Discussions of “Christian nationalism” are on the rise among evangelicals in recent months. We’ve seen an uptick of books, podcasts, conferences, and evangelical ministries promoting the idea of a “Christian nation.”
There are a variety of reasons for this rise in focus on Christian nationalism, most of which I do not plan to address here. However, what I do want to focus attention on is what it would mean for a nation to be Christian. Would that be a good or bad thing? Of course, those promoting Christian nationalism believe it would benefit both the church and broader society, but would it? What I intend to demonstrate is that while a “Christian nation” would certainly have positive results, the negatives would outweigh the positives, especially with regard to the church’s central mission.
What Is a Christian Nation?
One of the problems I’ve noticed in the rise of discussion of Christian nationalism is a lack of actually defining what is meant by “Christian nation.” I’ve watched panel discussions in which the participants stumbled over the term, never really defining what they mean with clarity.
Especially as people throw around the terminology on social media, one is rarely sure what the terms mean. Do we mean simply a nation that upholds values consistent with God’s natural law? Do we mean Christians actively applying their biblical values to how they vote and what they support politically? If so, count me a supporter. As I will explain below, I firmly believe that we Christians ought to actively live out our biblical values in the public sphere, opposing sin and promoting righteousness.
But among those who are more carefully writing and speaking on the issue, Christian nationalism means something more than that. Christian nationalism is the idea of a nation that explicitly considers itself to be Christian and governs itself accordingly. For example, to quote Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism,
Christian nationalism is a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.1Stephen Wolfe, The Case of Christian Nationalism, 9.
“In Christian nationalism,” Wolfe goes on to say, “the nation is conscious of itself as a Christian nation and acts for itself as a Christian nation.”2Wolfe, Christian Nationalism, 14. This doesn’t mean that every individual in a “Christian nation” is a Christian. Wolfe is quick to acknowledge that “a nation has no power in itself to bring anyone internally to true faith—to realize heavenly good in individuals.”3Wolfe, Christian Nationalism, 15. In other words, it is making the nation “Christian” externally with the goal that this will both bless the nation and help the individuals of that nation come to personal faith through the gospel of Jesus Christ. It strikes me that, in essence, Christian nationalists want to apply a Presbyterian theology of baptism to whole nations.
And indeed, Christian nationalists often talk about our mandate to “baptize nations.” Or to put it in the words of Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker, Christian nationalism is Christians “taking dominion and discipling nations.”4Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker, Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide to Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations. As Jared Longshore has put it recently, it is Christians willing to “pursue a Christendom that includes customs, rhythms, practices that are indeed Christian.” It is what Doug Wilson has called “mere Christendom,” “meaning that Christians need to recover an understanding of the need for a distinctively Christian civil order.”
In essence, this is the establishment of “cultural Christianity,” which Wolfe suggests “implicitly orders people to the Christian faith, though it cannot bring anyone to faith. Though not a spiritual force, it does remove hindrances to faith by making Christianity plausible, and it socializes people into religious practices in which one hears the gospel.”5Wolfe, Christian Nationalism, 28.
“Christian Nationalism” has Been Tried Before
Explicitly calling the goal “Christendom” and “cultural Christianity” is helpful, because it puts some historical teeth on the term. Christendom has been tried before, and so in evaluating the goals of Christian nationalism, we can actually examine previous iterations of Christendom.
The Theocracy of Israel
The first time “Christendom” was tried was explicitly instituted by God himself in the nation of Israel. I use “Christian nation” here, of course, anachronistically, but the reality is that Israel was a theocracy, meaning that there was no “separation of church and state”; rather, religious life and civil life were intertwined. All members of the nation were considered the people of God and expected to live in conformity to the Law of God, though certainly not every individual in the nation was a “true Israelite”; that is, many (most?) in the nation did not have personal faith in God.
