In Search of “Christian Nationalism”
Especially since the events of January 6, “Christian nationalism” has become all the rage among the chattering classes, promising to join such hallowed terms as “white nationalism,” “alt-right,” and “religious Right” as a catch-all for everything that is putatively wrong with American politics. It is tempting to dismiss this latest villain of choice as another exercise in paranoid projection by those eager to discredit conservatism and Christianity by any means. But that would be a mistake.
No observer can watch clips of the riot at the Capitol without being struck by the prominence of crosses and Christian flags, or the extraordinary spectacle of Jake Angeli, the “QAnon Shaman,” leading a prayer of thanksgiving in the name of Jesus while standing on the dais of the Senate. It should be clear by now that we do have a radicalization problem here in the U.S. (although anyone who thinks it is confined to the Right needs to awaken from their dogmatic slumber), and that it has become grotesquely entangled with Christian faith in some quarters. The causes are complex and call for investigation, but before we join the pundits and self-anointed experts in assigning blame for this phenomenon, we had best be clear what we’re talking about. And that means talking about reality.
Radicalism, if intended in any kind of pejorative sense, can only be defined in reference to reality—specifically, as a form of blindness to or unmooring from reality. If we want to distinguish the genuinely dangerous fringe from people we merely disagree with, we must begin by asking whether their beliefs are grounded in the real or are in rebellion against it. As the saying goes, you’re not paranoid if they’re really out to get you. Winston Churchill looked like a crazed radical in the 1930s for his obsessive insistence on the dangers of Hitler’s Germany, but in hindsight, he looks like the only sane man in a society of somnambulants. Then as now, respectable elites labelled anything outside their own mainstream consensus as dangerous radicalism. But who is in touch with reality, the deviants or elites?
The Sociological Attack on “Christian Nationalism”
The most acclaimed recent study of so-called “Christian nationalism,” Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry’s Taking America Back for God, offers a case in point. Whitehead and Perry have hastened to insert their thesis into the thick of the post-January 6 discussion, and been quoted in outlets ranging from the New York Times to Religion News Service with their diagnosis. Far from delineating a radical fringe, however, Whitehead and Perry’s “Christian nationalism” turns out to include nearly half of the U.S. population, with one-fifth of Americans being “Ambassadors” for Christian nationalism.
Using such vague questions as “Should the federal government advocate Christian values?” and “Is the success of the United States part of God’s plan?” Whitehead and Perry come up with a 24-point index to determine just how much of a Christian nationalist you are. The questions, most of which point toward a generic endorsement of the value of public religion, would probably find nearly all Americans leaned “Christian nationalist” through the 1960s. Other supplementary indicators include historical questions about the extent to which the American Founders were Christian or built the nation on Christian principles, or whether America was in the past a “Christian nation.” Although Whitehead and Perry mention fringe pseudo-historians like David Barton, they also casually categorize as “Christian nationalist” beliefs about the American founding that are a matter of sober historical consensus.
Reality is equally irrelevant when Whitehead and Perry turn to make sense of Christian nationalists’ beliefs about society, culture, and politics. Christian nationalists, they admonish us in somber tones, are much more likely to “agree that refugees from the Middle East pose a terrorist threat to the United States.” Well, do they? While I’ve never lost sleep worrying my Muslim neighbors might blow me up, it is hardly a radical position to note that the threat of terrorism is today disproportionately associated with ideologies coming out of Islamic societies. But that’s not the only reality Whitehead and Perry don’t think you should notice. Christian nationalists, we are told in tones of prudish disapproval, are more likely to believe stable marriages and two-parent families are important for social flourishing, and that family breakdown is a leading cause of crime and poverty. At this point, “Christian nationalism” is close to becoming simply a synonym for “sane sociology.”
This bait-and-switch, from the objective researcher to the finger-wagging schoolmarm, is the most striking and characteristic feature of this sort of literature. Over and over Whitehead and Perry tip their hands to show they have a dog in the fight, and that despite their shiny scientific credentials and feigned sociological detachment, they are here to warn you against the “threat” Christian nationalism poses. Indeed, despite admitting sheepishly early on that black Americans are even more likely to score high on their “Christian nationalism” index than whites, Whitehead and Perry revert throughout the rest of the book to insisting that Christian nationalism is a thin mask for overt racism. The existence of Christians who oppose these beliefs, they write, “should give us all hope.” This is hardly a neutral analysis. Christian nationalists, they say, “prey on fear,” are committed to “male authority over women’s bodies,” and use the phrase “Christian heritage” as “shorthand for ‘white-dominated society.’”
Analyses like Whitehead and Perry’s turn out to be little more than exercises in institutionalized “Bulverism.” Instead of showing why someone is in fact wrong, they attribute objectionable beliefs to some identity and thereby, illogically, dismiss them. Bulverism, coined by C.S. Lewis, is that ubiquitous logical fallacy that consists in the charge, “You’re only saying that because you’re a _____ (man/woman/Democrat/Republican/Christian/atheist/etc.).” The worst forms of Bulverism are those that trade on constructed labels or identities like “Christian nationalism.” They begin by observing some set of correlations (people who believe X are also more likely to believe Y), and then construct a label to describe that correlation. Then, they turn around and propose that this label is the cause of the beliefs it describes, thus confusing correlation and causation and at the same time reasoning in a circle.
Since they’ve decided in advance that they don’t like some element of this belief matrix, this causal connection becomes the justification for dismissing the entire system. Nothing more illogical can be imagined, but as such labeling exercises can excuse us from the hard work of actually sorting out the truth and falsehood of various interrelated beliefs, they are enormously popular. We don’t need to decide whether too much immigration is really a problem or whether the American Founders favored some kind of public Christianity; all we need is to show that people who believe one of these things are likely to believe both. By this means, two eminently plausible convictions are magically converted into an “ism” and solemnly dismissed as morally bankrupt.
