Have you heard of “Christian nationalism”? You may be hearing more about it in the future. It has various definitions—usually presented by its critics—and the movement is diverse. But, as one critic wrote, “Simply put, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework—a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems—that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, 2020, p. 10).
Christianity Today puts it this way: “Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way.… Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square. The term ‘Christian nationalism,’ is relatively new, and its advocates generally do not use it of themselves, but it accurately describes American nationalists who believe American identity is inextricable from Christianity” (“What Is Christian Nationalism?” February 3, 2021).
Christian nationalism is a rapidly growing—and highly polarizing—issue in the United States. It is important that we understand it and the Church’s position relative to it.
Religion in the Nation’s Past
The founding fathers of the United States, like many national leaders since their time, referred inclusively to a “Creator,” “the Almighty,” and “God” in speeches and proclamations. Examples include the statement that President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued on June 14, 1954, upon signing the bill to include the words “under God” in the Pledge to the Flag:
FROM THIS DAY FORWARD, the millions of our school children will daily proclaim in every city and town, every village and rural school house, the dedication of our nation and our people to the Almighty. To anyone who truly loves America, nothing could be more inspiring than to contemplate this rededication of our youth, on each school morning, to our country’s true meaning.… In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource, in peace or in war (“Statement by the President Upon Signing Bill To Include the Words ‘Under God’ in the Pledge to the Flag,” The American Presidency Project, Presidency.ucsb.edu, emphasis added).
Many presidents have made such statements, which have long been a feature of messages such as Thanksgiving Proclamations. Typically, the statements have made inclusive affirmations of religious faith and the providence of the Creator God, without specific endorsements of mainstream Christianity. The idea of an almighty creator God is common to many faiths. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” and national leaders have usually been careful to remain inclusive when they make general endorsements of religious faith.
But many Christian nationalists see America as being Christian from its inception, and many advocate that the U.S. should be declared a Christian nation. That sounds a lot like making mainstream Christianity its national religion. And some go further and see that as specifically meaning evangelical Christianity.
Retired U.S. General Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor in the Trump administration, drew a lot of attention when he stated on a recent political tour, “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God” (“Michael Flynn calls for ‘one religion’ at event that is a who’s who of the new Christian right,” The Washington Post, November 19, 2021).
Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, gave a controversial sermon on June 14, 2020, in which he stated, “We say without hesitation or apology that America was founded as a Christian nation” (Taking America Back for God, pp. 56–57), reasoning that to be the case because the great majority of the founders professed mainstream Christianity. Despite the diversity of belief—or lack of belief—in the nation today, he asserts that the professed Christianity of the initial colonists means America should still be declared a Christian nation.
But the government of the U.S. is democratic. Former president Barack Obama differed from Jeffress when he said, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation—at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, and a Muslim nation, and a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers” (“‘Call to Renewal’ Keynote Address,” June 28, 2006). And politicians today, as in the past, can count votes.
The conflicting views are being played out in a contest of political power in the culture wars—and the secularists appear ascendant.
Christian nationalists’ opponents, generally “secular nationalists,” speak of being in opposition to “Christian dominance,” “Christian hegemony,” and “Christian privilege,” and often characterize the effects of Christian nationalism in terms of the victimization of non-Christians. They assert, “The ‘Christianity’ of Christian nationalism represents something more than religion.… It includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism. It is as ethnic and political as it is religious” (Taking America Back for God, p. 10). Secular sociologists who study religion use statistics to try to make a case for those accusations. If many Christian nationalists identify with conservative politics, many secular nationalists speak in the language of progressive politics.
Many in mainstream Christianity were alarmed when Martin R. Castro, named chairman of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights by President Obama in 2011, said, “The phrases ‘religious liberty’ and ‘religious freedom’ will stand for nothing except hypocrisy so long as they remain code words for discrimination, intolerance, racism, sexism, homophobia, Islamophobia, Christian supremacy or any form of intolerance.” These remarks were released in a report on “Peaceful Coexistence: Reconciling Nondiscrimination Principles with Civil Liberties” (“‘Religious freedom,’ ‘religious liberty’ just ‘code words’ for intolerance, Civil Rights chair says,” The Washington Times, September 8, 2016).
While Christian nationalists “believe that the U.S. government should unapologetically privilege traditional Christianity” (Taking America Back for God, p. 4), secular nationalists believe that the U.S. government should unapologetically privilege secularism. Like Christian nationalism, secular nationalism occurs across a spectrum. The vanguard of secular nationalism often views Christian nationalism through the lens of progressive politics, and they insist that their view be taken as normative.
