The debate over Christian nationalism | WORLD
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The battle for America’s identity

Does Christian nationalism hold the key to the country’s past—and its future?

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

The battle for America’s identity
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THE FEB. 16 ALABAMA SUPREME COURT RULING that declared human embryos “extrauterine children” raised alarm beyond its implications for fertility treatments. In his concurring opinion, Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote, “Human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.” Parker’s deference to God raised howls of protest from mainstream media reporters, who warned Parker’s opinion smacked of an insidious problem: Christian nationalism.

A few days after the Alabama ruling, Politico published a story claiming groups close to former President Donald Trump are laying plans to enact dangerous policies if he wins a second term. “Christian nationalists in America believe that the country was founded as a Christian nation and that Christian values should be prioritized throughout government and public life,” reporter Heidi Przybyla warned.

Then in mid-February, movie theaters across the country screened Rob Reiner’s documentary God & Country, a 95-minute screed against the dangers of Christian nationalism. In it, well-known evangelical commentator Russell Moore opined, “Christian nationalism uses Christianity as a means to an end. That end being some form of authoritarianism.”

“Christian nationalist” is the left’s new favorite epithet for evangelicals, as well as politically active conservatives, including those who aren’t Christian but agree with broadly evangelical positions on issues like abortion and gender. Progressive reporters sometimes add the claim that these conservatives want to replace democracy with some kind of religious dystopia. Many lump Christian nationalism in with radical groups like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and QAnon.

And then there’s Trump, whom reporters have linked with white nationalists ever since a racist protest in Charlottesville, Va., turned deadly in 2017. Now, with the presidential primary season underway, it’s not a far jump from white nationalists to Christian nationalists. Indeed, in February Vanity Fair published a story with the click-magnet headline: “Trump Allies Hope To Spread Christian Nationalism in the White House.”

But progressive elites aren’t the only ones worried. Many Christians consider Christian nationalism problematic, too, although for different reasons. Historians, scholars, and pastors are grappling with the term’s gelatinous meaning, trying to understand and explain potential pitfalls for the country—and more importantly, for the Church.

Protesters demonstrate against Donald Trump’s speech at a 2022 America First conference.

Protesters demonstrate against Donald Trump’s speech at a 2022 America First conference. Allison Bailey/SOPA Images/Sipa USA via AP

CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM as a political philosophy isn’t new. But it gained renewed interest in the early 2000s, in part as a reaction to failed attempts to spread America’s brand of democracy around the world—particularly during the “Global War on Terror,” the U.S. response to 9/11.

Stephen Wolfe was working on a Ph.D. in political science at Louisiana State University when he first started hearing the term “Christian nationalism.” The pairing of the two words made sense to him. “I am a sort of nationalist, and I’m a Christian,” he recalled thinking. “I want my nation to be Christian and act in a Christian way, have Christian laws, Christian customs.”

Today, Wolfe is one of the most-quoted advocates for Christian nationalism, but he didn’t start out as either a Christian or a nationalist.

Growing up in a politically conservative family in Napa, Calif., Wolfe declared himself an atheist as a teenager. He was motivated more by a wish to “polarize” from his sister—who had recently converted to Christianity—than by sincere conviction. But his sister kept inviting him to church and Christian events, and eventually Wolfe gave his life to Christ at age 17. After graduating from West Point in 2008, he spent the next five years on active duty in the Army.

Wolfe says it was the war in Iraq that sparked his journey toward Christian nationalism. Initially, he supported the mission. The famous photos of Iraqis holding up purple thumbs after voting in a democratic election seemed to prove America made the right decision in toppling Saddam Hussein.

But when the conflict dragged on year after year, it became clear democracy wasn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Wolfe concluded the war had originated in a misguided belief that Americans “possess the universal way of life.”

After reading paleoconservative publications like Chronicles magazine, Wolfe came to believe such a ­universal way of life does not exist, a case he would go on to make in his own writings. America’s traditions of freedom and democracy are “deeply embedded within our own Western culture” and represent “a type of inheritance,” he said.

