In this short address—the latest installment in our new TGC Talks series—Michael Horton explains why there is no such thing, in the new covenant, as a “Christian nation” apart from the worldwide body of Christ. “The problem with Christian nationalism is not that some Christians are taking a biblical idea too seriously,” says Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, “but that they are confusing America with Israel under the old covenant. From a biblical perspective, it’s actually heretical. It confuses the law with the gospel.”
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Michael Horton: One of the most unsettling images I can recall was from the January 6th, 2021, insurrection. A wooden cross propped up outside the US Capitol, surrounded by a mob of people hosting up American flags, not far from a faux hangman’s platform and noose apparently intended for the vice president. The verse that comes to mind is Romans 2:24, for as it is written, the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you. Peter similarly warns in second, Peter 2:2 and many will follow their sensuality. And because of them, the way of the truth will be blasphemed. The January 6th attack on the US Capitol, which included insurrectionist praying Christian prayers once they infiltrated the Senate chamber, has prompted a renewed conversation about what’s called Christian nationalism. So is America a Christian nation? In the most important demographic study of Christian nationalism to date, Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry point out that 78% of evangelicals favor Christian nationalism. However, 65% of all African-Americans do as well, which is the largest proportion of any racial group.
The difference is that African-Americans appeal to the Christian nation narrative for greater social justice rather than to defend white privilege. But for whatever reason, this idea of a Christian nation is invoked. Does the general concept stand up to careful biblical scrutiny? I would suggest that the Bible opposes any notion of a Christian nation apart from the worldwide body of Christ. See, there was a time biblically, when the church was the state and vice-versa Israel, the old covenant. God was the head of state and the whole nation and land were holy. That is set apart to the Lord. Like Abraham, individual Israelites looked to the coming savior and we’re justified even as we are by grace alone, through faith alone in the coming Christ alone. But there was another covenant that the people, rather than God swore at Mount Sinai promising all this we will do.
If they broke it, then God would drive them out of the land just as he had their enemies as we see in Deuteronomy 28. It’s like the covenant that Adam swore to keep, but transgressed and was driven out of the garden. Unlike God’s unilateral promise in the Abrahamic covenant of grace, the national covenants promises of blessings and curses in an earthly land were based on Israel’s faithfulness.
However, as Hosea 6:7 tells us like Adam, they broke the covenant. In the fullness of time, God sent his son, the Messiah to fulfill the law and to bear the sin of the world. Having done this, he rendered the national covenant with Israel obsolete as Hebrews 8:13 tells us. The new covenant is far greater in its promises, blessings, and mediator. The exclusive designation chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, a people for his own possession once belonged to the geopolitical nation of Israel, Exodus 19:6, but is applied now in the New Testament to the worldwide body of Christ, first Peter 2:9. Not physical descendants, but all who trust in Christ from every people. As Jesus says in John 8, 39 to 59, Romans 9:8, Galatians 3:10 through 29 and elsewhere.
See the new Testament makes very clear God’s people don’t come entirely or even mostly from one particular nation or people group. God’s family is made up of people from all the nations of the world. And it’s that family that is the primary family for the Christian. The first major controversy in the early church was over Gentile inclusion. And it was settled at the council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. If it would be a violation of a decision included in inspired scripture to regard ethnic Israel as a chosen nation in the new covenant, how much more offensive to God would it be to give that status to Americans, particularly of a certain ethnicity, even completely unrelated to Abraham.
See the problem with Christian nationalism isn’t that some Christians are taking a biblical idea too seriously. You hear that in the media sometimes. That’s not the problem. It’s that they’re confusing America with Israel under the old covenant. From a biblical perspective, it’s actually heretical. It confuses the law with the gospel. Christian nationalism violates the doctrine of one holy Catholic and apostolic church. Despite what we hear in the oratory of the left and the right alike, there is no national soul. Salvation does not come to nations that like Israel of old rededicate themselves to the law, second Chronicles 7:14. And besides even if it did, we’ve broken it repeatedly. Even while we were singing about God, having crowned our good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea. This unbiblical ideology of an American covenant, not only coincided with, but help to provide the spiritual justification for slavery, manifest destiny, and ethnic segregation.
The ideology of Christian nationalism goes beyond America of course. It was the mistake of Christendom and the fabricated holy Roman empire, especially in the romantic movement of the 19th century, there was much talk of holy mother Russia, a sacred Germanic fatherland, and God’s kingdom being established in England’s green and pleasant land. It was this sort of Christian nationalism that many, especially persecuted Christians from these countries sought in the new world. The Massachusetts bay colony, which its governor John Winthrop called a shining city upon a hill for Matthew 5:14, consisted of independent Puritans who had fled England to set up a Christian community. But Jesus’ use of this phrase, a shining city upon a hill in the sermon on the Mount was directed to his own flock gathered from the world. He didn’t have in mind another geopolitical entity set up in some part of the world.
The misuse of scripture for civil religion has plagued churches across the political spectrum for centuries. The problem isn’t new in our generation, but recent events remind us that Christians must speak clearly against the problematic concept of Christian nationalism. There’s nothing wrong with Christians involving themselves in politics and political advocacy in whatever nation they call home. There’s nothing wrong with Christians as citizens participating in non-religious and non-violent protests for public policies. And there’s nothing wrong with Christians expressing healthy forms of patriotism, love for nation, and that nation’s ideals. But none of this should be confused with the Christians identity in the transnational family of God and no national political agenda or ideal can take priority over God’s global mandate and mission for his people.
The church as an institution, doesn’t have a president or a legislative body to appeal to, but a king who has given it a specific commission go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the father, and of the son, and of the holy spirit. Teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. You see the worldwide church is Christ’s Kingdom. That is his beloved community. That is the shining city upon a hill. That is his chosen nation. And Christ not America is the best, last hope for mankind.