Is It Possible to Be a Baptist Christian Nationalist?


Christian Nationalism is dominating evangelical conversations at the moment, at least in some circles. Given the current cultural challenges faced by the evangelical church in the West, and especially in the USA and Western Europe, many are looking to Christian Nationalism as an alternative political proposal to procedural liberalism, especially the variety propagated in the latter half of the twentieth century.

Yet is Christian Nationalism compatible with historic Baptist distinctives—with credobaptist, congregational convictions? It is the contention of this essay that it is not, and especially due to the difference in how Christian Nationalism and congregational credobaptists view the relation between the covenants.

Q: What is Christian Nationalism?

A: As a subspecies of Magisterial Reformation political theology, Christian Nationalism sees continuity between the purpose and function of prelapsarian, postlapsarian, and redeemed nations.

The most recent sustained reflection on “Christian nationalism” comes from Stephen Wolfe. In his A Case for Christian Nationalism, Wolfe defines his political philosophy like this: “[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.”[1]

It is important to be aware of Wolfe’s definition and how he arrives at his position biblically and theologically. He claims his work is intentionally one of philosophical political theory rather than exegesis or theology and is grounded in Reformed theology. And, as we shall see below, the foundations of his political theory are entirely grounded in a particular understanding of biblical theology and especially in the relationship between creation, fall, and redemption to nations and political life.[2]

One of Wolfe’s foundational arguments is about Adam and Eve. If they had fulfilled the cultural mandate to “be fruitful and multiply and fill all the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28), their progeny would have naturally formed distinct nations distinguished by culture.[3] Wolfe repeatedly argues that nations in and of themselves are “natural,”[4] not a result of the fall, and that this natural element of God’s creation would have therefore proliferated had Adam and Eve obeyed. By implication, these nations would have been sinless and, therefore, not subject to the effects of sin on governance, relations between nations, and the like. Due to creaturely finitude, however, prelapsarian nations would need to learn to relate to one another concerning (apparently inevitable) cultural distinctions and scarcity of resources. Along with these factors, civil government would therefore be necessary before the fall to aim humanity toward its highest good, namely fellowship with the Triune God.

These assumptions about prelapsarian nations—including their distinct, culturally defined existences and their need for proliferated civil legislation—carry over into Wolfe’s understanding of nations after Genesis 3 and how Christ’s work of redemption applies to the church’s relationship to nations. Regarding postlapsarian nations, Wolfe insists throughout the book that the fall does not affect nations’ natural existence or purpose. Instead, their inclination toward sinful ends exists because of sinful means.[5] Thus, after the fall, the existence of distinct nations, and nations distinguishable by culture rather than by creed,[6] is not in and of itself a result of the fall. In fact, according to Wolfe, this is precisely what we should expect, given that distinct nations would have proliferated and been required to relate to one another before the fall.

This assumption about the inherent goodness of distinct nations leads to Wolfe’s final foundational assumption, which is as follows (my summary):

Because grace perfects nature (rather than destroying it), Christ’s work of redemption perfects nations if they are so ordered civically to their highest good, namely worship and obedience of YHWH. Though not the church, the state points its citizens to their highest good, the Triune God, and to the locus of God’s activity on earth, the local church, through its laws and customs.

According to Wolfe, Adam and Eve were supposed to be fruitful and multiply into many culturally distinct nations, each exercising dominion through obedience to YHWH. Unfortunately, they (and Israel) failed. Still, because of Christ’s work of redemption, nations are called again to take up this mantle and exercise dominion within their borders by enacting civic laws that direct citizens to their highest good, the Triune God.

One can see that Wolfe’s program relies on particular assumptions about the relationship between covenants and the definition of a nation within that framework. The latter is why his program is called Christian Nationalism rather than something like Magisterial Protestant Political Theology. The former reflects Wolfe’s insistence on nations being distinguished from one another via culture rather than creed.

This brings us to the point of the essay: Baptists ought to reject both Magisterial Protestant Political Theology and later versions of Christian Nationalism and theonomy because we articulate the relationship between the covenants and, therefore, the duty of the church and its relation to the state, much differently. But before making that point more decisively, let’s answer a few other questions first.