Christian imagery seen at the Capitol during and before the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Christian imagery seen at the Capitol during and before the riot on Jan. 6, 2021. Lev Radin/Sipa USA/Sipa via AP

ON DEC. 14, 2020, Wolfe settled into a chair on his back patio to smoke a pipe and check his Twitter feed. On a whim, he tweeted, “Do you think that a major evangelical publisher (like Crossway) would publish a book titled, ‘In Defense of Christian Nationalism: A Brief Survey of the Reformed Political Tradition’?”

His message did catch the attention of a publisher, but not Crossway. A few days later, Wolfe got an email from Canon Press, a publisher in Moscow, Idaho, best known for printing books by Pastor Douglas Wilson, another vocal advocate for Christian nationalism. Canon Press was very interested in publishing Wolfe’s defense.

The Case for Christian Nationalism shot off the presses in 2022 and instantly became a lightning rod. Much of the book reads like an academic thesis, high on philosophy and low on specifics. But Wolfe made up for that in an epilogue that riled critics.

In a section titled “Gynocracy,” Wolfe writes, “The most insane and damaging sociological trends of our modern society are female-driven.” In a section titled “Dominion,” he writes, “If you are a white, heterosexual, cis-gendered male, then the world will not offer you any favors. Indeed, your career advancement depends on sacrificing your self-respect by praising and pandering to your inferiors who rule over you.”

Reviewing the book for the Gospel Coalition, Pastor Kevin DeYoung called the epilogue “a 38-part rant.”

But in the main text, Wolfe’s more inflammatory suggestions center on his description of the ideal leader, a man he calls the “Christian prince.”

“Having the highest office on earth, the good prince resembles God to the people,” Wolfe writes. “Indeed, he is the closest image of God on earth.” Wolfe describes this prince as a “sort of national god” who serves as a “mediator of divine rule for this nation and as one with divinely granted power to direct them in their national completeness.”

Christian imagery seen at the Capitol during and before the riot on Jan. 6, 2021.

Christian imagery seen at the Capitol during and before the riot on Jan. 6, 2021. John Minchillo/AP

LESS THAN A MONTH after Wolfe tweeted his book proposal, Mark David Hall was sitting at a gate in the Dallas–Ft. Worth airport with a three-hour layover yawning ahead of him. It was Jan. 6, 2021. Hall, a Regent University professor and scholar on America’s founding, had spent the last few days traveling for a speaking engagement and was eager to get home. To pass the time, he powered up his computer and began checking emails. One message from a reporter stood out. At first, he had no idea what she was talking about.

Focused on his travel, Hall hadn’t heard about the events rocking Washington, D.C. In the email, the reporter asked him to comment on the Christian imagery connected to protesters who had just stormed the Capitol. Immediately, Hall began scrolling through and scrutinizing online videos, appalled by the unfolding riots.

But he detected no Christian emblems, only American flags, MAGA hats, and signs supporting Trump. Next, though, the reporter sent him screenshots of social media posts. One showed a woman holding a sign that said, “God, freedom, and liberty.” But she was more than a mile from the rioters. Another image showed a big wooden cross—also not among the rioters. In fact, only one photo the reporter sent showed a rioter with a decidedly Christian symbol: a crazed-­looking man dressed all in black holding a Bible. Hall told the reporter the man didn’t look like any Christian he’d ever known. And he cautioned her not to make inferences about the crowd or create a false narrative.

“The next day the headline was, Christian nationalists have attacked the U.S. Capitol building,” Hall said. “She didn’t mention anything I said.”

That was just the beginning of the mainstream media’s adoption of “Christian nationalist” as its new pet pejorative. As stories telegraphing its dangers proliferated, Hall began digging into the movement’s origin. While Wolfe’s treatise has gotten the most recent attention, Hall says it wasn’t the first. He’s tracked publications on the subject going back to 2006.

