Though Christian nationalism is at the center of one of our most heated cultural debates, defining it has proven elusive at best. Talk about Christian nationalism not only dominates Christian Twitter, but many secular outfits have spilled significant ink attempting to explain what it means. Perhaps the only thing that the warring factions on either side of the question agree on is that what is at stake is zero-sum: either we’re on their side or we’re against Christ.
In this way, debates over Christian nationalism ironically resemble the debates over Critical Race Theory and “wokeism.” Defenders of these progressive ideas claim that anyone who dissents either doesn’t know what they are talking about, are secretly racists, or are beholden to contemporary culture. In the same way, advocates of Christian nationalism often act as if theirs is the only way to not be complicit with transing kids or ruining America, even if their way is still evolving.
Advocates of Christian nationalism do often accurately describe the problems Western societies face: protecting the beauties of tradition and transcendence and the vital importance of allowing our faith to influence public life. They are also right about the shortsightedness of Christians who are allergic to any cultural application of Christianity. We are not to be of the world, but we’re certainly to be in it.
Partly right can still be partly wrong. The best aspects of Christian nationalism are, in fact, the common inheritance of Christian theology and conservative ideals, that of Edmund Burke, Abraham Kuyper, Winston Churchill, and William Wilberforce. The innovations of Christian nationalism, on the other hand, should give us pause.
Put differently, where advocates have attempted to clearly define Christian nationalism, there is much to critique. Some aspects are more matters of debate from various denominational and theological viewpoints, but others are simply wrong in light of Christian truth.
Voddie Baucham offered an interesting defense of Christian nationalism by asking, “If you don’t want Christian nationalism, what kind of nationalism do you want? And if it’s not the Christianity that’s the problem, is it the nationalism? … if we don’t want nationalism, do we want globalism?”
It is true that anyone from the right who speaks of applying their faith to citizenship or the political process, or of taking seriously their political duties, will be accused of dangerously mixing Church and state or imposing their religious beliefs on everyone else. (Not so much when anyone from the left side of the political or religious spectrum does the same thing.) In fact, much of what is accused of being “Christian nationalism” could just as easily be called “subsidiarity,” the Christian notion that looking after what we can is preferable over morally posturing about what we cannot; or more simply, “engaging the culture,” since Christ is as much Lord over the kingdom of Earth as over the Kingdom of heaven.
Still, the word “nationalism” cannot be disconnected from its early 20th-century history in Spain, Italy, and, most notably, Germany, nor from the revolutionary nationalism that spread across the Third World in the latter part of the 20th century. In all cases, promises of “liberation” brought only brutal tyranny. Even the more benign acts of nationalizing key industries in late 20th-century Europe’s flirtation with socialism brought nations to the brink of poverty.
This is more than a critique of a lousy name, although intentionally linking Christianity with “nationalism” is like letting a corporate rival choose your company logo. Advocates of Christian nationalism often say that any negative examples are not “true nationalism.” But that’s exactly the point. If we must constantly clarify what we don’t mean, it’s better to rely on the whole host of other words that emerge from the long history of Christian interaction with state and society. Concepts such as sphere sovereignty, the common good, subsidiarity, intermediate institutions, or cultural renewal have rich and helpful histories for directing Christian citizenship.
Most problematic are when advocates of Christian nationalism really do resemble the worst historical examples of nationalism. For example, claiming that the contingent good of being from a particular place or people is an absolute, inviolable good. Or, calling for separate states for different ethnicities, for racial segregation, or for even ethnonationalism and antisemitism.
More than just problems with a name, Christian nationalism remains at best an inconsistent system. Some versions are little more than a broad, Judeo-Christian view of the world, others seek a specifically Roman Catholic state, others a general Protestant state, and still others a specifically Reformed state.
In our social media-saturated world, we tend to define people more by the “team” they’re on than by what’s good, beautiful, true, and wise. However, we need not accept a simple choice between Christian nationalism or going “woke,” between drag shows for kids or a Christian prince.
Of course, anyone who embraces a Christian vision for our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and nation will be called “Christian nationalists.” We need not mind that. Rather, we must be faithful in the times, places, and among the people to which God has called and placed us. The Christian vision of life and the world is robust enough on its own without the dead weight of nationalism in tow.
This Breakpoint was co-authored by Dr. Timothy D. Padgett. For more resources to live like a Christian in this cultural moment, go to breakpoint.org.
Publication date: May 19, 2023
Photo courtesy: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Hleb Usovich
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
BreakPoint is a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. BreakPoint commentaries offer incisive content people can't find anywhere else; content that cuts through the fog of relativism and the news cycle with truth and compassion. Founded by Chuck Colson (1931 – 2012) in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends. Today, you can get it in written and a variety of audio formats: on the web, the radio, or your favorite podcast app on the go.
John Stonestreet is President of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview, and radio host of BreakPoint, a daily national radio program providing thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.