Christian Nationalism: An Introduction

Anthony Smith characterizes nationalism as a movement that seeks to preserve “national autonomy, unity, & identity” [1]. Starting with Smith’s definition as a general framework, Christian nationalism can be reasonably understood as a movement that seeks to preserve or promote a Christian national identity. This would entail national unity over the preservation of Christian ideals, ethics, and values in the public square, as well as the autonomy needed to protect such national priorities from foreign hostilities.

Historically, Christian nationalism has always been connected with Protestantism. An often-overlooked political dimension of the Protestant Reformation was its firm opposition to Roman Catholic empire. As Bradford Littlejohn explains, “Although we rarely think of it this way anymore, the Reformation was as much a movement of national independence as one of religious independence” [2]. Indeed, the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which ended the Thirty Years’ War between Catholic imperialists and Protestants nationalists, required European nations to adhere to the Peace of Augsburg (1555). This treaty allowed each nation-state to sovereignly establish their own national religion; cuius regio, eius religio (“who’s realm, his religion”).

National Sovereignty

The Westphalian political ordering of nation-states, or “the Protestant construction of the West” [3], was essentially anti-imperialist and anti-empire. Foreign rulers were prohibited from imposing on other national constitutions and churches.

Emer de Vattel, a Swiss Calvinist lawyer, authored his magisterial book on international law, The Law of Nations, in 1757. For a sufficient historical understanding of Christian nationalism, Vattel’s Law of Nations is a key source to be familiar with. Vattel describes the nation (“societies of men united together for the purpose of promoting their mutual safety and advantage by joint efforts of their combined strength”) as a moral person. In Vattel’s own words, “such a society has her affairs and her interests, she deliberates and takes resolutions in common; thus, becoming a moral person…” [4].

Vattel notes that just as individual persons are naturally equal in regards to their dignity, which is inherent in their personhood (the imago Dei, Gen. 1:27), so too are nations; “a dwarf is as much a man as a giant; a small republic is no less a sovereign state than the most powerful kingdom.” No matter the size of the nation, Vattel argues, “every nation that governs itself, under what form soever, without dependence on any foreign powers is a sovereign state.” National sovereignty entails that the nation has the natural right to be independent and “govern itself by its own authority and laws.

Therefore, Vattel’s anger towards the Roman papacy is not surprising, “we shall consider the enormous power of the popes as the first abuse that sprung this systemic which divests sovereigns of their authority in matters of religion. This power in a foreign court directly militates against the independence of nations and the sovereignty of princes.” Indeed, Martin Luther himself appealed to the Christian nobility of Germany to “freely” utilize their “temporal power” to reject the Pope and act on their own terms [5].

National Christianity

National independence and sovereignty are not virtues in and of themselves. Nations must use such national rights to protect and promote religion. As Vattel explains, “If all men are bound to serve God, the entire nation, in her national capacity, is doubtless obliged to serve and honor him.”

Yet, the national promotion of religion should not be merely perceived as a civil prescription, but also as a natural description. In his 1844, The Individualists in Church & State, Swiss Calvinist Frédéric de Rougemont argues that, “every people is formed and developed under the influence of a particular religion which determines – along with other causes – its mores, and through them, its laws and political institutions. Every nation has a religion” [6].

The modern mind may quickly look towards secular liberalism as the exception. However, despite its supposed posture of religious neutrality, liberalism certainly has its own theology and liturgy, as Adrian Vermeule, Prof. of Constitutional Law at Harvard, persuasively demonstrates [7].

Christian nationalists believe that the nation should take on a Christian national identity, as they recognize Christ as King, having “all authority on heaven and earth” in order for the “nations” to serve as His “disciples” (Matt. 28:18) [8]. The Scriptures declare that civil rulers are called to be “nursing fathers” towards the church (Isa. 49:23, 60:16) as God’s own servants (Rom. 13:4). The nation is either for Christ or against Christ, in which there is no middle ground (Matt. 12:30). Rougemont elaborates, “to claim that Christianity ought to restrict itself to the narrow circle of the elect, and not influence the nations themselves, is to wish that this religion which has, by its divine nature, the most powerful effect in man, should have less effect than all other religions.”