It was Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s 2020 academic book, Taking America Back for God, Hall said, that really sparked all the commotion. The authors stated Christian nationalism “includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanctions for authoritarian control and militarism.” Based on responses from a six-question survey, the authors categorized most Americans as partially or fully supportive of Christian nationalism. Critics called the survey seriously flawed and ambiguous.

Supporters of President Donald Trump pray outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Supporters of President Donald Trump pray outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Win McNamee/Getty Images

Then in 2022, several high-profile Christians began adopting the term “Christian nationalist,” most notably U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. “I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists,” she proclaimed during an interview at a Turning Point USA conference in July.

That September, Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker published their guide on Christian nationalism, two months before Wolfe’s book. And last year, Douglas Wilson wrote Mere Christendom, a book “encouraging the transformation of American culture into a Christian nation.”

Wilson is a prominent Reformed theologian, prolific author, and pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. He has helped found several Christian institutions and promoted the classical Christian school movement. He claims Christian nationalism “is a position that all consistent Christians need to take.”

Supporters of Christian nationalism disagree on how to implement it, but in general, they want to see laws that are grounded in Biblical teaching and promote Christian living.

Wolfe, for example, points to Sabbath laws. While no one would be compelled to go to church, the closure of many businesses would remove obstacles for those who do worship. It would also send a message that God ordained a day of rest. Yet, in his book, Wolfe also goes much further: He advocates for banishing or jailing heretics, punishing “flagrant violations of Christian duty,” and allowing only male heads of households to vote.

Hall says some of those ideas come from 16th- and 17th-century Reformers but would be roundly rejected today: “Almost no Americans buy into all that—maybe a tiny handful of patriarchal Calvinists … but the vast majority of Calvinists I know don’t.”

Many Christian nationalists also share a postmillennial eschatology. They believe they are establishing God’s millennial kingdom here and can advance it by converting people, thus improving the world and readying it for Christ’s return. Given that perspective, Hall says, it’s understandable they would want to make Christian laws to advance the kingdom.

But he believes advocates for Christian nationalism “are profoundly misguided about it on every level—constitutionally, prudentially, Biblically, theologically.”

Stephen Wolfe

Stephen Wolfe Photo by Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis

WHILE WOLFE EMPHASIZES the church-state relationship espoused by Reformers, other Christian nationalists view their position as reorienting America’s political system with its founding principles. For example, WallBuilders founder David Barton often calls for the country to return to its Christian roots. Yet historians disagree about the accuracy of that narrative.

Gregg Frazer is dean of humanities and professor of history and political studies at the Master’s University in Santa Clarita, Calif. In his 2012 book, The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders, he examined the private writings of eight Founders: John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and George Washington. He says personal diaries and correspondence—not church affiliation or public comments—reveal the men’s most candid, reliable thoughts about what they believed. And it wasn’t Biblical Christianity, he says, even though they believed in God, often attended church, and used Christian-like terminology and images in public statements and documents.

Frazer found, for instance, that many of these founders (including those most involved in writing our founding documents) rejected the deity of Christ and the Trinity yet believed God intervened in man’s affairs. Frazer says their differing personal beliefs were a blend of Christianity, natural law, and secular reason, with secular reason trumping all.

The debate over the founders’ faith has divided academia for decades, and not everyone agrees with Frazer’s assessment. For example, in their 2006 book George Washington’s Sacred Fire, historian Peter Lillback and writer Jerry Newcombe argued America’s first president was “an orthodox, Trinity-affirming believer in Jesus Christ,” though not an “evangelical” in the modern sense. Other founders, such as Patrick Henry and Samuel Adams, are widely recognized to have held orthodox Christian beliefs.

Whatever the founders’ personal beliefs, Frazer says they thought religion should be encouraged because it exhorts people to be moral, upright citizens—the necessary ingredient for a republic to work. But Article 6 of the Constitution states no religious test may be required for public office, and the First Amendment prohibits Congress from establishing any religion and from making laws to bar religious free exercise. Moreover, the Treaty of Tripoli—unanimously signed by the Senate and three founders in 1797—pointedly says America is not a Christian nation.