The multi-ethnic nature of the New Testament church changed this reality as Christianity spread outside Israel to other nations, and especially once Israel as a nation fell in AD 70. However, church/state union was formed once again after Roman Emperor Constantine I legalized Christianity in 313 with the Edict of Milan, and especially when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Roman Empire’s offial religion in 391 and in the following year outlawed any form of pagan worship. This began a period that has come explicitly to be called “Christendom.” So when Wilson and other Christian nationalists say that what they want is “mere Christendom,” this is exactly what they mean.6Wilson’s only criticism of medieval Christendom is that the Christians took over before they were “matured enough and ready to do it in all wisdom.”
In medieval Christendom, the church began to be the controlling influence in the entirety of the Roman empire. This shifted what had once been a severely persecuted church to the center of western society, eventually leading to what many believed to be a “Christian civilization”—a “Holy Roman Empire.”
The Protestant Reformation fragmented “The Church,” which ended unified Christian dominance over society, and the rapid rise of secularism during the Enlightenment put the nail in Christendom’s coffin. However, in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, many European countries continued very close relationships between the state and state-sponsored churches, prime examples being the prominence of Lutheranism in Germany, the Anglican Church in England, and the Dutch Reformed Church in the Netherlands.
Furthermore, the effects of Christendom lingered for centuries throughout Europe, perhaps climaxing in the founding of the United States of America. We are still experiencing some of the positive benefits of Christendom in the US today.
Benefits of Christendom
Were there benefits that came from these “Christian nations”? Certainly. Let’s notice just three prime examples.
Freedom for Biblical Worship
The first is the most obvious and really the greatest benefit: the formation of Christendom freed Christians to worship according to their consciences. As mentioned above, prior to the Edict of Milan in 313, Christians were forced to gather in secret, often fearful of imprisonment or death.
Obviously the greatest benefit of a “Christian nation” is the freedom to worship.
Second, Christendom no doubt allowed morality to flourish in society. When there is a union of church and state, biblical norms come to carry the most significant influence upon the laws of the land and even the moral expectations of culture. Few would question the benefits of what some call a “Judeo-Christian ethic” upon the development of laws in the early years of the United States, for example.
This is a blessing in a society, because things just work better when the standards of a society are based upon how God designed the world to work. A society in which marriages and families are strong, general moral standards are high, and sin is frowned upon and even punished in the public sphere is going to be a society that flourishes and prospers.
This benefit is likely the most significant factor driving the recent growth of interest in Christian nationalism. The rapid rise of atrocities like “drag queen story hour,” gay “marriage,” LGBTQ+ distortions, and Satan worship on prime time TV have led many Christians to observe that if we had a Christian nation that outlawed those kinds of things, society would be better off. This is undoubtedly true.
A third benefit of Christendom has been stunningly beautiful cultural production rooted in the transcendent beauty and order of God himself. This is also undoubtedly true: Rembrandt, da Vinci, and Bach were possible only because of Christendom. The kinds of complex, beautiful works of art created by men like these presupposed an orderliness and transcendence found uniquely in biblical Christianity. The fact that other cultures have not produced that level of art has nothing to do with ethnicity and everything to do with the biblical values that lay at the core of western Christendom.
Not only art, but also advancements in science, politics, economics, industry, and technology occurred uniquely in the West due to the dominance of Christian values. Wonder in God’s world and genuine desire to improve conditions for fellow humankind flow from Christianity and impact the world in positive ways.
The Harm of Christendom
There is no doubt in my mind whatsoever that if a nation were Christian—that is, if Christianity were the official religion of a nation such that laws and culture were strongly dominated by biblical values, that nation would be better off in terms of public morality and cultural production.
However, these very external blessings possess a devastating effect: Christendom creates a cultural Christianity that actually hinders the church’s mission of making disciples.
Since in a Christian nation the very fabric of society is considered “Christian,” citizens of such a nation do not recognize their inherent depravity and need to repent of their sin and put their unreserved faith in Christ alone for their salvation. In the consciousness of such citizens, they are “Christian” by virtue of their citizenship; there is no “opt in” to Christianity in Christendom—citizens have already been “baptized” into the Christian community.
