“Just eight centuries ago, we took from him what Thou didst reject with scorn, that last gift he offered Thee, showing Thee all the kingdoms of the earth. We took from him Rome and the sword of Caesar, and proclaimed ourselves sole rulers of the earth…” (Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov)
The true homeland on this earth for a Christian is one in which the way is narrow, difficult, and self-denying. Any ideal that fights for Christian ease, comfort, and self-promotion in this world fights not for Christ’s kingdom but for a false homeland.
Christian Nationalism is one such false homeland.
It’s difficult to define exactly, but if you simply parse the words you will probably get close: it’s the idea that Christians need a place—a homeland—where their values are enshrined in the culture and protected by law. In a new book titled A Case for Christian Nationalism, author Stephen Wolfe argues that Christian people—where “Christian people” is equated with something like an ethnicity*—deserve their own nation.
Wolfe, echoing a popular lament among religious and political conservatives, reasons that “Christian Americans should see themselves as under a sort of occupation. Forces largely from outside your communities suppress that natural drive, confirmed by grace, for public religion. The ruling class is hostile to your Christian town, to your Christian people, and to your Christian heritage. The occupation universalizes their ideology, forcing your Christianity to exist only in the walls of churches, denying any civil and social ordering to God and Christ’s kingdom…. When Christians are under a universalizing and totalizing non-Christian regime that wields implicit powers against true religion, how is this not tyranny?” (Wolfe, 344)
“How is this not tyranny?” asks Wolfe with the implication, that revolution, while not obligatory, is on the table.
My initial pushback when I first heard the phrase “Christian Nationalism” was that whoever came up with this phrase really needs to rethink their branding. In our culture literally anything word put in front of the word Nationalism will take a connotation that is at best suspicious and at worst terrifying. Aware of this, Wolfe states: “Affirming both the principles of nature and the truths of grace necessarily leads to Christian nationalism or, if you prefer different terms, to the traditional claims of Christendom” (186).
There you go, that lessens the threat. But anyone familiar with the history of Christendom as practiced throughout Europe will know that this is not much better; sounds better, but it is not better.
An important note before beginning the listicle is that the seriousness behind the call for Christian Nationalism, from what I can tell, has nothing to do with racism, as many want to make it, but with a strongly held feeling of oppression—the forcible oppression of traditional values in every public sphere imaginable. The people who are ready to throw in their chips with a Christian revolution are people who truly feel pushed against the wall with no way out.
Most do their fighting at city council meetings, school board meetings, voting booths, etc., but just the fact that books are coming out about Christian Nationalism (which, anyone with any sense of reality knows that attempting to install Christian Nationalism in a country like America boils down to an armed revolution) is a sign that the temperature is rising to a dangerous level. Full disclosure, I am a traditional, conservative Christian and I do believe that something needs to be done to stop our culture from careening off the dystopian cliff it is currently pointed at, but I also believe that anything like Christian Nationalism would be a disastrous venture, particularly if it were successful.
Without further ado, here’s why:
1. The Argument from Philosophy
To get an accurate take on Christendom (assuming we can interchange “Christian Nationalism” and “Christendom” as Wolfe states) it seems logical to check in with those who actually lived through its European experiment. Soren Kierkegaard seems highly qualified: both a thoroughgoing philosopher and Christian who lived in 19th-century Lutheran, Denmark.
For the sake of brevity, what follows will be an unfair and embarrassingly reduced version of Kierkegaard’s thoughts, but I’ll do my best to highlight some important points.
In short, Kierkegaard believed that Christendom was the “betrayal of Christianity,” an “apostasy from Christianity.” How so? Because in Christendom being a Christian is the only way to avoid difficulties. It grants a person all the benefits of legal, financial, and social support. If being a Christian secures the good life then it is impossible for Christianity to be what Christ claimed it was: a denial of self, the imitation of Christ’s sufferings, the forsaking of the world, an offense, the narrow and difficult path, etc.
Kierkegaard explained that “the imitation of Christ is the point from which the human race shrinks. The stronger the emphasis on this point, the fewer the Christians.” Christendom is not a flight to Christ; it is a flight from struggle. The Christian who wants comfort and security via the state is a Christian who ultimately does not want to imitate Christ in His sufferings. Hence, to the degree that Christendom succeeds, Christianity fails.
“What Christianity wants is the following of Christ. What man does not want is suffering, least of all the kind of suffering which is properly the Christian sort, suffering at the hands of men. So he dispenses with ‘following,’ and consequently with suffering, the peculiarly Christian suffering, and then builds the sepulchers of the prophets.” (Kierkegaard, Attack on Christendom)
The more the imitation of Christ is abolished the more “Christians” you get. Christendom represents the epitome of the “wide gate” and “broad road” that Christ calls the way to destruction (Matt 7:13). Imitation of Christ is forsaken. How is it possible to suffer for Christ—how is it possible that the way to the kingdom of God is narrow and difficult—in a land where one is rewarded for being a Christian and, conversely, persecuted if one is not?
