Feature 11.27.2023 8 minutes

Taking Christian Nationalism Seriously

USA, New Jersey, Cross with American flag in background

Neither liberal theologians nor online anons offer a plausible way forward.

Concern about the pernicious tendencies of “nationalism,” especially in its religious varieties, is understandable. In 1934, Albert Beaven, president of both Colgate-Rochester Divinity School and the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ, offered a familiar but false dichotomy. Beaven argued that religion, particularly Christianity, “deals in universals; it proclaims one God, creator of all men, and with that as a background claims the brotherhood of all, regardless of race or nation.” Fine enough. One is reminded of the Nunc Dimittis: “mine eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people: a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (Luke 2).

But then Beaven finished his dichotomy: “there is always a tension between these two tendencies—religion tending to pull men out of their smaller loyalties into larger ones, nationalism tending to pull the ideal and universal down to the limits of the parochial and the group.” Deploying liberal theological interpretive criticism, Beaven subverted the nationalism of the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. He described the story of Jonah as a “satire of prevailing religious nationalism” and the prophecy of Isaiah as mere evidence of how “universal ideas” gradually penetrated “national consciousness.” Jesus and the Apostles, Beaven then claimed, also contended against the nationalistic (and imperialistic, he says, apparently without evident contradiction) confusions of the Jews.

Beaven wanted Protestantism to be an idea without a country. Protestantism’s insistence on religious freedom, he warned, makes it even more apt to “heel at the command of the state,” because it refuses to acknowledge a “central earthly control or authority.” This creates “the danger of being utilized by the nationalistic ambitions of the several states.”

Magisterial Protestant Political Thinking: Asserting the Nation

But when Protestantism seceded from Rome, did it really turn the church into a politically irrelevant universal “something”? Or, on the other hand, did Protestantism simply reduce the church to heeling at the command of the state?

The earliest Protestant Reformers could be read that way outside of their proper context, I suppose. Those reading pioneering Reformer William Tyndale, for example, an early Bible translator and author of The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528), have concluded that Tyndale seeks independence for religious belief and almost unconditional obedience to civil authority. Neither is the case.

Tyndale asserts that the point of reading the Bible (which he translated for his English countrymen) is not only because it is “the word of thy soul’s health” but also to learn that “the Pope’s doctrine is not of God.” Tyndale’s point here is not purely theological, as if the church was Beaven’s universal something, but political. He acknowledges that uncovering the false teaching of Rome might come at the cost of a treason charge: the pope had asserted civil authority. “The doctrine of the world” is defended by “the weak powers of the world,” while the power of God is “stronger and wiser than all his enemies.” God’s enemies, Tyndale asserts, are those who have subverted the right relationship of ecclesiastical and civil authority. The pope’s erroneous presumption of authority over the civil magistrate, along with other errors, is indulged in England because people don’t know the Bible. It is only against this background of proper jurisdiction that Tyndale’s call to obedience makes sense. Tyndale calls his reader to civil obedience in part because Rome is disobedient. As a Protestant, Tyndale believes in the integrity of his nation and its civil authority.

That authority is teleological: political authority is ordained by God and granted conditionally. God sets the conditions, and Tyndale understands those conditions to be the same as Israel’s. Nations are seen by God, just as Israel was a nation, and they are blessed or cursed according to stated conditions. This does not mean Tyndale believes England to be “chosen,” a commonly overused trope of academics. Rather, he considers Israel’s terms the terms by which God blesses or curses any nation. Submission to civil authority (and all biblically-recognized authority) is a source of blessing; disobedience brings curses.

Tyndale twice cites Deuteronomy 28, a chapter prescribing the terms of blessing and cursing for Old Testament Israel. Tyndale applies this prescription of obedience first in households and then to civil “temporal officers.” If disobedience is “winked at,” then “the vengeance of God shall accompany them (as thou mayest see Deuteronomy 28) with all misfortune and evil luck.” More specifically on the subject of “all nations” (even pagan ones), Tyndale asserts that God appoints “kings, governors and rulers in his own stead…. And commanded all causes to be brought before them.” Obeying temporal laws is such an important condition of blessing that “the Turks” may be at an advantage over Christian nations. Insofar as England is suffering from disobedience—including the disobedience of the pope— against civil authorities it will suffer God’s displeasure.

