Published December 7, 2022
Over the past few months, the conversation around so-called “Christian nationalism” has rapidly come to dominate discussions in obscure corners of the Reformed and evangelical world andin the mainstream media alike, though it is rarely clear that everyone is talking about the same thing. Like an over-eager train that left the station without a conductor, “Christian nationalism” has rattled, squeaked, and veered dangerously, and seems ready to jump the tracks altogether.
As someone frequently dragged into such conversations and invited several times recently to speak on this topic, I’d like to use this essay to clear both the air and the ground, defining terms for the uninitiated while also offering what I hope will prove a compelling path out of the confusion.1
Let’s begin by distinguishing between three fundamentally different phenomena that are often conflated:
- Christian support for nationalism generally
- “Christian chosen-nation-ism”
- The idea of Christian magistracy.
There is also, unfortunately, another set of ideas that sometimes uses “Christian nationalism” as a Trojan horse to advance its noxious agenda: (4) white Christian nationalism. Given the deep contradiction between race ideology of any kind and the Christian faith, one hesitates even to allow these two adjectives to stand alongside one another, but tragically, there is a fierce and vocal movement out there unashamed to combine aspects of (1)-(3) above with white identitarianism, and baptize the whole as “Christian.” And of course there have been Christian polities in the past, blind to the dangers of racism, that have unhealthily merged a zeal to privilege the Christian religion with a zeal to privilege their own racial sub-groups. This means that any project of “retrieval” when it comes to Protestant political theology, or Burkean conservatism for that matter, must proceed with caution, recognizing that not everything in our past deserves to be retrieved and re-invigorated.
In place of this, I would propose combining elements of (1) with an unabashed commitment to (3) to retrieve and renew something that used to be entirely commonplace: (5) the Christian commonwealth. If someone, eager for an “ism” or for trendiness, prefers to call this last by the name “Christian nationalism,” they certainly may, but I will not. I have never liked the ambiguities that have flourished under that name and henceforward will make the case for simply promoting the “renewal of a Christian commonwealth,” as indeed I have been doing since my 2013 dissertation, “The Freedom of a Christian Commonwealth” (published as The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty), and as the Davenant Institute has been doing since its inception.
1. Can Christians Be Nationalists?
Four Senses of “Nationalism”
So much for the initial semantic ground-laying. Let’s now dive into each of these concepts at greater length—the first will necessarily take the longest.
First, then, a “Christian nationalist” might simply be a nationalist who happens to be a Christian, or a Christian who happens to be a nationalist. But what, pray tell, is a “nationalist”? Well, here again we must distinguish, for even this word on its own has meant many things to many people and continues to do so. At least four possibilities present themselves:
- Nationalism over against sectionalism or localism
- Nationalism as theory of international order
- Nationalism as a stronger word for patriotism
- Cultural nationalism
(1)A. Nationalism vs. Sectionalism/Localism
The first of these is probably least interesting for our purposes here, and indeed many card-carrying “nationalists” in America today would insist on strong stances in favor of more power to the states and less to the federal government, or would trumpet their commitment to local communities and attachments. However, for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, anti-sectionalism was one of the key connotations of nationalism; indeed, it is striking that three of the most important modern nation-states were essentially forged in war out of formerly loose federations between 1861 and 1870: Germany, Italy, and the United States.
At first in the United States, the consolidation of the various states into a single sovereignty through the 14th Amendment had the result of simply unleashing the engines of capitalism to run amok across local and state jurisdictional boundaries, with behemoths like the Union Pacific Railroad, the Standard Oil Company, and US Steel assuming vast semi-feudal powers that readily defied the weak political structures of the states that were meant to be regulating them. In this context, Theodore Roosevelt’s call for a “new nationalism” that would consolidate effective and accountable national sovereignty at the federal level in order to rein in the robber barons was perhaps a necessary and salutary move. (I have published on this topic at some length here and here.) Still more necessary was the later expansion of national power to curtail the systemic oppression of African-Americans perpetrated under the banner of “localism” or “states’s rights.” Unfortunately, today that same federal apparatus has now been deployed as a juggernaut of progressivism to force a wildly libertine conception of the human person and political order on all of the formerly self-governing sodalities within the American republic: churches, schools, universities, cities, counties, and states. It is difficult to know what stance a Christian should take today in the tug-of-war between national and local, and so-called “Christian nationalists” themselves take a variety of prudential stances.