In Judge for Yourself Kierkegaard gives one of my favorite thought experiments. He says to imagine what it would take to destroy real poetry. First, you would have to ruin the real poets in town. But this is tricky since killing them would probably only inspire a new generation of real poets, and simply censoring them would do the same. Both methods would merely highlight the great divide between real poets and fakers. The best way to rid your town of real poets would be for the magistrate to hire 1000 official city poets, and pay them well. In this manner the struggle, which is essential for ripening the poetic spirit, would be abolished; the cost of becoming a poet would be at its lowest possible bargain price and the payoff at its highest. All would desire to be “poets” and the real poets would themselves be either drowned out by the popular clamor or else seduced into becoming second-rate poets for the sake of support and financial gain (Gogol’s short story The Portrait comes to mind).
Now, granted, what folks like Wolfe and others seem to be advocating is not a country that demands all people be Christian, and neither was it the case in Kierkegaard’s 19th-century Copenhagen. But he is making the point that some critical ingredients which make for thoroughgoing Christianity are unintentionally sacrificed in Christendom. His “attack” may seem overblown and too ironic to make sense of at first, but the truth of his reasoning is difficult to resist.
2. The Argument from History
Taking a brief swipe at Kierkegaard’s thoughts within Christendom gives one a taste of the success one can expect from Christian Nationalism. And if one continues to turn back the clock and attempt to survey all the varied experiments of merging Christianity and the state, would one eventually find a true success story? That is, would one find an example of when it worked out well for Christianity?
Quickly skip past the Spanish Inquisitions, Crusades, and all the obvious disasters, and really focus in on periods when Christianity grew in the real sense—not just in numbers but in both numbers and spirit, where Christianity thrived in the truest sense of producing actual Christians—what does one find? Does one not land in the early centuries of the Church?
Indeed, at a time when the Church was persecuted as never before (for roughly its first 3 centuries) it grew not only in number but produced droves of what Christians today regard as the Apostles, forerunners, fathers, saints, ascetics, and heroic martyrs of the faith.
But imagine that immediately after the death and resurrection of Christ all the worldly powers conspired to formally institutionalize Christianity in their respective states and persecuted all non-Christians. The Devil could not dream of such a victory! As in Kierkegaard’s thought experiment with poets, Christianity would have been wiped clean of all refinement and made so incredibly cheap that to have any passion for it at all would be comical. Christianity should be dangerous—not for the pagan, but for the Christian.
Time does not allow us to argue the pros and cons of the post-Constantinian Roman Empire, but there is a good argument to be made that the support of Rome came at a pivotal time in history where the Church benefited greatly from an involved emperor in terms of some critical defeats of heresy and unification of the Church. But there is no denying that Roman institutionalizing of Christianity came with political seductions and challenges within the Church that made authentic Christianity teeter on the line of destruction for centuries.
For those who care about this line of argument and favor something like Christian Monarchy, ala old world Russia, consider how different those situations were from modern-day USA. In practical speak, you would have a much easier time instituting Christianity in modern Russia due to the fact that Christianity itself was historically limited to a single flavor—Eastern Orthodoxy. Imagine what would need to happen in America to make Christian Nationalism a reality. Never mind the fact that it would require revolution (as in actual war), but it would require witling down Christianity from its thousands of splinter groups to one in which all the branches—as diverse as Southern Baptist to Episcopalian—could agree. My head hurts just thinking about it.
But, again, for brevity’s sake let’s move on.
3. The Argument from Scripture
And finally, what should be the strongest argument against Christian Nationalism—the New Testament is decidedly anti-revolutionary. Can anyone in favor of Christian revolution cite a single verse in the NT commanding, or even slightly hinting at, Christians taking up arms against their oppressors?
Maybe that one verse where Christ tells his followers to sell their cloaks and buy swords (Luke 22). Yeah, but then there’s that pesky follow-up where Christ rebukes Peter for actually using his sword against the guards who came to arrest Him: “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at My disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:52-52)
I’m not a Greek scholar but this sure seems to be saying that Christ has no intention of achieving a physical kingdom of God on earth through warfare. And of course, He plainly says so in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my servants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Instead, the New Testament quite clearly commends real disciples to imitate His suffering. For those who would rather not internet search this out for themselves, here is a short list:
“If anyone wants to come after Me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.” (Mark 8:34)
“Remember the word that I spoke to you: ‘No servant is greater than his master.’ If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you as well; if they kept My word, they will keep yours as well.” (John 15:20)
“Indeed, all who want to live in a godly way in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution.” (2 Tim 3:12)
And one that was quoted earlier, which is for me the most telling:
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matt 7:13)
These verses (and there are several dozen more) cannot be viewed as anything but comical within the purview of the ease and safety of Christendom. As Kierkegaard put it, “When all are Christians, there is no Christianity.
