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Creating Conceptual Clarity Around "Christian Nationalism"

October 27th, 2023 | 8 min read

By Jake Meador

In the past, we have published work here at Mere O arguing that "Christian nationalism" is a useless term because it means everything and nothing all at once.

Here is Miles Smith making that case last year:

Christian Nationalism, then, is not being rendered as a continuity of the Reformation by its detractors or its champions. Whatever historic usefulness the term might have is not being used so it leads me to ask the question of who is using it. Increasingly it is being used by populist Evangelicals to denote any Christian political involvement. This seems to me so broad as to be entirely useless. Donald Trump’s administration and conservatives on the Supreme Court and Right to Life and soup kitchens run by urban Catholic churches and a very anti-lottery Presbyterian Church cannot all be “Christian nationalism” if the term is to have any substantive meaning.

The term becomes even more specious when used by Baptists. This is not a criticism of historic Baptists beliefs regarding the civil order, which have remained admirably consistent in their commitment to religious liberty and religious disestablishment. But the fact remains that there is not, and has never been, any substantive establishmentarian tradition within the Baptist tradition. To suggest that Baptists could be Christian nationalist is then to move the term away from any potential Reformation era connection and turn it essentially into a synonym for a sort of Americanist Calvinist Baptist folk religion used almost exclusively for actuating political policy. If this is what Christian Nationalism is, then progressive Evangelical critics of Christian Nationalism are correct in their criticism of the term.

Whatever usefulness the term Christian nationalism might have historically through its connections to Protestant political theology, its primary use today by both its detractors and its proponents bears little, if any, relation to the historic usage.

That being said, the term isn't going away, so it seems prudent to try and establish one particular definition. In that spirit, this essay is going to define how we use the term at Mere O.

When we speak about "Christian nationalism" we are referring very specifically to how that concept has been used and defined by Stephen Wolfe, Andrew Torba, and Andrew Isker in their respective books The Case for Christian Nationalism and Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide for Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations. (You could perhaps also now include The Boniface Option in this analysis as well.)

"Christian nationalism," then refers to a specific political project that views the dominant ethnicity in a nation as the source of that nation's cultural and communal life and views the state's responsibility as being the protection of that common ethnically constituted community and culture. It is for those reasons opposed to propositional nationhood, for example. Additionally, Wolfe's views on race, religion, and immigration, as well as his objections to the Civil Rights Act, are downstream of this conception of the nation. So too are Isker's objections to the Civil Rights Act, his dismissiveness of the Emmitt Till murder, and the broader racial views of Wolfe's podcast cohost and the immigration views of Isker's cohost.

In my view, we should not be thinking of the definition offered by Perry and Whitehead in their work on the topic, even if their definition has the benefit of being rooted in survey data. The difficulty for them is simply the fact that their definition of "Christian nationalism" is so impossibly broad that it ends up meaning everything and nothing all at once. On their account, the Black church, most Pentecostals, some Baptists, many Mere O writers, many people at the Davenant Institute, and Wolfe, Torba, and Isker are all "Christian nationalists."

Indeed, if you dig into their survey data you'll find that Black folks are actually more likely to be Christian nationalists than white folks, as Neil Shenvi noted some time ago:

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%.

In summary, Whitehead’s and Perry’s methods entail that 38% of Democrats, 67% of Black Protestants, and 21% of Jews are supportive of “Christian Nationalism,” that 38% of people who were supportive of Christian nationalism didn’t vote for Trump, and that Blacks are more supportive of “Christian nationalism” than Whites. Given these results, I think we should question what they’re actually measuring.

This reality is especially jarring if you have the Perry/Whitehead definition of "Christian nationalism" in your head and then read what Stephen Wolfe says about Black people in America, people who are theoretically his political allies on the Perry/Whitehead schema:

In the United States, this anarchic element is composed largely of black Americans. For complex reasons, blacks in America, considered as a group, are reliable sources for criminality, and their criminality increases when constraints diminish. Despite being around 13% of the US population, blacks have consistently committed over 50% of the homicides for decades, and it is getting worse. In 2020, according to the FBI stats, blacks committed nearly 57% of all known murders. Even the left admitted that the “Ferguson Effect” — the theory that negativity toward police reduces “proactive policing” and, in effect, increases crime — is likely true. Less constraint means more crime.