Frazer says when Christian nationalists say God will only bless America if America is Christian, he wants to ask them about ancient civilizations that thrived without honoring God: “How do you explain Sparta? Sparta lasted 800 years, and it was perhaps the most ungodly regime in history.”

Wolfe disputes critics’ claims that Christian nationalism is a “return to the founding project.” And he admits the founders didn’t all hold orthodox Christian views. But he insists they were at least culturally Protestant, a far cry from today’s secular philosophy: “The American founding and subsequent decades reflect that fact.”

“I am a sort of nationalist, and I’m a Christian. I want my nation to be Christian and act in a Christian way, have Christian laws, Christian customs.” —Stephen Wolfe

CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM’S CRITICS on both the left and the right tend to see it as a monolith. But conservatives who agree on its broad principles disagree over its practical implications.

Joshua Abbotoy is the executive director of American Reformer, an organization he describes as “dedicated to revitalizing the Protestant church,” which has published several articles by Stephen Wolfe on its website. While Abbotoy likes many of Wolfe’s ideas, he does not call himself a “Christian nationalist.”

“The term nationalist has some specific connotations that I’m not sure I’m ready to sign up for,” he said, pointing to the secular, anti-religious nationalism in places like France during the French Revolution. But perhaps more importantly, Abbotoy doesn’t think nationalism can notch political wins in America.

That may be especially true for some of Wolfe’s more controversial ideas. For example, evangelical critics and others pounced on his “Christian prince” construct as naïve. They noted a fallen human being should not be entrusted with both political power and the power to set Christian doctrine. After all, early American settlers fled a similar political system with a desire to create a better one. In his review, DeYoung writes, “I fail to see how this has been, let alone should be, the great hope of God’s people.”

Wolfe insists he isn’t arguing for a monarch or unitary executive: “Christian prince” is simply his term for a great man. “And I think we need great men leading the United States,” he added.

He also denies that Christian nationalism is a white nationalist project, though critics like DeYoung note Wolfe’s encouragement of same-ethnicity marriages and nations. Wolfe says his positions in this regard are not rooted in race but in what he sees as the communal benefits of shared connections to place and culture: “It’s not a matter of genetics.”

Abbotoy believes many of those who support Christian nationalism are reacting to postwar liberal ideas advanced by philosophers like John Rawls.

In Rawls’ conception, only secular or “public” reasoning should be used to argue for or against policies in a liberal society—issues of so-called “moral” harm should not be considered. “But Christians believe that moral harm is real,” Abbotoy said.

The ideas of Rawls and his allies functioned as a “Trojan horse” to remove Christianity from American public life, Abbotoy said. Those who, like Abbotoy, fall broadly on the side of Christian nationalism want to roll back Rawls’ way of thinking.

That fits with Hall’s assessment that most Christians and conservatives nurture a nostalgic desire for a time when laws and societal norms seemed more compatible with Christian ideals—when things like two-parent families and prayer in public schools were common and abortion and transgenderism were not. Rather than the founding era, he suspects many would consider the 1950s, minus the racism, more along the lines of what they really want, though no era is fault-free.

Though they agree about America’s moral decline, Christians who oppose Christian nationalism say they don’t want government to do the Church’s work. And they don’t want laws codifying the Ten Commandments, or the Apostles’ Creed added to the Constitution—suggestions some Christian nationalists say would create a friendlier culture in which to live and win souls.

Gregg Frazer says the Bible doesn’t call Christ-followers to Christianize the government: “Of course, I’d rather live in a society where there wasn’t persecution, but I’m not willing to jettison the Bible to achieve that end.” Frazer focuses on Jesus’ words in John 18:36: “My kingdom is not of this world,” a verse theologian John Piper highlights, too. In an online treatise last year, Piper said Jesus’ words “are a warning to all his followers to resist the temptation to treat the sword of civil government as a Christian agent to advance the saving rule of Christ.”

