Say No to Christian Nationalism
Editor’s Note: This article was originally given as a talk at a Carl Henry Center public theology forum at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. It can be viewed here. What follows has been edited.
When I first envisioned this article, it had the title, “No to Christian Nationalism; Yes to God-Fearing Governments.” Yet its growing length crushed my dreams, so I decided to play Negative Nelly and just say no to Christian nationalism.
Why should we say no? Because Christian Nationalism misrepresents Jesus. Here are six reasons why.
1. People mean at least two things by Christian nationalism—Christian influence and Christian identity.
Some people use the phrase to mean that Christianity should influence the nation and its laws. Others mean that the nation and its government should actually identify as Christian.
Critics of Christianity will denounce any Christian influence as Christian nationalism. If influence is the standard, then I’m a Christian nationalist. The government should implement justice as he defines it, not justice as some other god defines it.
When I say “no” to Christian nationalism, I’m referring to Christian nationalism as a matter of identity, as if to say “We the people” are a Christian nation. This is like calling Saudi Arabia a “Muslim nation,” Israel a “Jewish state,” or even 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 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.
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.”
2. God very much cares about where he places his name.
In the Old Testament, God identifies himself with the children of Abraham and the nation of Israel. “You are my people. I am your God” (Ex. 6).
He places his name on them, tying his reputation to them. When the people went into Canaan, they were to remove the name of the false gods. “You shall chop down the carved images of their gods and destroy their name out of that place” (Deut. 12:3). And they were to put the Lord’s name there: “But you shall seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes to put his name and make his habitation there” (v. 5). And then as the people live in the land obeying God’s law: “And all the peoples of the earth shall see that you are called by the name of the Lord, and they shall be afraid of you” (Deut. 28:10).
And then, do you remember what went wrong with Israel? They worshiped other gods. Why was that bad? Because it defiled God’s name! So he excommunicated them. Sent them into exile:
Ezekiel 36: “Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned [where?] among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned [where?] among the nations. . . And the nations will know that I am the LORD.
How will God do this? He promises a new covenant:
. . . I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. . . And I will give you a new heart. . . And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules . . . and you shall be my people, and I will be your God (vv. 22-28).
With the new covenant, God no longer ties his name to a geopolitical people, but to this Son, and then to everyone united to his Son, the church. Matthew begins, interestingly enough, with a genealogy, as was prominent in the Old Testament. Names matter.
Now fast forward to the book of Acts. It’s worth doing a word search on “name” in the book of Acts. Have you noticed how Luke emphasizes the theme of Jesus’s name?
- 2:21: everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’
- 2:38: The people ask what must we do to be saved, “And Peter said to them, ‘Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ. . .’”
- 3:16: After healing a lame man, Peter says, “And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know. . .”
- 4:7: The high priest challenges Peter and John, “By what power or by what name did you do this?”
- 4:12: Peter and John explain, “for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”
- 4:17-18: Yet the council decides: “But in order that it may spread no further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to anyone in this name. So they called them and charged them not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus.”
- 5:12: High priest after another arrest: “We strictly charged you not to teach in this name.”
- Of course the apostles didn’t listen. . .
- 5:41-42: “Then they left the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer dishonor for the name.”
- 8:12: After the persecution, the Christians scatter and preach and baptize into the name: “when they believed Philip as he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized, both men and women.”
- 22:16: After Ananias gives sight back to Paul, he said to him, “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name.”
- 9:27-28: “[Paul] went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.”
- 10:48: Peter “commanded them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.”
- 15:13-18: Of course, all this was a part of God’s plan from the beginning. James preaches to the council in Jerusalem: “And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘. . . I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen . . . and all the Gentiles who are called by my name, says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’”
- 16:18: And this name has authority over all things, even demons. Paul says to a demon-possessed slave girl: “‘I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.’ And it came out that very hour.”
The word “name” shows up 36 times in Acts. Why this emphasis? Ever since the Fall, God has always drawn a clear line between his people and not his people, because he unites his name to his people. We’re talking about identity politics, here, aren’t we, except it’s an identity politics that begins with the name of Jesus and being identified with that name: Christ-ian?