However, this doesn’t entail the state being inferior to the church. Christian nationalism is not the same as Ecclesiocracy (church over state), which is the papal error that it originally rebelled against. Rougemont brilliantly breaks this concept down in this way,

[R]eligion is not the church. Society is not the state. Separation of church and state does not entail the separation of religion and society. The union of religion and society does not entail the union of church and state. The distinction between church and state does not entail their separation.  The union between church and state is not confusion. Between church and state there is concord, and they can form an alliance without becoming one. The state may recognize a church without funding its services, and protect it without enslaving it.

Nor does Christian nationalism necessitate the control of one formal church/denomination over the nation. In certain conceptions, it could refer to a confessional establishment, wherein the civil magistrates operate from a general creed or confession for which a diversity of churches can affirm [9]. Christian nationalism may be applied differently in each nation, according to their own political systems, cultures, and histories.

The Question of Religious Liberty

What about religious liberty? Traditionally, Christian nationalism does leave room for religious liberty. The Treaty of Westphalia permitted Catholics in Protestant nations to live out their faith in peace. Christian nationalists do not believe the civil magistrate should intrude on one’s conscience. Vattel explains it in this way, “…man is essentially and necessarily free to make use of his own choice in matters of religion. His belief is not to be commanded; and what kind of worship must that be, which is produced by force!” The Protestant should hear the echo of Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms (1521) here, “…for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”

Yet, in contrast to modern misconceptions, religious liberty is not quite the same as religious pluralism. Vattel continues, “But we should take care not to extend this liberty beyond its just bounds. In religious affairs a citizen has only a right to be free from compulsion, but can by no means claim that of openly doing what he pleases, without regard to the consequences it may produce on society. The establishment of religion by law, and its public exercise, are matters of state, and are necessarily under the jurisdiction of the political authority.”

One does not need to look much farther than the example of the early American republic to understand such limited conception of religious liberty. Each state had its own religious establishments [10], while blasphemy laws remained for much of United States history, which were believed to be fully consistent with Constitutional values [11].

Clarifying Misconceptions

(1) Christian nationalism is not national exceptionalism.

It is a mistake to equate nationalism with exceptionalism. Nationalism is a political order that seeks to preserve national identity amongst the international encroachment. On the contrary, exceptionalism seeks to promote the superiority of one’s national identity on the international stage. American exceptionalists go to lengths to distance themselves from nationalism [12].

However, glory is still meant to be pursued by each nation. Vattel notes, “A nation whose reputation is well established,—especially one whose glory is illustrious,—is courted by all sovereigns: they desire its friendship, and are afraid of offending it.” However, this glory shouldn’t come from the detriment of other nations, it should come from “the favorable opinion of men of wisdom and discernment, it is acquired by virtues or good qualities of the head and the heart, and great actions which are fruits of those virtues.

Christian nationalists traditionally believe that only Old Testament Israel was truly exceptional, in regard to their national covenant with God being so unique. Yet, Christian nationalists believe that all nations are called to covenant with God in general sense [13], and to establish Christianity as the national religion [14].

(2) Christian nationalism is not inherently racist or nativist. 

Though racial nationalism has and still can exist, it should not be equated to Christian nationalism. It is commonplace to inappropriately confuse race and ethnicity. “Race” was a pseudo-scientific construct created to work as an anthropological taxonomy, and it has been proven to have no basis in reality [15]. Race(ism) has no place in Christian nationalism.

However, ethnicity is not the same as race. Ethnicity is primarily concerned with one’s shared history, culture, language, customs, and religion. Anthony Smith argues that all forms of nationalism will inevitably have ethnic components to them [see 1]. This does not come at the detriment of the foreigner, because it is for the health and strength of the national community, in which such foreigner plans to join.