Q: Is a Baptist view of the relationships between the covenants compatible with Christian Nationalism or a Magisterial View?

A: No. As part of the Radical Reformation, Baptists see not only continuity but also discontinuity between the Old and New Covenants, which leads them to different conclusions regarding baptism, polity, and the state, namely, the coterminous relationship between the people of God and a nation (Israel) was temporary.

Let me unpack and explain this answer further in six steps.

1. Magisterial paedobaptists argue the new covenant offers a change in administration, not in substance—covenantal inclusion still occurs through birth.

I have belabored my summary of Wolfe’s argument because this issue lies at the root of the disagreement between credobaptists and paedobaptists of the magisterial persuasion. For the latter, the new covenant is not a change in substance but in administration, and particularly in sign, due to the inclusion of the Gentiles. The covenant of salvation was given to Abraham, and his offspring, namely, the nation of Israel; inclusion in the covenant people was by birth and confirmed by faith; and the sign of the covenant, given to infants, was circumcision. Because of Christ’s completed work, the covenant now includes both Israel and the Gentiles, and so the sign changes from circumcision to baptism. But inclusion is still by birth and confirmed by faith.

According to this variety of paedobaptism, the new covenant’s inauguration renders another change: instead of one nation being identified as the people of God, the church would be composed of representatives from all nations. Nevertheless, the nation does not lose its purpose to point its citizens toward their highest good, life in Christ. They do this by approaching the law as Israel did (or was supposed to), with notable changes in its articulation due to contextual differences.

2. In contrast, credobaptists argue the new covenant offers a substantive change: entrance depends not on physical birth but on spiritual birth.

In contrast to magisterial paedobaptists, credobaptists believe that the inauguration of the new covenant is genuinely new. That is, it is not merely a shift in sign related to national inclusion, but a change in how one is included in the covenant and what is required for both the sign of entry and participation. In this sense, the change from the old to the new is not merely of administration but substance. The old covenant points toward the new in its promises, but it is not univocal with it[7].

Concerning the how, in the old covenant, entry was by physical birth into Abraham’s family. Non-Israelites could become proselytes. For women, this meant marrying an Israelite man; for men, it meant being circumcised. Still, ordinarily, inclusion happened through physical birth. In the new covenant, however, entry into the people of God is through spiritual birth (or rebirth). Jesus repeatedly teaches this in texts like Mark 3:31–35, John 3:1–8, and John 8:39–42.

In the Markan passage, Jesus subordinates one’s “natural relations” (i.e., parental and filial relations) to relation to God. In the first Johannine passage, Jesus makes this even more explicit, stating that physical birth does not equal entry into the covenant people of God; only faith, the new birth, does that. And in John 8:39-42, Jesus makes clear that “new birth” means love for Christ, the one whom the Father sent and who is, together with the Father and the Spirit, I AM (John 8:58).

We also find similar statements by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:7–10) and the Apostle Paul. In Romans 9:6-8, Paul explains the change from the old covenant to the new covenant. He writes:

But it is not as though the Word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.

Further along in his argument (Rom. 10:9–13), he answers the question of how both Gentiles and Jews could be included in the new covenant. Paul makes clear that inclusion comes by faith and not by lineage. He makes a similar point in Galatians 3:1–9, which ends like this: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

We could multiply passages and demonstrate their continuity with OT texts like Jeremiah 31:29–30, but the point stands. The New Testament is clear: entering the new covenant is by spiritual faith, not physical birth.

3. Point 2 means that the nation’s relation to the people of God changes: while the old covenant identifies the people of God with one particular nation, the new covenant identifies the people of God with everyone possessing faith.

This change also means that the nation’s relation to the people of God changes. Under the old covenant, at least one nation was coterminous with the people of God. To be a part of the people of God was to be a part of Israel and vice versa. God gave Israel authority to enforce the administration of both tables of the law—concerning both the right worship of YHWH, and the right relation to one’s neighbors.

In contrast, in the new covenant, inclusion into the people of God is by faith, not birth, and thus the covenant includes all those united to Christ by faith. Although familial and national bonds are not severed, union with Christ and with one another necessarily transcends these “natural” loves. In the new covenant, because all those who have faith in Christ are sons and daughters of God (Gal. 3:25–27), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise” (Gal. 3:28–29).

