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What does “Christian nationalism” even mean?

A challenge to all sides in the debate


What does “Christian nationalism” even mean?

Perhaps it’s just indicative of my own slice of online evangelicalism, but the flurry around Christian nationalism seems to be reaching a zenith. Opposing sides are talking past one another, while often throwing verbal grenades, even as they seek to entrench their own views.

The debate unsettles me, and at present, I still find the term “Christian nationalism” unhelpful. I would not claim the label for myself. But so much of its usage depends on the person wielding it. Some take the term to mean that America is in a unique national covenant with God. That, I squarely reject. Some use the term to describe the government taking active steps to promote a Christian culture. I’m not sure what that means, and perhaps there are varying degrees to which that is possible without important lines getting crossed. (Christmas is, after all, a federal holiday.)

Of late, I’ve seen critics on Twitter and the media intimate that if one wants American law to ban same-sex “marriage,” ban abortion, ban transgender “medicine,” repeal no-fault divorce, and promote the natural family, then, well, that’s Christian nationalism. If so, I’m guilty as charged.

Where does that leave me?

I have sympathies with some of the ideas commonly associated with Christian nationalism. I understand and appreciate the unique role that Christianity played in shaping our nation’s tradition and values. Neither do I want that Christian influence to recede. As a conservative, I believe resolutely in the need for traditions to shape our common culture. Cutting a culture off from its good roots is nothing less than cultural self-hatred. Moreover, apart from a transcendent foundation for law and morality, no nation can long survive. I want a public morality influenced by Christianity but done so organically from the bottom up by the genuine and voluntary religious commitments of its people.

I also have major concerns with Christian nationalism. As a Baptist, I am convictionally opposed to identifying regeneration with nationhood. The Christian faith comes down to personal salvation and regeneration. The apparatus of government is ill-equipped to promote the supernatural end of man even if government requires supernatural foundation to keep it accountable (“In God We Trust” works for me). Whatever the personal faith of the office holder, I am opposed to magistrates as magistrates dictating theological matters for others.

Does anyone really want Nancy Pelosi making ecclesiastical appointments? As my grandmother would say, “Egads.” I also believe, as a Christian, I have no greater right to civil liberties than does my Jewish or Muslim neighbor. They are Americans, too, without any further qualification. Even if my faith is numerically larger, they should not be made to feel like second-class citizens even as they rightfully recognize the role that majority culture plays in shaping the nation.

I want a public morality influenced by Christianity but done so organically from the bottom up by the genuine and voluntary religious commitments of its people.

Those two preceding paragraphs represent a tension. It’s a tension I choose to live with. Because stretching either argument too far is where the conversation goes off the rails. So I wish to issue a challenge to all sides of this debate.

To those claiming the mantle “Christian nationalism,” this is my plea: Convince me this isn’t just a theology used to sacralize the culture or impose exclusionary political power. Get specific on what particular arrangements and applications would be entailed. Do not give me past historical examples that no longer apply. Tell me, how are you going to achieve sufficient enough majorities in a nation where Christianity is in decline? How will your movement not excuse, or worse, justify, the misuse of Christianity when and if it is used to perpetrate social harms as in the past? What self-corrections are built into the system? How will the ideal Christian nationalist state not simply be yet another handmaiden to state power that ends up diluting vibrant religion?

To progressive non-Christians who criticize Christian nationalism, here’s my plea: Convince me that your skepticism about Christian nationalism isn’t just a cover for wanting Christians out of politics and out of power. Convince me that Christian nationalism is not just another progressive epithet hurled against conservative Christians. Convince me that your opposition to Christians having political power is not really just a blanketed opposition to what others might simply call the natural law. It’s just too convenient to delegitimize the areas where progressives are always prone to disagree with Christians by slapping the label “Christian nationalism” on it. So where, exactly, does the line differentiating opposition to “Christian nationalism” in particular, and opposition to biblical morality in general, begin and end?

To Christians skeptical of Christian nationalism, here’s my plea: Convince me you have a political theology that isn’t merely rehashed Anabaptism, a political theology that is high on pietism but averse to wielding political power for the common good. Show me that you have a political theology born not only of redemption, but also creation.

I’m left with the tension: Junk history that makes the founding fathers out to all be evangelical stalwarts is intellectually dishonest. Yet, John Adams, who was not an orthodox Christian, also observed: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any others.”

These are serious matters. Morality and nationhood are at stake. Clarity and clear distinctions are necessary. So let’s figure this out.

Andrew T. Walker

Andrew is the managing editor of WORLD Opinions and serves as associate professor of Christian ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also a fellow with The Ethics and Public Policy Center. He resides with his family in Louisville, Ky.

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