Identity or Influence? A Protestant Response to Jonathan Leeman
In a recent article for 9Marks, Jonathan Leeman attempts to help Christians think through the Christian Nationalism debate by distinguishing those who believe Christianity should influence the nation and its laws (Influencers), and those who think the nation and government should identify as Christian (Identifiers). Leeman places himself in the former category and spends the bulk of his article critiquing the latter.
For Leeman, Identifiers want to formally establish Christianity as the nation’s official religion. He acknowledges that religious establishment operates on a dimmer switch, but generally includes state promotion and privileging of the religion and certain civil advantages for members. The dimmer switch is a helpful analogy that recognizes the role of prudence and wisdom in applying a basic principle in a variety of circumstances.
Like Leeman, I’m not beholden to the “Christian nationalism” label. I see the challenges and confusion that the term can foster. Thus, I more frequently talk in the language of historic Protestant political thought. And it’s on that basis that I’d like to offer a few critiques of Leeman’s position.
Some of my criticisms are basic. For example, Leeman argues that those promoting a Christian establishment (formal or informal) seek a “Muslimized Christianity” that ties Christ’s name to a geo-political space and people. This implies that the state’s promotion of Christianity is an alien imposition on the Christian tradition, when in fact, it has been the dominant position in the history of the church for the last 1500 years. For the last 500 years, basic Protestant political philosophy has held that the state should promote true religion, including both tables of the law. Whether Reformed, Lutheran, Anglican, or Puritan, whether in England, Holland, Germany, or America, almost all Protestant theologians, philosophers, and confessions have commended what Leeman calls “Muslimized Christianity.”
THE QUESTION OF NOMINALISM
My more substantial criticism begins with the question of establishment and nominalism. Leeman argues that establishing Christianity in a nation is “pro-nominalism and, therefore, missiologically careless.” Nominalism “makes evangelism and missions harder.” The Christian establishment of Europe is one significant reason why Europe secularized or paganized more quickly than the disestablishmentarian United States.
I’m wary of such comparisons in general. For starters, which European nations are we talking about? France, which had a revolution in 1789 that established an entirely secular establishment? Germany, which endured both Nazism and communism (in East Germany) in the 20th century (the latter of which seems to have had a massive effect on the religious commitments in that part of the country)? Roman Catholic establishments as in Poland and Italy? In other words, the particular histories of many European countries are more complicated than a simple comparison of whether tax dollars fund churches or not.
If we insist on comparing America to a European country with a Christian establishment, perhaps England might work as a foil. But when we compare, what do we find? For simplicity’s sake, let’s date England’s establishment to the Reformation (though it arguably reaches back much further). And let’s date its full-blown secularization to some time in the 20th century. That’s still a 400-year run of a formal establishment, during which there were various revivals, awakenings, and flourishing of missionary efforts.
Moreover, on Leeman’s understanding, the United States had some form of religious establishment for the first 175 years of its existence even if it lacked tax support for particular denominations. But Christianity (broadly defined) did receive the endorsement of the state, and the laws reflected that Christian foundation in the form of Sabbath laws, laws against blasphemy, Christian prayer and catechism in public schools, and even the nation’s self-conception as a Christian people. In other words, let’s be clear that in Leeman’s taxonomy, America for its first two centuries was on the “Identifier” side of the ledger (though “dimmer” than the more formal church establishments of England and Holland). And again, we can date the removal of such elements of establishment to the post-WWII era of the 20th century.
So then the comparison becomes 1) a formal Christian establishment in England that lasted 400+ years, 2) a more informal Christian establishment in America that lasted 175 years, and 3) a full disestablishment in America that has lasted 70 years. There may be useful insights to be drawn from such a comparison, but the notion that establishment leads more quickly to paganization is not one of them.
But two things do become clear as it bears on the nominalism problem. The first is that, contrary to Leeman, a Christian establishment (whether formal or informal) doesn’t “undermine Christianity within a generation.” Both England and America from the 1770s (or 1650s) through the 1950s demonstrate that. If anything, full disestablishment in post-war America has led relatively quickly to the weakening of marriage (beginning with no-fault divorce in the 1970s and continuing through Obergefell), sexual anarchy, and the abortion genocide.
More importantly, reflecting on this history may cause us to reconsider our assessment of nominalism. Many of the awakenings, revivals, and renewal movements in Christianity in the West in the last 500 years took place in societies that identified with Christianity. In other words, nominalism acted as kindling for spiritual awakening. This doesn’t make nominalism spiritually good in itself, but it does recognize that it is a supplemental mode of religion in which people are instructed in and shaped by the Christian faith, which is often a precondition for regeneration and revival.
Thus, again, I think it is a mistake to say that nominalism makes evangelism “harder.” Harder compared to what? Evangelizing in a Muslim country? Or thoroughly secularized France? Are we really to believe that evangelism was harder in Christian England or America in the early 1800s than it is in communist China or Hindu India today?