This is what so many Christians seem to miss in this whole Christian nationalism conversation. The conversation is not just about moral influence, as in should a Christian morality influence our laws. To this, again yes, of course. The harder question is, do we really want to identify a nation filled with non-Christians as “Christian”? Is this what we see happening in the book of Acts? There’s the baptizing of members of nations: Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles from everywhere. But do you ever see the baptizing of a nation? Jesus identifying himself with a nation? As if Israel was being replaced by another geo-political nation? As if we’re going back to the Old Testament? What?! Isn’t the very point that the evangel is to go to the peoples of all nations so that they might form what Peter in his letter calls “a holy nation”?
The apostles’ concern with Christ’s name was about identity. And their concern with identity is also a concern about witness. Who here represents Jesus? Do Ananias and Sephira? Does Simon the Magician? Does Saul the persecutor of Christians? Who speaks for Jesus?
And the concern about witness is also a concern about the integrity and credibility of our witness? We’re proclaiming the name, but are our lives giving credibility to our message? Are our lives, through our obedience, compelling to outsiders?
Think about all this in light of the defense some friends have been giving of Christian nominalism. One friend calls it “kindling for spiritual awakening” and “a precondition for regeneration and revival.” Nominalism, says this same author, is “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.” This author seems to have a seeker-sensitive, consumeristic view of Christian identity. Do you remember the phrase that was popular a few years ago in certain church circles: belonging before believing? Tell people they belong to the community of your church so they would believe.
Set this positive and preparatory view of nominalism against Ezekiel 36: God literally judges and exiles a nation, letting them be conquered by Babylon, because they bore his name nominally—falsely—and he would no longer tolerate that. Not only that, God sent his Son to die for a people, and his Spirit to indwell a people, so that they would be careful to obey my rules and no longer be nominal. Why would he go to all this trouble, only to have us revert to trying to make the United States in the image of OT Israel?
God is profoundly interested in who bears his name, and with integrity represents his name, and is a compelling witness for his name, and protects and glorifies his name. Think of the second commandment: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.” Could it be that Christian nationalism is a breaking of the second commandment? Isn’t knowingly placing Christ’s name on non-Christian people taking his name in vain?
When we turn to the book of Acts, the apostles display scrupulous attention in Christ’s name is all about identity, politics or Lordship, witness, and the credibility and compelling nature of our witness. Big things are at stake when we start thinking about who bears the name of Christ.
3. The work of placing God’s name on a people is a priestly task.
To declare, “This is who God is” and “These are the doctrines we believe” and to declare “These are God’s people” is to undertake a priestly activity. In ancient Israel, the priests were responsible to teach God’s law. And they were responsible to declare who was clean or unclean, holy or unholy, who belonged on the inside of the camp bearing God’s name and who belonged on the outside.
God called Israel as a whole a royal priesthood because God placed his name on them: “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God” (Ex. 6:7; 19:5).
Since Israel was a nation, maintaining this priestly identity meant patrolling national membership borders, and making sure everyone within the nation worshiped Yahweh. That’s why the Lord commended Phineas the priest as “jealous for the Lord” when he slaughtered the idolaters and gave him a “covenant of a perpetual priesthood” (see Num. 25:11, 13).
To be sure, any individual can say who he thinks God is. Yet when a group formally undertakes to identify and affirm one another according to a set of doctrines and fidelity to those doctrines, they have undertaken priestly work. That is, they are declaring themselves the official representatives or meditators of those doctrines and the guardians of membership among those people. That’s true whether we’re talking about priests of Yahweh, Baal, Marduk, or Jesus. The priestly function, that is to say, is an identifying function. It places the name of God or a god on a group and claims that he identifies with them, and that they speak for him.
By that token, to call on the governments of nations today to enforce Christian doctrine about who God is, or to formally identify a nation itself as Christian, is to claim that God intends for government to exercise a priestly function.
4. While that priestly formerly belonged to the nation, it now belongs to the church.
Jesus gave churches the authority to hand out the “I’m with Jesus” name tags and the “This is right doctrine” signs.
