The Six Things You Need to Know About Christian Nationalism

By Tom Gilson Published on February 28, 2024

Audio suitable for sharing with church or teaching groups:

No, Heidi Przybala, Christian nationalism isn’t what you get from believing that our rights come from God. Your ignorance is astonishing โ€” unless Thomas Jefferson was a Christian nationalist, not to mention Joe Biden โ€” and your alarm over basic Christianity is alarming. You do raise a question for the rest of us, though. What is Christian nationalism, and what should Christians know about it?

You need not think it’s complicated. Here are the six things you need to know about Christian nationalism.

1. No One Knows What It Is

What does the term mean? No one knows. Seriously. It’s supposed to be some widespread danger to democracy. You’d think the people raising that alarm could tell us what it is and why it’s such a threat. Here are the best takes I’ve seen on it.

(a) Christian nationalism is a truly dangerous ideology held by a small number of fringe crazies with too many weapons, too little sense, and no actual Christianity.

That answer fits well enough, except it can’t be what the left means by it. This is a law enforcement problem, whereas they think Christian nationalism is a serious political problem.

(b) Christian nationalism (AKA “theocracy”) is a dangerous movement of Christians using politics to force their beliefs on the whole country. It’s a secular country, so no religious person should try to impose his privately held beliefs on anyone.

Seriously, that’s how some people view it. The First Amendment doesn’t mean religion can proceed without government interference, it means government must proceed without religious interference. Everyone else can speak and vote his beliefs, but when Christians do it we’re committing some fundamentally un-American error.

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January 6 even proved we’re willing to commit “insurrection” to force ourselves on the country. Strange how they never used that word when rioters were shutting down entire sections of cities and demanding self-government there. It shows the real problem isn’t how we engage, but what we believe. Conservative Christianity doesn’t belong in politics. Trying to put it there is “Christian nationalism.”

(c) Christian nationalism is about Christians putting politics ahead of Christ. That may well be a fair accusation when it comes from within our ranks with fair intent. It is indeed a mistake Christians can make. (I wouldn’t take David French or Russell Moore’s word for it.) Some speakers on the left may have this definition in mind when they use the term, but the charge is hardly ever worded this way, and even when it is, I wonder why they should care where we put the cross or the flag. What they want is that we keep all of it out of sight.

(d) It doesn’t have to mean anything. It doesn’t matter, as long as it does what it’s rhetorically useful. (See below.)

2. They Don’t Care if It’s True, As Long as It’s Useful

It doesn’t matter whether “Christian nationalism” is real, whether it’s widespread, or whether it’s dangerous. What matters to the left is whether it can make political hay out of the accusation.

We see here another example of the left’s specializing in twisting language for rhetorical purposes. Christians are “haters,” “bigots,” “arrogant,” “overly political,” and of course, “Christian nationalists.” Every term in that barrage fades to nothing if you examine it, so it’s a barrage of blanks. Even blanks make a loud noise, though, and if they can make us cower with loud noises, it does the job as well as real ammo.

3. The Charge is Dishonest and Hateful

Whatever “Christian nationalism” means, it’s something awful. Good Christians will run from it in embarrassment. Bad Christians who commit it deserve nothing but shame.

This may be showing my age, but I can remember when prejudice, name-calling, and stereotyping were considered bad things. It used to be wrong to label a group based on your own bias rather than what they actually believe. It was wrong to grab a bad example here, a negative impression there, and make that “true” for the whole group.

It’s noisy, it can be intimidating, but where is it written that we should cower before it?

All those standards are off now, at least when it’s Christians in the crosshairs. The term has a well-documented history of hatefulness, which for some reason seems to be okay. Influential but tone-deaf writers put out best-sellers built on bias, reeking with irresponsible analysis. Yet no one calls them on it.

I have attended and visited too many churches to think the stereotypes fit the bulk of American evangelical Christianity. Still they think it’s okay to call Christians names. It doesn’t have to be fair. It doesn’t have to be human, and it doesn’t have to be true. It just has to work.

4. It’s Meaningless, Except Where It Isn’t

So in sum, it’s the same old meaningless noise, and it doesn’t matter โ€” except where it does.

It matters politically. That’s the part the left cares about most. The more they can make Christian conservatives look like power-worshipping hypocrites, the more they can convince us to back away and tone things down. The result is less Christian influence in American policy, which is less good influence in American policy.

It matters spiritually. If that’s not the left’s prime concern, they’ll still call it helpful collateral damage. Give Christians a reputation for worldly, power-seeking hypocrisy, and no one is going to want to associate with us. This does serious damage to our witness. That matters โ€” a lot.

5. You Need Not Duck

So how do we answer? How do we face this barrage? Our crucial first step is remembering it’s just blanks they’re firing at us, a false shame game we need not submit to. It’s noisy, it can be intimidating, but where is it written that we should cower before it?

Jesus said the world would hate us. He sends us out “as sheep in the midst of wolves,” as He Himself said. He also told us He is “the good shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep.” We’re in good hands.

Obviously we must follow Him. If in fact you do put politics ahead of Christ, don’t defend yourself, repent instead. Put Jesus first in your life, where He belongs.

Just don’t let secular elites fool you into abandoning political action. Loving your neighbor and caring for your family both include building a better world for them to live in. That includes public policy, so it includes politics. If that’s your posture, then stand firm.

6. The Best Defense is a Good …

Finally, you need to know how to answer talk about “Christian nationalism.” The first rule: Don’t defend yourself or Christianity, not if your defense is, “No, no, no, we’re not Christian nationalists!” Not even if it’s the slightly improved version, “No, we’re really just Christians who care about the condition of our country.” Chances are they won’t know the difference between that and Christian nationalism. No one really knows what that term means, remember.

You’re much better off asking questions instead, starting with, “What does ‘Christian nationalism’ mean, in your opinion?” They won’t have a good answer. No one does. So start out gently: This could be rough on them.

Then you can put the gloves on. This may look light and easy to you, but it won’t be for them.

  • “What does Christian nationalism actually look like to you? How would you know it if you saw it?”
  • “Where in fact do you actually see it?”
  • “No, I mean, with your own eyes, not what you get from the media.” (Feel free to add, “You do know they’re biased, don’t you?”)
  • “Do you believe in stereotyping?”
  • “Haven’t you noticed that’s what you’re doing?”
  • “What exactly is the the problem with Christians participating in democracy, along with everyone else who has their own beliefs?”
  • “Would you like to find out for real about this ‘Christian nationalism’? Why not come to church with me?”

Go back to your gentle posture for that last one. Use it only if your church is solidly Christian. They won’t find the Christian nationalism they’re looking for, but who knows? They might find Jesus.

Update, March 4: Definition option (c) has been corrected following reader feedback. Further explanation will follow soon in a forthcoming article.

 

Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesusโ€™ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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