Christian Nationalism—the belief that patriotism and Christianity are inextricably linked — is often at the root of divisions among Christians today. Whether or not they use that term, many Christians embrace the tenets of Christian Nationalism as the only way to preserve faith, country, and the values they believe are foundational to the United States.
In their book, Taking America Back for God, Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead write, “Christian Nationalism contends that America has been and should always be distinctively Christian.” In The Religion of American Greatness, conservative scholar Paul Miller defines Christian Nationalism as “the belief that America was founded as a Christian nation and that the government should take active steps to promote and keep our national Christian identity.” Miller goes on to say: “Christian Nationalism is a dangerous idolatry.”
Along with many other Christians, I echo Miller’s urgent concern. Loving God and loving our country are appropriate loyalties. They are not the same, but they are also not mutually exclusive. Christian Nationalism, though, goes beyond patriotism or love of country. It is a destructive ideology that is causing an increasing number of Christians to put their primary allegiance to our country rather than in God. It idolizes the state and implicitly embraces an ethnic national identity.
It is helpful to realize that identification with Christian Nationalism exists along a spectrum— from those who have a soft acceptance or sympathy for it, to those who are hard adherents to it such as Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene who has declared, “We should be Christian Nationalists.” In 2018, former president Donald Trump also declared himself to be a nationalist.
But Christian Nationalism is not just an extreme position adopted by a few public figures. According to a recent Public Religion Research Institute survey, 54 percent of Republicans consider themselves either Christian Nationalism adherents or sympathizers. The great majority of those respondents support the idea of an authoritarian leader and nearly one half of adherents to Christian Nationalism support resorting to violence if necessary “to save our country.”
As C. S. Lewis writes in The Four Loves, “love of one’s country…becomes a demon when it becomes a god.”I hope the following comments bring both clarity and perspective on such a significant issue among Christians and in our culture.
Why Is Christian Nationalism Dangerous?
It Is Against the Separation of Church and State
Ironically, in wanting to impose Christian dominance in our government and culture, Christian Nationalism violates a clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” The recent law promoted in Texas requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments (in King James English!) in every classroom in the state is an example of this kind of violation. (I don’t think most Christians would be happy with a mandatory posting of elements of Sharia law in classrooms as a free expression of religion.) American Christians have a Christian identity and an American identity, but Christian Nationalism unconstitutionally wants to join the two.
It Distorts History
Christian Nationalism asserts that the United States was wholly founded as a Christian nation. America was indeed deeply influenced by Christians such as the Pilgrims who were staunch Calvinists and believed in the divine election of America to be “a city on a hill.”
Also, at the time the United States was founded, it had been a British colony with many of the symbols and religious practices of the Church of England. It further was governed by English Common Law which was influenced by the Bible and Mosaic Law. So, there was a broad expression of inherited Judeo-Christian values in the structures of the Colonies.
But America was also deeply influenced by the European Enlightenment with its emphasis on liberty and the detachment of religion from the state. Many of the Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, were deists. They may have had a distant belief in an “Almighty,” but their primary orienting principles were liberty and human reason. Even our country’s embrace of democracy and capitalism did not emanate from Christian doctrine but from ideas of pagan Greece and the secular Enlightenment.
Not only is there is no mention of God in our Constitution, but according to noted historian Rodney Stark, only 17 percent of Americans went to church in 1776. The Treaty of Tripoli in 1797—which was drafted by George Washington, signed by President Jefferson, and unanimously passed by the Senate—states that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” So, although many claim that our country was founded on Christianity, the founders themselves didn’t.
It Is Inherently Racist and Anti-immigrant
Christian Nationalism has the same DNA of all nationalisms, just with a Christian name. It embodies a belief in the superiority of a racial or ethnic identity. An extreme example of nationalism is the German Nazis and their extermination of 6 million Jews in the name of country. But throughout its history, the United States has also had racist and anti-immigrant laws against Native Americans, Catholics, Jews, Blacks, Asians, and now Latinos.
In 1830, for instance, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act, which led to the forced 800-mile migration of the Cherokee nation. Four-thousand Cherokees died on the westward march—known as the Trail of Tears—due to the government’s popular edict.
