Whittaker Chambers once longed for height in the modern world. “Height, then, from which to measure…those forces…that impersonally shape each of our lives each of our days.” Why? Because height provides perspective to understand reality with some “chance to rise above it.”
With the turbulence of our current politics, it should come as no surprise that many Christians are looking for such height when it comes to political issues. Unfortunately, many are finding themselves in cul-de-sacs of confusion. The most recent evidence is the debate sparked over so-called “Christian nationalism,” which, from the perspective of evangelical elites, is the bane of all Christian witness in the public square.
A pattern has emerged. An academic, often from a theologically liberal persuasion, paints a caricature of “Christian nationalism” that is clearly outside the lines of orthodox Christianity. Celebrity pastors and writers then point to that distorted definition, label any related viewpoints as heresy and call for all evangelicals to practice discernment or repent of compromising political idolatry. They point to inappropriate, but mostly anomalous, displays of Christian symbolism in political settings. Few pause long enough to consider what millions of Christians might actually mean when we say that America is a “Christian nation,” or champion viewpoints that accord with traditional nationalist principles.
Consider Tim Keller’s review of Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead’s Taking Back America for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Keller’s review assumes the book’s definitions are correct with no further investigation. The writers define “Christian nationalism” as the “fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture…blurr[ing] and conflat[ing] religious identity (Christian, preferably Protestant) with race (white), nativity (born in the United States), citizenship (American) and political ideology (social and fiscal conservative).” Keller adds that “it includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.”
As such, Keller intones that “we must recognize that Christian Nationalism in its most pure form is indeed idolatrous. It looks to political power as the thing that will truly save us.” But if the above definitions or assumptions were actually true, the overwhelming majority of the individuals described as “Christian nationalists” and interviewed in the book would agree! To build their case, Perry and Whitehead draw cynical conclusions based on their own worldview to explain the policy positions of many conservatives and Christians alike—and then paint an ideologically charged and unrecognizable picture of “Christian nationalism.”
For instance, they ask why so many Christians support “xenophobic policies, such as a border wall with Mexico.” A border wall is necessarily xenophobic? Later, they equate the desire for religious liberty as “protecting ‘religious freedom’ to discriminate against sexual and gender minorities.” That is laughable.
This debate is important, though—once stripped of its superimposed liberal scar tissue, “Christian nationalism” is actually a rather benign and useful description for those who believe in both preserving our country’s Judeo-Christian heritage and making public policy decisions that are best for this country. The term need not be subjected to such intense scorn due to misunderstanding or slander.
Let’s take the nationalism part first. Nationalism is a political philosophy that says independent nation-states are the best way to organize governments that both (1) avoid the chaos and insecurity of tribes and clans and (2) preserve the freedom and self-determination that globalism or imperialism precludes. Nationalism is not just a patriotic love for one’s country, but a commitment to prioritize the needs and interests of one’s own country over others—not unlike parents who prioritize their family over others, or pastors who prioritize their local church over others. It concerns itself with maintaining the cohesiveness of a particular people and a cultural inheritance—drawn from the past, preserved in the present and passed on to future generations—on which a state rests, to avoid both dissolution and external attacks.
Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book, The Virtue of Nationalism, is an indispensable read on this subject. In his book, Hazony explores a biblical foundation for nationalism as far back as the Old Testament. He argues: “Moses sets boundaries for Israel, instructing his people to keep their hands off the lands of neighboring kingdoms like Moa[b], Edom and Ammon, which deserve their own independence,” citing Deuteronomy 2:5, 9 and 19. Furthermore, he reminds us that the nation was not based on race—outsiders could join Israel so long as they, “accept[ed] Israel’s God, laws and understanding of history.”
Applied to our context in America, nationalists care greatly about maintaining control over our borders, strengthening our ability to protect ourselves from adversaries, avoiding foreign entanglements that both sap our strength and encroach on the prerogatives of other nations, and preserving a shared consensus as a people with a collective will to survive. We welcome the banner of “America First,” and we welcome other countries to prioritize their countries first, as well.
As for the Christian part of “Christian nationalism,” part of being a nation is a shared religious heritage. And in America, that historical heritage is, of course, Christianity. This is where the distinction between the nation and the state comes into play. The state is a government that rests on and includes much of a nation. According to Hazony, “A nation can exist independently of the state, and does not have to include every individual within the state.” When our Founders formed the United States of America, they instituted a state to govern a nation and provided a Constitution that protects religious liberty and every individual’s right of conscience. But they were not intending to create a secular society divorced of all religion.
Accordingly, George Washington was not odd for stating in his First Inaugural Address, “The propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself as ordained.” Or take one of our early Supreme Court justices, Joseph Story, who said, “I verily believe that Christianity is necessary to support a civil society and shall ever attend to its institutions and acknowledge its precepts as the pure and natural sources of private and social happiness.” These were not uncommon viewpoints at the time.
And their posture was consistent with Scripture. Psalm 2 asks, “Why do the nations rage and the people plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord? …Now therefore O kings, be wise; be warned O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear and rejoice with trembling” (emphasis added). If Psalm 2 is taken seriously, what is the political manifestation of that corrective? Is it not to recognize the healthiness of a people, including public officials, consciously and publicly positioning themselves for the Lord or under God?
Abraham Kuyper, former prime minister of the Netherlands, defended his party’s platform proclaiming that his country was a Christian nation—”that is, a nation not without God”—by explaining: “The foundation, the very terrain on which our nobler, conscious moral life flourishes is the belief that God is there and that he is active everywhere. …Does our national life rest on the metaphysical presuppositions that deny Almighty God; or does it rest…on fundamental beliefs that honor God as God?” Christians say yes. And there is nothing at all wrong with that.
My own definition of “Christian nationalism” would be this: An orientation for engaging in the public square that recognizes America as a Christian nation, where our rights and duties are understood to come from God and where our primary responsibilities as citizens are for building and preserving the strength, prosperity and health of our own country. It is a commitment to an institutional separation between church and state, but not the separation of Christianity from its influence on government and society. It is a belief that our participation in the political system can lead to beneficial outcomes for our own communities, as well as individuals of all faiths.
Critics like Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead know the reality that we are a historically Christian nation. The issue is they don’t want us advancing public policy based on a “specific vision for the country” because it conflicts with their own vision. They have their own agenda: progressive, secular globalism. That’s OK. It’s their right, under our system, to have that view and to participate themselves. But let’s not pretend—and I say this with great respect to pastors and writers like Tim Keller—that their agenda is about anything other than power.
Russ Vought is president of the Center for American Restoration and former director of the Office of Management and Budget.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.