Christian Nationalism

The recent election in the United States has divided believers over claims that Christians were in idolatry of Donald Trump as a savior figure; also added to this claim was the charge of the error of “Christian nationalism.”  This is now a pejorative term.  I won’t here speak to the former claim; I know Trump supporters who were over the top in their adulation and also know Trump supporters who were in my view very balanced. The issue of Christian nationalism is an important one. The accusation is not helpful since many who make the accusation have not defined it with sufficient precision such that it could lead to a fruitful dialogue.  I think some do not realize that some use the term nationalism as fostering the sovereign nation state idea over against a one world government idea.  It does not imply as liberals accuse conservatives of white nationalist supremacy, though such folks do exist. 

Let us note some definitions.  People mean very different things by the term. They argue from foundationally different definitions.  I will list some. 

  1. Christian nationalism is a nationalism that is Christian and can be applied to any nation. It is like Christian education, Christian Art, or a Christian business. It is a nationalism that is truly Christian. It means that citizens should be loyal to their nation, should seek the good of their nation and should seek to bring its laws and culture into conformity to the Law of God. In addition, they should measure their nation by God’s law and affirm that which is good and beautiful in their culture(s) by God’s grace but reject what is bad.  For Reformed Theology, we are to seek to see that God’s Law is established in every sphere of human life in every nation.  
  2. Then there is the specifically two varieties of Christian nationalism applied to the United States in addition to the above definition.   
    1. There is first the idea that God in his providence and shown by the Christian roots of the country, brought into being a special nation whose laws and government were more in accord to the Law of God and Christian principles.  We should therefore be loyal and seek to preserve and foster these values and have respect and patriotism for the nation.  Most American Christians historically, I think, have been Christian nationalists in this sense. Washington, Adams, and Lincoln were Christian nationalists.  Washington’s Farewell Address, emphasizing the importance of Christian values and faith for the nation to succeed is an amazing address. So are the words of Adams and many others.  Those Christians who fought in the Revolutionary War and the Christian founding fathers were Christian nationalists.  Many who fought in the great wars were also such. 
    2. The second idea is that America is a nation in covenant with God like ancient Israel and a nation of special favor to the extent that it keeps God’s Law.  

I will not at this point evaluate these two varieties.  Some British Christian nationalists had similar thoughts about Britain and some 19th century Russians about Russia and Russian Orthodoxy Christianity based in Moscow, the 3rd Rome.  I do not think that Christian nationalists in these two senses should be attacked for a wrong nationalism. Their differences should be accommodated in the Body of the Messiah.

  1. Then there is a “Christian Nationalism” that is really an “unchristian nationalism” if one overlooks the sins of the nation and exalts the nation in an idolatrous way.  It sees the nation as such a manifestation of truth that it ignores the relative nature of all gains in this fallen world and the more important answer to our situation in the righteousness of the Church, revival, and the ultimate answer for righteousness in the return of Yeshua.  We ultimately will see history move toward the great battle of good and evil, and nation states will not attain sufficient righteousness to be virtuous in those dark days.  This nationalism ignores the importance of the health of the Church.  The foundation of society is a healthy, growing, and discipled people of God.  A wrong Christian nationalism does not face the issue of the centrality of revival and the health and influence of a godly Church as the key and central issue, not the nation state. This is really Christian nationalistic chauvinism, and inordinately favors the nation. 
  2. Then last is “Anti-nationalism.”  In this view, the Church is called as a people apart and is to not be involved in the political and civic concerns of the nation.  Many of the pacifist peace churches historically fit this description: Mennonites, Amish, and Church of the Brethren Anabaptists. Yeshua’s words that his Kingdom was not of this world are interpreted in terms of a counter cultural withdrawal.  Some Dispensationalists also fit within this position and said that human societies are a “sinking ship.”  We should not be concerned about the sinking ship but should get people into the lifeboats so they will go to heaven. 

For me there is a deeply important history that is very much a part of my own biography.  As a skeptical student at Wheaton College during the Viet Nam War, I watched the parade for Veteran’s day led by the Army ROTC and the patriotism that was characteristic of Wheaton College historically.  I also noted the streets filled with protestors, and even some in the Wheaton chapter of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).  Yes, Wheaton had a chapter.  I was sad about this and sad about how pained was the Admiral President of Wheaton, Dr. Hudson Taylor Armerding.   Some years of searching followed on the issues of nationalism and war and peace.   My roommate was a Mennonite, one of the well know pacifistic denominations. I studied their literature and began to doubt the importance of allegiance to the state.  I was disturbed that in European wars Christians fought Christians believing in the propaganda of their own nation. I even registered for the draft as a pacifist, though this registration was rejected as too late in my life!   The issues of the Holocaust and Israel plus Reformed Theology helped me to what I now think is a more balanced position.  I was also helped by the writing of H. Richard Niebuhr’s, Christ and Culture.  I also read the book of one of the proponents of the idea that America had a special covenant with God, Peter Marshall Jr., The Light and the Glory, maybe the best defending the idea of America as covenant with God nation.  His father was the famous Chaplain of the Senate, Peter Marshall Sr.  His mother was the famous writer Catherine Marshall.