1(B). Nationalism as Theory of International Order
What about (1)B, nationalism as theory of international order? This is of particular interest to me as a historian and political theorist, and was one of the key arguments of Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism. Indeed, it is of very especial interest to me as a Protestant, because it is my conviction that nationalism in this sense has its origins in the soil of the Protestant Reformation and the theories of international law developed by Protestant jurists in the two centuries following—from Grotius and Selden to Pufendorf, Vattel, and James Wilson. I have touched on this narrative in essays such as “The Freedom of a Christian Nation” and “America Among the Nations” (as has my colleague Colin Redemer), and as it is of such interest to me, I will be sorely tempted to go on about it at great length here.
So I will restrain myself to a paragraph. Essentially, nationalism in this sense refers to a principled stance in favor of the independence and equality of nations. It rejects the essentially imperial political theory of ancient Rome and the Middle Ages for the idea that it is good for political units capable of effectively representing and defending their respective peoples to achieve, assert, and maintain independence. Although they may vary greatly in size, they should have formal equality when it comes to diplomacy and international law, and should respect as much as possible the rights of each to secure and promote its own interests as it understands them—so long as these interests are not pursued at the expense of a neighbor. It is, in short, rather like the current modern liberal theory of politics within a nation: individuals should be equal before the law and have the freedom to develop and pursue their own purposes so long as they refrain from harming one another. As a theory about individuals withina nation, this is anthropologically unsound and politically self-defeating. As a theory about nations within humanity, however, it has much more to recommend it.2
Nationalism in this sense—once the received orthodoxy of the Western nations—has forcefully re-asserted itself in contemporary political discourse in response to the resurgence of medieval imperialism in the guise of the European Union and a neo-imperial China. There are, of course, plenty of Christian imperialists—as I’ve noted, this was perhaps the dominant Christian political tradition before the Reformation—and I’m more than happy to bounce ideas around with them, but on this point at least, I range myself firmly on the side of the Christians-who-are-also-nationalists.
(1)C. Nationalism, Patriotism, and Christian Love
What then about (1)C, nationalism as “patriotism”? We might define this succinctly as “pride in one’s nation and desire for it to succeed and flourish.” It is not hard to see why such a concept is making such a fierce resurgence of late—if you try to bottle up and repress a natural human sentiment, it is liable to explode under the pressure sooner or later. Increasingly in the modern West, as Douglas Murray for instance has documented in a slew of recent books, we live in countries consumed with self-hatred. We are not allowed to be proud of our national heritage or our national heroes, and the very idea of acting in the national self-interest is maligned as jingoism. Now clearly, there are vicious forms of national pride and vicious forms of pursuing national self-interest—some indeed so vicious as to be demonic. However, there are also virtuous forms, and it is a law of human nature that if you seek to wholly suppress some natural instinct from virtuous expression, you will succeed only in ensuring that it takes vicious expression.
For now, it suffices to point out that there is an appropriate ordering of loves that prioritizes the near over the far, family or friend over stranger, fellow citizen over foreigner—not because any of these is intrinsically superior (I make no claim that my family is better than yours), but because it is what God has given to me, and given me to. From this standpoint, nationalism or patriotism is simply a recognition of the moral significance of God’s providence in placing us in greater proximity and tying us more closely to some rather than others, whether the bonds be those of family, place, friendship, or law—all of which in some measure go into constituting the bonds of nationhood. This love should shape both what we honor at home (in terms of celebrating national holidays or retelling national stories in a way that shows honor and gratitude to our forebears, as for instance I’ve written on here), and how we act abroad (in terms of legitimate, prima facie privileging of national interest, as I’ve written on here).
Many Christians today worry that this kind of national pride is somehow in tension with our universal allegiances as members of the global body of Christ. But to play these off against one another is the product of bad ecclesiology, as I’ve argued here. In fact, I would suggest, sentiments of nationalism/patriotism provide a crucial ally for Christian formation in the great battle of our time, the battle against the ideology of self-creation being peddled by almost every corner of our culture. The word “nation” comes from natio, “birth,” whereas “patriotism” comes from patria, “fatherland.” Both of these point us back toward the once-fundamental moral obligation of filial piety, the recognition that the given precedes the chosen, that we are dependent beings who must begin our lives in gratitude and duty towards those who brought us into being. Christianity, of course, teaches that we did not choose God, he chose us: first in creation, and then in redemption. We have no say in the matter; we simply find ourselves in a relation, one which demands gratitude and piety. Our relation to the land and community of our birth is analogous.