This necessarily means that the people of God are no longer coterminous with a nation or state because the people of God come from every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9). The shift of entry into the covenant from lineage to conscious faith disentangles both covenant membership from family and the church from the nation. To identify a particular nation and its government with the people of God is to miss the change from the old covenant to the new covenant and the purpose of the power of government exercised in Israel in the old covenant to begin with.

4. The governmental power exercised in Old Covenant Israel transfers not to nations today, but to Christ and his church.

Israel’s theocratic legislation—as well as the general power of government exercised in Israel—exists for two primary reasons: first, to point forward to the coming of the Messiah, who alone can and does fulfill the law’s demands; and second, to guard the line of the seed until he comes (Gal. 3:19–24).

Once Israel’s Messiah and Abraham’s Seed arrives, he secures his cosmic kingship through his life, death, burial and descent, resurrection, and ascension. The derivative authority he gives to his people is exercised not through the secular state but through his church. All those who submit to him are part of his kingdom, which today exists in seed form in his church, but will one day stretch across the face of the earth when he returns in glory. In the meantime, Christ has given the keys to his kingdom (Matt. 16:17–20; 18:18-20) to his church, and she exercises her authority through the right preaching of God’s Word and the right administration of the sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper.[8]

Put another way, in our new covenant age, the state no longer functions as the arbiter or mediator of God’s Law to God’s people. The church does. The church preaches and administers the ordinances. The state, meanwhile, ought to enjoy a non-adversarial relationship to the church while exercising the sword in ways that reflect God’s natural law.

5. The New Testament’s teaching about the state and its limitations confirms and reflects the lesson of point 4.

We should note that this reflects the NT’s teaching about the state. Let me explain.

Paul is clear that Jesus came in the “fullness of time” (Gal. 4:4), which at the very least echoes Jesus’s own words: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15). While neither of these texts is about political theology per se, they indicate that, in the providence of God, Jesus arrived precisely when he meant to. The early church was born in an environment full of hostility between both Jews and Greeks, a time where syncretistic Greco-Roman paganism regularly engaged in political persecution. This was no accident of history.

It’s worth remembering this background when we read Jesus’ exhortations to the seven churches in Revelation (Rev. 2–3), or Peter’s instructions to endure political persecution (e.g., 1 Pet. 2:11–20; 3:8–4:19), or Paul’s persevering example amid state-sponsored imprisonment and punishment (e.g., Phil. 1:7, 12–30). These situations are paradigmatic for church life. The Bride of Christ ought to expect persecution from the Babylonian Harlot, the embodiment of the followers of the Dragon and his beastly rule (Rev. 12–14; 19). In the NT, the state is not a handmaiden to the church. At worst, the state is the church’s adversary; at best, it’s a tool in the hands of the Lord to punish evil (Rom. 13:1–7) and praise what is good (1 Pet. 2:13–14).

Magisterial paedobaptists read too much into this latter phrase, seeing it as justification to understand the state as a second institution, alongside the church, that exists to enact laws based on the Christian faith. But this ignores the existence of common grace and natural law and the corresponding existence of the human conscience (cf. Rom. 1:18–2:24). To “praise the good” does not necessarily require laws against blasphemy or church attendance. Instead, praising the good requires governments to base their laws and practices on the natural law available to everyone via the common grace gifts of logic, reason, and, ultimately, conscience.

6. To be clear, then, a credobaptist understanding of the relationship between the covenants precludes a magisterial paedobaptist understanding.

Before we move on to Baptist distinctives that arise from this understanding of the covenants, it is important to assert that this credobaptist understanding of the relationship between the old and new covenants precludes a magisterial paedobaptist political theology. On the contrary, the credobaptist articulation of the change from the old covenant to the new covenant necessitates a change in the purpose and operation of the state (i.e., the state no longer has authority over the first table of the law). This change in governmental responsibilities is not from Old Testament to New Testament (when accounting for the responsibilities God gave the nations) but from the old covenant to the new covenant.

