“Christian Nationalism” Misrepresents Jesus, So We Should Reject It


Best I can tell, folks these days use the phrase “Christian nationalism” and “Christian nation” in one of two ways. Some mean that Christianity should influence the nation and its laws. Others mean that the nation and its government should actually identify as Christian. The problem is, many people, Christian and non-Christians, advocates and critics, don’t recognize the difference, which is one reason I believe we should drop the label altogether.

Advocates of Christian nationalism in terms of influence have in mind Christians opening their Bibles; doing their best to understand what God requires of a nation; and then stepping into the public square and seeking to pass laws, establish practices, and encourage traditions in keeping with a biblical view of justice and righteousness. Let me label this first group The Influencers. They want a Christianity-influenced nation. Though I think The Influencers need to drop the “Christian nationalism” or “Christian nation” label posthaste, as I’ll argue in a moment, you can count me in with this group. To deny the role of Christian influence in the public square is to deny the Lordship of Christ.

Advocates of Christian nationalism in terms of identity mean all of this but more. Let’s call these folks The Identifiers. They want to formally establish Christianity as the nation’s official religion, which is what I mean by saying they want to give the nation an explicit Christian identity. This is like calling Saudi Arabia a “Muslim nation,” Israel a “Jewish state,” or even—if I might add for good measure—China a “Communist nation.”

Now, the distinction between an established and a non-established religion is not an on/off switch. It’s a dimmer switch, which is why debates exist over whether Turkey is a Muslim nation, or India is Hindu, or America is or was Christian. These latter three have “secular” constitutions, but all three offer a few practices or laws that privilege one faith over others, if nothing more than the state recognition of a religious calendar and holidays. Still, most of us recognize that, even when you factor in the complexities of the dimmer switch, there’s a basic difference between establishment and non-establishment.

An established religion is one that enjoys the patronage of the state; its doctrine and practices receive the endorsement of the state; its clergy and members receive certain advantages from the state, if in no other way than the fact that their tax dollars function simultaneously as offering-plate dollars; and any changes to its doctrine and practice of the religion require the consent of the state. When the dimmer switch for establishing a religion is all the way up, a state effectively says, “This is our god, and we are his people—plus, sure, the Gentile rabble with us.”

This brings me back to the problem with the label “Christian nationalism” or even the more common phrase “Christian nation.” And it’s this: The service performed by that adjective “Christian” is to identify. It’s declaring an identity. Christians might say they only mean for Christianity to influence a nation, not identify it. But when you call it a Christian nation, you can’t get away from identity. This is why similar debates occur in Turkey and India over the Muslim and Hindu labels. People do or don’t want that identity.

Therefore, a word to my fellow Influencers: by owning the label, you risk communicating something you don’t mean to communicate—that you believe in an established church. That’s undoubtedly what non-Christian critics are hearing. To be sure, they don’t want Christian influence either, and they’ll accuse you and me both of being Christian nationalists simply for talking about Christian influence. Fine. But my encouragement to you is: don’t defensively embrace a caricature. We don’t believe in a Muslimized Christianity which ties Christ’s name to a geo-political space and people. Besides, that will only make the public debate worse because defensiveness on one side always yields more defensiveness on the other side.

Another pro-tip: don’t be fooled by the argument that refraining from establishing Christianity is adopting “public atheism” or a “feigned neutrality.” Refraining is recognizing a jurisdictional limit—a job description. A senator’s job isn’t to tell us who to worship, but to protect life. That job is not morally (or religiously) neutral.

Now a word to the Identifiers, or to anyone wondering whether an established church might help us out of our present moral chaos: Establishing religion can sometimes succeed in securing external moral behavior in the short term. Look at Muslim nations, for instance. (Just don’t peek into their closets.) Yet it does a lousy job of producing truly moral behavior over the long term and an even worse job of generating true religion. Look at church-established Europe.

When you ask the state to undertake the role of the church by rendering judgment on right doctrine, you subtly undermine new-covenant, Holy Spirit–birthed Christianity. After all, Jesus gave churches the authority to hand out the “I’m with Jesus” nametags and the “This is right doctrine” signs. That’s what we do when we “gather in his name” and “baptize in his name” with the keys of the kingdom in hand (Matt. 16:19; 18:18–20; 28:19). When the state establishes a church and names itself “Christian,” it participates in that name-tag-pinning and sign-hanging work. It has usurped the keys and acted as a church. It has named people as Christians who are not Christians. This is anti-baptism, anti-Lord’s Supper.

It’s also pro-nominalism and, therefore, missiologically careless. This is why churches who care about evangelism should care about this political theology conversation. Consider how much God cares about who is identified with his name. It led him to give a whole new covenant. Israel was identified with God’s name (Deut. 28:10), but their nominalism led to excommunication from the land. God then promised to return a new Israel “for the sake of my holy name” (Ezek. 36:22–28).

