The Ideology of Christian Nationalism and the Theology of the New Testament
Someone has observed that one sign of a nation’s moral degradation is the fact that conservatives find it increasingly difficult to parody its culture. Seth Dillon, CEO of the popular Babylon Bee, claims that nearly 100 of their news parodies designed to identify real issues through ridicule have actually come true (Fox News).
In 2019, the Bee criticized the shocking progressivism of public schools with a fake headline that read, “California School System to Feature Mandatory 2nd Grade Field Trips to Gay Bars.” Two years later, a kindergarten class in Miami literally took a field trip to a gay bar and grill.
In 2021, Babylon Bee mocked the ludicrous idea of libraries sponsoring drag queen story hour for children by imagining a situation where drag was even used in church ministry. They titled it, “Progressive Church Announces New Drag Queen Story Hour.” By the end of the year, however, an openly gay pastor in Chicago had donned a blonde wig, white dress, high heels, and lipstick for the Sunday morning service that included a story and prayer time with the children. The following year, a church in Greenville, South Carolina, advertised a drag show called, “Drag Me to Church,” billed as a family-friendly, unique style of worship featuring “The Lady Douché.”
“The problem isn’t that our satire is too close to reality,” says Dillon. “It’s that reality is too close to satire.”
What Dillon describes is a problem in American culture that has satirists working overtime to stay ahead of the actual news. They cannot address gender transitioning by inventing a ludicrous situation where trans athletes can win medals through competing as a different gender, or where biological males can now change in women’s locker rooms, or where men can become pregnant. All of that is already a thing. They cannot say, in essence, “What will it be next? Men marching and cycling naked in pride parades?!” Because this summer that actually happened, in multiple cities in America, in front of children, even as our leaders defended such behavior or looked the other way.
So, not only is American culture morally bankrupt, but it has also lost its senses. And if people dare to point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes (a condition he apparently shares with several of his court), they are furiously denounced as fearmongering, uncaring bigots and “canceled.” Thus, the outrage of the evangelical church is emotionally spent, and it has begun to give way to toleration and desensitization. Like many of our political leaders, we also look away from these appalling scenes, not because we are unconcerned, but because we feel defeated, truly helpless to do anything about them.
THE SOLUTION OF CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM
Yet there is a radical solution to our culture’s moral madness that has been gaining ground among evangelical conservatives. The solution is so-called “Christian nationalism.”
For those unfamiliar with the term, Christian nationalism is the belief and hope that, by God’s grace, through political means, Christians can restore their country to the kind of nation it once was when its laws and customs reflected a common belief in the gospel and the teachings of Scripture.
One well-known advocate for Christian nationalism is classical Christian education author, Doug Wilson, a Reformed pastor in Moscow, Idaho, who released a book this summer called Mere Christendom (available for free on Kindle). In Mere Christendom (the title intended to echo C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity), Wilson delves into the ideology of whole nations whose God is the Lord, coming together to advance the glory of God in the world. Every government serves some higher “god,” Wilson explains. Muslim countries serve Allah, and this is reflected in their laws. Today’s America serves mammon, and that is reflected in their laws. Why not an America that serves the Living and True God as reflected in its laws?
Such an America, says Wilson, is not a new concept, but simply a return to the ideology of the founding fathers. In interviews about his book, Wilson quips that Christian nationalism would not be CN 1.0, but actually CN 2.0. He points out that even as late as 1892 Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, in an opinion where the Court upheld a church’s right to violate work laws and hire a pastor from overseas, declared that the US was a “Christian nation.” Brewer cited multiple evidences for this claim, going back to the nation’s founding documents and the intentions of the framers of the Constitution, as well the Christian values expressed in American law. For example, it may seem like fiction to most Christians today, but many western countries, including the US, once operated under “Blue Laws” that, among other things, prohibited certain activities and sales from taking place on the Lord’s Day. Likewise, until the “Incorporation Doctrine” that began to gain traction in the 1940s, the teaching of religion and prayer was a staple in public schools.
Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his Democracy in America (1835), observed about the young United States, “Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent” (trans. Henry Reeve 1:354).
The year prior to Wilson’s book, Stephen Wolfe offered a thorough definition and detailed defense of Christian nationalism in his The Case for Christian Nationalism (also available for free on Kindle). Where Wilson shows us what a world would look like in which whole nations govern themselves according to the rule of almighty God, Wolfe explores how a single nation, like the US, could learn to govern itself in such a way. Wolfe defines Christian nationalism as, “A totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ” (p. 9).
When he says, “conducted by a Christian nation as a Christ nation,” Wolfe envisions a nation where Christians self-consciously govern themselves as distinctly Christian, acting out their faith politically for their own best interests. These governing actions would certainly produce temporal blessings, but they would also have eternal blessings in mind. In short, the government and culture would be administered in a way that unapologetically favors or privileges Christianity, “a nation whose particular earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ” (p. 174).