So on one account, Black folks are broadly supportive of Christian nationalism. On another account—and this is the account of the author of the most popular book arguing for "Christian nationalism"—Christian nationalism in America would mean increasing restraints on the freedom of Black people as a means of controlling the "anarchic element" that threatens the communal lives of what Isker's podcast cohost calls "heritage Americans." (It's perhaps worth noting that while Wolfe most commonly uses "western" to describe a similar cultural bloc, his review of my second book demonstrates that by "western" Wolfe means "white" because he argues in it that my critique of white Americans makes me a despiser of western culture.)

In my view, we should treat Wolfe, Isker, and Torba's account as the definitive account because of the visibility of their books, because it is very clear what they are arguing for, and because their account is wholly lacking in the unhelpful ambiguity found in Perry and Whitehead's treatment of the topic.

This, incidentally, is also why I think it's worth noting that many conservative Christians who support cultural Christianity or Christendom, someone like Doug Wilson for example, is not a Christian nationalist in this sense of the term. Wilson is still willing to plainly condemn racist and anti-Semitic speech and is still a relative liberal as well as being basically libertarian. That puts him sharply at odds with Wolfe, Torba, and Isker who are very much not liberals and who also, Isker in particular, have relatively strong populist instincts which run hard against Wilson's libertarianism. Wilson, of course, also rejects all forms of critical theory whereas both Wolfe and his cohost have been quite plain about their desire to use such tools for right-wing political goals.

Some fellow travelers amongst the Christian nationalists see the sharp differences. Isker's podcast cohost recognizes it, replying to a recent thread Wilson posted by explicitly saying that he, unlike Wilson, rejects propositional nationhood. Of course, as long as Wilson and others like him continue to promote these men, they will happily allow them despite their substantial differences because figures like Wilson enable the motte and bailey maneuver that these men use so effectively: When critics highlight some of their most alarming remarks, figures like Wilson assure everyone that "Christian nationalism" simply means a propositional affirmation that Christ is the Lord of all things, including politics, and if you like that then you're a Christian nationalist just like Wolfe, Isker, and Torba. This isn't true, but it is rhetorically useful for the latter three figures to pretend that it is.

To sum up, if you are supportive of propositional nationhood, if you are any kind of liberal (and there are varieties of liberalism beyond David French's procedural liberalism), if you are more positive about immigration, including the Ellis Island generation of immigrants, if you have a more nuanced attitude about globalization, or if you are not principally opposed to a more pluralistic, multi-ethnic vision of nations, then you should not call yourself a Christian nationalist because by Wolfe, Torba, and Isker's definition, you aren't. While you might align with "Christian nationalism" as articulated by Perry and Whitehead, that definition is so radically under-determined as to be basically useless for distinguishing amongst Christian political theologies.

To put the matter in another way: If you want to ask better questions about the relationship between Christian doctrine and public life or regarding the relationship between church and state, if you are critical of libertarianism or progressivism, or if you are seeking to move past the dead consensus toward a more historically rooted Christian politics, that is all excellent. You just shouldn't call that project "Christian nationalism" because it will understandably be conflated with this other much more specific, far right illiberal project. Call it "cultural Christianity" or "commonwealth liberalism," or "Augustinian liberalism," or something else altogether. There's a universe of options beyond Reaganism, progressivism, and the ethno-nationalism of the Christian nationalists. But if this conversation is going to improve and move in better directions, then we must begin with having some agreed upon conceptual clarity around the concept of "Christian nationalism." With that established, we can finally have a conversation about Christianity and public life that doesn't just devolve into the inanities rightly identified last year by Smith.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).