As followers of Yeshua, how committed should we be to our nations or American or Israel?  Is Christian nationalism wrong? Here is some historical perspective.  Favoritism for ethnic identities is an old and universal trait of humanity.  It goes back to favoring one’s family, clan and then the tribe out of which ethnicities grew.  Ethnic wars were ubiquitous in history, and sometimes an ethnic group would gain power and control other groups.  Sometimes there was genocide and sometimes subjection.  Sometimes related ethnic groups would be unified in a larger governing arrangement.  What we call nation states is a more recent development that came to its height in the 19th century.  The idea of sovereign nation states in relationship to other such states was seen as an ideal arrangement.  Such states were made up of ethnic groups who were close enough in language and culture to join in larger nations. Some came into order like Italy in the 19th century.  It was thought important that everyone was a citizen of a nation state. Patriotism to one’s nation state was considered very important in producing a coherent national order. Some nation statues thought of themselves as especially glorious states.  One thinks of the pride of the French or the glory of the Hapsburg Empire, Austria-Hungary.  A trip around the large circle in front of Buckingham Palaces shows the monuments the glory of British Empire rule.  It recalls the graduation march we all know written by Elgar, “Land of Hope and Glory” where Elgar touted British rule as the hope for civilizing the world.  He was soon disillusioned by World War I.  The United States has its own mythos (I mean in a positive sense) about its God chosen destiny. 

There are two things to bring into balance.  First the Gospel to an extent relativizes one’s commitment to one’s nation as of secondary importance comparted to the commitment to Yeshua and the Kingdom of God which is to influence all aspects of life.  As such, the transcending fellowship of all believers form all ethnicities and our union together is a more important point of loyalty and unity than our membership in an ethnicity or nation state.  This is very threatening to a regime like China where the highest loyalty should be to the state and its rulers.  The Gospel brings us into a commitment to a multi-ethnic fellowship.  The teaching of H. Richard Niebuhr is also important.  It was especially written for missionaries but applies to us all.  We are to affirm the unique beauties and cultures of nations when these cohere with God’s standards of truth, beauty and goodness.  This good is there by God’s common grace, the grace given to every people (as contrasted to salvation grace).  We are to see the good redeemed and transformed in Messiah, but we are to discard that which is bad.  A balanced ethic loyalty or national loyalty can see biblically to do this.  Inordinate and idolatrous commitment will blind to the evil and aspects that are not in accord.  John Dawson in his writings speaks of a redemptive purpose for every ethnic group.  The book of Revelation chapter 21 show that every nation (ethnos) has a unique glory to bring into the New Jerusalem. 

The Law of God is the norming norm by which we evaluate the condition of the nation, its history and origins. True commitment to our nations is a commitment to see first the Body of the Messiah grow in numbers and health in discipleship.  From that foundation it is to influence the nation toward embracing the Law of God.

I want to now apply all this to the United States.  We are justified in honoring the biblical roots of the nation.  The godly Pilgrims and Puritans did seek to make the Colonies like ancient Israel, a people in explicit covenant with God, under the Lordship of Yeshua and embracing biblical Law for its civic and cultural life.  This had enormous influence on later American law and culture. Then in 1776, the Declaration of Independence affirmed something that no one outside of biblical influence could affirm.  It was that all men (human beings) were created equal and given inalienable rights by God.  The nation was based on an idea of liberty and equal rights before God. That is amazing.  In a sense there was a covenantal dimension in acknowledging God.  There were covenantal origins and certainly the Christian community was in covenant with God. But sadly, this did not carry though in the Constitution, which was in many respects, amazingly biblical both in the laws and the recognition of the danger of concentrated power which fallen man could not be trusted to wield.  It built in checks and balances to preserve freedom.  Freedom of speech and religion were enshrined as foundations. That freedom was mostly for varieties of Christianity and Judaism. Other religions were not contemplated. However the Constitution did not explicitly acknowledge the Lordship of Yeshua or the God of the Bible.  Yet, many state constitutions did. Until more recent years, the doctrine of the separation of religion and state (Church and state) was not applied to states. God also was not separated from civll government and its accountability to God. States assumed the Christian faith, but there was special recognition of the Jewish people as in line with these values.  Lincoln’s words affirmed both the Declaration from a Christian foundation and Constitutional government.  Therefore, there are grounds for special respect for the history and origins of the nation.  Our British friends might question the legitimacy of the break from the United Kingdom, but the nation that was formed in so many ways was a Bible Law based Kingdom.  This was affirmed by a 19th century Supreme Court decision.  That is the good part.  The national mottos, “In God We Trust,” and “Out of Many, One,” especially present a nation not based on a common ethnicity but on shared values.  One could be any ethnicity and join. These are covenantal aspects both in the nations origins and in such statements but short of a full covenant. 