Only analogous, to be sure, and there is always a grave danger that this prima facie relation of dependence and obligation can idolatrously take the place of our ultima facie dependence on and obligation toward God. But for the well-catechized church, patriotism can serve as a school of self-mortification and virtue that strengthens and serves the mission of the church, rather than competing with it.
But is nationalism something different than patriotism? Many seem to think so, happily endorsing the latter term but excoriating the former as something ugly, exclusive, and jingoistic. Of course, it all depends on your definitions, but critics are not wrong to discern at least a difference of nuance, which gets us to the crucial debate around (1)D: cultural nationalism.
(1)D. The Promise and Peril of Cultural Nationalism
Among outspoken critics of nationalism such as Paul Miller, “patriotism” is a safer term because it remains abstract and formalistic, while nationalism is too uncomfortably blood-and-soil in its overtones. The American patriot, it is suggested, can take pride not in exclusive traditions like religion, language, or ethnicity, but in an inclusive commitment to freedom or the glories of our constitutional system, or perhaps to the abstract legal community contained within our current borders. If those borders were redrawn tomorrow so that the US and Mexico merged, American and Mexican patriotism would become identical on Miller’s account, so far as I can tell. To say otherwise—to try to fill one’s sentiments of national allegiance with any kind of concrete content—he worries, will necessarily lead to an exclusion of “the other” based on an ugly xenophobia.
It can, to be sure. Or it can simply be the result of what Roger Scruton calls oikophilia—love of the home. The nationalist is motivated not primarily by some abstract allegiance to the sovereign state in which he finds himself (or which he has chosen, almost arbitrarily it would seem, by immigration), but to the nexus of overlapping shared loves, habits, and meanings that comprise a people. I have written at length about the kinds of ties that bind a people together in a sense of corporate moral agency, allowing them to speak confidently in the first person plural, in essays for American Affairs and National Affairs.
These ties include language above all, but language in its broadest sense, as a symbolic map of meaning for the world—so think here about idioms, habits, clothing, architecture, and of course religion, which binds together in shared beliefs, shared habits of worship, and shared expectations for moral behavior. These shared expectations of moral behavior, together with longstanding custom, also inform distinct traditions of law, which can and should vary between different peoples. Of course, shared experiences play a critical role as well—tribes that do not see themselves as the same people or nation may have their imaginative horizons widened by standing in the trenches together against a common foe. The Thirteen Colonies in America had little shared consciousness before the crucible of the French and Indian War, which provided enough shared identity to allow common action in the War for Independence; that, in turn, forged a sense of shared nationhood, to which John Jay was famously able to give voice in Federalist No. 2.
Now, you will notice I have not mentioned race or ethnicity yet in this account of the shared bonds of nationhood. “Ethnicity,” it seems to me, is a very slippery word, which can be defined in the direction of “race” or defined simply in terms of a shared culture; I will thus drop it out of consideration, and pose the alternatives as a “racial nationalism” or “cultural nationalism.” As a matter of historical fact, of course, it is clear that racial consciousness has often played an important role in national self-definition. This is no argument against nationalism per se; it is at least equally true that racial consciousness has often played an important role in supra-national self-definition, justifying imperial projects based on racial solidarity, and it is in such forms that racism has achieved its ugliest and most evil expressions. But racial nationalism can be bad enough.
In some measure, of course, it is easy to see why cultural and racial nationalism might shade over into one another; the cause-and-effect arrow might go in both directions. A group of people who share a common culture are going to be more likely to intermarry with one another and less likely to intermarry with outsiders, thus over time establishing a distinctive gene pool—especially under premodern conditions of limited geographic mobility—and thus some kind of racial identity. Or, conversely, if a group of people with shared racial characteristics sought to exclude others, this racial group would develop a distinctive shared culture. Both processes have gone on everywhere throughout history, and have not in every case morphed into the destructive cancer of racism. But they certainly can do so, and the subject deserves our utmost vigilance.
The fact is that “race” is largely a constructed category, with infinite variations of genetic difference across the whole glorious spectrum of the one human race. Whatever differences that millenia of in-marriage might have produced between South Koreans and West Africans, they can be dissolved in just one generation by the marital union of a Korean man and a Liberian woman. Indeed, most modern Americans are a dizzying amalgam of what might once have been considered different “races.” Modern attempts to cultivate racial consciousness are largely the vicious response to a crisis of a healthy cultural consciousness. No longer able to have religion or language or moral customs in common, desperate moderns both Right and Left fall back upon the only possibility that seems left to them: some kind of racial identity.
