Christian Nationalism & Christian Privilege

on August 19, 2019

It’s fashionable now to denounce “Christian nationalism.” Recently a group of mostly liberal Protestant clerics condemned it, somewhat superficially, as what they denounce, almost nobody defends, and what they defend, almost nobody opposes. Here are some of their bromides:

People of all faiths and none have the right and responsibility to engage constructively in the public square.

Patriotism does not require us to minimize our religious convictions.

One’s religious affiliation, or lack thereof, should be irrelevant to one’s standing in the civic community.

Government should not prefer one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

Religious instruction is best left to our houses of worship, other religious institutions and families.

America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.

Who disagrees? Allegedly unnamed “Christian nationalists.” What is Christian nationalism?” According to these liberal clerics:

Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian. It often overlaps with and provides cover for white supremacy and racial subjugation. We reject this damaging political ideology and invite our Christian brothers and sisters to join us in opposing this threat to our faith and to our nation.

Further, they warn:

We must stand up to and speak out against Christian nationalism, especially when it inspires acts of violence and intimidation—including vandalism, bomb threats, arson, hate crimes, and attacks on houses of worship—against religious communities at home and abroad.

Who are these violent Christian nationalists? They don’t say, which seems like an important omission.

Today there’s a more sophisticated denunciation of conservative nationalism endorsed by prominent liberal Christian academics, including Cornel West and Stanley Hauerwas. It equates nationalism with xenophobia and chauvinism. Significantly, although it laments some Christians have endorsed nationalism, it does not cite “Christian nationalism,” perhaps because its signers realize such an alleged movement is hard to identify and define.

I’ve never met a “Christian nationalist,” so I was interested to read this column by an author who does so self-identify. He mostly makes defensible points about Christianity’s important role in American history and culture. He claims that Christian nationalists, whom he doesn’t name, are merely pushing back against aggressive secularization. And he argues against “religious neutrality.” His version of Christian nationalism includes:

1) a recognition that Christianity has had a unique and privileged influence on our American heritage that overshadows the influences of other faith traditions, 2) a conviction that a Christian understanding of the world should predominate over other worldviews in American civic life, and 3) an understanding that a nation that successfully excised or sufficiently diluted this influence could no longer be called “American” in the same sense as before.

Claiming “privilege” for Christianity in America is problematic. The Gospel seeks to redeem and serve, not “privilege” its adherents. Part of the Gospel’s service is transforming society so that all people are seen as image bearers of God. Nearly all critics of “Christian nationalism” like nearly all Americans wants laws and social standards affirming equality for all races and ethnicities, for men and women, while protecting the poor, the young, the old the sick and vulnerable, and granting free speech and conscience rights, including religious liberty, to all. These expectations, which would’ve astounded pagans of antiquity, are profoundly rooted in Christian anthropology, which asserts each person is created equally before God, has an eternal personhood bearing His image, and will stand before His judgment.

Are these Christian inspired laws and social expectations examples of Christian “privilege?” No, but they demonstrate how America, because it’s been demographically Christian, has of course been shaped by Gospel standards and expectations, however unevenly. Our laws and standard of human dignity are not imposed from above so much as are they are fruit of long-standing Christian influenced popular belief. And even if all Americans claimed to become atheist tomorrow, these beliefs, the fruit and habits of centuries, would not disappear quickly. Long-standing national character is not erased easily.

Is sustaining a Christian ethos about human dignity an example of “Christian nationalism?” Presumably the critics would say no. They imagine and fear a religious and political movement, whose leaders and adherents are largely unnamed, that literally wants to privilege Christianity in law and custom so that non-Christians and heterodox Christians are less than fully equal.

If such a Christian nationalism actually exists as a significant force, it should be denounced and resisted. But where is it? Who are its followers and leaders? Where is its literature? Where does it meet? These questions need detailed answers if this movement really merits denunciation and resistance.

  1. Comment by John Kenyon on August 19, 2019 at 5:07 pm

    Hmmm. I think “Christian Nationalism” in the United States needs airing in a far broader historical and contemporary context. In the USA, it is too often presented as nothing but the KKK of 1930s rather than the Kingdom of God (political theology)…period. (all else is open to discussion). What about Poland Christian (RC) nationalism and Russian (ROC) Christian nationalism. Again, I suspect I like your thinking. Just never certain.

  2. Comment by Phil Duffy on August 23, 2019 at 6:23 pm

    Well stated.

  3. Comment by Dave Taylor on August 24, 2019 at 7:46 am

    When I read about a group formed to oppose “Christian nationalism” I looked up their site, found virtually nothing that provided specific, concrete examples of what this is and emailed for some elaboration and clarification. No reply.

    Like lyrics to rock songs, the views expressed in the testimonials of various important supporters were just vague enough to allow readers to read into their words the same things they felt but couldn’t articulate themselves. That’s one way to build a fan base.

    Groups like these remind me of the American political party that arose in the middle of the 19th century, the Know Nothings. They asserted that various groups were a threat to the nation and played on the amplified fears they inspired. At one point they stole a piece of marble donated by the Pope for the Washington Monument then under construction. Not surprisingly, the movement had a short life; nothing to see here, please move on.

