The term “Christian nationalism” is like “evangelicalism” – these days it really depends on what you mean. If someone asked me if I was either of those I’d want a conversation about what they meant first.
We love to make labels. This is a cognitive shortcut as it allows us to quickly decide whether someone’s a friend or foe, whether they should be trusted or dismissed. Call someone a socialist and you can dismiss them as naive. Call them a conspiracy theorist and you can call them kooky. Call them a nationalist and you can dismiss them as a Nazi. But, to use some ironic humour, generalisations are always wrong. These broad-brush definitions always end up painting ourselves into a corner. They lead to a crippling polarisation that makes progress impossible. The habit of quickly labelling and dismissing people kills the intellectual challenge that leads to growth and learning, both for the labeller and the labelled.
Christian nationalism has become one of these boxes. It’s often used as a slur that allows people to dismiss out of hand any argument someone could make without having to deal with the contents of their argument.
But what is Christian nationalism? The real problem is that it’s such a broadly defined term. In most people’s minds, it covers everything from the KKK and other white supremacists to being proud of the Christian heritage of one’s nation.
Several (often contradictory) things get thrown into one bag and confused in the process, including Protestantism, evangelicalism, any and all Christian political engagement, QAnon conspiracy theories, Christian theocracy and conservatism. This leads to the fallacy of guilt by association: the claim that if you are a Christian, if you are conservative, you are the same as the people who stormed the US Capitol and you’re the same as the so-called “Christian” white supremacists who reject the very same people who share Jesus’ ethnicity.
The sceptical comedian and political commentator Bill Maher said it this way: “magical religious thinking is just a virus and QAnon is just its current mutation. That’s why megachurches play QAnon videos. It’s the same basic plot. Q is a prophet, Trump is the messiah, there’s an apocalyptic event looming – ‘The Storm’, there’s a titanic struggle of good vs evil and if you want good to win, just keep those cheques coming in… they’ve already made space in their heads for s*** that doesn’t make sense. When you’re a QAnon fanatic you’re also a fundamentalist Christian. They just go together like macaroni and cheese or chardonnay and valium.”
In effect, he says “so you believe Jesus is coming back to destroy evil and usher in an eternal paradise? You’re pretty much identical to a QAnon conspiracy theorist. You’re fine with the overthrow of the US government.” This is as nuanced and intelligent as saying “you don’t believe in God and you don’t like capitalism? You’re pretty much identical to the atheist Stalin. So you’re cool with killing 9 million people in the cause of communism.”
The issue with his assessment isn’t his criticism of QAnon, it’s his deliberate conflation of the conspiracy theory with Christianity. He does this through a comparison of common features, all while ignoring the fact that these similarities exist because they’re shared by every worldview, even his! Every worldview has a creation story, a fall story, a redemption story, a judgement story and a paradise story. In other words, every worldview tries to explain where we’ve come from, how things went wrong and how things are going to be put right with an aspirational vision for the future. Yes, this includes socialism, conservatism, Christianity, the progressive social justice movement, US imperialism and the religion of new atheism. So there’s a lot to the label ‘Christian nationalism’ and it’s used in some pretty unhelpfully blunt ways.
Bill Maher continues: “That insurrection [at the US Capitol on January 6th] looked like a revival meeting with people praying around wooden crosses, waving the Christian flag and ‘Jesus saves’ signs, yelling ‘Jesus is my saviour, Trump is my president.’ A Jesus 2020 banner hung near the gallows that was erected for Mike Pence. Because I guess he’s Judas in this version of the story.”
I know that 99% of Christians would think in response to this critique “I didn’t do that.” Well now you did because you’re being branded as a part of the gang.
So perhaps we should explore the interplay between the two words. How Christian is nationalism? And how nationalistic is Christianity? Has one co-opted the other?
In a most general sense, nationalism can refer to mere patriotism. It means to identify with one’s own nation and support its interests. By this definition, most people could be described as nationalists.