The coterminous relationship between the people of God and Israel was a temporary, exceptional situation that foreshadowed but did not duplicate new covenant realities.[9] As a result, the state’s role must be limited. We’ll return to this below; first, we need to summarize Baptist distinctives that arise from this understanding of the covenants.

Q: How are Baptists distinct?

A: Because of their understanding of the relation between the covenants, Baptists have historically been distinguished from other groups by their views on baptism, polity, and the state.

Baptists affirm credobaptism because it acknowledges the individual’s responsibility before God to confess Christ as Lord consciously, clearly, and publicly.

Baptists affirm congregationalism because Christ is King over the Universal Church and every local church. This places responsibility on each local church to submit to Christ’s lordship in its governance via Word and sacrament.

And Baptists affirm a free church in a free state, or what we now refer to as religious liberty, because only Christ is Lord of the individual and the church’s conscience. Freedom not only of belief but also of expression (within appropriate limits)[10] honors the human dignity of every person, the personal responsibility they hold before the Lord to either repent or reject him, and the spiritual space needed to decide to follow Christ.

These three commitments—credobaptism, congregationalism, and the conscience’s liberty from state intervention—are integral to Baptist life and thought dating back to Baptist beginnings. For our purposes, then, a free church in a free state is one of the markers of Baptist identity, at least historically speaking.[11]

Q: In light of these distinctives, what does a Baptist political theology consist of?

A: Baptists offer a three-pronged approach to political theology focusing on religious liberty, appropriate political involvement, and the church as the sign of the kingdom.[12]

Baptist views on the state do not mean that Baptists are quietists, unengaged in political life. Instead, Baptists have historically seen the importance of political life but have refrained from ‘baptizing’ it and giving the state a larger role than it deserves.

This does not mean that Baptists have no political theology or positive vision for the state. On the contrary, Baptists have taken a three-pronged approach to political theology. Many early Baptists were heavily involved in political life at local and national levels. For them, political involvement was often a matter of survival; after all, the British government did not separate church and state in the 17th century, neither in Britain or the American colonies. Dissenters from England’s sanctioned state religion, the Anglican Church, were punished in some fashion. One of the first General (non-Calvinist) Baptists in England, Thomas Helwys, was imprisoned after he became a Baptist and wrote about his beliefs, including his conviction that the church and state should remain separate. Helwys died in jail four years later.

In the American colonies, Roger Williams, Obadiah Holmes, and John Clarke also faced various punishments for departing from the state-sanctioned Congregationalism of the Bay Colony. Many American colonies were founded by Separatists—those who had left the Anglican Church due to its corruption and heavy-handedness regarding worship practices. But once they received a charter from England’s king, they often did no better at providing religious liberty for their own citizens.

State-sanctioned religious opposition required early Baptists to develop a thorough political theology. The emphases of these early Baptists are biblically rooted, theologically sound, and still relevant for us today. The three prongs to explore are religious liberty, appropriate political involvement, and the church as the sign of the kingdom.

Q: (Prong 1 of a Baptist political theology) What is a Baptist view of religious liberty?

A: Baptists have a robust and theologically-rooted view of religious liberty, one that allows freedom of worship for all people and, thus, evangelism of all people.

Early Baptists emphasized religious liberty as more than merely a means to survive. Instead, they drew on theological principles that remain important today. While most Baptists in 21st-century America do not experience state-sponsored opposition to their faith, there are still important biblical, theological, and distinctively Baptist reasons to support religious liberty for all. Most importantly, religious liberty arises from the Baptist conviction that every person is individually accountable before God.

Put simply, no one (including the state) can coerce a person to believe. Of course, magisterial paedobaptists agree. Nevertheless, Baptists have long argued that laws preventing the free exercise of religion are an implicit kind of coercion, one that cannot and does not “work” at the level of the soul but still puts unwarranted and unauthorized spiritual pressure on the individual to believe. An analogy is sometimes made between Christian parents, who take their children to church, and the state, who enforces laws related to the first table of the Mosaic Law. But this analogy breaks down immediately because the New Testament does not give the state the same responsibility as parents, not to mention that the gospel transcends and subordinates all “natural relations,” familial, political, and otherwise.

