There has been a lot of talk about Christian nationalism lately. While some recognize it as a danger, others are understandably defensive when they hear Christian nationalism criticized and condemned. I would like to invite you to explore what this phrase means and consider why followers of Jesus should resist any pull towards Christian nationalism.
Nationalism vs. Patriotism
Nationalism (at least how we are going to use that term) is not synonymous with patriotism. Nationalism is not simply loving your nation. It is quite natural, and I believe quite acceptable, to have a special love for, affinity towards, and even a certain devotion to one’s own nation. That sort of love for one’s country is best described as patriotism, not nationalism.
Nationalism is an ideology which believes the core elements of a nation’s culture (e.g. ethnicity, language, values) must be promoted and protected at all costs. Nationalism is about boundaries. Not just physical boundaries, but cultural boundaries that define who is genuinely part of the tribe and who is not. Nationalism says things like, “If you don’t agree with this, then you need to leave.”
I do not think it is a stretch to say patriotism is rooted in love, while nationalism is rooted in fear. Patriotism can accept and tolerate diversity within the culture, while nationalism fears diversity because it encroaches upon cultural boundary markers and threatens cultural purity. Patriotism promotes unity, while nationalism promotes uniformity. Patriotism seeks what is in the best interest of the nation, while nationalism seeks the superiority and dominance of the nation over other nations.
Patriotism and nationalism are really quite different. A person can be patriotic, and even be heavily involved in civic and political life, without embracing nationalism.
Nationalism becomes “Christian nationalism” when a person believes his nation is so inherently and distinctly “Christian” that defending the nation’s culture and defending the Christian faith are practically one and the same. This phenomenon, of course, is not unique to the United States. Many Western countries have experienced periods of intense Christian nationalism.
There is no doubt that the American founding fathers were men of strong faith. Some were professed Christians and others were deists, but their belief in God certainly influenced them. Of course, that was not unusual at the time. Most Western nations were formed and governed by professed Christians. Even the British Empire, from which the United States broke away, believed itself to be a Christian empire. Kings and queens of England have carried the title, “Defender of the Faith” for centuries. Acknowledging that the founders of a nation were people of faith is not the same thing as embracing Christian nationalism, but it is often used to justify Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism views a particular nation as God’s chosen nation. Language from Scripture that refers specifically to Israel in the Old Testament, or the church in the New Testament, is often applied in a nationalistic way to countries like the United States. Consider how often phrases like, “a city on a hill” (see Matthew 5:14) or “the nation whose God is the Lord” (see Psalm 33:12) are misapplied to the United States.
Christian nationalism baptizes political engagement, and even military service, with the belief that efforts to protect and defend traditional American values are actually acts of service to God. Christian nationalism perceives policy changes in various areas (taxes, immigration, public health and safety, etc.) as potential threats to the Christian faith. Christian nationalism believes the fate of the country and the fate of the church are inseparably linked. Christian nationalism is willing to fight to defend traditional American values, because it is a matter of faith for them.
Was Nationalism Jesus’ Intention?
I want to be very clear, this is not about whether America is inherently good or bad. This is not about the faith of the American founding fathers. So, let’s not get bogged down comparing national sins and national virtues. All of those things are beside the point and a distraction from what is really important in this conversation.
The pertinent question is not, “What was the intention of the founding fathers?” but rather, “What was the intention of Jesus?” We must ask ourselves, did Jesus intend for his followers to do any of the following:
- establish an earthly nation in his name?
- try to achieve the goals of heaven’s kingdom through earthly means?
- be divided by language, culture, ethnicity, or lines on a map?
The answer to all of those questions is a resounding no. Jesus made this abundantly clear when he spoke to Pilate and said (John 18:36):
“My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”
Jesus could have established an earthly nation in his name, but that was not his intention. Jesus could have instructed his followers to use earthly means (like “fighting”) to achieve his goals, but his goals could not be achieved with such means. Jesus could have seized power, established borders, killed his enemies, and done all the sorts of things worldly kingdoms do, but that was not his intention for himself or his followers.
Is Nationalism the Way of Christ?
Upon his ascension to the throne of heaven, Jesus commissioned his ambassadors to herald the Good News of his reign around the world. If it had been in keeping with the way of Christ, the Holy Spirit could have empowered the early church to rebel against the tyranny of Rome and establish an independent Christian nation somewhere in the world. But such was not the nature of heaven’s kingdom or the will of the enthroned King.
Instead, the apostles revealed that the King’s intention was to end tribal and nationalistic hostility (Ephesians 2:14) by uniting people of “every tribe and language and people and nation” (Revelation 5:9). Jesus’ kingdom would not be marked by lines on a map or by cultural traditions, but by the presence of his Spirit evidenced by transformed lives (Galatians 5:22-23). Citizens of his kingdom would not kill and destroy their enemies, but love, bless, and give food and drink to their enemies (Romans 12:14-21).
It was made abundantly clear that the goals of heaven’s kingdom would not and could not be achieved through worldly means. King Jesus called his followers not to seize power and control, but to follow his example by laying down power, control, and even our own lives for the sake of others (Philippians 2:1-11; 1 John 3:16). The way of Christ is not about dominance and greatness, but about humility, service, and lowliness (Matthew 20:25-28). The way of Christ is the way of the cross.
The process of getting people to fully embrace this kingdom lifestyle has never been easy. The New Testament has plenty of examples of Christians continuing to draw lines based on cultural traditions or ethnic distinctions; but these sorts of cultural boundaries had no place in God’s kingdom then (see Galatians 2:11-14) and they have no place in God’s kingdom now.
Not only is there no hint of nationalism in the agenda of the early church, all of the elements of nationalism were roundly rejected by Jesus and his apostles.
Again, I want to reiterate this point, I do not hate or dislike the United States of America. I absolutely love this country. I love so much about our freedoms, history, culture, and way of life. I could choose to live pretty much anywhere in the world, but I choose to live here because I love this place and I want what is best for the people of this country.
And because I want what is best for the people of this country, I reject Christian nationalism in favor of Christ’s universal kingdom. I firmly believe that sharing the Good News of his reign, and living in a way that reflects his reign, is the only way to truly seek what is the best interest of this (or any) nation.
I love you and God loves you,