But a more extreme definition of nationalism is when one’s individual loyalty and devotion to a nation-state surpasses other individual or group interests, and one thinks their nation is superior to other nations in all ways.
When left to run its course, this more extreme kind of nationalism has historically resulted in authoritarianism in which a leading figure is needed to guide a nation. Democracy becomes untrustworthy because traitors and outsiders could infiltrate the government and thus weaken the nation.
Similarly, sometimes researchers talk about ‘civilisationism’ which is similar to nationalism, but the focus is on one’s society as a whole, like “Western civilisation,” for instance. This views one’s civilisation as superior to all others and believes that it should control and dominate all others. In our world today the most powerful two civilisationistic forces are the West vs China and all those in its orbit. Civilisationism is what led to the space race, the cold war and proxy wars like the US war in Vietnam.
Does Christianity cause Christian Nationalism?
Extreme nationalism has resulted in some horrible things, including the erosion of democracy and civil liberties, authoritarianism and the death of millions. The possibility of the return of right-wing nationalism stokes a legitimate fear in the media. Furthermore, its apparent alliance with western Christianity causes many to assume the best way to address the rise of Christian nationalism is to resist Christianity, or at least its hold over people.
But does the research support this? You may be surprised to find out that the best way to discourage Christian nationalism is to encourage more Christianity.
Christian nationalism is generally understood to be the view that Christian values and doctrines should have power over the state and culture. It asserts that the nation and culture should be defined by aspects within Christianity and that the government should be active in enforcing this. This commonly takes the form of expectations that the highest political office should only be held by a professing Christian, Christian symbols should feature in public spaces, laws should be based on values found in Christianity and children should be encouraged to pray in schools, for instance. Immigration is often also discouraged as one doesn’t want outsiders to come in, bringing in their own cultural values and altering the Christian nation from within.
Note: at this stage I’m not seeking to weigh in on the value or dangers of Christian nationalism but simply to describe it and assess what leads to it.
The goal of Christian nationalism isn’t necessarily about developing Christian beliefs in individuals, encouraging people to be more religious or devout, or about the evangelism of unbelievers. There are many individuals, research bodies and campaigners that are considered to be examples of Christian nationalism yet are still quite secular in their beliefs. This is because it focuses on the nation and culture as a whole.
According to the journal article Unchurched Christian Nationalism and the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, “Christian nationalism may be politically salient outside of devout Christian circles, ‘beyond the Christian traditions of its origins,’ and ‘in a wide range of contexts.’”
This study, conducted in 2021, found that among politically right-leaning individuals, Christian nationalism was found among those who were the least religious. To quote: “…we find no evidence that Christian nationalism mobilised church-based support in the election. This is demonstrated by the fact that in our results Christian nationalism is only strongly associated with Trump support for voters who do not attend religious services. Among religious attenders, the effect of Christian nationalism on Trump voting is not only weak, it is also not statistically different from zero.”
They further continue: “…white nationalist groups in the US explicitly use Christian nationalist rhetoric, but those who identify with such movements tend not to be strongly involved in mainstream Christian congregations.”
So according to the research, Christian nationalism is more of a politically motivating force for the unchurched, and it seems to thrive with secularism.
Another study found that although populist radical far-right parties of Europe tend to advertise themselves as defenders of Christian identity and values, they are unlikely to attract religious Christian voters.
“Populist radical far-right parties take pains to show that they are defenders of Christian identity and values, and yet they do not widely attract religious Christian voters. Our analyses confirm that paradox. As religiosity increases, the odds of voting for a PRR party instead of a mainstream right party decline.” Source – Explaining the Religion Gap in Support for Radical Right Parties in Europe.