But Abbotoy warns that amid America’s cultural moral slide, something will emerge to fill the vacuum, some “comprehensive viewpoint that’s going to win the day, in terms of our laws, customs, traditions in the public square.” His organization advocates for that comprehensive viewpoint to be Christianity. “And because we do that, people will call us Christian nationalists, even though we haven’t embraced the label.”

Abbotoy believes the split over Christian nationalism is characterized by differing perceptions of the state of American society. Those leaning toward Christian nationalism are more attuned to America’s plunge into extreme secularism and disillusioned with traditional conservative activism. “A lot of the Christian nationalists I know are young. They’re very online. And they also have been through elite institutions.” Abbotoy falls into that camp. He attended Harvard Law School and got a daily dose of the beliefs espoused by his classmates—people who are likely to have political power in a few years. Here’s one belief that worried him: Some did not believe parents have a right to teach religious beliefs to their children.

He contrasts this perspective with evangelical critics of Christian nationalism, who may not have had firsthand experience with the extremes of liberal philosophy. “You’re ensconced in a Christian institution, maybe even in part of the Bible Belt, you haven’t been on the front line for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “When you’re in that environment, you can actually be more sanguine about the direction of society overall, and a sharper critic of the Church itself.”

MUCH OF THE DEBATE over Christian nationalism has taken place in an online echo chamber that hasn’t reverberated through the sanctuaries of many American churches. Rob Reiner’s film, God & Country, was a box-office flop, bringing in only about $40,000 during the opening weekend of its short-lived theater run. That suggests few on either side of the debate are interested enough to shell out $15 for a ticket.

But as the 2024 election looms, fear-mongering headlines promise to keep the topic front and center.

Hall believes that’s intentional. Progressives continue to brand conservative Christians as nationalists to shame them into silence and keep them from bringing their faith into politics, he says. Despite his own concerns about the movement, Hall does not believe Christian nationalism poses “an existential threat to democracy and the Church.” He says only a tiny fringe is advocating for something like a theocracy.

Still, Hall says pastors would do well to address not only how Christians can be involved in the public sphere, but also the negative connotations of Christian nationalism and why the term should be avoided. If they don’t, some people may avoid setting foot in a church that’s inadvertently associated with the movement.

A.J. Nolte, an associate professor at Regent University and an Anglican priest, has spent years studying the historical and political effects of religious nationalism in countries around the globe. Nolte says progressives have no qualms equating Christian nationalism with white supremacy and theocracy because it alienates people from aligning with conservatives. They want to frighten people into thinking, “All Christians have extremist beliefs,” he says.

Nolte commends the desire to use politics to elevate Christian causes and influence government, but warns against conflating church and state: “As Christians, we need to keep the main thing, the main thing. Focus on the gospel.” He worries that if the Church starts acting like the state, it will eventually stop acting like the Church.

He also notes nonbelievers and media elites aren’t blind to the division the emphasis on Christian nationalism is causing among believers. Nolte urges Christians not to take the bait.

“It’s a sucker’s game. … You risk getting distracted from the things that actually matter.”

Faiths of our Fathers

While some of the Founding Fathers were Christian believers, others rejected the deity of Christ and the Trinity but believed God intervened in man’s affairs. Scholars like Gregg Frazer argue the eight founders below, for example, held to a blend of Christian ideas, natural law, and secular reason.

Clockwise from top left: John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Wilson.

Clockwise from top left: John Adams, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, Gouverneur Morris, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and James Wilson. Public Domain (Adams portrait Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington)

Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate and holds two master’s degrees. She has served as university teacher, businesswoman, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, and Division 1 athlete. Sharon resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.

Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. She is a former Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. She also previously worked at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Dutch multinational bank. She resides near Baltimore, Md., with her husband and three children.



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