Below are my notes from my interview on “Christian nationalism” with Alisa Childers, author of Another Gospel. The full video can be found here.
1. Everyone seems to be talking about “Christian Nationalism,” or more specifically, “White Christian Nationalism,” but I haven’t seen many concrete definitions given for these terms. Can you define Nationalism, Christian Nationalism, and White Christian Nationalism?
Here are a handful of definitions that seem to track well with how most people use these terms:
nationalism: “identification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.” – dictionary.com
Christian nationalism: “Christian nationalism seeks to merge Christian and American identities, distorting both the Christian faith and America’s constitutional democracy. Christian nationalism demands Christianity be privileged by the State and implies that to be a good American, one must be Christian” – Christians Against Christian Nationalism
White Christian Nationalism: Philip Gorski, author of The Flag and the Cross, says white Christian nationalism is a “narrative about America’s history” “The idea is that certain people, especially white Christian men, are entitled to exercise their freedom, which they understand as the freedom to seize property, to make money, and to dominate others. Order is racial order, and patriarchal, gendered order. To defend that order, they [believe they] are entitled to use violence when necessary” (from The threat of white Christian nationalism explored in new YDS podcast)
2. Sometimes it seems like these terms can be lobbed unfairly toward someone who might vote conservative or hold to certain core tenets of the Christian faith. (I’ve seen the atonement linked with it). Why does orthodox Christian theology often come with an accusation of Christian Nationalism?
Lots of reasons, so let me list a few.
First, people who are concerned about “Christian nationalism” insist that one of its defining features is the desire to impose “Christian” values on society. But what exactly does that mean? “Thou shalt not murder” is a Christian value, so do laws against murder enact Christian nationalism? People will respond: “no, because ‘not murdering’ is not a specifically Christian value. It’s shared by lots of other religions.” Ok, but what about opposition to abortion then? After all, lots of religious people and even some atheists and agnostic are opposed to abortion. Do anti-abortion laws enact Christian nationalism?
Consequently, one of the reasons that Christians are accused of “Christian nationalism” is that almost all Christians do meet at least one of the criteria for “Christian nationalism”—we all advocate for laws we believe to be good and just on the basis of our Christian worldview. That applies to both politically liberal and politically conservative Christians. It’s really inescapable, unless you’re completely politically apathetic.
Second, people who are concerned about Christian nationalism also believe that it is rooted in certain theological beliefs. On their view, these theological beliefs are therefore problematic even if you don’t want to turn America into a theocracy.
For an example, last August, Dianne Steward wrote an article for Religion Dispatches. Its title was: “WE’VE FINALLY BEGUN TO CONFRONT WHITE CHRISTIAN NATIONALISM; BUT WHAT ABOUT ITS SOURCE TEXT?” She lamented: “critics often stop short of addressing an underlying fundamental issue—the Bible’s unambiguous endorsement of colonial conquest” and “audiences can be left with the perception that the Bible has little or nothing to do with white Christian nationalism and imperialism, when nothing could be furthest from the truth.” Her entire argument is that until we admit that the Bible itself and its “texts of terror” are the inspiration for Christian nationalism, we’re not really dealing with the root of the problem.
Using this reasoning, it’s very easy for progressive Christians to make the case that any number of historic Christian doctrines are supportive of Christian nationalism. Do you believe that Jesus came primarily to defeat sin, and not primarily to provide us with political liberation? Well, that helps you justify the oppressive status quo, so you’re a Christian nationalist. Do you believe that Jesus had to suffer a violent death in our place for our sins? Well, that helps you justify punishment, violence, and war, so you’re a Christian nationalist. Do you believe that Christianity is true and that other religions are false? Well, that helps you justify theocracy, so you’re a Christian nationalist, etc. etc.
We must flatly reject this reasoning because it will eviscerate our theology. The right way to evaluate a theological belief is to ask “Is it taught by Scripture?” not “does it lead to political programs that I support?”
3. A recent book came out on the topic called, Taking America Back for God by Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry. You reviewed the book on your website (we’ll link to it). How do they define Christian Nationalism, and do you agree with their definition?
Here are three representative definitions from their book:
“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 civil life” (p. 10)
“Christian nationalism [is] Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation” (p. 145).
“Christian nationalism… co-opts Christian language and iconography in order to cloak particular political or social ends in moral and religious symbolism” (p. 153).
