“Inconceivable,” says Vizzini for about the fifth time in the classic movie Princess Bride. Inigo Montoya turns to Vizzini and says, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Montoya’s memorable line could easily be applied to a term we hear today thrown around in articles, op-eds, and newscasts: “Christian Nationalism.” We need to ask ourselves two questions about this particular expression. First, what does the term “Christian Nationalism” mean? Second, why is understanding it important to the work God has called us to do?
But first, a short quiz courtesy of Keith Simon. Put either the word America or Jesus in the blanks in the quotations below:
- “______ is the world’s best last hope.”
- “_______ is the Savior of the world.”
- “The only way for us to live up to the promise of _______ is to give _____ our all and to give it for all of us.”
- “We must keep ______ first in our hearts.”
- “_______ is the light and glory among the nations.”
Unfortunately, “If you guessed ‘America’ every time, you are correct.” (The names of the people responsible for each quotation are at the bottom of this post.) Simon asks, “Is it possible that we have conflated our country and our faith?” Which is an excellent place to begin to search for an answer to our first question.
God & Country
Since the events at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, the phrase “Christian Nationalism” has become ubiquitous. In his blog, Simon goes on to say, “The Christian symbols, music, and themes present at the rally mixed with the quest for state power to bring the ‘God and Country’ political philosophy to the attention of many Americans for the first time.” But what is this “God and Country” political philosophy?
If you google “Christian Nationalism,” you will find thousands of articles that span the spectrum between using the term to support anti-Christian sentiments to articles that try to give a solid biblical difference between patriotism and Christianity. Each has its own definition of “Christian Nationalism.”
In the same article referenced above, Keith Simson suggests “10 Signs That You Might Be a Christian Nationalist If:”
- You think America’s founders were evangelical Christians.
- You want your church to fly an American flag in the sanctuary.
- You think America is God’s chosen nation.
- You call yourself an evangelical, but you don’t go to church.
- You think it’s wrong to criticize America.
- You think government zoning laws should allow churches to be built, but not mosques.
- You want mandatory Christian prayers in public schools.
- You think immigrants aren’t as good of Americans as those who were born in the country.
- You think spiritual revival will be ushered in by a new president.
- You believe the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are divinely inspired.
For example, Collin Hansen gives this example from a podcast at The Gospel Coalition:
Back in November 2015, I ate dinner with one of President Trump’s biggest supporters. At the time, of course, Trump was only one candidate among many in the Republican primary. And I did not understand the depth of passion among his supporters. This person explained to me that America is the last hope of Christianity. And I thought I simply misheard, or that he got the order wrong. So, I corrected him. You mean that Christianity is the last hope of America, right? He said no, America is the last hope of Christianity. Well—that’s Christian nationalism.
A Biblical Definition of “Christian Nationalism”
A simple biblical definition of “Christian Nationalism” is adultery, in that one puts their love for country above or equal to their love for God. But this is nothing new; even Christians far too often take a good thing and turn it into an ultimate thing. This is the very sin warned against in the first commandment. (Ex. 20:3). John Calvin famously wrote, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Calvin continues a few sentences later:
Man’s mind, full as it is of pride and boldness, dares to imagine a god according to its own capacity; as it sluggishly plods, indeed is overwhelmed with the crassest ignorance, it conceives an unreality and an empty appearance as God (Institutes, 1:108).
The full answer to the meaning of the term “Christian Nationalism” is much more nuanced. In fact, many Christian Nationalists aren’t even Christians. For a more extensive explanation, we suggest reading Tim Keller’s review of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. For a non-Christian but fair analysis, read this article from the New Yorker.
Why Should Christians Care About “Christian Nationalism?”
This brings us to our second, more practical question, why is all this important to the work God has called us to do? There is a force in this country that wants to push Christianity out of the public square. In 2012, I wrote a blog about an argument by Obama’s Department of Justice in Newland v. Sebelius. In this case, the Catholic owners of Hercules Industries were challenging the government mandate to provide employees with free contraception and sterilization surgeries. This was the government’s argument before the judge in defense of the mandate:
- Seeking profit is a wholly secularist pursuit.
- Once people go into business, they lose their religious freedoms in the context of those activities.
- Everyone who engages in secular undertakings must acquiesce to the principles of secular ideology.
- The government establishes this ideology by passing laws and promulgating regulations.
Fortunately, they lost in the courts but haven’t given up. Today they are trying to paint all evangelicals with a broad brush, calling us all “Christian Nationalists.” Using an almost cartoonish definition, they describe us as dangerous white separatists wanting to overthrow the government and replace it with some type of Old Testament theocracy. It is hard to say if this new strategy will work.
As believers, we can’t go to work and leave our faith at home. For us, this is just a non-starter. So, what do we do? Jesus told his disciples and us by extension, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore, be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). So what do we do?
First, as Tony Reinke writes at Desiring God:
Every believer had to resist the idol factory of their heart by filling their hearts with Christ and nourishing themselves with robust knowledge of who God has revealed himself to be in Scripture.
This equips us to take the second step to, full of grace, boldly enter the public square and do the work God has called us to do, bringing flourishing to the communities he has called us to serve. And always be ready to:
…give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15).
In the book of Revelation, the overcomers triumphed “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 2:11). As we enter the public square to glorify our King, we must use the same strategy.
Editor’s note: The “America or Jesus”?” quotations are by 1. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Beto O’Rourke; 2. Woodrow Wilson; 3. Beto O’Rourke; 4. Donald Trump; 5. Donald Trump