But this is a disastrous mistake. Differences between humanity, including genetic ones, are not a result of the Fall. But alienation and hostility based upon such differences, such as always results from the active cultivation of race-consciousness, most certainly are. And in Christ, such alienation is set aside: “For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility,” writes Paul in the context of ethnic tensions in the early church (Eph. 2:14), demanding that even as nations persist in the New Covenant, they also recognize their common brotherhood. It is a tragedy that the sin of racism is so deeply engrained in fallen humanity that even two millennia of leavening Christian witness have not succeeded in purging it, but those failures are no reason for simply resigning ourselves to it.
If a Christian seeks to be a cultural nationalist, he certainly can be—but only if he is resolute in rejecting the race-consciousness that often stows away aboard the nationalist ship. Moreover, he must continue to cultivate the wider cosmopolitan view that Christianity has always fostered, recognizing that although cultural differences are real, they are in the end only very small barriers, easily overleapt, within our shared humanity. In this respect, redemption simply illumines and restores creation: as even pagans like Terence realized, homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto; the new multi-national humanity of the Church simply bears public witness to the permeability of the racial and cultural barriers in humanity which we have by virtue of both creation and redemption. This is one point where Stephen Wolfe’s much-discussed recent Case for Christian Nationalism goes astray, inviting Christians not only to recognize and acknowledge ethnic barriers, but to positively lean into them.3
2) “Christian Chosen-Nation-ism”
If many nations throughout history have been tempted to think of themselves as inherently superior on account of racial characteristics, another subtler temptation lurks for Christian nations. Over the past few centuries, as Spain, France, Britain, and Germany each took their turn basking in history’s limelight, each was tempted to think that it had been set aside by God for a particular world-historical mission; that it, like Israel of old, had been chosen as the vessel of his purposes in the world. And perhaps nowhere has such a religiously-inflected nationalism flourished so much or so long as the United States. Biblical themes, combined with more secular forms of American exceptionalism and wild-eyed millenarian enthusiasm, have interwoven to create an idolatrous vision of America as “the indispensable nation,” indispensable even to the establishment of God’s kingdom.
Of course, we must tread carefully here, lest we deny nations any theological significance in God’s providential purposes. Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, in their bestselling analysis of “Christian nationalism,” Taking America Back for God, try to identify “Christian nationalists” by asking respondents whether they believe that “the success of the United States is part of God’s plan.” That’s silly, because any faithful Christian should not hesitate to respond “Yes.” Given that the United States has in fact been remarkably successful, this must on any orthodox Christian theology be seen as part of God’s plan. But there is a great difference between God’s providential blessing and his covenantal blessing. Has God entered into a covenant with the United States of America such as he did with ancient Israel, committing to use it as a unique vehicle of his purposes? Or is it rather, like Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, simply an instrument that he can raise up and later cast down?
We must, I think, answer “the latter”—or at least, “more like the latter.” The Deuteronomic blessings and curses for faithfulness and unfaithfulness have a universal dimension to them, and it stands to reason that if America honors God in its laws and conduct, that God is more likely to bless it. Obedience to God is good for a people, as Proverbs teaches. But there are no guarantees here. God has made no promises to the United States in particular, and we should not presume to know his purposes. When we do so, we risk “immanentizing the eschaton”—imbuing the events of our lifetimes, and every election cycle, with eternal significance.
It was bad theology such as this that was responsible for many of the worst excesses of the Trump years. Evangelicals who spoke of Trump as “God’s anointed,” or who gathered with Eric Metaxas for the “Jericho March” to blow shofars, or who stormed the Capitol waving Christian flags, were all examples of this basic category confusion. On their account, America was founded as a Christian nation and was meant to remain a Christian nation; indeed, it must remain one at all costs, and if it was no longer willing to be, they would contemplate even the use of force to make it Christian.
Of course, for many who think and speak this way, “Christian” is little more than a cultural identifier. As Perry and Whitehead note, actual church attendance and other measures of religiosity tend to negatively correlate with “Christian nationalism” defined in this sense. The typical profile of such a “Christian nationalist” is a down-on-their-luck blue-collar worker in flyover country, raised on Christian nostrums but long since out of the Church. For him, “Christianity” is little more than a stand-in for “the way things used to be in this country” and “the way things ought to be in this country.” He feels a certain way of life, a certain shared cultural imaginary, slipping away, and fights back angrily and viscerally. He sees elite culture mocking and sneering at Christianity, and he feels that mockery in his bones.