I agree with these definitions. I think that when most people use the phrase “Christian nationalism,” this is what they have in mind. “Christian nationalism” –as its defined here– carries a negative, pejorative connotation and rightly so because Christianity should not be co-opted in service of ethno-national power or fused with American civil life. Note that I’m not saying Christianity shouldn’t influence American civil life, but that the two shouldn’t be made synonymous. So I have no problem with opposing Christian nationalism as its defined here.
4. Can you summarize their view of what is going on in American Christianity?
Perry and Whitehead would probably say something like this: In the last few decades, especially during Trump’s presidency, and culminating in the assault on the Capitol on Jan. 6th, Christian nationalism has been growing in popularity, power, and influence, to the extent that a significant fraction of Americans are supportive of Christian nationalism. In order to save American democracy and American Christianity, we therefore need to acknowledge and fight against Christian nationalism.
5. What are your main disagreements with their methodology and conclusions?
My main disagreement with their methodology comes from the survey they relied on to measure support for “Christian nationalism.” They asked respondents six questions and asked them to rate themselves on a scale of “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The questions were:
1. The federal government should declare the United States a Christian Nation.
2. The federal government should advocate Christian values.
3. The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state.
4. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.
5. The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.
6.The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.
This survey is the basis for the bulk of Perry’s and Whitehead’s analysis in the book, but I see two main problems with it.
First, the questions are often ambiguously-worded. For example, take question #2 “The federal government should advocate for Christian values.” What’s the “right” answer to this question? If we interpret the question to be asking about “uniquely Christian values” then I could see why someone would answer “no.” For example, I wouldn’t want the federal government to advocate for the doctrine of the Trinity, even though affirming the doctrine of the Trinity is absolutely a Christian value. But if we interpret the question to be asking about “Christian values” without qualification, then yes, I absolutely do think the government should be advocating for Christian values – like the dignity of human life, equal protection under the law, protection against rape and murder, and so forth, values that lots and lots of non-Christians also hold.
Or look at question #5: “The success of the United States is part of God’s plan.” Is it? Yes, of course it is, because everything is part of God’s plan. What they probably meant to say is something like “The success of the United States is God’s reward for our obedience.” But that’s not what they actually said.
Or look at question #6: “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.” I think they meant to ask if the federal government should allow teacher-led prayer in schools. But that’s not what they asked! Of course, the government should allow silent prayer in schools or private prayer by students and teachers. Or what about teacher-led prayer in public-schools after school hours as part of a student group? Again, there’s a lot of ambiguity here.
Or look at #4: “The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.” I could see this going either way, but, in either case, how is this at all relevant to Christian nationalism? If I defend the right of Jews and Muslims and Hindus to put their religious symbols on public property, why does that make me supportive of Christian nationalism? That makes no sense.
It’s really difficult for me to figure out how I myself, let alone other people, would answer these questions. The only one I could unambiguously answer is #1: “The federal government should absolutely not declare the United States a Christian Nation.” But in every other case, my answer would depend on how I interpreted very ambiguous questions. That’s a sign of bad survey design. To be fair, Perry and Whitehead seem to have borrowed the wording from previous studies for the sake of continuity, but it will still affect their results.
Second, given the results they actually obtain from this survey, I strongly question Whitehead and Perry’s interpretation. Recall that they define “Christian nationalism” as “Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation.” And they interpret this survey as telling us who is “supportive of Christian nationalism” and who is “opposed to it.”
But if you look at their results, that interpretation is highly questionable. For example, they find that 77% of evangelical Christians are supportive of Christian nationalism. But they also find that 67% of Black Protestants (39%, 28%), 52% of Mainline Protestants (32%, 19%), 41% of “Other” (32%, 9%), 21% of Jews (19%, 2%), and 13% of “No [religious] affiliation” (10%, 2%) are supportive of “Christian nationalism.”
Other results are even more surprising. While 81% of Republicans are supportive of Christian Nationalism (44% Accommodators, 37% Ambassadors), so are 42% of Independents (28%, 14%), and 38% of Democrats (27%, 11%).
Similarly, Donald Trump is the figure most strongly associated with contemporary “Christian nationalism” and he is discussed at length in the book. Yet ~38% of people who were “supportive of Christian nationalism” did not vote for President Trump in 2016.
Most surprising of all, using Whitehead’s and Perry’s data, Blacks are slightly more supportive of Christian nationalism than whites: “Sixty-five percent of African Americans are supportive of Christian nationalism, which is the largest proportion of any racial group” (p. 41, see above). If we examine the data in more detail, Blacks had a slightly higher proportion of Ambassadors (those with the highest levels of support for Christian nationalism) than Whites: 21.2% vs. 20.8%. They also had a significantly lower proportion of Rejecters (those with the lowest levels of support for Christian nationalism) than Whites: 8.8% vs. 24.2%.