Anti-nationalism as Utopian Delusion
Although a bit more historically and ethically serious, a similar obliviousness to reality bedevils Christian ethicist Paul D. Miller’s recent denunciations of “Christian nationalism.” Whereas Whitehead and Perry suggest that their concept is not really about “nationalism” in its traditional sense, but might better be called “Christian-nation-ism” if that were not such an awkward phrase, Miller roots his critique squarely in an attack on nationalism more broadly. While he insists that he is ardently pro-patriotism, he denies that our patriotism should be directed toward anything other than a territorially defined legal order. It should never be tied to anything as concrete as “shared traits like language, religion, ethnicity, or culture.” After all, the boundaries between these are fuzzy, unlike the wonderfully precise abstract lines drawn on a map that define the legal borders of states.
Christian nationalism, in his view, is doubly dangerous: It shares the evil of all nationalisms in trying to substantively define a nation and the shared loves and loyalties that unite it, and specifically, it does so by making the public practice of the Christian religion central to a nation’s traditions, culture, and laws. By this definition, of course, almost everyone in the Western world until about five minutes ago turns out to have been a “Christian nationalist”—and indeed even in secular modern Europe, many still are, with their “Christian Democratic” parties and legally established churches. Miller, along with Whitehead and Perry, insists that he is a friend of evangelical religion—so long as it refrains from making public claims or seeking public recognition. This remarkably new innovation in political theology he manages to describe with a straight face as “normal Christian political engagement.”
Just as sociologists like Whitehead and Perry aspire to a false neutrality in which they can merely describe a nexus of beliefs without betraying any substantive commitments of their own, Miller idealistically imagines a world of states (not “nation-states,” he insists) full of patriotic citizens united in their commitment to…what? Living inside the borders of those states, it would seem. As soon as they seek to unite around real common objects of love, rooted in the horizons of history, they are becoming dangerous nationalists. Then they are illiberal and exclusive, “authoritarian and oppressive”—never mind that nationalist regimes are pretty much the only ones where durable liberty and rule of law have flourished over the past few centuries. Miller’s fear is that Christian nationalism will “treat other Americans as second-class citizens”; after all, he says, “Anglo-American nationalism was bigoted and anti-Catholic for all of history clear up to the 1960s.”
What Miller fails to recognize, however, is that every stable regime will inevitably draw distinctions of some kind between an “in-group” and an “out-group.” Every stable regime will have some kind of public religion, whether or not it calls itself that. Yes, America was dominated by WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) elites until the 1960s; thereafter, it has transitioned with remarkable speed to domination by white anti-Protestant elites intent on erasing traditional Christianity from public life. In historical reality, every society will be structured around a system of core beliefs, values, and identities; the only question is whether this system does its stumbling, sinful best to incorporate and recognize dissenting minorities, or whether it goes out of its way to ostracize and discredit them, as the respectable intelligentsia have to the Christian, flag-waving rubes.
To say all this is not to deny that somewhere in the neighborhood of “Christian nationalism” lurks a genuine pathology in our body politic, and a heresy within the church. There are millions of American Christians convinced that God has specially chosen America as a new Israel to accomplish his purposes in the world, and that unless it holds firm in professing biblical principles and enacting biblical laws, God’s purposes in history will be thwarted. Within such an apocalyptic mindset, a fierce “us vs. them” mentality takes hold, along with a disregard for all realities that do not fit the narrative and a readiness to take violent action, if necessary, in order to be the instruments of God’s will. Such millenarian movements have cropped up throughout Christian history and have frequently been the cause of disastrous social upheavals. As Richard Hooker wrote warningly of such movements in 1590s England, “what will grow out of such errors as go masked under the cloak of divine authority, impossible it is that ever the wit of man should imagine, till time have brought forth the fruits of them: for which cause it behoveth wisdom to fear the sequels thereof, even beyond all apparent cause of fear.”
Addressing the Radicalism in our Midst
The solution to such pathologies, however, is not to close one’s eyes to historical realities, as contemporary critics of Christian nationalism seem content to do, but to dig deeper into history. As Elizabeth Neumann observes in this sympathetic analysis of “Christian nationalism” and the QAnon phenomenon, one leading cause of radicalization in Christian circles is a cult of personality around a single pastor or network of churches, which encourages “groupthink” and discourages critical thought. Within such echo chambers, Christians only see other Christians who share all their political convictions and can fail to realize how novel or contentious those convictions might be in a larger historical perspective. A small dose of history can go a long way in opening our eyes to the complexity and contingency of our political commitments, as well as the ambiguities of the historical figures or moments that Christian nationalists tend to idealize.
Neumann also observes that one of the great drivers of radicalization is existential fear, the fierce urgency of now: “They see it in cataclysmic terms: This is the moment, and God’s going to judge us.” The Christian who is willing to storm the Capitol in order to save his nation and avert a divine curse is convinced that he lives at one of the decisive moments of history, that everything depends on the next few years, the next few months, the next few minutes. History is full of revolutionaries ready to go out in a blaze of glory in their rage against the dying of the light.
But for all that, the light has not died. Neither faith nor freedom have yet perished from the earth, fire and brimstone have not yet rained down in judgment, and to all appearances, God is still patiently working his purposes out through the mundane instruments of men and women who eat, drink, and get married, raise children and write songs, build institutions and watch them die, pass laws and protest them. This is hardly an invitation to relativism or apathy; a good study of history reminds us of how much goodness can perish through cowardice or inaction. But the more we study history, the more we are apt to find the battles we fight are not so new as we might imagine, and that every “last stand” turns out to have many sequels.