We should not mock or pooh-pooh such a spirit, but rather seek to understand and disciple it; it is only natural and human, and the elite assault on American folkways over the past generation has been relentless. But it needs to be chastened by authentic Christian faith, the faith that while God is at work in history, we cannot discern his purposes. God revealed to Isaiah that Cyrus was “his anointed” (Isa. 45:1), but he has never made such a specific revelation about Constantine, Charlemagne, or Donald Trump. The Christian who is willing to storm the Capitol in order to save his nation and avert a divine curse is convinced that he lives at one of the decisive moments of history, that everything depends on the next few years, the next few months, the next few minutes. But long after this apocalyptic “last stand,” God will still be patiently working his purposes out through the mundane instruments of men and women who eat, drink, and get married, raise children and write songs, build institutions and watch them die, pass laws and protest them.
3) Christian Magistracy
On the other end of the spectrum from the flag-waving, rodeo-attending, Capitol-storming, God-and-guns “deplorables” that populate the nightmares of elites, lies a much nerdier, tweedier discourse, one dedicated to recovering an older vision of Protestant political theology from the wreckage of political imagination wrought by late liberalism. To be sure, these two ends of the spectrum are not as far apart as they may seem. Whereas the pop-level “Christian nationalist” so maligned by elites intuitively grasps that “The federal government should advocate Christian values” (one of the statements on Perry and Whitehead’s questionnaire), the “tweedier” post-liberal Protestants among whom I work and write simply try to put this intuition into more concrete terms—arguing that all laws embody certain religious values, and if we think our religion is true, we should want its convictions embedded in our laws.
That said, it is important to distinguish such claims of political theology from the nationalism debate, because there is nothing intrinsically nationalist (in the first or second sense) about the standard maxims of Protestant political thought, maxims that operated in empires as well as city-states, and which were taken for granted until the historical equivalent of five minutes ago. (Indeed, perhaps the very best example of Protestant political thought, and one with a lot to offer America’s imperial-scale federal republic, is the federalism of Johannes Althusius.) This is the subject on which I have written and published most extensively (see, most systematically, my essay “The Civil Magistrate” in Protestant Social Teaching) So I will be concise here, borrowing seven principles from an argument I recently elaborated here.
- It is the task of government to both punish evil and praise/reward good, as pithily stated in both Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.
- We know what good and evil look like from the natural law, as it is restated and clarified by Scripture. The Decalogue used to be pretty much universally regarded by Catholic and Protestant commentators alike as a shorthand summary of the natural law.
- Putting these first two propositions together, then, we can say that the task of government is to enforce justice as summed up in the Decalogue—and this includes both the first and second tables: Commandments 1-4 and Commandments 5-10.
- At this point, however, we must make a classical Protestant two-kingdoms distinction: government has jurisdiction only over the external temporal sphere, not over matters of the heart, which are God’s business. Government, it is quite true, cannot make people Christians. The fool may indeed say in his heart that there is no God, and who can stop him? But if the fool starts running around in the streets yelling that there is no God, that’s another matter. Then he is striking at the foundations of society, acting within the temporal sphere over which government does have jurisdiction.
- However, just because government can punish something doesn’t mean it should. Some evils may indeed be evils, but the attempt to restrain them may be counterproductive. This goes for false worship as well as the many interpersonal evils that follow from the failure to recognize God as God. From this recognition emerged the principle of toleration. However, the appropriate bounds of toleration will be a prudential judgment based on circumstances; child sacrifice will presumably never be tolerated, but watching football on Sunday may need to be for the time being.
- In making such prudential judgments, though, we should not forget that law has a pedagogical function, teaching us what to regard as good. Therefore, even if a law cannot effectively restrain some evil by force, it may nonetheless turn out to limit the spread of that evil by its mere moral authority. For instance, many states, legalizing marijuana on the basis that it was counterproductive to restrain, often found that even un-enforced bans helped shape public behavior, and legalization dramatically increased demand for the substance.