This results are totally implausible if we really are defining “Christian nationalism” as they originally did to mean as “Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation.” So what’s happening here is something like equivocation. At first, they define “Christian nationalism” correctly, but then measure something substantially different.
For example, imagine that I first defined fascism to mean “far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition, and strong regimentation of society” and then measured it in a survey that asked questions like “do you support a strong federal government?” and “are you conservative?” Obviously, you can answer “yes” to those questions and not be at all supportive of fascism. My survey is not measuring what I’m claiming that it measures. Therefore, it would be irresponsible to use it to draw the conclusions I draw. I think the same is true of Whitehead and Perry’s survey.
6. It seems that accusing someone of Christian Nationalism implies that maybe a Christian shouldn’t bring their ideas into the public square. For example, I have Christian friends who are open about their conservative political opinions, and they are automatically labeled Christian Nationalists. How can we tell the difference between a Christian who is open about their political opinions, and a Christian Nationalist?
One of the points I’ve emphasized in my writings is that it’s often helpful to discard labels and focus on ideas themselves. Rather than calling someone a “Christian nationalist” it would be better to explain exactly which of their beliefs are false or sinful. If someone calls you a “Christian nationalist,” just ask them what they mean. Ask them “what, specifically, do I advocate that is wrong?”
This was another concern I had about Whitehead and Perry’s book. They clearly believe that “Christian nationalism” is a very bad thing, a corruption of Christianity. Yet they never explain why. How exactly should Christians think about the relationship between the church and the state?
Elsewhere, they explain that “Christian nationalism” correlates strongly with the belief that “Abortion is always wrong, even if the family cannot afford the child” (p. 75) and that Christian nationalism “glorifies the patriarchal, heterosexual family as not only God’s biblical standard, but the cornerstone of all thriving civilizations” (p. 152). I read these statements, and I thought to myself, “is that criticism?” I honestly couldn’t tell. So if someone calls you a Christian nationalist for wanting to make it abortion illegal, I’d just ask them what exactly is wrong with wanting to make abortion illegal? Ditch the label and address the real issue.
6. As Frank Turek says, every law legislates morality, and naturally Christians are going to vote and advocate for laws that they believe are biblical and godly. What role does the separation of church and state play in this discussion?
Right, I agree with him here. And, oddly enough, so do politically-liberal Christians. Both conservatives and liberals invoke biblical commands to urge us to adopt particular policies or pieces of legislation, whether it’s a conservative advocating for a pro-life law on the basis of the 6th commandment or a liberal advocating for a higher minimum wage on the basis of Micah 6:8. Everyone supports laws they think are moral and, for Christians, that ought to mean supporting laws that are grounded in biblical principles.
That said, we should indeed recognize that there is and ought to be a distinction between what is immoral and what is illegal. For example, pride, self-righteousness, lust, and covetousness are all immoral, but no one thinks they should be made illegal. Christians have been arguing about where exactly to draw the line for two millennia, but every Christian recognizes that there should be such a line.
7. In my experience, progressive Christians (who tend to be the most vocal against Christian Nationalism) can be just as political if not more political than evangelical Christians. Recent research by George Yancey (I’ll mention the book) demonstrates just that. Do you think there is something deeper going on here?
Yes. George’s research shows that progressive Christians tend to define themselves by their politics while evangelicals define themselves by their theology. So it may be the case that what we’re seeing is a kind of projection (and I mean that in a non-pejorative way). For example, as an evangelical, when I look at a particular church, I immediately ask “what do they believe? What’s their theology?” Those are my primary categories for a church. In contrast, a progressive Christian might look at a church and immediately ask “who do their vote for? What are their politics?” Perhaps that’s why they are especially sensitive to “Christian nationalism,” which they see as offering a political program that opposes their own.
As a side note, that’s also why I see a fair bit of inconsistency in what gets labelled “Christian nationalism.” For example, on Aug. 26, Joe Biden said “When the Lord says, ‘Who shall I send?’ Who shall go for us’ The American military has been answering for a long time, ‘Here I am, Lord. Send me.’” Or, in October, just before the Virginia state election, Vice President Kamala Harris made a video that was played at 300 black churches in which she endorsed Terry McAuliffe for governor. I suspect that if a Republican were involved in either of those incidents, we’d hear a lot more people complaining about “Christian nationalism.” But because thse incidents involved liberals, progressive Christians seemed far less concerned. Again, that makes sense if the label “Christian nationalism” is applied less to a particular kind of theology and more to a particular kind of politics.