The Know-Nothing party (later known as the American Party) of the 1850s developed in response to the anti-Catholic sentiment against immigrants from Germany and Ireland. American-born Protestants saw Catholic immigrants as a threat to democracy.
One of the most blatant examples of the distortion of patriotism, of course, is the American Civil War, when white Christians used the Bible and their love for the Confederacy to defend their practice of enslaving Blacks. A few years later, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers for ten years.
Although the term Christian Nationalism is relatively new, we see throughout our country’s history an ideology of exclusion and repression. This is in sharp contrast to Christian teaching that, “in Christ, there is no Gentile or Jew, slave or free, male or female” (Galatians 3:28). Ninety-seven times the Bible speaks about the need to welcome the stranger or take care of the foreigner. Christian Nationalism is really an oxymoron because no nationalism is Christian.
It Idolizes a Nation
Former national security advisor Michael Flynn once urged pastors to read both the Constitution and the Bible in church. It is right to give to our country our taxes, our patriotism, and loyal citizenship—but not our worship. Jesus taught the difference between allegiance to a government and to God when he said, “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21). We violate that teaching, as well as the first of the Ten Commandments — “Have no other gods before me”—when we merge our faith with our country.
A current international example of Christian nationalism is Vladimir Putin’s unholy alliance with Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church. It has been widely reported that Kirill exhorted Russian troops that in their war with Ukraine, their “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty cleanses away all sins.”
The images of the cross and the American flag together during the January 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol portray a similar blasphemy—and the frightening danger of being open to authoritarianism and violence under the guise of patriotism.
It Compromises Christian Faith and Witness
Why are so many Christians tempted to identify with Christian Nationalism? Christian sociologist David Verhaagen, in his well-researched book, How White Evangelicals Think, writes that white evangelicals “perceive the world first through the grid of conservative and Republican politics, then through their racial identity, then through their identity as Christians.”
He goes to say that many white evangelicals have “grown up in a sub-culture that says they are right and must be in charge to keep the country on the right track” and that “those outside the group are intent on destroying the country they love and are eager to persecute and harm them.” There is a palpable fear among many white Christians that we are losing our cultural power and control of the country and we need to get it back.
One example of this is the growing belief in the “Great Replacement Theory.” This is the unfounded belief that left-leaning international and domestic elites are attempting to replace white citizens with non-white immigrants to gain greater voter superiority. This aligns with a White Christian Nationalism, which has a strong correlation with the brand of Christian Nationalism that is linked to militia groups and violence. (The man who killed ten African Americans in a Buffalo supermarket last year was a strong believer in this conspiracy theory.)
Russell Moore says that the Great Replacement Theory is “bad for democracy but even more poisonous to the church.” Former speech writer for President George W. Bush, David Frum, writes that “the most politically important ‘great replacement’ underway in the United States is the ‘replacement’ of conservative Christians by their own liberal and secular children and grandchildren” who are being repelled by the Church for its moral hypocrisy and political captivity.
I’ll conclude with a quote from author Jamar Tisby: “White Christian Nationalism is the most urgent threat to democracy and the witness of the Church in the United States today.” Christian Nationalism is dangerous not only because it is based on a flawed understanding of our country’s history, but because it idolizes our country and is prone to racist and anti-immigrant beliefs.
Most significantly, Christians do not reflect the values of Jesus and His Kingdom when we engage in culture wars for power over those who are different from us or disagree with us. Instead, we honor and serve the Lord by “acting justly, loving mercy and walking humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
Hope you and Alice and your family are well. Thank you for this article. I have been following Tisby and some others trying to understand Christian Nationalism. Your study and writing are helpful. I have been teaching a class on Sundays I call Living Between Genesis and Revelation. Trying to help us all know how to live in the realized but not yet age of the fully realized Kingdom of God. Using a manuscript study of Luke and introducing articles
by folks like Peter Wehner, David Brooks, and David French.. It has been challenging as we are in a politically very conservative area and near a major military complex. The linking of Nationalism and one’s faith is strong.
Bob, thank you for this terrific post on a complex and sensitive topic. It’s well-researched and clearly portrayed. I found it extremely helpful and hope do as well.
*others do as well. 😉