Individuals are free to believe or reject the gospel and, if they are Christian, to believe or deny particular denominational distinctives. Religious liberty for all does not mean that Baptists reject salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone. It simply means that the government should not force anyone to assent to a theological conclusion.

This principle also extends to practice. Early Baptists experienced opposition from the British government not only because they differed theologically from Anglicanism but also because, like other English Separatists, they refused to participate in certain Anglican practices. For example, early Baptists were imprisoned and fined for refusing to use the Book of Common Prayer and licensing preachers outside the Anglican church. This persecution led to the insistence on religious freedom, including for other religions. Therefore, Baptist political theology can champion religious liberty and personal evangelism to all because of its roots in affirming the individual’s conscience.

Q: (Prong 2) What Is the Relationship Between Church and State?

A: Baptists believe that the church and state should remain separate in the sense that the government does not and cannot dictate who the church is or what she should do. The church, on the other hand, has an obligation to proclaim truth from God’s Word to the society in which she resides, including its government.

The early Baptists weren’t shy about participating in the political life of their towns, provinces, and nations. In fact, we partly owe the First Amendment to Virginia Baptist John Leland, who regularly wrote to Thomas Jefferson and maybe also to James Madison. John Clarke spent much of his life petitioning England’s king for a charter for Rhode Island that included a stipulation about religious freedom. Isaac Backus diligently worked for religious freedom in Massachusetts’s political arena before and after the American Revolution. After the United States became a sovereign nation, Baptists continued their involvement in civic and political life, serving in many public capacities. For example, William Carey worked to end the practice of Sati in India. In other words, Baptists have understood the state as one of life’s spheres in which they are called to be faithful.

For Baptists, the “separation of church and state” does not remove religion from the public square. Instead, this separation protects the individual conscience, churches, and other religions from intervention by the government. Christians’ participation in politics is justified and encouraged because God’s calling in Christ encompasses every area of life. The Bible may not provide particular policy positions on things like health care or traffic laws, but God’s wisdom applies to political life. To put it a bit differently, the church is still the church when it is scattered and not gathered for worship on the Lord’s Day.

Historically, Baptists have seen this as especially important in caring for “the least of these.” We have worked diligently in civic and political arenas in order to help the poor, orphaned, widowed, and hungry. Article XV of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, “On Christians and the Social Order,” articulates this commitment well:

All Christians are under obligation to seek to make the will of Christ supreme in our own lives and in human society. Means and methods used for the improvement of society and the establishment of righteousness among men can be truly and permanently helpful only when they are rooted in the regeneration of the individual by the saving grace of God in Jesus Christ.

In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness, and vice, and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography.

We should work to provide for the orphaned, the needy, the abused, the aged, the helpless, and the sick.

We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.

Every Christian should seek to bring industry, government, and society as a whole under the sway of the principles of righteousness, truth, and brotherly love. In order to promote these ends, Christians should be ready to work with all men of good will in any good cause, always being careful to act in the spirit of love without compromising their loyalty to Christ and His truth.[13]

Q: (Prong 3) What role does the church play?

A: While Christian Nationalists see the nation-state as the sign of Christ’s Kingdom alongside the Church, Baptists view the latter as the only true sign of Christ’s reign.

I used the adjective “appropriate” in the previous point because Baptists emphasize that Christ’s kingdom is seen primarily in the local church, not in government. This means that our efforts should ultimately focus on the local church, the only institution to which Christ entrusts the keys to his kingdom. It is in the local church that the things of heaven are bound and loosed on earth. In the local church, Christ’s Word reigns supremely visibly through preaching and the ordinances. In the local church, the lost are called to repentance, disciples are made, and the Holy Spirit is present.

Baptist political theology thus acknowledges that Christians are first citizens of Christ’s kingdom, which is made visible primarily in the local church. (This, by the way, is another reason Baptists have long argued for the separation of church and state—the state isn’t the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom on earth.) But Baptists also acknowledge that we are citizens of earthly nations. Although every nation will one day fade away (and face judgment) at the second coming of King Jesus, we are called to be faithful citizens now.