8. In your review, you cited a statistic reporting that 68.4% of white born-again or evangelical Christians affirmed the statement, “I consider founding documents like the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution to be divinely inspired.” There is obviously some things to acknowledge and be concerned about. What do you think are the most valid criticisms of the church when it comes to Christian nationalism?
Right, despite my criticism of Whitehead and Perry’s book, I think they’re actually describing a real phenomenon that Christians should be concerned about. I think there are people out there advocating a fusion of Christian and American identity. And I think there are some terrible theological beliefs related to Christian nationalism that we should oppose.
The statistic you cited about 68% of evangelicals affirming that the Constitution is divinely inspired is a great example. Now, I’ve heard some people say, “Well, maybe they’re interpreting ‘divinely inspired’ a little more loosely than we’d expect.” And my response would be: “Yeah, that’s the problem!” When we say the Bible is divinely inspired, we don’t mean that it’s moving and inspirational, like a great work of art. We mean that it is breathed out by God himself in a way that no other book is (2 Ti. 3:16). So, at the very least, that affirmation betrays a woefully insufficient view of divine inspiration. Getting that doctrine wrong can have grievous consequences for how we think about morality and justice in this country because the Bible, not the Constitution, is to be the standard by which we judge good from evil.
Or here’s another fairly common example. In 2021, Barna found that 25% of Republicans and 16% of Democrats believe that America is “chosen by God.” Now, again, there is some wiggle room here because lots of nations can be chosen by God. Assyria was chosen by God to be the instrument of his destruction and was then likewise judged for its sin and destroyed. But my guess is that at least some of those people believe that America is in a unique covenant relationship with God analogous to that of ancient Israel. That’s incorrect. Americans are not God’s covenant people; Christians are. This error will have serious consequences for how we think about our nation’s role in world history.
So my advice would be: focus on particular beliefs and critique those.
9., In your review, you make a comparison between being labeled a Christian Nationalist with being labeled a critical race theorist. Can you explain that?
I think this is an excellent chance to practice some self-reflection. Many conservative evangelicals, myself included, roll our eyes and pull our hair out when we get called “Christian nationalists.” We recognize that it’s just a lazy ad hominem. People can’t think of some specific accusation, so they just throw out this label to impugn us.
But let’s apply the golden rule here. I’ve talked to a lot of evangelicals who feel the same way about the term “woke” and “critical race theory.” They’ll say “I’m literally just preaching what’s in the Bible and I get called ‘woke.’” “I’m literally just talking about slavery, and I get told I’m doing ‘critical race theory.’”
The lesson here is: do unto others what you would have them do unto you. Rather than throwing labels around, get specific. Rather than saying “that’s CRT,” just explain why you think their statement is false. Then let them respond. Have a conversation. Don’t just shut them down.
10. How should Christians respond to Christian Nationalism?
1. Tell the truth about our history. If progressives ten d to see only the bad in our nation and its history, than conservatives tend to see only the good. If Christian nationalism is indeed a particular “narrative” that casts us as God’s chosen nation, unstained, unimpeachable, and glorious, then we need to counter it with the grim truth about our past and present. You don’t have to buy into revisionist narratives like the 1619 project. You can just read about slavery, the Trail of Tears, the Black Codes, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Japanese Internment, and dozens of other shameful episodes in our history. Read a book like Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, which includes examples of present-day injustice. Again, I’m not saying we should despise America. I love this country, and I’m so grateful for the freedom and opportunity I have here. But Christians, of all people, should learn to be honest because we’re not ultimately citizens of the USA; we’re citizens of God’s kingdom, first and foremost.
2. Dive deep into theology. This might seem like an odd piece of advice, but I wonder if one of the reasons we take politics too seriously is that we don’t take the gospel seriously enough. We create political saviors because we don’t appreciate how completely and eternally we have been saved in Christ. This world and everything in it is passing away. When we realize that, we’ll stop placing so much weight on politics. For this reason, I find it exceptionally helpful to read theologians from other periods of history and other cultures. Even a few decades is enough to make you realize that the incredibly important, pressing political issues of the day may be completely forgotten in just a few years. Reading old, good theology gives you some important perspective.
3. Read and dialogue broadly. This is a universally good piece of advice. I’m politically conservative and sometimes I look at progressives and think “what universe are you living in? You see things so completely differently than I do.” Consequently, it’s helpful for me to read progressive books that challenge me and probe my blind-spots. I don’t really need to read more conservative authors who will merely confirm what I already believe.