- Matthew 18:18: “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you [plural “you”—y’all”] loose on earth will be loosed in heaven,” Jesus tells the gathered congregation in Matthew 18 just after excommunicating someone.
- How do I know he’s talking about the gathered church here? Well, he addresses the gathered church in the previous verse: “If he doesn’t listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he doesn’t listen to the church. . .”
- And the basis for this authoritative action of exercising the keys by binding and loosing comes a couple verses later: “For where two or three are gathered in my name. . .” Notice they’re gathering in his name. The gathering in his name has the authority to exercise the keys in his name. Jesus is not referring to any two or three Christians who bump into one another in the cereal aisle of the grocery store. No, he’s referring to the gathering of the church where the keys of the kingdom are exercised—binding and loosing on earth what’s bound and loosed in heaven.
- But notice the rest of the verse: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” What does he mean he’s “there”? That he’s hovering like a mystical fog? No, he means their key-wielding actions represent him—speak for him, because he has placed his name on them.
Now jump to Matthew 28: It’s those who gather in his name who have the authority to baptize in his name. You gotta read Matthew 28 together with Matthew 18. The text connects them.
- We bind and loose on earth what’s bound and loosed in heaven (Matthew 18). And he’s the one with all authority in heaven and earth (Matthew 28).
- We gather in his name (Matthew 18). Then he commands us to Baptist in his name (Matthew 28).
- And the one with whom he dwells now (Matthew 18), he will dwell with always (Matthew 28).
The keys of the kingdom (binding and loosing), Greg Beale has observed, give a church the ability to do its formal priestly work. What’s the authority of the keys? They’re the authority to render official judgments on heaven’s behalf on the what and the who of the gospel—confessions and confessors. Jesus has given the local church the authority to hand out the Jesus name tag, or to hand out team jerseys: “This is the gospel; these are the gospel people.”
Once again, get into your mind the carelessness and nominalism of the people of Israel in bearing God’s name, and the scrupulous, fastidious carefulness of the apostles in the book of Acts. Baptists especially should understand this. We don’t baptize unregenerate babies. We believe in regenerate church membership. We ask people who want to join your church whether they are Christians and can explain the gospel.
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.
Christian nationalism, at least in terms of identity, takes us back to the old covenant. It gives America Israel’s job and sidelines the church.
5. Paedobaptist doctrine can be compatible with a “Christian nation” in a way credobaptist doctrine cannot.
Both Paedo and credobaptists can, in principle, resist identifying a nation with the church. Yet Baptist theology must maintain that line in order to be consistent with itself, while Paedobaptist theology, whether of the Roman Catholic or Protestant variety, can blur it. After all, it has a mechanism for inducting every natural born citizen of a nation into the church—infant baptism—making membership in the nation and the church nearly coterminous. The result is “Anglican England,” “Lutheran Germany,” “Catholic Spain,” “Christian Europe,” or “Congregationalist Massachusetts.” Within the Constantinian settlement, church and state formally remained separate authorities. The pope was not the emperor and the king was not the bishop. Yet the two authorities ruled jointly over one Christian nation or empire—one people or membership—which inevitably resulted in each involving itself within the jurisdiction of the other as with Calvin’s call for the magistrate to enforce the first table of the law.
Insofar as the new covenant identifies true religion only with Holy Spirit indwelt believers, new covenant religion—aka, Christianity—cannot be identified with a nation, unless they’re all born again. There is no such thing as a “Christian nation” in a baptistic understanding since the membership borders of the nation and the church will not overlap. Christian Europe was never Christian, Baptists say, but a continent of people who got wet as babies and a handful of whom might have become sincere Christians along the way. Baptists will reserve the name “Christian” for members of churches who have repented and believed.
6. Arguments based on “Christian families” and “schools” pit pragmatism against principle.
When I published an article against Christian nationalism as a matter of identity a few months ago, far and away the biggest critique I received, and what seemed to be the trump card for many, frankly, seemed to be, “But what about Christian families or Christian schools?”