  4. Comment by Ted R. Weiland on August 24, 2019 at 8:37 am

    Mark Tooley: “‘America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism enables faith communities to live in civic harmony with one another without sacrificing our theological convictions.’ Who disagrees?”

    I do!

    And more importantly if you believe in the First Commandment, you know Yahweh, God of the Bible, does as well.

    Contemporary American Christianity has been poisoned by oxymoronic constitutional Christianity, particularly their tenacious suicidal promotion of the First Commandment violating First Amendment.

    CLUE: There were no openly practicing Satanists, nor Muslims, nor Hindus, etc. in early 1600 America whose governments of, by, and for God were established upon the Bible’s immutable triune moral law, beginning with the First Commandment:

    “…When the 18th-century founders replaced the First Commandment (found intact in some 17th-century Colonial Constitutions) with the First Amendment, America was transformed from a predominantly monotheistic Christian nation (a united nation under one God, Yahweh) into arguably the most polytheistic nation to exist (a divided nation under many gods, including Islam’s Allah).

    “It’s one thing to allow for individual freedom of conscience and private choice of gods, something impossible to legislate for or against. It’s another matter altogether for government to enable any and all religions to proliferate through the land and evangelize our posterity to false gods. This is what the First Amendment legitimizes. It is an unequivocal violation of the First Commandment and the polar opposite of the following First Commandment statute:

    ‘[Y]e shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves. For thou shall worship no other god: for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou … go a whoring after their gods….’ (Exodus 34:13-15)….”

    For more, Google blog article “National Religious Freedom Day aka Celebrating the Founders’ Violation of the First Commandment.”

    Then Chapter 11 “Amendment 1: Government-Sanctioned Polytheism” of free online book “Bible Law vs. the United States Constitution: The Christian Perspective.”

    Find out how much you really know about the Constitution as compared to the Bible. Take our 10-question Constitution Survey in the right-hand sidebar and receive a complimentary copy of a book that examines the Constitution by the Bible.

  5. Comment by Jim Radford on August 24, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    Hey, Mark,
    I, too, believe that America has a special place and purpose in God’s self-communication. America has done some incredibly kind, benevolent, self-sacrificial and laudable things in the world throughout its history. But then I think of 19th century “Manifest Destiny” in which America assumed a providential mandate for expansion, and, as a result, we stole territories, victimized and marginalized indigenous peoples, and believed that we were justified in doing so because God had called us to it, and therefore was OK with it. A while back I pastored a church in the Shenandoah Valley that had among its archives a photo of a major KKK rally once held there back in the 1930s (and, BTW, they are not proud of the fact that something like that could ever have happened). Not so many years ago, after we had invaded Iraq, I was horrified to see a syndicated photo taken in Baghdad of a white-painted sign on a battle-scarred wall amidst the ruins of our artillery that read, “Look what our God can do.” That, for me, is a good illustration of a distorted understanding of who we are as a Christian people and very poorly expressed by some young un-thinking gung-ho soldier. It sadly reminds me of how a few “bad apples” cause us to be ill-perceived and misjudged by the rest of the world. “God” and “the Creator” are mentioned in our foundational documents, we have “In God We Trust” printed on our money, many of us purport to be a “Christian nation,” and yet we do some God-awful, and God-less things, if not in the name, at least in the spirit of nationalism. I am not un-sympathetic was those critics (like Stan Hauerwas) who, in the midst of nationalistic claims to a Christian identity, say, “Not so fast….” And yet I continue to believe and insist that only in Jesus Christ can God’s self-communication to the world be apprehended.

  6. Comment by Tony Heine on August 24, 2019 at 12:50 pm

    You did well to put “Christian Nationalism” in scare quotes.

    The left, in their decades-long abuse of the dictionary, have put a label on their political and cultural enemies that combines two of their most hated words.

    I believe you are incorrect in stating that no one disagrees with the six bromides listed in the beginning of the article.
    There are plenty of people who disagree. Most of the left disagrees with each and every one of those points.

    It is not hard to find multiple examples of the left acting completely against every point made.

    Do you remember Russell Vought’s Senate confirmation hearing? The left sees historically orthodox Christianity as a disqualifier for public office.

    This is part of the drive to take the expression of Christian belief out of the public square, out of civilized debate, out of the realm of what is socially and morally acceptable, and make it only a “private” matter.

    “Private” is being defined down such that it will barely encompass the thoughts in your own mind. Our situation has deteriorated to the point that you can get in trouble for using the wrong pronouns.

    There is no neutral ground when it comes to worldviews/religions. It is impossible, really impossible, for the government NOT to favor one worldview/religion over another. Our government is in the process of completely embracing an atheistic/secular/anti-Christian worldview. This process has been going on for a long time and it would take a better student of history than myself to figure out when this Gramscian march began.

    The left would even disagree with the last point about “America’s historic commitment to religious pluralism…” This does not mesh with their Cultural Marxism view of historical oppression and power structures.