Q: What does this three-prong political theology mean for Baptists today?

A: Baptists today can work for the good of their neighbors through the political process while refraining from ‘baptizing’ their government and thereby placing an undue burden on the state to do what only the Church can.

This balanced account was emphasized by early Baptists and should remain an emphasis for Baptists today. Baptists can and should participate in the civil and political life of our counties, towns, states, and nations, but we do so while recognizing that these kingdoms are not ultimate—Christ’s is.

Our political theology, therefore, appropriates Christ’s kingdom as more important than our earthly kingdoms and chastens its expectations for earthly politics accordingly. We focus our energies on building up the primary sign of Christ’s kingdom, the local church, but not to the exclusion of all life’s areas, including politics.

Q: Are there other reasons why Baptists cannot adopt a Christian nationalist position?

A: Yes, the Christian nationalist’s view of the nation subtly works against the Christian missionary impulse.

So far, I’ve argued that the covenantal theology of congregational credobaptists is antithetical to the theology of the state offered by magisterial paedobaptists. However, it is important to note that Baptists’ tension with Christian nationalism goes beyond a fundamental disagreement over the covenants.

In my estimation, there is also a conflict, albeit perhaps subtle, with a Christian missionary impulse. For the Christian nationalist, nations are formed based on cultural commonalities, or “familiarity with others based in common language, manners, customs, stories, taboos, rituals, calendars, social expectations, duties, loves, and religion.”[14] Particular nations act in the interest of their distinct peoples, even to the extent of refusing Christian refugees.

To expand on this a bit further, for the Christian nationalist, “missions” can amount to little more than procreation within its own borders and, perhaps in certain, “justified” circumstances, military conquest of non-Christian nations. The propagation of the gospel can thus happen either by birth in the state or by force in this model. Church membership and state citizenship occur simultaneously at birth, and military conquest under so-called justifiable circumstances is supposedly for the sake of Christ and expanding his kingdom. Conquered peoples are also now church members.

Missions in this model thus seem reducible to procreation and conquest. Rather than emphasizing the need for every person to respond to the gospel, and therefore rather than urging every Christian to share their faith and consider their role in bringing the gospel to the nations around the world, the impetus lies with the nuclear family to procreate and the state to wield its sword, both at home and abroad. Notice that the family and the state thus supersede the church, in one sense, as the locus of God’s activity in the world.

Baptists, on the other hand, don’t believe the gospel destroys natural relations—marriage, family, nation—but these “natural relations” are transcended and subordinated to the gospel. Indeed, the gospel affirms our natural relations in a variety of ways, as with marriage (e.g., Matt. 19:1–12 and par.) and familial relations (e.g., Eph. 6:1, 4; Col. 3:20–21). Still, the communion of the saints, grounded in union with Christ, transcends and subordinates all other natural relations and loves, what Wolfe calls “complacent loves.”[15]

These natural bonds have been corrupted by sin, and while the gospel can and often does restore these relationships, faith in Christ also transcends and subordinates them. Grace not only presupposes but perfects nature, albeit in a way that does not merely revert to the status quo. In fact, according to complacent love, we only treat our natural kith and kin, those who share our blood and our soil, as those we prioritize in giving and receiving love. As Jesus says, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matt. 5:46). But supernaturally—that is, by grace through faith in Christ and by the corollary communion of the saints—we prioritize the body of Christ regardless of familial or cultural relations. And this includes national relations. For the Baptist, what matters most is not familial or national allegiance but heavenly citizenship with all those who express faith in Christ.[16]

Q: Are there any areas of common ground between Baptists and Christian nationalists?

A: Yes, Baptists believe that a nation’s laws should reflect God’s laws.

Despite these significant areas of conflict, there remains some common ground between Baptists and Christian nationalists or, more broadly, magisterial political theology. Early Baptists, and indeed many Baptists through the first half of the twentieth century, believed that Christians should support the government’s promotion of the good and punishment of evil in ways that reflected God’s law.

Contrary to some assumptions, Baptists of old are not automatically Libertarian. They affirmed that government could positively reflect God’s law in the laws they enact. However, they also believed governments could and do err, often egregiously.