Let me confess that I find the argument a bit frustrating. I’m laying out how God carefully united his name to Israel, and then exiled them because of their nominal faith, and then how Jesus gives the church the power of naming, and the apostles are scrupulously careful about Christ’s name. And then evangelicals 2000 years later say, “But I really like to say Christian school and Christian family.” Okay, so we’ll prioritize your cultural habits of speech over the Bible’s entire storyline. Sincerely, it’s a case of placing pragmatism over principle, and yes, there’s a bit of frustration in my tone, because the people making these arguments aren’t typically known for pragmatism. They should know better.
Still, fine, let me give the critique serious attention. On the one hand, I will use the phrase “Christian school,” “Christian publisher,” “Christian radio station.” Why? Because the adjective “Christian” identifies the content of instruction or material, as well as, in the Christian school’s case, the norms and expectations of the school’s culture. It’s a way of saying, “Christianity will be promoted in this school.”
Yet three things are worth observing with Christian schools:
First, they’re voluntary. They’re for Christians to choose if they want. To align a nation with a religion makes it involuntary, as in Muslim or Hindu nations.
Second, Christian schools intend to be an extension of the parent’s instruction—in loco parentis. It represents parental instruction (or at least it should), not the student’s identity, because God has given parents the responsibility to teach their children. If you really want to justify calling a nation Christian because we call schools Christian, then equivalency would require you to give the government the job of teaching Christianity.
Third, I fear that Christian schools do too often carelessly treat all their students as Christians, and as such they become terrible seedbeds of Christian nominalism. My four daughters are presently in a comparatively wonderful Christian school. Yet one of my daughter’s concerns is that a number of their high school classmates very much live like the world in secret, “But dad, these kids think they’re Christians. There’s no way.”
You might think, “Jonathan, sounds like you have some judgmental daughters.” I don’t think so, but we can leave that conversation for another day. What I know for certain from knowing lots of Christian schools is that teachers and principals need to do a better job of regularly reminding children, “Just because you come from Christian parents or belong to a Christian school doesn’t mean you’re a Christian.” So, if you’re willing to argue for a “Christian nation” based on the precedent of a Chrsitian school, are you willing to extend that pastoral care to the whole nation? Good luck.
What about a so-called Christian family? A presbyterian friend recently told me he calls his two and four year old “Christians,” even though he assumes they’re not Christians, because they are “baptized” and belong to the covenant community. Okay, you can go that route. There’s your “Christian England.” And there’s your nation-sized problem of people thinking they’re going to heaven but they’re not.
Yet to my fellow Baptists, this is precisely the change we believe the new covenant brings. We believe that God stopped identifying his name with a nation and with the family structure. We don’t baptize our infants. The circle of “God’s people” and “biological family” are no longer overlapping. Now, the circle of “God’s people” overlaps with “the church.” The church is not a family of families. It’s simply a family. God has no grandchildren, as they say.
What do people typically mean when they refer to a Christian family? Typically they mean the parents are Christian. They take their kids to church and discipline them according to the Bible. Okay, fine. Call it a Christian family. But if you’re going to apply that precedent to the nation, you need Christian parents in every home, so that they can administer the same kind of discipleship and discipline. Yet you need Christian parents not just for the children of homes, but for adults, too. You also need laws requiring church attendance and penalties for blasphemy. Basically, you need to treat your entire nation like children, and you need the full time discipleship a parent gives if you’re really going to call a nation “Christian” using the so-called Christian family as your justification.
As I said, I wanted to call this article, “No to Christian Nationalism; Yes to God-fearing Governments.” Indeed, governments are beholden to God, and therefore we need God-fearing governors and governments. Along these lines, Baptists could sometimes do a better job of presenting a positive case for how God means for governments to serve the churches—articulating what standards he holds them to. Within the government’s lane, governments should do exactly what God tells them to do. Yet one thing they should not do is act as priests. Their job is not to say, “Here is a true gospel confession” and “These are the true gospel confessors.” They’re not to act as signmakers and nametag-givers.
In other words, if you don’t get your doctrine of the church right, you’re going to get your doctrine of the government and the nation wrong. A right political theology, it turns out, begins with the church. And the whole error of “Christian nationalism” begins with deficient ecclesiology.
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