    At some point we will have to acknowledge that America was a Christian nation. It was a Christian nation, not because of anything written in the Constitution, but because the vast majority of its people were either Christian or at least acknowledged the authority of Christianity’s major tenants. The reach of Christianity was extensive into each of Kuyper’s spheres.

    We will also have to acknowledge that this is no longer true, and that it is not a good thing.

    There are things about our country, good things, that we attribute to the Constitution and our system of government, but that are actually the product of who we were as a people.

    Through generational apostasy and non-assimilating immigration, we are a different people. Many different peoples, actually.
    America must become a Christian nation again if it is going to survive as a nation. We are divided along racial, ethnic and ideological lines to such an extent that only one thing will unite us. It will not be our Constitution, democracy, or embrace of fuzzy egalitarianism. The only thing that can peaceably unite all these myriad of people who call themselves “Americans” is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

    God controls the rise and fall of nations. Anyone with eyes can see that, besides being on the messy-end of Sir John Glubb’s timetable of empires, America is approaching a singularity of sorts. All the trend lines have slopes that beg for a Herbert Stein quote. When those trend lines take a sudden and non-linear deflection, something will arise out of the chaos, but it will not look like the America you know.

    I don’t know what God has planned for America. I do know that God responds to prayer. I know that He has relented of deserved judgement in the past.

    Pray for revival in America. Pray for the salvation of those in American who are lost.

    Pray for another Great Awakening.

  7. Comment by Chet Thomas on August 25, 2019 at 9:27 am

    Very good Tony. I concur with your assessment wholeheartedly. I do see here in the bible belt a major denomination’s biblical interpretation equating being a good American with evangelical christianity, and nationalism is on full display in fourth of July celebration events, with Jesus, Uncle Sam and Disney characters having equal billing on stage. Our road to secularism is certainly being paved quickly and I agree America must decide what it will be about. The fabric of our nation is unraveling. But a theocracy can also be un-American as my particular practice of Christianity may differ from another’s.

  8. Comment by Elaine Field on August 24, 2019 at 8:17 pm

    Jesus never makes a person follow Him or the teaching of the Bible. He invites all people to freely accept His free gift of salavation. The 1st Ammendment allows all people to become a citizen of the USA….whatever your faith or maybe none. 1607, Jamestown – they thanked God for their arrival to the new land. 1620 – they came to worship God of the Bible, always thankful This is a Christian nation. The Old Testement was a blueprint for designing the government. Still, all faiths are welcome and benefit from God’s goodness. 2 Chron. 7:14

  9. Comment by charles bartlett on August 26, 2019 at 10:59 am

    As the political landscape shifts– with a nationalist-wing among conservatives in the USA having some ascendancy– there are a few worthy talking-points that might be adopted from the more intellectual and establishment part of the emerging movement.

    Most the populist pundits– those who are openly religious– among the nascent ‘national conservatives’ appear to be Jewish or Latin Mass Catholic. Strange, so few Protestant voices rank in their numbers. Could that be due to the heavy dosage of secular humanism (modern progressivism) which hit our denominations? Are we still be reeling from the ‘liberal’ assault– in some ways defending ourselves by accepting certain radical-Left premises?

  10. Comment by charles bartlett on August 26, 2019 at 11:10 am

    I also think ‘christian nationalism’ is just looking to our own history, preserving and mustering it as Americans. This is something the far-Left is opposed and will delegitimize and fabricate, even outright lie, “there was never a Christian majority”, etc. The tearing down of monuments, their relocation, or otherwise removal is an example of what’s transpiring.

  11. Comment by Henry Stokes on August 26, 2019 at 11:13 am

    I have never met any Christian nationalists, but I have met many nationalists who thought that meant they were Christian.

  12. Comment by Randy Thompson on August 26, 2019 at 12:31 pm

    I’m late responding here as I’ve been out of the country for the past couple weeks.
    In a nutshell, to be worried about “Christian Nationalism” is to be worried about something that is very real, as the Fourth of July “worship” service at Dallas’s First Baptist Church demonstrates.
    Evangelicals generally have confused the Kingdom of of God with the United States of America. They are not even close to the same thing. Entering into an alliance with Donald Trump is no different than entering into an alliance with Egypt against Assyria or Babylon in Jeremiah or Isaiah.
    Evangelicals have put more stock in political action than in prayer and patience.

  13. Comment by charles bartlett on August 28, 2019 at 9:31 pm

    This Letter is stoking something of a debate. Brad Littlejohn (I believe he’s a moderate, maybe ‘high church’, Presbyterian) at First Things also responds:

  14. Comment by Donald on September 1, 2019 at 6:50 am

    When Cornell West gives up demanding a limo to drive him to his over-costly speaking gigs and Stanley Hauerwas takes illegal aliens into his home, willingly supporting them to apply for citizenship and personally funding their healthcare, THEN I will begin to think of them as serious participants in the discussion. Until then, they’re just tired race-baiting-hawking hypocrites who don’t live up (or down) to what they prescribe for others. BTW, my view comes from personal exposure to both of these individuals and not from some website.

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