- Finally, it is crucial to remember that government can promote as well as restrain. A Christian magistrate should be less focused on punishing bad religion than on promoting good religion. This used to be completely standard Western practice, and was indeed the basis of the American religious settlement: many denominations were allowed to flourish, very few religious practices were actively restrained, but public institutions recognized, affirmed, and celebrated the good of the Christian religion. Affirmation of one religion is not—as Millian liberalism would have it—ipso facto persecution of all others.
These propositions define the shape of Christian magistracy for a polity of whatever size, one in which God is publicly recognized and honored in laws, institutions, education, and public holidays or rituals. As anachronistic as this sounds, we forget at our peril that every functional and sustainable society is one in which some god is thus publicly honored; just witness the steady expansion of the national liturgical calendar to include Pride Month. If we are not going to proclaim God in our laws and institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised when our adversaries proclaim Dionysius there instead. The aim of politics is living well together. To live well, we must pursue virtue, and to pursue virtue, we must have a concept of the highest good. Every society therefore will punish blasphemy against its supposed highest good. A century ago, we punished people for publicly mocking an infinite Creator God. Today, we punish people for publicly mocking the idea of an infinite, self-creating man—a man able to turn himself into a woman.
Refusing the Temptation of Race-Consciousness
As noted in the introduction, there is a real threat that “Christian nationalism” may become a Trojan horse for white nationalism. This is not, as progressives like Sam Perry would have it, because conservative Christians are all constitutionally authoritarian, misogynist, and xenophobic, and so of course they would be racist too. The causes of our malaise are no doubt complex, and racism is obviously nothing new, but its recent resurgence among Christian conservatives is a predictable reaction to the excesses of wokeism and the crisis of identity among young people. As noted above, having deprived ourselves of every traditional form of identity, we moderns seem left with nothing solid beyond skin color.
In recent years, progressives have thus decided that it is perfectly acceptable to define people in terms of “whiteness,” and leave whites with the impression that the only posture available to them is self-loathing. Little wonder that at least a handful accept the first invitation but refuse the second. As Rod Dreher has recently written, “If you are growing up in this world, how do you react to it? How do you react to it when the churches are either silent about it, or join in with the chorus of condemnation of you?” One young man, he said, recently answered him, “‘So many guys in my generation just give up and retreat into video games and porn. Some of them go into white nationalism. It’s not right, but they don’t see any way out.’” If you tell someone something about themselves over and over for long enough, they will start to believe it; I myself have seen many young men of my generation, pummeled daily with the accusation that they are racists, start to wonder whether it’s not just easier to embrace the label.
Faced with this identity crisis on all fronts, it is critical that Christians chart a better way forward. The stakes could not be higher. This involves learning from the various kinds of Christian nationalism outlined above, but without allowing the nationalism to swallow up the Christianity.
Putting the Pieces Together:
The Christian Commonwealth
The biggest objection to the “Christian magistracy” that I described above is that it is unrealistic and top-down, an attempt to re-impose a long-gone way of life by fiat. This need not be the case; there are after all many ways to skin a cat, and a responsible retrieval of Christian magistracy must proceed by baby steps. However, the critics make a key point: to be effective, laws must function simply as the extension, the codification, of custom. If laws are to be the instruments of self-government, they must reflect, as well as shape, the self-understanding of a people. If Christian norms are to be intelligible to people, they must resonate within the very language and idioms of the society. For too long we have replaced Christian ways of thinking and speaking with the language of “rights” and self-creation; no wonder that when we finally got a chance to put abortion back on the ballot, most people instinctively pulled the lever for more rights and less restraint.
The cultural nationalists, then, are absolutely correct that to have any real chance over the long run, Christian magistracy must be rooted in a Christian cultural soil, in national identities shaped by a Christian imagination. Every society generates its self-understanding through (1) a common language, understood in the broadest sense as a symbolic structure that makes sense of the world, (2) common stories, which can inspire action in the present by rooting it in a glorious past, and (3) common norms of virtue, which provide a vision of how the gifts of that past might be sustained into a blessed future. As I have recently written, from this standpoint at any rate, America was founded as a “Christian nation.” In all three of these components of nationhood, the Founding generation spoke and thought as a Bible-saturated people—using biblical idioms and symbols, telling their own story in biblical terms, and rooting their vision of public virtue in the Christian tradition. The greatest challenge confronting Christian politics today is that we are now a Bible-desiccated people; even the most memorable biblical references such as “every man shall live under his own vine and his own fig tree” are now thought to have originated from contemporary pop musicals.