On this point, a brief example from the Old Testament nation of Israel, a nation that obviously had strong ethnic bonds, will suffice. In Joshua 2, Rahab of Jericho desired to join national Israel. She realized that she wasn’t merely joining a political body, but an ethnic one as well. She first acknowledged Israel’s God as the one true Lord (Josh. 2:9). She then demonstrated her allegiance to Israel’s own customs and values by appealing to make a solemn vow before God to spare her and her family (2:12). Israelites had a special understanding of vows before the Lord (Num. 30:2) and also commanded people to honor their families (Ex. 20:12). Rahab then shared in Israel’s collective memory, with her own Passover experience involving the tying of the scarlet cord around her window (Josh. 2:18). On the flip side, one does not need to look farther than Boaz, in the book of Ruth, for a positive example of how one should lovingly receive a foreigner into their own national community.

Christian nationalists champion the importance of prioritizing Christian national identity and unity (the religious component of ethnicity). At the same time, this Christian national identity is generally expressed through the specific dominant theological tradition of their own nation. For the United States in particular, the Reformed Protestant tradition would arguably be a prime contender [16].

Citations & References [1] Smith, Anthony D. Nationalism: Theory, Ideology, and History. Cambride: Polity Press, 2010.
[2] Littlejohn , Bradford. “The Good of Nationalism, Pt. II: The Reformation and the Quest for National Freedom.” American Reformer, January 3, 2022. https://americanreformer.org/the-good-of-nationalism-pt-ii-the-reformation-and-the-quest-for-national-freedom/.
[3] Hazony, Yoram. The Virtue of Nationalism. New York: Basic Books, 2018.
[4] Vattel, Emer de, Bela Kapossy, and Richard Whatmore. The Law of Nations. Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 2014.
[5] Luther, Martin, Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, 1520. https://web.stanford.edu/~jsabol/certainty/readings/Luther-ChristianNobility.pdf
[6] Rougemont, Frederic de. The Individualists in Church and State. Translated by Colin Wright. WordBridge Publishing, 2018.
[7] Vermeule, Adrian. “All Human Conflict Is Ultimately Theological.” Church Life Journal, July 26, 2019. https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/all-human-conflict-is-ultimately-theological/.
[8] Perks, Stephen C. Disciple the Nations. S.l.: Kuyper Foundation, 2022.
[9] Perks, Stephen C. A Defense of the Christian State: The Case Against Principled Pluralism and the Christian Alternative. Taunton: Kuyper Foundation, 1998.
[10] Hall, Mark David. Did America Have a Christian Founding?: Separating Modern Myth From Historical Truth. Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2019.
[11] “Blasphemy and the Original Meaning of the First Amendment.” Harvard Law Review, December 10, 2021. https://harvardlawreview.org/2021/12/blasphemy-and-the-original-meaning-of-the-first-amendment/.
[12] Holmes, Kim. “Why American Exceptionalism Is Different From Other Nations’ ‘Nationalisms.’” The Heritage Foundation, April 6, 2020. https://www.heritage.org/american-founders/lecture/why-american-exceptionalism-different-other-nations-nationalisms.
[13] Barth, Paul J. “What Is National Covenanting?” Purely Presbyterian. Purely Presbyterian, October 26, 2020. https://purelypresbyterian.com/2015/07/10/what-is-national-covenanting/amp/.
[14] Barth, Paul J. “Establishment Principle, Part 1: What It Is, What It Isn’t.” Purely Presbyterian, July 18, 2016. https://purelypresbyterian.com/2016/07/11/establishment-principle-1-what-it-is-what-it-isnt/.
[15] Sussman, Robert W. The Myth of Race: The Troubling Persistence of an Unscientific Idea. Harvard University Press, 2014.
[16] Hall, Mark David. Roger Sherman and the Creation of the American Republic. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Taylor Anderson

Taylor Anderson

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Taylor Anderson graduated from Grand Canyon University with a BA in Christian Studies and is currently completing his MA in History. He is working as a Grading and Instructional Assistant for undergraduate Christian Worldview classes at the same institution. 

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