There is glory in the founding of the United States and the direction its civilization took.  However, there was one large blot.  It was slavery.  Northern leaders like John Adams wanted an end to slavery.  It came early to the Colonies and rooted itself in the South (1619).  However, to unify the nation and have sufficient strength to withstand opposition, a compromise with the South would be accepted.  This compromise was again and again made over the next 74 years when new states would enter the union.  Slavery was the great national sin.  There was glory but also shame.  In the North, the Negro was understood as equal, but in the South maybe he understood as less than in the image of God. 

The shame parts show a fallen nation.  This included white northern European prejudice when southern Catholic Europeans were considered unworthy and faced discrimination and immigration restrictions based on ethnicity. Jewish people as well faced such discrimination after the wave of Jewish immigration at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  These continued restrictions proved deadly with the rise of Hitler.  Discrimination was allowed especially against Jews and Blacks into the 1960s.  The results of Jim Crow and discrimination were most painfully experienced by Black Americans and the effects continue to this day, though through the Gospel and better programs this population can be lifted.   We also know too well the issues of robber baron monopolies fought so rightly by Theodore Roosevelt.  Today the United States faces a similar issue with robber baron hi-tech moguls who control communication and censor and cancel believers in Yeshua who promote the Gospel and Biblical morality and law. The accumulate obscene personal wealth and power. 

The rebellion against God in the culture has grown steadily over 100 years.  Prostitution, human trafficking and the greatest purveyor in the world of pornography characterizes the United States.  The rejection of the anti-pornography laws was so destructive to marriage, family and the good morals that are necessary to a healthy society.  This has now spread to the whole world from the United States. Laws and judgments were passed that allowed for radical freedom for abortion and the loss and slaughter of untold millions of human beings; and it is called women’s health!  Our universities are hot beds of evolutionism and secular anti-God philosophies.   Billy Graham said, “If God does not judge the United States, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah.”  This is far from the nation of the 1950s that promoted biblical values even in the public schools!  At that time patriotism was strong along with respect for biblical law.  

In the light of all this, is there a legitimate Christian nationalism? Yes.  I approach this from a Reformed perspective which I think is closest to the Biblical understanding.  I am thankful for that background in my early training.  Such a Christian nationalism functions with the following points of understanding. 

  1. All men and nations are fallen in this world.  To over value any nation as righteous before God is contrary to the Bible’s teaching on that fallenness.
  2. The most important thing for a nation’s prosperity in God is the condition of the Church, that it is growing, discipling well and growing in influence on the laws and culture of the nation. 
  3. The special good and special aspects of the founding of the United States can be respected and acknowledged.  We are to work to preserve that which was right and good and respect our country and the meaning of its symbols that are rooted in this. 
  4. We are to acknowledge how short the nation fell from its ideals and work to redress the sins of the nation.  
  5. Our commitment to the righteous condition of the Church and the Kingdom of God should be paramount and the commitment to the nation’s righteousness and prosperity in God should be secondary since the first is the foundation of any lasting progress in the second.  The first is key to the second. 
  6. All institutions on this earth including Church institutions will not attain full righteousness but will always manifest fallenness, yet great progress can be made. 
  7. The end of all things is the ultimate battle of good and evil and the return of Yeshua. That must be the basis of our hope and not the victory of the United States or any other nation. 

We can also apply all this to Israel, a very fallen and sinful nation.  Israel is actually elect by God.  However, in working for the good of Israel and being patriotic Israelis, these seven points apply.  

Am I a Christian nationalist or a Messianic Jewish nationalist?  Only if by definition the seven points are fully embraced.  Beyond that we slip into an idolatry of the nation. And in my view, some Christians have slipped into an ungodly nationalism that is not biblical.  Let’s otherwise not divide the Body in controversy between those who are in different places in their understanding of nationalism unless we are speaking of the errors which I noted above.