Contemporary Baptists are not required to support a kind of barebones procedural liberalism to retain the label “Baptist.” We, too, can lament the onslaught of progressive liberalism in much of the post-Christendom West. We can also work for better laws that accurately reflect how God designed the world. But we do so not by fighting for an establishmentarian government. Instead, we seek to do good to our neighbors, most significantly by sharing the gospel with them.

Q: Once again, can a Baptist be a Christian nationalist?

A: No.

This brings us back to the question—can a Baptist be a Christian nationalist? No, because Christian nationalism, as a species of magisterial political theology, is antithetical to a Baptist understanding of the covenants.

No, because it misunderstands the purpose of the state in the new covenant.

No, because Christian nationalism erroneously inverts the relationships between the communion of the saints to “complacent loves,” subordinating the former to the latter rather than vice versa. And, in doing so, Christian nationalism inhibits and is at odds with the Baptist missionary impulse.

This does not mean Baptists cannot or should not actively work toward the common good in their political environments via appropriate political means. But that is not Christian nationalism nor is it historical Baptist political theology. In fact, it is not the political theology of the earliest Christians. Chapter 5 of the second-century writing, The Epistle to Diognetus, serves as our final summary:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh (2 Cor. 10:3) They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven (Phil. 3:20). They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life (2 Cor. 6:9) They are poor, yet make many rich (2 Cor. 6:10); they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless (2 Cor. 4:12); they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign any reason for their hatred.

* * * * *

[1] Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow: Canon, 2022), 9.

[2] Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, cf. e.g. 21, 42, although he refers to this schema throughout.

[3] Ibid., 39–80.

[4] Ibid., 39–80.

[5] The latter portion of this sentence is my attempt to summarize what I *think* Wolfe would say; he hardly touches the issue of how sin affects nations and instead focuses almost the entirety of his attention on their “naturalness” and “goodness.”

[6] Ibid., cf. e.g. 119 for the rejection of the “creedal nation concept,” and the surrounding section for the argument for distinguishing nations via culture.

[7] While credobaptists generally agree with Magisterial Reformers regarding soteriology, i.e. in a broadly Protestant sense, and while certain credobaptist groups (e.g. Reformed Baptists) can even agree on the finer points of soteriology with presbyterians and other Magisterial Reformation streams, the understanding of the relation between the covenants is the major breaking point with respect to both baptism and political theology. On the latter, we should note that not all paedobaptists take a Magisterial position (i.e. there are free church paedobaptists).

[8] There is thus an eschatological element to Baptist political theology, one that recognizes the already/not yet of Christ’s kingdom, its relation to all other kingdoms, and the place of the church in between the times.

[9] Thanks to Taylor Hartley for his suggestions regarding strengthening the language of this section. This sentence and the previous one relies on his edits and even specific wording.

[10] It is important to recognize that Baptists have historically insisted that religious liberty has boundaries, specifically those related to harm or violence brought against one’s neighbor through religious expression. This sentiment was shared among the American founders. To paraphrase Article XII of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, freedom of conscience has to be balanced with personal responsibility, both to God and to one’s neighbor.

[11] This paragraph is, with slight adaptations, from Matthew Y. Emerson, “Is There a Baptist Contribution to Political Theology?” The London Lyceum, October 17, 2022. Online: Accessed January 23, 2023. For those interested in pursuing Baptist primary sources, I cite many of the major founding Baptist documents in this essay.

[12] The following material was originally published at the ERLC’s blog as “3 Ways to Learn From Early Baptists about Political Theology,” May 9, 2018. Online: Accessed January 24, 2023.

[13] The Baptist Faith and Message 2000, Article XV: “On Christians and the Social Order.” Online: Accessed January 24, 2023.

[14] Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, 136.

[15] Ibid., 25, 151–62.

[16] I owe much of the conceptual point of this paragraph, and indeed even some of the phrasing, to Luke Stamps, who kindly commented on a draft of this paper. Used with permission.

Matthew Y. Emerson

Matt Emerson (PhD, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Dean of Theology, Arts, & Humanities at Oklahoma Baptist University in Shawnee, as well as co-executive director of the Center for Baptist Renewal.

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