They also fear the political reaction and subsequent political development of Christian nationalists. In an essay adapted from The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, Katherine Stewart wrote, “It is still taking your taxpayer dollars, together with the good will of many believers, and using them to mobilize and train a partisan political army bent on rewriting our history, seizing control of the American legal system, disenfranchising voters who don’t agree with their agenda, and undermining our constitutional principles and democracy itself. As the disgraceful events of January 6 should have made clear, moreover, this is a movement that views democratic politics as an option—and even an obstacle—in the pursuit of power” (“The Power Worshipers,” Free Inquiry, volume 41, issue 5, August/September 2021). Ironically, Christian nationalists make similar statements about secular nationalists.
Both sides note accurately that the religious landscape of the U.S. is changing. The statistics bear it out. “Strong Christian nationalists are declining in number and this also has important implications. More and more Americans collectively agree that the United States should not favor Christianity formally” (Taking America Back for God, p. 4). Many secular nationalists believe religion, especially Christianity, should be excluded from public life.
The influence of mainstream Christianity, and of religion in general, is rapidly being removed from American life and law. Examples of this would include the redefining of marriage and gender in the law. For thousands of years, the institution of marriage has been between a biological male and a biological female—not so now in American law. Also, in the Bible gender is viewed (in today’s sociological terminology) as “binary,” not “fluid.” In addition, more and more young people are self-identifying as “nones,” agnostics, or atheists, rather than the “mainline” denominations such as Catholic, Baptist, or Methodist. Secular nationalists see an opportunity.
The Majority View Has Changed
Times have changed since America’s founding fathers professed their faiths. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, readings from the Bible were part of standard education, and public prayer was common. Today, however, popular culture is usually the antithesis of the values advocated in the Bible, and modern education is often hostile to faith. “It appears that as Americans have moved away from organized religion over the last 10 years, they have begun to make small shifts toward a more oppositional response to Christian nationalism as well” (Taking America Back for God, p. 46).
Whereas the culture of mainstream Christianity represented the majority view in the past, today’s society is much more secular, and as a result, secular nationalists see their view as normative. So, they present Christian nationalists as being extreme and out of the mainstream of society.
A couple of terms are helpful in understanding the problem: pre-political ethic and Judeo-Christian ethic. For example, if people think robbing banks is wrong, they pass a law against it. Or, if they think that taxation without representation is wrong, they throw some tea into Boston Harbor and form a republic. The point is that political action is usually preceded by a perceived ethic regarding right and wrong. That is called a pre-political ethic.
The second term is Judeo-Christian ethic. Going back to the Middle Ages, Britain always had a state church—sometimes Catholic, sometimes Protestant—and as a result, the governing ethic often incorporated some biblical principles. It has long been acknowledged that much of the underlying ethic of English common law was Judeo-Christian, although Enlightenment philosophy influenced it as well. U.S. law is significantly influenced by English common law, and as a result, its pre-political ethic is Judeo-Christian. In addition, most of the early legislators in the federal and state governments professed Christianity, although many were hardly pious. Some of the original colonies even had denominations of Christianity as state religions, which were later discarded. Most legal scholars have recognized that underlying Judeo-Christian ethic throughout the nation’s history, and that is why the Ten Commandments are referenced in a dozen or so places on and in the U.S. Supreme Court Building. Christianity was not recognized as a state religion by the federal government, but the underlying ethic of the nation’s law was acknowledged to be Judeo-Christian.
Christian nationalists and secular nationalists both ask the question, “Is America a Christian nation?,” and they vigorously debate it. But the question presents a false choice. The better question is “Did the U.S. Constitution and subsequent law incorporate, at least in part, a Judeo-Christian ethic?” As a fact of history, it did. In modern times, all sides of the question can agree that the Judeo-Christian ethic is being rejected in the popular culture and civil law, so the reaction of Christian nationalists has been to create legal fortifications. Secular nationalists see an opportunity for far-reaching social and political change, and given the secular drift of society, they are in a good position to implement that.
A Moral Tipping Point?
In Ernest Hemingway’s 1926 novel, The Sun Also Rises, one character asked another about how he went bankrupt. He replied, “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”
That principle holds for both financial and moral bankruptcy. God’s way of life, as defined by His commandments, brings great benefits to both the person and the nation that observes them. God said that He commanded them “for your good” (Deuteronomy 10:13), and He blesses those who keep them (Deuteronomy 28:1–14). But rejection of God’s commandments as magnified by Christ and the Apostles has consequences, as well. He will withdraw His blessing from an individual or a nation if they reject Him. And the ruin of moral bankruptcy, like financial bankruptcy, comes two ways—first gradually, then suddenly.