Let me end where I began with my working thesis on the issue: The true homeland on this earth for a Christian is one in which the way is narrow, difficult, and self-denying. Any ideal that fights for Christian ease, comfort, and self-promotion in this world fights not for Christ’s kingdom but for a false homeland.
So, if you’re looking for a Christian homeland simply look up from your computer or phone wherever you are and look around. There it is. Welcome home.
Sorry if this last bit sounds preachy, but for those who are tired of the woke invasion and the near-complete decimation of our country’s traditional religious values, I can only encourage you to step back and take account of your place in history. You are well positioned in this new pagan culture to be a thoroughgoing Christian if you so desire. Social pressures, threats of being canceled, financial threats, legal threats, etc., are not actually stopping you from being a Christian; these threats are not actually forcing you into a false dichotomy of neutrality or revolution. If anything they are making the line between self-indulgence and self-denial for Christ unmistakable; an aspect that would be lost in Christian Nationalism. In the end, Christian Nationalism is a total pipe dream. It has zero chance of becoming a reality in America. Once you realize that we Christians lost the culture war several decades ago you’ll be free from false expectations of completely turning the ship around by any political means. What we are experiencing today is not unique in the history of the Church. Crack open a book on Church history; learn from the past, the lessons are there and they are wholly relevant for today.
More to come. Thanks for reading!
* Wolfe seems to equate Christian people with an ethnicity: “Ethnicity, as something experienced, is familiarity with others based in common language, manners, customs, stories, taboos, rituals, calendars, social experiments, duties, loves, and religion. These permit the ease of action and communication, the efficient completion of common projects, clarity of mutual understanding, and the ability to achieve the highest ideals and works of civil life.” (Wolfe, 136)
6 thoughts on “Christian Nationalism is a Terrible Idea: a view from philosophy, history, and Scripture”
Well Eric, I have to say I found that refreshing! I actually know others who are of the same mind set, but please note, the collective “we”, would appear, at this point in time, to be a minority. Well done, and thank you for speaking out on what I believe is the mandate of the New Testament. That being, furthering the Kingdom of God through changing hearts (the Great Commission) to trust in and believe in what God can and will do, through faith in His Son, versus our own focus on gaining power and control through worldly focused endeavours. I’m not against lawful democratic change that supports Biblical principles, I’m just against the nefarious means utilized, whereby these changes are now trying to be achieved. For lack of better words, we keep getting it ass backwards. Blessings!
Thank you Bruce, always a pleasure to hear from you!
Very thought provoking Eric. For the sake of clarity, I’m not advocating Christian nationalism, or nationalism of any description however take the example of the British Empire, it was the first empire in the whole history of mankind, to abolish the slave trade & slavery, after participating in the norm of it. This was motivated by Anglicans such as William Wilberforce and a whole host of others, solely motivated by Christ.
I don’t think this momentous event could’ve happened without the power of the state being emboldened to use the Royal Navy to stop the slave trade around the world.
That Navy used to capture / sink rouge British boats & American boats that was still conducting the slave trade, for example. 2000 of their own lives were lost doing this. The UK tax payer bought out all is slaves ( via borrowing 40% of the nations GDP at the time) and that money was only repaid in 2015 (that’s not a typo).
With Christians solely taking the path that you advocate, then surely it would not of happened, and the world would have been a worse place for longer.
I don’t doubt that it would eventually it happened, indeed some decades later the Americans slaughtered 600,000 of their own people to settle the fate of the slavery & the slave trade amongst other things. So, that nationalism or the State can be mighty useful to do Christian things sometimes , as well of course horrific things other times and much in between.
Hi Toby! Great example, and there are many hundreds more. And I think you reflect my personal stance in your first paragraph: “I’m not for Christian Nationalism, but how bout this example…” Us Orthodox Christians have a long history of “Christian Nationalism” in different forms and it’s tempting to want to revert to it. to your example, Britain is a perfect case of Christendom finding its stride at times and doing immense good, but equally unable to keep that stride for long. Domestic slavery in terms of working conditions and child labor during the 19th century was enough to inspire Karl Marx’s, Das Capital. The point is that Christendom though it saves the country from the terrible excesses of secular atheism ruins Christianity on the other end.
Appreciate this. We need all the help we can get to fight the tides of Christian Nationalism. I am amazed at the number of people I would have considered mature Christians who seem to have drunk the Kool Aid, if not for Christian Nationalism, then for various conspiracy theories, and so much of the nonsense floating around. I sense the core emotion behind it is fear, which then leads to irrational attitudes and behavior and a siege mentality that is fed by toxic media.
Agree with your thoughts.