Similarly, it has been found that “anti-religious sentiment has been found to be more distressing to individuals who do not attend regular church services.” [source] and that “unchurched Christian nationalists are more likely to favour an authoritarian figure using populist appeals.” [source]. Furthermore, “in Europe, Christian religiosity tends to make one less likely to vote for a radical far-right party.” [source]
What researchers are highlighting is that as religious belief declines, for many, especially on the right, it does not also erode many of the identity markers or cultural symbols of Christianity as well. Many still hold to their Christian heritage and make this an identity marker yet without the foundation of core doctrines and beliefs. Therefore, the symbols and identity markers of Christianity are often conferred onto the nation or ‘home culture,’ becoming more of a political badge in their understanding.
Philip Gorski says “…loosed from its religious moorings, religious nationalism floats free of the ethical tether of Christian ethics and drifts even further in the direction of secular messianism and political authoritarianism.”
Roger Brubaker said, “it is precisely the ongoing erosion of Christianity as doctrine, organisation, and ritual that makes it easy to invoke Christianity as a cultural and civilizational identity, characterised by putatively shared values that have little or nothing to do with religious belief and practise.”
Attitudes toward immigration
This is backed by attitudes on immigration. Christian nationalists tend to favour less immigration and more restrictive measures. But a recent study found that the strongest anti-immigration attitudes were found among non-active Christians. Of course, being non-religious doesn’t make someone a nationalist, but the more inactive one is religiously, the more any nationalistic leanings are magnified and the more likely one is to align with anti-immigration sentiments. The nation takes the place of God.
“Christian nationalism may be powerfully operative among religiously inactive Americans. This suggests that religious identities and beliefs appeal to many Americans for their political and cultural meaning and not necessarily their traditional spiritual intent.” [Source]
In Europe, people on the political far-right tend to be more civilisationist, in that they wish to defend western civilisation from immigrants that are suspected of infiltrating Europe in an attempt to change it from its traditional Christian heritage. It is often assumed that Christianity motivates anti-immigration sentiment.
However, Kenneth Vaughan conducted a study that looked at the acceptance of refugees on individual, regional and national levels and actually found that at the individual level, “Christians (with the exception of Catholic Christians and the unaffiliated) are relatively similar in their policy preferences regarding the admittance of refugees… religious service attendance is associated with more generous policy preferences, particularly for Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox Christians and Muslims.”
At the national and regional levels, he found that “National percent Protestant, regional percent Protestant, and regional percent Catholic are associated with respondents offering more generous policy preferences. At the national and regional levels, percent unaffiliated is associated with more restrictive preferences.”
Additionally, greater religiosity is linked to more support for less restrictive immigration policies. A 2017 study looked at anti-muslim sentiment in Western Europe [source] and found that “Although more secularised countries are on average more tolerant towards Muslims and Islam, strongest anti-Muslim attitudes are nonetheless found among the nonreligious in these countries.”
So in summary, multiple sources of research confirm that Christian Nationalism thrives best in a post-Christian context. On the whole, citizens who are actively practicing their Christian faith tend to hold less nationalistic political stances. Whatever your stance on nationalism, it’s clear that nationalism has co-opted the superficial symbols of Christianity, not that nationalism is an inherent feature or inevitable outcome of Christian faith.
Research shows that Christianity, and specifically Protestantism, leads to more civil liberties, education, literacy and democracy and does not lead to more authoritarianism or extreme nationalism. If you want to reduce nationalism and authoritarianism, you should encourage more Christianity. You should encourage people to attend church and become more religious.
It has been shown that historically Protestants were catalysts for increasing literacy and education and spreading democracy around the world. Robert Woodberry says “conversionary Protestants were a crucial catalyst initiating the development and spread of religious liberty, mass education, mass printing, newspapers, voluntary organisations, most major colonial reforms and the codification of legal protections for non-whites in the 19th and early 20th centuries.” [source]
If the Christian worldview naturally led to authoritarianism and extreme nationalism we wouldn’t expect to see democratic institutions, a focus on education and civil liberties to come out of Christian societies. Woodberry notes the historical evidence indicates that Protestants helped many people around the world fight for civil liberties and anti-colonial measures, like transferring power away from the British to indigenous people. He writes: “When these religious SMOs became anti-colonial they were too powerful to crush easily. They forced the British to gradually transfer power and allow indigenous people to run political parties and participate in elections before decolonisation.”
