During Donald Trump’s presidency many critics have reviled his base as adherents of “Christian nationalism.” Christian nationalism, we are told, is the real religion of Trumpian “evangelicals.” But the definition of Christian nationalism is often unclear.

Why is Christian nationalism a slippery category? First, it is usually a term of insult. Yes, the term reflects those who would describe America as a “Christian nation.” But there are far more pundits who label people as “Christian nationalists” than there are people who embrace the term themselves.

Second, actual Christian nationalism is more a visceral reaction than a rationally chosen stance. I recently saw a yard sign that read “Make Faith Great Again: Trump 2020.” I wondered, How can re-electing Donald Trump make “faith” great again? What faith? When did it stop being great? No coherent answers would be forthcoming to such questions, but that’s the point. The sign speaks to a person’s ethnic, religious, and cultural identity in ways easier to notice than to explain.

Finally, it is often not clear whether “Christian nationalism” is referring mainly to devotion to the American nation, to the Republican Party, or to an individual politician. The Trump era has definitely produced exotic beliefs related to the president as an “anointed” ruler, as illustrated by the recent vision-induced “Jericho March.” But here I want to focus on the concept of Christian nationalism as nationalism per se.

Christian Nationalism vs. Christian Patriotism

What’s the difference between Christian nationalism (bad) and Christian patriotism (good in moderation)? Political theorist Benedict Anderson described nations as “imagined communities”: though nations may be vast in geography and population, many of us cherish such intense patriotic commitment that we would lay down our lives (or those of our children) to defend our country, and to promote its power around the globe.

Obviously, traditional Christians ought to limit that kind of nationalistic fervor. As “strangers and exiles on the earth,” our ultimate allegiance is to Christ’s kingdom. Our love for a non-American brother or sister in Christ should exceed our comradeship with unbelieving American patriots, whose numbers are legion.

As ‘strangers and exiles on the earth,’ our ultimate allegiance is to Christ’s kingdom.

But measured patriotism still seems appropriate, and somewhat unavoidable for most Christians. Even Romans 13’s injunction to be “subject to the governing authorities” suggests a default support for your nation. If nothing else, we pray for our leaders and communities so that, as 1 Timothy 2 puts it, believers “may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” When believers can live that kind of life in a nation (as they often have in America), we should be grateful. (See Kevin DeYoung’s helpful reflections on our national history and identity.)

America has long nurtured more problematic forms of Christian nationalism, though. In this, the United States is hardly alone. British nationalism was an enormously powerful commitment for white American colonists, one that most patriots only broke with great reluctance in 1776. Communist nations like North Korea also engender virulent forms of nationalism, since official atheism needs transcendent national commitments to fill the void usually occupied by theistic civil religion.

Still, since “evangelicals” (usually meaning white religious Republicans) are the Americans most often accused of Christian nationalism, it would behoove those of us who still accept the “evangelical” label to consider nationalism’s history.

History of Christian Nationalism

In The Cross of War: Christian Nationalism and U.S. Expansion in the Spanish-American War, Matthew McCullough defines American Christian nationalism as “an understanding of American identity and significance held by Christians wherein the nation is a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God.” War has generated the “strongest expressions of Christian nationalism,” he explains. As McCullough and others have shown, Christian nationalism can give an exaggerated transcendent meaning to American history, and undergird American militarism.

Christian nationalism can give an exaggerated transcendent meaning to American history, and undergird American militarism.

Christian nationalism has often changed over America’s history. It originally took the form of British Protestant nationalism aligned against Catholic national powers, especially France and Spain. Britain became America’s rival in the Revolution and the War of 1812. Other Americans became the great national enemy during the Civil War. But today’s Christian nationalism dates back to the Cold War.