And it shall be that if you earnestly obey My commandments which I command you today, to love the Lord your God and serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I will give you the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain, your new wine, and your oil. And I will send grass in your fields for your livestock, that you may eat and be filled. Take heed to yourselves, lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them, lest the Lord’s anger be aroused against you, and He shut up the heavens so that there be no rain, and the land yield no produce, and you perish quickly from the good land which the Lord is giving you (Deuteronomy 11:13–17).
Christian nationalists and secular nationalists may debate whether the U.S. was once a Christian nation, but the evidence is overwhelming that the nation now largely rejects God, both officially and societally. The nation is at a tipping point.
Ambassadors for Another Nation
As the Church of God, our strength is spiritual, not political. And if our spiritual strength seems weak to some, consider that God told the Apostle Paul, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore most gladly I will rather boast in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9–10).
As a matter of history, the Christianity that Jesus Christ taught was largely abandoned in the second and third centuries AD, in favor of what can be called Nicene Christianity after the famous creed. Today, that vast, counterfeit institution is battling with secularists over governmental turf. Through most of its history, mainstream Christianity has been closely allied with governments. Until more modern times, state churches have been the rule, not the exception. By contrast, the Church that Jesus Christ established was not government-affiliated, but rather was persecuted by governments.
Much of mainstream Christianity believes that the Kingdom of God is in human hearts, in heaven, or represented by the government of the Roman Catholic church. The Church of the first century held what theologians call a “premillennial” belief about the Kingdom of God, meaning that they believed that Christ would return to establish a millennial rule on earth. In “premillennialism,” the current age exists prior to or “pre” that thousand-year period of Christ’s rule, which was prophesied throughout both the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Gospel of the Kingdom of God is the good news of the institution of that coming Kingdom and the preceding redemptive action of its King, Jesus Christ. By contrast, mainstream Christianity teaches a variety of other gospels that focus on the person of Christ, neglecting His prophesied kingdom and focusing instead on one human institution or another.
But the Apostle Paul described those in the Church of God, as it existed in the first century, as ambassadors of a coming Kingdom, a literal Kingdom to be headed by Jesus Christ on earth—a Kingdom foretold by the prophets of old. This good news of the Kingdom of God was preached by Jesus Christ and His apostles and was believed by the Church of the first century. Later, the Roman church and its daughters came to consider that Kingdom an allegory, and even heresy. Today, many theologians refer to the idea of Christ coming to set up a kingdom in Jerusalem as a “political Messiah.” By contrast, the Church of God today continues to preach the true Gospel of the Kingdom of God as a witness and a warning to the world.
The Apostle Paul told the Church in Corinth, “Now then, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were pleading through us: we implore you on Christ’s behalf, be reconciled to God” (2 Corinthians 5:20). Abraham envisioned the Kingdom of God (Hebrews 11:8–10), and it is closer now than it was then. We must have eyes to see and ears to hear, and we must act on what God reveals will happen (Mark 4:23–25).
The Final Outcome
The Bible reveals that this world is currently a kingdom, but not one subject to God. Rather, Christ said, “If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:26), and revealed that “the ruler of this world is judged” (John 16:11). Christ Himself said that Satan has a kingdom and is the ruler of this world. Indeed, Satan “deceives the whole world” (Revelation 12:9)—but a deceived world doesn’t know that it is deceived.
The U.S. today is like Israel of long ago, when “everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6). Notwithstanding what Christian nationalists assert, this nation has largely rejected God, at both the personal and governmental levels. This is a big reason why the Living Church of God preaches individual and national repentance—though only a few are listening.
We in God’s Church must not become involved in the political struggles of today’s world, because they can’t be fixed any more than its ruler, Satan, can be fixed. The causes of the world’s problems are spiritual, the effects are social and political, and the solutions are biblical. God’s Church is set apart from this world. To that world, we preach individual and national repentance—and the good news of the Kingdom of God. Christ is not coming to reform this world’s political systems, but to replace them with His righteous government. Ambassadors are not part of the political system of a nation they visit. They are in it, but not of it. Christ’s coming is a miraculous event that we wait for—it is not one that we cause politically. Our safety is in our sanctity, and we must never abandon our set-apart status to participate in this world’s political conflicts, whether we live in the U.S. or in any of the scores of countries where our brothers and sisters in Christ reside.
Both the Christian nationalists and the secular nationalists are playing a losing game. In this age, whatever happens in politics, Satan is the real winner—but only for now. The “god of this age” (2 Corinthians 4:4) is in his endgame, and the outcome is preordained. Christ will come in power and glory to establish His righteous Kingdom and to rule as King of Kings—on earth.