Consider the “Bible belt” in the southern United States, for example. How many people fail to put their trust in Christ because they do not even recognize their need due to the fact that a form of cultural Christianity still dominates in much of the South? How many Evangelical mega-churches are filled with nominal, “cultural Christians”? Even the theocracy of Israel proved that a national religion that forced people into conformity with God’s Law was not enough to bring people into a true personal relationship with God. A new covenant was needed in which the very hearts of individuals were transformed by the Spirit of God. Inner regeneration must precede external conformity to God’s Law.
Likewise, contrary to what some Christian nationalists might claim, cultural Christianity does not lead people toward Christ, it actually desensitizes them to true Christianity and eventually leads to apathy and agnosticism. For example, one core cause of the prevalent secularism of Europe and the United Kingdom today (as well as South Africa) is the dominance of state churches and the cultural Christianity that arose out of western Christendom.
Nations that claim to be Christian lull their citizens into believing that they are Christians without personal regeneration and faith. Christendom creates the worst form of legalism since its “Christianity” is merely external. That external Christianity produces many blessings, but it is merely external nonetheless. And we mustn’t call something “Christian” that is merely conforming externally—that term must be reserved for those who are truly, internally regenerate.
I object to Christendom for the same reason I object to infant baptism. As well-intentioned as we may be, and as many external goods come from it, we should not pretend as if unregenerate people are Christians. Every time Christendom was tried, it failed.
Now let me be quick to answer some natural objections. I am not saying that Christians should stay out of the public sphere. We regenerate Christians ought to live out our biblical values in every sphere of life, promoting righteousness for the good of our fellow man. Like Israel in exile, we ought to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jer 29:7). Nor am I saying that it doesn’t matter how a Christian votes or what policies Christians support. Some politicians and policies are contrary to biblical teaching, and it would be a sin for Christians to support them.
A common objection is often something like, “Well, if you don’t support Christian nationalism, what kind of nationalism do you want? Pagan nationalism? Are you just going to be satisfied with drag queen story hours and increased oppression against Christians?” Of course not. We ought to grieve over “drag queen story hour,” gay “marriage,” and abortion, opposing them at every turn. We ought to call government to fulfill their God-appointed role of enforcing God’s moral law to sustain civic order. We ought to live holy lives, demonstrate kindness toward all people, rear godly children, work hard, and apply what it means to be a Christian in whatever sphere God has called us.
But we do all of this as Christians in exile, expecting that “in the last days there will come times of difficulty. . . . Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (1 Tim 3:1, 12). We shouldn’t desire persecution, but we should expect it, recognizing that actually a persecuted church is often a more pure church. “Cultural Christianity” is far less likely in a persecuted church.
The problem is that many Christians today are unwilling to be content with the tensions that God has ordained during this already/not yet period until Jesus comes again. We long for Christ’s kingdom on earth, and that is a good longing. We ought to pursue the moral blessings of Christ’s kingdom in our homes and in our churches. But God has not promised the blessings of Christ’s kingdom for nations of unregenerate people. Those blessings will come when Jesus comes again and takes dominion over all, when every knee will bow to him—when every citizen of his earthly kingdom will also be a regenerate citizen of his heavenly kingdom.
Until Jesus comes again, we live in the tensions portrayed for us in the New Testament. Ultimately, we must recognize that the mandate given to us as churches is not to take dominion and establish Christendom; our mandate is to make disciples from every nation (Matt 28:19; cf. Rev 5:9), baptizing those who have been regenerated by the Spirit through the proclamation of the gospel, adding them to our number, and teaching them to observe everything Christ commanded.
|1||Stephen Wolfe, The Case of Christian Nationalism, 9.|
|2||Wolfe, Christian Nationalism, 14.|
|3||Wolfe, Christian Nationalism, 15.|
|4||Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker, Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide to Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations.|
|5||Wolfe, Christian Nationalism, 28.|
|6||Wilson’s only criticism of medieval Christendom is that the Christians took over before they were “matured enough and ready to do it in all wisdom.”|
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