Yet this new Israel, this new nation, turns out to be Jesus and everyone covenantally united to him. They’re the ones he means to gather in his name, baptize in his name, and dwell with both now and always. The book of Acts then treats Christ’s name with extraordinary care. The disciples call upon the name (2:21; 22:16); are charged not to teach in the name (4:7; 5:12); delight in being counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name (5:42); baptize in the name (8:12; 10:44,48); command demons in the name (16:18); and so on. The book of Acts cares deeply about where we place Christ’s name. Should Ananias and Sapphira wear it? Simon the Magician? Saul the persecutor of Christians? Who here represents Jesus? Acts refers to Christ’s name 34 times in this manner.

The language of Christ-ian nationalism or a Christ-ian nation, then, unaccountably slaps Jesus’s name onto a modern nation-state.[1] It jumps from Israel straight to America without first passing through Jesus and the church. It fails to consider which duties the new covenant removes from the nation and hands to the church, such as the power of handing out the “we’re God’s people” name tags. As a result, this nation-sized baptism label confuses people about who represents Jesus; misleads them about what a Christian is; inoculates false professors against true Christianity; hardens non-professors against the real thing because of so many fake witnesses; creates the growing risk of syncretism inside churches; promotes nominalism and therefore makes evangelism and missions harder; fools Christians into the complacency of thinking they’re home when they’re still exiles; and, in all of this, sends people to hell. No longing for what America once was—and in some ways I do—is worth all that.

In short, “Christian nationalism” misrepresents Jesus, and so we should reject it.

To those who wonder about labels like “Christian family,” or “Christian school,” or “Christian radio station,” the latter two refer to the content of instruction or material, while the former only works if everyone individual is in fact a Christian. Or, if you want to insist in a Presbyterian fashion that your family is Christian due to the children’s covenantal status or even just the advantages of being under Christian parents, then can we at least agree that none of these advantages apply to all the non-Christians in a nation?

In short, Christian nationalism in the sense of identity or establishment doesn’t push forward toward the eschaton, but backward toward the old covenant. It’s anti-new covenant. It nominalizes Christianity and, within a generation, undermines it altogether.

Beyond that, I’d argue historically that the faith-robbing power of establishment Christianity is one significant reason why the church-established nations of Europe secularized (or, better, paganized) much more quickly than the dis-establishmentarian United States. Not only that, but my anecdotal sense is also that sincere Christian language and arguments have long been more common in the American public square than in European ones. Why? Though it may seem counter-intuitive to people like us who prefer living by sight and sword and not by faith, dis-establishmentarianism yields a vibrant faith that’s politically active, not merely tokenized.

So, to my establishmentarian friends: don’t make Peter’s mistake. Don’t pick up the sword in the Garden of Gethsemane. The sword has good, God-given work to do to provide a platform for the church to stand on—safe roads so that we can drive to church. But we’re not going to advance the kingdom through the sword. Many of the Founding Fathers and their Baptist sympathizers understood this. A religion that required the force of the sword was a weak religion, indeed, they said.

Finally, a word to the critics, especially the Christian ones who deride even Christian influence: Christian influence in the public square shows love for Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s loving to seek justice for our neighbors. If God made this world, he best knows how to operate it, whether people acknowledge him or not. By God’s wisdom, “kings reign, and rulers decree what is just” (Prov. 8:15). If God says, “X is an injustice, and Y is just,” that’s what X and Y are. There’s no alternative interpretation of X and Y. There’s no neutral brand of justice out there.

The public square, I’ve said over and over, is a battleground of gods. Either my God or yours will win the majorities and pull the levers of power. The public square is not religiously neutral. And laws are not morally neutral. To be sure, the scales of justice should be impartial or blind, as one friendly critic has accused me of denying.[2] Yet the foundation of our laws is never neutral. Everyone does what they do in the public square in service to their gods. That’s true of the Christian and the Hindu, the secularist and the Marxist. We should then seek to apply or implement those laws impartially, objectively, and even neutrally—because that’s what the Bible says we should do (Deut. 16:19; Prov. 24:23).

If what you want is a Christian-influenced nation, then I stand with you. Yet an actual Christian nation has never existed and never will. Christian Europe was never really Christian. It was a continent of people sprinkled with water as infants.

Actually, I take that back. A Christian nation does exist, and it’s called the church (1 Peter 2:9). It’s comprised of people from every nation on earth. Perhaps the best way to become a real Christian nationalist, then, is to join a church.

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[1] A word to my postmillennial friends: The Old Testament indeed addresses peoples according to their national identity, both in terms of its indictments and its promises (e.g., Is. 19). Yet aside from that being figurative language, God is no longer mediating his presence through a nation (type), but through the antitype (Christ), such that all we who are united to Christ become a holy nation (church). Which is to say, national borders and identities possessed a kind of historical-redemptive significance under the old covenant, which they don’t in the New Testament. They’re demoted entirely to their common grace work. Doesn’t Jesus tell his disciples to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, you might ask? Yes, but, first, Jesus moves from the neuter “nations” to a masculine “them,” meaning he’s talking about people. Second, perhaps more decisively, we need to read Matthew 28 both in the context of Matthew 18:18-20 (as the textual connections of (i) keys and authority, (ii) heaven/earth, (iii) name, and (iv) presence tell us we must) as well as in the context of the book of Acts Revelation 7:9’s “from all nations.” It’s not surprising, therefore, that never once in the New Testament do we see a nation baptized.

[2] Paul Miller, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, 92-92, 96-97, 98-100.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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