is fused with something profane (state). Yes, even this statement about the holy and profane assumes something about the relationship between the church and the state, but that’s just the point—Christian nationalism as a term, in addition to being a slur used by Leftist media—is a label that comes charged and ready to spark.
By contrast, “biblical nationhood,” while more generic simply says: Jesus loves the nations, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. At the same time, the Bible also tells me how to love my nation and hate the wickedness carried out by my nation and the nations—even as the history of the church, over two millennia, has on offer countless expressions of the church and the state. Put all that together, and Christ Over All is attempting to rightly discern what Scripture says about nations, even as we gladly confess, we don’t have the final word on the matter.
Nonetheless, we do have an unchanging and sufficient Word which gives us wisdom to think about this word “Christian nationalism,” which has our attention for the time being.
Undeniably, the Lord is sovereign in hearts and over history, but for our money, we believe that amidst the clamor of pro-CN and anti-CN sentiments, biblical nationhood provides a more descriptive, albeit a more generic, label to a discussion that has produced more heat than light.
As we look back, we can see how Christian nationalism began as an insult, prompted inquiry, and led to heated interactions. Yet, if we can put the insults aside and realize that there is a common enemy who is calling any believer who dares to be “Christian” in public a dirty, rotten Christian nationalist, then perhaps we can both theorize and strategize ways to bring Christ’s light into the public spaces.
Indeed, that is our hope at Christ Over All. And all month we will be engaging this subject so that the church may remember that Christ is Lord and that all things are under his feet, including the titles we use, refuse, or abuse. Ultimately, the Lord will have his way among the nations. And in this day, may we continue to seek what it means to have a biblical view of nationhood and how to be faithful Christians in whatever nation the Lord draws our boundaries (Acts 17:26).