Again, my point is not to treat nominalism as a positive spiritual good. But I do want to treat it as a preparatory good—or at least as less bad than full-blown paganism. Yes, it can inoculate some against the Christian faith and thereby harden their hearts to the living God. But it can also prepare people to receive Jesus by instructing them in the demands of God and giving them a sense of sin.
INFLUENCE VS. IDENTITY
This brings me to a second critique of Leeman’s taxonomy—namely, the division between influence and identity. On the one hand, Leeman argues that these are to be sharply distinguished and that we ought not to apply the label “Christian” to anything but new-covenant, Holy Spirit-birthed Christianity. Thus, no Christian nations. On the other hand, he acknowledges that there are ways to speak of Christian families, Christian schools, and Christian radio stations. The latter are legitimate identifiers because of the content of the instruction in them, and the former works only if every member of the family is born again (says Leeman the Baptist).
However, it’s perfectly reasonable for me, as a fellow Baptist, to refer to the Rigney family as a Christian family, despite the presence of my unbaptized four-year-old. In fact, at our baptismal services, we frequently hear testimonies from those who were “raised in a Christian household” and are now publicly identifying with Christ for themselves in baptism.
Christian family makes sense for the same reason Christian school does—because it identifies the content of instruction, norms, and expectations in that institution. It says, “Here is a family (or school) in which Christianity will be promoted and taught, the norms and rules will be derived from and consistent with the Scriptures, and the Bible will be our ultimate authority.”
Leeman poses the rhetorical question of whether the advantages of being under Christian parents apply in like fashion to non-Christians living in a Christian nation. And he expects a negative answer. But I want to answer in the affirmative. This is precisely the advantage of a nation that promotes Christianity in its laws, customs, and practices.
Like the Christian family, such a nation teaches through law and custom what is true and good, what God requires, and points to our only hope of redemption in Christ. In other words, it fosters cultural conditions conducive to conversion (and sanctification). The particular ways it does so are matters of prudence (remember the dimmer switch), but that it does so is precisely the point and is precisely why the distinction between influence and identity breaks down. One key way that a Christian school influences its students and teachers is by officially identifying itself as a Christian school.
Moreover, comparing the family or school answers another of Leeman’s objections—namely, that “a religion that required the force of the sword was a weak religion.” But couldn’t such reasoning be used to overturn the notion of a Christian family as well? Is a religion that requires the force of the rod a weak religion? And yet we—yes, even we Baptists—still make our kids gather with God’s people and teach them the Christian faith. We know that the rod cannot cause the new birth any more than the sword can. But it can instruct in God’s laws and restrain the evil of human rebellion in hopes that God does his regenerating work through his word.
THE INESCAPABLE QUESTION OF FOUNDATION
My final objection is a fundamental inconsistency that becomes evident over the course of Leeman’s argument. On the one hand, the major thrust of his article is that a Christian-influenced nation is good and desirable, but a Christian-identified/established one is not. But this distinction assumes that it’s possible to avoid religious establishment altogether.
However, in his final section, he makes some crucial confessions. “There’s no neutral brand of justice out there.” “The public square is not religiously neutral.” “The foundation of our laws is never neutral.”
I’m particularly interested in the language of foundation. A foundation is deeper than any particular laws (which may change after a given election). A foundation is more stable and permanent. In other words, a foundation is established. So, what should the foundation of our laws be?
This is the inescapable question. It’s not whether a nation’s laws and social order will have a foundation, but which one. Or, to put it another way, it’s not whether we’ll have a religious establishment, but which one.
Moreover, this question is crucial. The notion that it is possible to secure biblical justice in terms of the second table of the law apart from a foundation in the first table is entirely unproven. The second table is built on the first. Thus, if we hope to secure life, liberty, marriage, and other fundamental elements of biblical justice, we must have a secure foundation in the God who made, sustains, and is redeeming the world.
Given his other commitments, it seems that Leeman’s best answer to this question would be to say that we ought to have an explicitly Christian foundation that places strict limits on the state in relation to enforcing the first table of the law. This would be an establishment with the dimmer turned down really low. But it would still require the nation to say, “We believe in the living God.”
And this is the real division in these debates. Leeman is committed to the proposition that only individuals and the local church can make religious confessions. Only individuals and the church can say, “We believe” (though note the concession to Christian schools and radio stations).
But classical Protestantism (along with many ordinary Christians) have always said more. Families, schools, radio stations, and yes, even nations can confess, “We believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ his only begotten Son our Lord.”
Some may doubt the feasibility of such a Christian confession in the present moment. But such doubts speak more to the limits of our imagination rather than the limits of God’s arm. But whether or not it seems feasible, our task in the meantime is to discern whether it’s good and desirable. As for me (and my house), the answer is yes.