Rebuilding a Christian politics will thus be a long slow road at best; recovering the idea of a Christian commonwealth will have to begin with recovering the idea of a moral commonwealth, which will have to begin by recovering the very idea of a commonwealth at all—a society knit together by common ends and common objects of love. Too few of us now even think of communities in terms of common objects of love—without which they are not communities at all, but merely a chaotic herd of individuals who have congregated together for safety. Often, however, a community can substitute a common object of fear or hatred for a common object of love. Such a community is defined less by what they all value and hope to accomplish (although they may indeed share positive values) and more by their fear of outsiders or desire to be as unlike them as possible. Such fear and hatred are, sadly, at the root of every form of identity politics today, including much that travels under the name of “Christian nationalism.”
The best answer to such a militant sense of identity, forged in conflict with the other, the oppressor, the persecutor, is a sense of identity rooted in history, offering capacious breadth without sacrificing depth. The depth comes not from the contemporary moment, which can only sustain the necessary depth of meaning by a ferocious stress on purity, but from the long legacy of custom and tradition. This legacy will be a national one, to be sure, but for Americans, it cannot be merely national, for our nation is an heir to the treasures of ages, the bequests of countless civilizations. Our cultural inheritance encompasses the splendors of merry old England and the glories of ancient Rome; the triumphs of the Protestant Reformers, and the great edifice of medieval scholasticism. Our rebirth will result in no narrow jingoistic nationalism, but a striking cosmopolitanism that is nonetheless deeply rooted in the particularity of the American experience. Such breadth is the surest way to stay rooted in the midst of change. The identity which the past confers upon us should not weigh heavily on our shoulders, or confine us like a straitjacket; rather, it simply equips us with the tools to function effectively in new settings. If one’s inheritance is vast, one need not fear the loss of any particular portion of it; such a community can change in changing times, without wholly losing its identity.
This, then, is the task before us. While all the world around us seems to be going mad in a headlong attempt to wrench free from the shackles of history, and scattered bands of “conservatives” wield the jagged shards of a fragmented tradition as weapons to “win the country back,” we must plant our feet on more solid ground. Ours must be a retrieval project too big to stick on a bumper sticker, a rebuilding program with a timeline measured in generations rather than election cycles, a renewal that refuses to heed the Jacobin siren song.
Brad Littlejohn (Ph.D., University of Edinburgh) is the founder and president of the Davenant Institute. He also works as a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and has taught for several institutions, including Moody Bible Institute–Spokane, Bethlehem College and Seminary, and Patrick Henry College. He is recognized as a leading scholar of the English theologian Richard Hooker and has published and lectured extensively in the fields of Reformation history, Christian ethics, and political theology. He lives in Landrum, S.C., with his wife, Rachel, and four children.
- I want to thank American Reformer, Forge Foundry, First Presbyterian Church Columbia, and Colorado Christian University for inviting me to give the talks at which the ideas in this essay were initially developed.
- And indeed, just as a point of historical interest, it was precisely from this theory of international relations, with its concepts of equality, independence, rights, “state of war,” etc., that John Locke borrowed the essential elements of his liberal political theory of the individual.
- Wolfe does, to his credit, explicitly define ethnicity in non-racial terms (see especially p. 136). At the same time, other passages in his book implicitly invite racial overtones into the discussion, and Wolfe’s other public work and associations over the past several years has tended to heighten rather than dispel fears that his brand of ethno-nationalism is particularly hospitable to white nationalism. Regardless, however, even if we were to read him more benignly, the fact would remain that he is highly selective in his retrieval of the classical and Christian political tradition, spotlighting texts that emphasize an appropriate love for one’s own people and ignoring texts that emphasize hospitality to the stranger and our common humanity. To be sure, there are important prudential debates about how much a Christian nation should open its doors to a flood of foreign immigration, but these debates should be made with the full wisdom of Christian political experience to guide us, not a selective collation of more nativist themes. Susannah Black Roberts’s excellent engagement with Wolfe along these lines provides a model of such holistic retrieval.
Brad Littlejohn, Ph.D., is a Fellow in EPPC’s Evangelicals in Civic Life Program, where his work focuses on helping public leaders understand the intellectual and historical foundations of our current breakdown of public trust, social cohesion, and sound governance. His research investigates shifting understandings of the nature of freedom and authority, and how a more full-orbed conception of freedom, rooted in the Christian tradition, can inform policy that respects both the dignity of the individual and the urgency of the common good. He also serves as President of the Davenant Institute.