In many ways, the fight against Soviet communism set the modern template for white evangelical engagement with politics. This helps explain why many of today’s most ardent adherents of Christian nationalism are also children of the Cold War. White evangelical leaders, especially Billy Graham, framed the Cold War as a conflict between the Christian values of America and the atheism of the Soviets. (White people have been the primary, though not exclusive, purveyors of Christian nationalism, partly because they have been great beneficiaries of American national power.) As Graham would later admit, this spiritual framing led him and other evangelicals to see almost everything about Cold War politics through spiritual lenses. Thus, whoever was toughest on communism (e.g., Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, or Ronald Reagan) got transformed into Christian warriors who had God on their side.

The details of a politician’s personal faith didn’t matter so much as their bona fides as a Cold War stalwart. This association of Republican politicians with the cause of Christian nationalism became more pronounced when the GOP, out of both opportunism and principle, identified itself as the pro-life party after Roe v. Wade (1973). The fact that most traditional Protestants in America correctly regarded abortion as gravely immoral made it even more difficult, ironically, to maintain clear boundaries between Christian identity, Republican politics, and the American nation. As the secular left in the post-Vietnam War era portrayed American history as morally mixed, if not relentlessly abominable, key white evangelicals responded with “God and country” celebrations, even at church services, and with the formation of the Moral Majority.

When Is Patriotism Actually Nationalism?

How do you know when your measured patriotism has morphed into idolatrous Christian nationalism? American Christians are tempted by many forms of idolatry, and many of them start with good things (patriotism, family, work) that become ultimate commitments. Like those other idolatries, the idolatry of one’s nation may be difficult to discern at first glance.

American Christians are tempted by many forms of idolatry, and many of them start with good things (patriotism, family, work) that become ultimate commitments.

Still, there are warning signs that can suggest that our faith is becoming dangerously politicized and nationalistic. One is suggested by McCullough’s definition: has the story of the American nation taken a central place in our understanding of redemptive history? Most pastors with basic grounding in Christian theology would know better than to suggest openly that America must be a key actor in biblical history. But what are we to take from the popularity of Thomas Nelson’s American Patriot’s Bible, or Christian history writer David Barton’s The Founders’ Bible? These reveal the ongoing risk of blending American and Christian history in a syncretistic way.

A related warning sign is the effort to turn the ostensible defenders of the Christian nation into devout believers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, or to defend them against criticism. David Barton and other popular history writers have done this with the likes of Thomas Jefferson, who was a materialist and a Unitarian at best. We have seen similar instances such as Billy Graham having Richard Nixon speak at evangelistic crusades, or evangelical Republican insiders declaring that Donald Trump is a “baby Christian” who sometimes just engages in “macho” or “locker-room” talk. The urge to transform politicians or other defenders of the American nation into virtuous believers or Christlike figures suggests that we may have confused nationalism with biblical Christianity.

The urge to transform politicians or other defenders of the American nation into virtuous believers or Christlike figures suggests that we may have confused nationalism with biblical Christianity.

Finally, and more positively, does our congregation reflect (as much as local demographics allow) the “nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues” that compose God’s kingdom? Or does it reflect mainly one ethnic group sharing the same partisan commitments and zealous American patriotism? Great ways to platform the “all nations” aspect of church life include supporting international missions, prioritizing relief and evangelistic work among immigrants in America, giving people of varied ethnicities and backgrounds leadership roles, and hosting international church plants and/or classes at your church.

My congregation makes a big deal out of how many nations are represented in our membership. Even in the middle of Texas, it currently stands at 34 countries. The church displays national flags representing all those countries. The American-born people in the congregation are keenly aware of this international dynamic, and it helps native-born members to remember we are a church of kingdom loyalties, first and foremost.

I suspect most international members of American churches do not begrudge acknowledging the Fourth of July, much less the regular prayers for political leaders that Scripture commands. (Those leaders’ policies on immigration and similar issues make a big difference to our international friends, too.) But if white evangelicals imply that we have a special devotion to a certain politician or party, or that the American nation is somehow “a central actor in the world-historical purposes of the Christian God,” our international brothers and sisters (or brothers and sisters of color generally) might think we’ve lost our minds. Or they might remind us of the closing verse of 1 John: “Little children, keep yourselves from idols.”

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