Christian nationalism does not mean that unbelievers are unwelcome. But under this form of government, unbelievers would have to understand that if they want to live and prosper in a Christian nation that there are certain Christian laws they would have to observe, just as they might have to respect any other law in a country that follows a particular set of commitments and beliefs. Because, as Wilson explains, public morality as imposed through law would be grounded in the will of God. In fact, that’s what law is, explains Wilson, an imposition of morality. The question is whose morality will be imposed. Why wouldn’t Christians not want to live in a country where the morality imposed comes straight from the Word of God? In Wilson’s view, the Nicene Creed should be a part of the Constitution, and all civil leaders must profess faith in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Nevertheless, the ideology of Christian nationalism has had multiple critics both from the secular world and from within various denominations and traditions of the Christian church, conservative and non. In fact, if you are unfamiliar with the concepts and claims of Christian nationalism, my brief description should be causing you to ask a lot of questions. Is Christian nationalism an effort to bring Christ’s Kingdom to the earth? Does this mean that the government will be run by the church? Won’t this create a draconian society reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition, Calvin’s Geneva, or the Salem Witch Trials? But Wilson answers “no” to all of those questions, explaining that we have learned much from our past failures, both culturally and theologically. A new wave of Christian nationalism must recognize and repent of the sins of the past, while creating the best version of itself for the future.
Still, there are several assertions by Wolfe, in particular, that make me more than a little nervous, should his ideas begin to galvanize large numbers of evangelicals (though I do not think that is going to happen). For example, Wolfe seems to justify violent revolution to bring about a new government order. And he envisions a government that prosecutes heresies or false teaching against Christianity because it harms the souls of others.
Furthermore, what strikes me about both authors’ expressions of Christian nationalism is that there is no clear path forward for implementing CN 2.0. In fact, Wolfe claims in his epilogue that his book is “not an action-plan” but rather a “justification of Christian nationalism” (p. 451). But Wolfe then adds, “And we are early in recovering the movement,” to which I say, “What movement, if there is no plan?” Clearly, both authors would like to see a movement of Christian nationalism, and it is unclear to me, assuming the best of intentions, how such a movement could be peaceful. In fact, as reasonable as Wilson sounds on this topic, in Canon Press’s promotional video for Mere Christendom, Wilson declares, “We want to turn the world upside down. And you don’t turn the world upside down by being nice.” Thus, given the state of fallen humanity, even fallen redeemed humanity, is there any guarantee that Christian nationalism would not indeed repeat the sins of the past?
THE THEOLOGY OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
Wilson and Wolfe are both outstanding when they articulate the utter failure of secular America, the complacency of the evangelical church, and the devastating impact of this combination. And their arguments draw on a deep well of history, philosophy, theology, and political science. On the surface, their idea of a return to a Christian nationalism is compelling for believers with a heart for the gospel and a desire to see the righteousness of God flourish in the world once again. These authors hold out to us a moral compass in the midst of a violent, chaotic storm.
However, even if we theorize about the best possible version of Christian nationalism, is this moral compass also a biblical-theological compass?
Rather than debate the political and philosophical value of this project, I think we should be asking a more immediate question:
Does the theology of the New Testament point us toward the ideology of Christian nationalism?
Even though it is true historically that there have been nations with Christian values significantly reflected in their laws and cultures, and that God even blessed such nations, including the US, does the theological compass of the New Testament proactively lead believers to pursue their own best interest through the institution of human government?
I believe it does not. In fact, if Jesus desired his people as a matter of policy to establish his Lordship on the earth through human government, the message of the NT would have taken an entirely different shape. As it reads, however, every genre of NT literature teaches believers to live in the context of human government as its sometimes-persecuted subjects, not as its administrators, as we wait for the Lord’s return.
The Gospels: What Jesus Taught His Apostles
Each of the four Gospels presents the mission of Jesus in his earthly ministry while anticipating the mission of the early church for which Jesus would commission them. And what we see in the Gospels is that Jesus teaches his apostles not to make subjects but to make disciples. Even though Jesus speaks of his coming kingdom, and even promises that one day his disciples will actually reign with him (Matt 19:28; Luke 22:30), he never styles himself as an insurrectionist, nor does he at any time encourage his disciples to overthrow the current political regime. In fact, he refuses to let the people make him king (John 16:15). He even rebukes Peter, telling him to put away his sword, while refusing to call legions of angels to his side (Matt 26:52–53). Rather, he tells his followers that they are the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matt 5:13–16) and that they could expect in the world to have tribulation (John 16:33).
Furthermore, Jesus always draws a sharp distinction between earthly human government and the people of God, teaching the people to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matt 22:21). When James and John express their hope that they would be assigned a seat of authority on Jesus’s right and left hand in his kingdom, Jesus takes this as a teaching moment to make them understand the difference between how worldly human government functions and how they are to function. Fallen, earthly government, he tells them, is about grappling for rule and authority and position. But Jesus commands them to be servants and slaves, like himself, who came to “give his life a ransom for many” (Matt 20:20–28). So when Jesus teaches his followers to deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow him (Matt 16:24), he is not leading them to world domination but to crucifixion, as they take the gospel to the ends of the earth. They must first suffer with Christ before they will reign with Christ (Matt 19:28–29; cf. 2 Tim 2:12).