This is not to say that missionaries were always perfect; there are plenty of examples of abuses and the way that colonial conquest spread hand in hand with evangelism. However, it can be argued that the missionary impact on the evils of colonialism was largely a positive one.
The abolitionist movement was largely run by protestants who became convinced the bible forbade slavery and organised boycotts around goods that were made using slave labour. Protestants also worked to educate local indigenous populations and dispersed power by developing and spreading new organisational forms and protest tactics. They encouraged democratic institutions, political organising for rights and extending equality to non-white populations.
Woodberry ran a model to examine the relationship between countries that have protestant missionary influence and countries with more democratic values and liberties. Statistically, “missions seem to explain about half the variation in democracy outside Europe and survive dozens of controls and robustness checks.” This leads to the conclusion that protestant influence leads to more democratic values and away from authoritarian ideologies. Woodberry goes on to state:
“In all 5 contacts analysed – Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, European-settler colonies, and mission territories – Protestantism is associated with democracy. Comparative historical analysis showed that Protestants consistently initiated and spread factors that past research suggests promoted democracy: mass printing, mass education, civil society and colonial rule of law… the cumulative correlation between Protestant missions and democracy is .707.”
Similarly, Rollin Tusalem ran a similar study and found the same result: “…higher Protestant populations are more likely to have higher levels of voice and accountability, political stability, citizenship empowerment, and civil society pluralism… [Protestantism] correlated with higher levels of personal freedoms, media independence and the promotion of basic human rights… [Catholicism was also] positively associated with higher levels of voice and accountability and citizenship empowerment… The coefficient for Islam is nagative; however, it fails to achieve a threshold of statistical significance.”
Protestantism and Catholicism are also a good predictor for higher levels of NGO membership among the population while Islam was in the non-significant range. Similar results were found for political stability and the ability to create positive political transformation.
The identity politics of both sides
After exploring the research looking into the political fruit of active Christian faith, now we’ll turn to the prevalence of nationalistic-type thinking on all sides of the political spectrum.
Identity politics is the tendency for people to develop group-based political alliances, and as such, nationalism could be understood as a particular facet of identity politics. Nationalism is only one manifestation of this underlying approach.
When conservatives engage in identity politics, they more often think with national and civilisational categories in view, but the mindset of identity politics certainly isn’t unique to conservatives. Therefore, the errors we see inherent to nationalism can also appear in other, quite different identity-based affiliations, as they have the same root. It’s not just conservatives that fall prey to the identity based underpinnings of nationalism – it’s a mindset that the socially progressive are vulnerable to, too. It’s just that the targets and proposed solutions of the progressive left are different.
The modern political progressive movement has also unconsciously borrowed from Christian theology in the concept of original sin. The limited definition of original sin that they’ve appropriated is that we inherit guilt according to the group we’re born into, similar to the Catholic idea that all people, by virtue of birth, inherit the guilt of Adam’s original sin. The progressive movement has extended this to claim that you should be held accountable for the sins of your ancestors in regard to racial disparities and abuses. Within this framework, ‘privilege’ is primarily a group-based phenomenon, gained through accidents of birth. It naturally blinds the privileged to the struggles of those of other less fortunate people-groups. Most importantly, it confers shared guilt and with it a particular responsibility on the privileged to reset the balance by deferring to other groups. Equality makes way for ‘positive discrimination’, giving a voice to the voiceless develops into banning certain speech and campaigns to end segregation by group are replaced by safe spaces in which the dominant group is excluded.