God’s displeasure may come in the form of tyrants, those who depart from law and abuse their authority. The pope’s assertion of authority over the English monarch subjects England to tyranny, and they must refuse the pope’s assertion. The reluctance of Henry VIII to insist on his rightful place and thereby protect England from monks, friars, and bishops means that he may be a tyrant as well. Tyndale calls his reader to be obedient not to Roman Catholic authorities but to Henry, while calling Henry to be disobedient to the pope. Submission to Henry’s civil authority will distinguish Tyndale’s readers from the disobedience of Rome. To suffer under tyrants is better than to “dispute as the Pope’s disciples do.” What’s more, God’s imposition of tyranny is a call to repentance. Tyrants serve as a “scourge and rod to chasten us,” though God also stands ready to assist those who suffer under them. And in practical terms, even a tyrant who enforces the law harshly is better than no king at all, an “effeminate” king, or a king who is essentially a “shadow.” This is a high view of civil authority over the integrity of a nation called to serve God. One could read that as Christian nationalism, I think, and contrary to Beaven’s false dichotomy of a church that was either politically irrelevant or utterly obedient. 

Whither Christian Nationalism?

Insofar as today’s critics of Christian nationalism are Chicken Littles, their imagined concerns about conservative believers is laughable compared to Beaven’s genuine fear of fascism in 1934. Insofar as some Christian nationalists seem glib about our constitutional order, however, I am a critic. Christian nationalism must become a movement with a real intellectual center, contending with the virtues and vices of America’s longstanding republic, especially if it aspires to be what Mike Sabo claims: a source of realignment in American politics.

Christians should, like Tyndale, think of politics as something concerned with the human soul and the highest good. That is hardly a uniquely Christian concern. It was the interest of political theorists until, relatively speaking, yesterday. But whether our latest round of culture wars over trans athletes, for example, represents legitimate concerns with the highest good—rather than upper-middle-class concerns about athletic scholarships to colleges—I am very skeptical. Likewise, to align the more Protestant Christian nationalist movement with Catholic integralism is to overlook essential differences between the two in both theory and history. We may contest who has the best answer to what Sabo calls “the deepest theological-political questions facing our nation,” but this assumes that anyone is even asking them.

As someone who has written one of only a few academic books on the subject, I can assure you that folks in the pews are not interested in magisterial Protestantism. I doubt very much that Trump’s populist culture warriors are either, especially given the ambiguous connection between Trump supporters and church attendance and identification with Christian nationalism. And even that presumes that Trump has a political future, especially given the GOP’s lackluster performance as of late. I hope I’m wrong both about realignment as well as recovery of the magisterials. I certainly appreciate Sabo’s recovery of them in his essay, including in the American case. Some of it even reminds me of the recovery project of “Christian America” by David Barton, though Barton, like most conservative Evangelicals did a lot of history badly, increasingly grasped at straws, and ignored the magisterials. Sabo’s scholarship is better.

On the other hand, some of what Sabo associates with Christian nationalism, the “very-online” part, strikes me not as a coherent political theory, or practical political strategy, but as reactionary vibe at best and potentially much worse. Sabo is right: it will take a long time for any Christian nationalist project to have measurable political effect. But who are the elite Sabo summons to lead us? I’m afraid that some of his vanguard may lead us not into a better future, but instead to a regrettable past.

Sabo’s reference early in his piece to the X/Twitter pseud L0m3z indicates what Christian nationalism must avoid. The avatar for this X/Twitter account uses a graphic from the cover of a book by Milton William “Bill” Cooper titled Behold a Pale Horse. I doubt that this is a coincidence. To describe Cooper, who hosted a popular show on short wave radio in the 1990s, as a combination of Alex Jones and Art Bell would be wrong: Cooper built an audience for Jones and had a feud with him. Cooper was also gunned down by federal marshals in 2001, swearing not to be taken alive. I remember Cooper well; one can never forget the opening of Cooper’s show on WWCR (World Wide Christian Radio) in which the haunting sounds of dogs, screams, and sirens was prelude to every conspiracy theory available in the 90s, including The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, alien fifth columns, and the need for militias to prepare for civil war in the wake of Ruby Ridge and Waco. One of Cooper’s last ideas bridged the crazy 90s with the crazy present: Bin Laden didn’t orchestrate 9/11. Whoever is running the L0m3z account is likely paying homage to the incendiary Cooper, and that’s not something to celebrate.

Insofar as “Christian nationalists” are tempted to reboot Cooper and other loony tune elements from the last cornucopia of conspiracies and talk of civil war, they won’t get King David. They won’t even get someone like David Barton. They’ll get someone akin to a different legacy figure from the reactionary past: David Duke.

The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.

The American Mind is a publication of the Claremont Institute, a non-profit 501(c)(3) organization, dedicated to restoring the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. Interested in supporting our work? Gifts to the Claremont Institute are tax-deductible.

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