The Book of Acts: What Jesus’s Apostles Went and Did
Wilson’s desire to “turn the world upside down” is, of course, an allusion to precisely what Paul and his co-workers were accused of doing in Thessalonica in Acts 17:6. What is ironic about this incident, however, is that Paul’s accusers claim on that occasion, “They are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Acts 17:7). This political disruption was not caused by a government takeover but by none other than the preaching of the gospel of the Lordship of Christ. This is the same gospel that spreads in Acts from Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, and as far as Rome, the capital of the empire (cf. Acts 1:8).
The Book of Acts could itself be a study of the ministry of the church in the context of governmental authority. Peter and Paul both realize Jesus’s promise that they would have tribulation while living under that authority. They model the grace of being respectful of governmental authority, even to the point of suffering at its hand, yet serving their Lord first, seeking to obey him rather than men (Acts 5:29). In all of their ministries, even though they suffer for the sake of Christ, beaten and imprisoned at the hand of governmental authority, there is no detectable strategy set on Christianizing the government.
The Epistles: What Jesus’s Apostles Told His Church
If there were any manifesto in the NT instructing the church how to transform culture through a Christianized government, we would certainly find it in the epistles. For the epistles explain and expand upon the words and ministry of Jesus and his apostles in the Gospels and Acts.
Yet what we find instead is entirely consistent with what we have already seen in the previous two genres: instructions to respect human government as ordained by God and to live quietly as good citizens under that authority. And we should read these texts with the context in mind that this government to which Paul and Peter refer is under the imperial rule of Nero, the same who tortured Christians, the same under whom both apostles would meet their death.
No matter how outlandish our own government seems at times, we are still, I would argue, a long way from that kind of oppression. And yet Paul can urge Timothy,
“that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people [that they may be saved, cf. v. 4], 2 for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. 3 This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior” (1 Tim 2:1–3).
And he can say to Titus,
“Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work” (Titus 3:1).
And he can say to the Romans,
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (Rom 13:1–7).
And Peter can write to his scattered flock,
“Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Pet 2:13–17).
In every instance, the apostles speak in terms of what we owe to governing authorities, as those who serve a higher authority, because our ultimate trust is in a sovereign God from whom all authority derives.
Revelation: What Jesus Promised His Church
The message of Revelation is the Lord’s promise to vindicate himself and his people through his glorious return, judgment, and assertion of his rule over the earth. In a way, at the end of the NT we finally find a kind of Christian nationalism! But it is a rule that God and the Lamb will establish, not his people.
Revelation was written at the end of the first century. The church had been established and had learned much about living out the faith of the gospel in the context of the Roman Empire. Through his apostle John, Jesus himself gives his beloved church a glimpse into their future to increase their hope and confidence as they wait for his return, when they will reign with him. If the Lord had wanted to communicate a mission that involved Christian political domination prior to his return, then the book of Revelation would be a perfect opportunity to address that.
But what do we find instead? Jesus refers to his followers as “conquerors.” But they are not conquerors by the world’s standards, by dominating and ruling over others. A conqueror in Revelation is a believer who remains faithful to Christ unto death, even if that death is martyrdom at the hand of a wicked government fueled by Satan himself. Significantly, this message comes home to us through the words of Jesus to the actual first-century church, specifically to the church at Smyrna (Rev 2:9–11), and Pergamum (Rev 2:13), and Thyatira, to whom Jesus actually says,
“The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, 27 and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father” (Rev 2:26–27).
So, yes, faithful believers are promised a remarkable reign that shares characteristics of the reign of Christ himself! But this is their reward at the end of their journey. It does not suggest what they are to be doing along the journey. Until the end, Jesus encourages, “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (Rev 2:10).
To be sure, the theology of the NT does not suggest that it is wrong for believers to find themselves in the majority, and to influence human government to the point where decisions of leaders and laws of the land reflect the will of God in the Scriptures. In fact, we celebrate that kind of heritage here in the US, where many of the men who hammered out our constitution were born again believers who desired to honor God. In fact, many of them gave their lives to offer us that kind of government. As Christians who pray, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10b), of course we want to see righteousness flourish and evil diminished.
However, what I am saying is that the theology of the NT itself does not point us in a political direction that resembles Christian nationalism, but rather in the direction of impacting the world through the preaching the gospel. And if the church uses its time and energy and resources to steer a course toward a mission that the Lord never gave them, they are most likely neglecting or convoluting in some way their actual mission. What the Scriptures do is offer us confidence that we can love and serve the Lord and share his Great Commission strategy even in a political environment where we are outnumbered, where wickedness is unreasonable, and where we suffer for our faith. In fact, that is exactly why the Lord promises to go with us till the end.
The church in the world is better served if we revive and are faithful to what the Lord has definitely called us to do: preach the gospel, serve the church, pray for our governmental leaders, and show honor to them as much as we can while remaining faithful to God. And to do all of these things as we patiently wait for the Lord himself to return and to establish his righteous, visible rule over the earth.
As discussed by Greg Stiekes on The Steve Noble Show on July 20