This isn’t to argue for or against any of these progressive measures, but to highlight how identity politics of all kinds borrows from Christianity for its underpinnings. The political right borrows Christian cultural symbols for its nation-based (with racial overtones) identity politics and the political left borrows a Christian view of sin and responsibility for its race-based identity politics. As both right and left-wing politics have integrated Christian concepts into their foundations, fighting Christianity is not an effective way to tip the balance of the culture war one way or another.
Conversely, as both left and right-wing political identity politics have adopted concepts from Christianity into their foundations, the most effective way to weigh up and address the excesses of identity politics of all kinds is to engage them at their source – in the realm of Christian theology.
What the left and right get wrong about justice
I don’t expect to exhaustively address all our modern conceptions of justice here, but this is worth touching on because the judeo-christian idea of justice has something interesting to say to both competing modern visions of justice. For a more thorough analysis of the biblical idea of justice see our article Why You Might Not Like Justice.
Commonly, Christianity teaches that although we all inherit a sinful nature, each person will have to account for their own sins. While there was a progression throughout the Hebrew scriptures, in Christian thought we are not considered guilty even for the sins of our immediate family and one does not have to repent for somebody else’s sins. If your great grandparents owned slaves, while expressing remorse to the descendants of those slaves can be a beautiful bridge to reconciliation, it wasn’t you who sinned, your ancestors did.
Social progressives tend to interpret justice through the lens of people-groups alone, but modern Christian conservatism has its own overly narrow-minded reaction to this in how it intensely individualises justice. In the old covenant, God called many nations to repent, whole people groups.
“We have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws… We and our kings, our princes and our ancestors are covered with shame, Lord, because we have sinned against you… All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you.” (Daniel 9:5, 8–11)
The biblical idea of “righteousness” was that it meant “living in right relationship,” in every area of life: with God, other people and the natural world. That’s why the whole of the law and prophets hangs on the two commands to love God with everything and love your neighbour as yourself. So if righteousness is inherently relational, a pursuit of righteousness will affect every relationship, including the relationships between people groups and between individuals and people groups. There is a corporate aspect to justice that cannot be ignored.
In the new covenant, Jesus spoke woes over Chorazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum as whole towns for the manner in which they collectively rejected his message. Then in the early church age, Peter pleaded with people to repent and “save yourselves from this corrupt generation.”
But here’s a key point to note: in the new covenant, when God judges generations, cities and nations as corrupt and in need of reform, He doesn’t lift up any earthly political nation as his chosen instrument. God doesn’t instruct people to leave their heathen homeland and apply for an American passport. As we place our faith in Jesus, God births us into a new family and so transfers us into a new generation, a new tribe, a new nation. Being ‘in Christ’ governs all other cultural markers.
“for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-2)
This isn’t to say that other ethnic, social or gender distinctions no longer exist, but they no longer have the final and authoritative word over us. Our oneness in Christ dissolves the walls of hostility and creates a multicoloured, multifaceted unity in him. This models the unity and diversity of the triune God, with none of us either losing our beautiful distinctions nor our oneness of nature.
“… remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.
For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility… Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household”
In the new covenant, our identity is primarily shaped by belonging to Christ and we’re made clean because we’re in him. There’s no more nationalism nor ethnic guilt in that.
However, in practical ways, many unequal relationships still exist between people groups. Each of us must individually repent for not loving our disadvantaged neighbour, be they ethnic minority, poorer, immigrant etc. This is why there’s value in pointing out group disparities & calling for change – because these disparities are anti-gospel, they’re unjust, and God calls us to act justly in the world.
There’s only one christian nation, and it isn’t the USA
Am I a Christian nationalist? I could say “yes,” and I could equally say “no.” There’s no such thing as a Christian nation, from a modern political sense of the word. But perhaps more accurately we should say that there’s only one Christian nation, and Jesus is its king. Christians can and should influence politics but ultimately we should remember that all the nations of this world are under the power of the evil one (John 18:36, 1 John 5:19).
