The Danger And Spiritual Impoverishment Of Christian Nationalism

Oct 29th, 2022 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

The mission of Issues in Perspective is to provide thoughtful, historical and biblically-centered perspectives on current ethical and cultural issues.

John F. Kennedy, a war hero running in his first congressional campaign, delivered a speech on 4 July 1946, at Faneuil Hall in Boston. It included a haunting meditation on the American soul:  “A nation’s character, like that of an individual, is elusive,” Kennedy said. “It is produced partly by things we have done and partly by what has been done to us. It is the result of physical factors, intellectual factors, spiritual factors. . . .  In peace, as in war, we will survive or fail according to its measure.”  JFK was speaking of the national character.


What does the American national character look like in 2022?  David Ignatius writes that “Nearly every American, whatever their political perspective, has a foreboding that the country they love is losing its way.  How great is the danger of national decline? The Pentagon’s in-house think tank, which has the mysterious name ‘Office of Net Assessment,’ commissioned a study of the problem by Michael J. Mazarr, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp, recently published under the title, ‘The Societal Foundations of National Competitiveness.’  Mazarr’s disturbing conclusion is that America is losing many of the seven attributes he believes are necessary for competitive success: national ambition and will; unified national identity; shared opportunity; an active state; effective institutions; a learning and adaptive society; and competitive diversity and pluralism. . . . He notes polling that three-quarters of those surveyed in 2019 were unhappy about where the country is headed. A 2018 study reported that more than 60 percent of those polled had ‘more fear than hope.’ And Americans across party lines don’t trust our country’s institutions. A 2018 poll registered only 10 percent who were ‘very satisfied’ with how democracy is working; it also found that two-thirds of respondents agree that ‘public officials don’t care what I think.’  National unity and cohesion are declining, Mazarr believes.  A country that was effective (sometimes brutally so) at assimilating diverse groups is more fragmented, and the idea of America as a ‘melting pot’ seems archaic to many people.”


How does genuine biblical Christianity fit into thinking about the national character?  Is it helpful to argue for Christian nationalism as a solution to this national dilemma?  The term Christian nationalism refers to the use of Christian words, symbols, or rituals as a means to shore up an ethnic or national identity. It is the marriage of Christianity with American nationalism.  As with every other ideology, it exists along a spectrum.   Russell Moore writes:  “On the (so far) less extreme end are people who, like the populist leaders in Italy and France and Germany, claim ‘Christianity’ as a key aspect of their national or ethnic identity—and as a way to distinguish their group from those they define as outsiders (Muslims, ‘globalists,’ etc.). At the more extreme end are people who make explicit theological pronouncements as a prop for ethnic and nationalist authoritarian illiberal aggression—as Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill did in seeking to quell protests against the war [in Ukraine] by saying that ‘sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.’  In terms of the world order, one side of the spectrum clearly does more immediate damage. Kirill’s comments are synonymous with, if not identical to, radical jihadist Muslim clerics telling suicide bombers that upon death they will be greeted by virgins in paradise. That sort of promise might not only motivate desperate people to commit atrocities against the testimony of their own consciences but also give unquestionable authority to those commanding such atrocities. Indeed, in the authoritarian’s view, such an alliance of religious and political authority seems to grant him the ‘keys of the kingdom,’ where whoever is drafted on earth is drafted into heaven. . . . Kirill’s claim that nationalist [Russian] militarism can save a person is not just manipulative but blasphemous. It empowers not just national injustice but also personal damnation.”

The Bible clearly teaches that people will not stand before God on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or even moral solidarity (Luke 3:8–9; Col. 2:16–22). “No one stands justified even by the works of the law given by God, much less by the flesh of one’s temporal ethnic or national identity (Gal. 3:15–16). Each person must be joined to Christ by personal repentance and personal faith—not by living in a culture conformed to some external definition of ‘Christian values.’ Jesus taught us that nothing coming in from the outside can defile a person; rather, it’s what is within a person’s heart that defiles him or her (Mark 7:14–23). That’s why he specifically walked away from those who wanted to use his gospel for political liberation (John 6:15) or for material prosperity (vv. 26–27).”

Moore:  “Despite their self-perceived opposition to the social gospel of old, Christian nationalists embrace the exact same view of the gospel. For the social-gospel-oriented left wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with the upward progress of humanity. For the Christian nationalist right wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with national or ethnic identity. The gospel is the means for a forward-looking utopianism in the one case and a backward-looking nostalgia in the other. Christian nationalism is a liberation theology for white people.”

As Paul Miller, in his book, The Religion of American Greatness, writes, Christian nationalism is actually a secular ideology.  The interest is in “the inherited norms, values and habits of America’s Christian heritage” more than a living Christian faith.  For the Christian nationalist, then, “the main point of sanctification becomes safeguarding the nation, not honoring God by emulating his character.” The nation in effect “becomes the object of the nationalists’ worship.”

What is the antidote to this perversion of the Gospel called Christian nationalism?  Let’s review the priorities of Jesus.  He began His public ministry by proclaiming, “Repent for the kingdom is at hand.”  This kingdom demands first loyalty among His followers.  He inaugurated His kingdom during His three-year ministry on Earth, as he plundered the kingdom of darkness (e.g., His healings, casting out demons, and His resurrection from the dead).  It is a kingdom with clear values (see the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7).  Furthermore, He adamantly rejected the role of a political messiah, for His kingdom would not come by force or violence.  As He taught in His parables (e.g., the mustard seed), His kingdom would grow slowly, person by person, but would eventually overcome evil, Satan and death.   The Kingdom of God is not about political power wielded to support a political ideology of Christian nationalism.  Jesus seeks to transform people from the inside out by softening their hearts, informing their conscience and releasing His power within their lives.  His death, burial and resurrection accomplish all this when it is appropriated by faith in Him.  Jesus defies all historical and political precedent and practice.  His followers represent Him—not a political Party or an ideology such as Christian nationalism.

Evangelical Christian columnist Michael Gerson writes:  “When we are caked with the mud of political struggle, and tired of Pyrrhic victories that seed new hatreds, and frightened by our own capacity for contempt, the way of life set out by Jesus comes like a clear bell that rings above our strife.  It defies cynicism, apathy, despair and all ideologies that dream of dominance. It promises that every day, if we choose, can be the first day of a new and noble manner of living.  It’s most difficult duties can feel much like purpose and joy. . . . [Before the consummation of the kingdom] Christians seeking social influence should do so not by joining interest groups . . . animated by hatred, fear, phobias, vengeance or violence.  Rather they should seek to be ambassadors of a kingdom of hope, mercy, justice and grace. . . It is a revolutionary ideal set by Jesus of Nazareth, who still speaks across the sea of years.”

See David Ignatius, “Nearly every American has a foreboding the country they love is losing its way” in the Washington Post (3 July 2022); Russell Moore, Moore to the Point (29 September 2022; Bonnie Kristian in (30 June 2022); and Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (4 September 2022).

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