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What to do with Christian nationalism

We should critique beliefs and behaviors instead of an ill-defined ism

An American flag flies in front of a church building in Alabama. Associated Press/ Photo by Brynn Anderson

What to do with Christian nationalism
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Of the many potential problems with Christian nationalism (more on those problems in a moment), two foundational problems need to be addressed before getting to the others. The first problem is that no one agrees on what Christian nationalism is. The second problem is that no one seems to argue for something they actually call Christian nationalism.

Let’s start with the first problem first. What exactly is Christian nationalism? One influential article earlier this year defined Christian nationalism as “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.” Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, in their oft-cited book on the subject, summarize Christian nationalism in six statements: (1) The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation. (2) The federal government should advocate Christian values. (3) The federal government should not enforce the strict separation of church and state. (4) The federal government should allow religious symbols in public spaces. (5) The success of the United States is part of God's plan. (6) The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.

More polemically, Russell Moore has denounced Christian nationalism as an idolatrous and heretical religious impulse that degrades the credibility and witness of the church. Similarly, David Scott of the United Methodist Church argues that “Christian nationalism gives moral cover for actions, even unseemly ones, taken in pursuit of national or political goals.” David Koyzis describes nationalism (of which “Christian” is one type) as “a political arrangement in which people deify the nation, viewing the nation as the Savior that will protect them from the evil of being ruled by those who are different from them.” And then there is the National Council of Churches (NCC) which claims that Christian nationalism is associated with racism, white supremacy, and political violence, and ignores issues of poverty, healing the planet, and international peace.

So what are we talking about? Is Christian nationalism about influencing the country with Christian beliefs and values, or is it a retrograde movement hellbent on overthrowing the government, demonizing infidels, deifying the nation, and reintroducing Jim Crow? By Whitehead and Perry’s definition, most Christians in America—of any color—are some sort of Christian nationalist. But if everything in the NCC definition is correct, we’d be hard pressed to find such a nefarious lot of Christians in many of our churches.

Which leads to the second big problem: where are the people actually advocating for Christian nationalism? Granted, it’s not always wrong to find shortcuts for labeling a complex and connected set of commitments. But it is hard to miss the fact that there are vastly greater numbers arguing against something called Christian nationalism than there are people arguing for it. Presently, if you Google “What is Christian Nationalism?” the first page yields one generic Wikipedia entry and nine articles denouncing Christian nationalism. We can argue about what constitutes Critical Race Theory, but no one can deny there is such a thing as Critical Race Theory. There are decades of books and articles defining, refining, and commending the concept. There is no similar body of literature on the subject of Christian nationalism. In the case of Christian nationalism, it is much easier to find critics defining what they don’t like and warning others against it than finding people explaining why they are Christian nationalists and why you should be too.

Does this mean we are wrong to criticize Christian nationalism? Not necessarily. But it would be better to critique the beliefs and behaviors we find objectionable instead of employing an ill-defined ism and projecting its existence into every nook and cranny of the evangelical church. There are real problems with the way some Christians think about and practice politics. We ought to reject all manner of conspiracy theories, racial partiality, demagoguery, and the syncretistic blending of Christianity and Americana. Further, we must not give in to hating their side, deifying our side, and looking to politics to solve our deepest problems and give us meaning in life. If this is Christian Nationalism, the only Christian position is to be steadfastly against it.

For all that “Christian nationalism” might justly warn against, the label can also function as a convenient dismissal of conservative concern over an ascendant and aggressive liberalism. I’d rather not be in a culture war either, but sometimes the opposite of war is not peace and quiet; it is surrender and loss. Surely there must be some way to seek Christian influence in the political realm that falls short of heresy and idolatry. Surely it is not wrong to speak about the Christian underpinnings of our Founding and desire to see our country guided by Christian principles and undergirded by Christian truth. Surely we do not wish to denounce every Christian praying Proverbs 14:13 or 2 Chronicles 7:14 (even if the latter was a promise made to Israel). There must be some middle ground between a theocratic Christian nationalism and a culturally-acceptable Christian nothingism. I think most Christians are seeking to avoid both nationalism and national destruction.

Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church (PCA) in Matthews, N.C., and associate professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte). Prior to the summer of 2017, he pastored at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Mich. Kevin holds a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and received his Ph.D. in early modern history at the University of Leicester. He is the author of several books, including The Biggest Story, The Hole in Our Holiness, Crazy Busy, and Just Do Something. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have nine children.

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