The common conception of Christian nationalism is heresy. It makes us forget we’re immigrants here (1 Peter 2:11, Hebrews 13:12-14). It dupes us into treating political candidates as messiahs or devils. And worst of all, it sullies the gospel.
Sure, you can be proud of where you come from. Along with its allies, Britain destroyed the Nazis and ended the transatlantic slave trade. Our cultural capital is impressive. Moderate patriotism can be justified but as the Christian is essentially a citizen of a kingdom that is from above, we must not become too invested in any earthly political identity. I’m convinced that the more we remember that “the world and its desires pass away, but whoever does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:17) the less enthused we will feel about waving a national flag.
God bless America
Due to a perfect storm of religious history, the USA has become the global centre of Christian Nationalism. Thus, Christian Nationalism has become all about the USA and is tied to a particular US American myopic arrogance that treats the US as the only nation in existence.
In right-wing circles US citizens can be castigated as “unpatriotic” for critiquing injustices in their culture. When, in 2017, the American footballer Colin Kaepernick took the knee to protest police violence against black members of the public, Trump chided “Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say, ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now. Out! He’s fired. He’s fired!’” In conflating a protest against racism with a lack of patriotism, Trump inadvertently admitted that racism was inherent to the USA’s identity.
US exceptionalism is a myth that fosters nationalism in the country, but it’s a hollow foundation. Although the US has been at the forefront of media output, commerce and innovation, the national self-idolatry is largely unwarranted in a whole raft of areas:
- It ranks 34th out of 44 countries for infant mortality
- 89th/230 for murder rate per 100k
- Share of CO2 emissions: 19th/20
- Its healthcare costs highest out of 48 countries
- Health: 68th
- Safety and security: 69th
- Personal freedom: 22nd
- Overall prosperity: 20th
[ source ]
Considering how powerful the US media is, it’s good to remind ourselves that 93% of Christians live outside the US, so there’s a whole lot more to Christianity than the loud but statistically thin 7% slice we see and hear about from the USA.
Critique globalism if you wish (it certainly is a particularly pernicious form of anti-democratic capitalism), but nationalism has its own dangers too. Hitler definitely wanted to make Germany great again. And treating any kind of nationalist cause as the only alternative to globalism (for Christian efforts) is a false dichotomy too as globalism isn’t the only alternative; the third way is heavenly citizenship. Modern Christian nationalism conflates one’s earthly nation with God’s kingdom.
So what should be our posture?
The data shows that around the world Christian groups have been very influential in promoting democracy, human rights and reducing government corruption. It does not make sense to claim Christianity leads to nationalism or authoritarianism.
In fact, these ideas begin to flourish when people reject Christianity, not embrace it. An embrace of Christianity, especially protestant Christianity, is likely to result in more civil liberties and democratic values.
Of course, one could argue that the political utility of a belief system doesn’t make it correct, and that is true, but plenty of people reject Christianity because of its common associations with repugnant ideologies like extreme nationalism. So if we are to be consistent, then understanding how sincerely held Christian faith is good for society should be a point in its favour.
Lastly, here’s a quote from the 2nd Century piece of apologetics ‘Epistle to Diognetus’. It sums up the relationship the first Christians had with the nations in which they lived:
“They dwell in their own countries but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country and every land of their birth as a land of strangers.”
There’s no trace of (modern) Christian nationalism here. Neither is there a trace of globalism either.
The common greeting for Roman citizens in the marketplace and on the road was “kaiser kurios”, which means “Caesar is Lord.” When the early followers of Jesus met they had a problem because for them, ultimate authority and power didn’t belong to Caesar, so they greeted one another with “Jesus is Lord” instead. This would have become a direct contradiction to the normal patriotic greeting of their day, saying, in effect, “Caesar is not Lord, Jesus is.” That’s akin to saying #notmypresident, all while continuing to submit to Caesar’s just laws (whether about paying taxes or mask-wearing), just as Jesus taught.
This article draws on extensive research from Michael Jones of Inspiring Philosophy