Over the past several years the topic of Christian nationalism has occupied the minds of Evangelical intellectuals and pastors. No less than half a dozen books have been written on the subject in the past year. Three of them have been published in the past six months.
Yet for all the talk, I have yet to see a useful definition of the term. For some, “Christian Nationalism” refers to the movement by Trumpist Revivalists to take over so-called “evangelicalism.” For others, any conservative Christian socio-political commitment is “Christian Nationalism.” Because of this confusion, the term has become essentially meaningless, and so it should be dismissed by both historians and ministers alike.
I have been reluctant to dismiss the term entirely, for several reasons. The primary one is that while I am a historian by vocation, I’m also a vestryman in the Anglican Church in North America. When prominent Evangelicals label “Christian nationalism”—whatever the deuce it is—a heresy I bristle. The cornerstone of my communion is the Book of Common Prayer, which was designed very literally to Christianize—more accurately to Protestantize—the early modern English nation. On some level, the Christian national roots of Anglicanism seem hard to escape. Similar historical developments among Reformation-era Calvinists and Lutherans might lead observers to label Thomas Cranmer, John Calvin, and Martin Luther “Christian nationalists.” So in as much as the term might be used to denote historic Protestantism, I have not wanted to cede it entirely to those who use it as a pejorative.
But herein lies a problem: None of those men would have identified themselves with any so-called Christian nationalists who invaded the Capitol grounds on January 6, nor would they be comfortable with giving political power to latter day populist “Christian nationalists.” All three Reformers disliked political power being given to the masses. And all three of them were elitists. All three were wedded to early modern conceptions of political authority that used state authority to subdue populist uprisings. Luther supported a war against folk Christian peasants. Folk Baptist Calvinists increasingly like to claim Calvin’s establishmentarian mantle; few ever talk about the fact that Calvin, a lifetime supporter of aristocracy, would not want many of his latter-day wannabe theocratic devotees to exercise the franchise under any condition. Thomas Cranmer, of course, was a champion (or toady, depending on who you ask) of monarchs throughout his time as archbishop. So if Christian Nationalism is a concept rendered from the Magisterial Reformation, it must necessarily have an elitist disposition, yet very few if any of Christian nationalism’s latter day supporters seem willing to embrace elitism either as an intellectual or social category. More often than not, they claim to be actively populist and view their enemies as various (often undefined) “elites.”
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. What is left is progressive Evangelicals labeling anything they don’t like “Christian Nationalism,” and right-wing folk Evangelicals labeling everything they do like “Christian Nationalism.” Neither group’s understanding of the relationship between Christianity and the state seems sustainable or desirable. Neither revivalist folk Christianity nor en masse progressive deconstruction are worthy successors to historic Protestant political thought passed down from the Reformers to the conservative older mainline churches. Christian Nationalism, as it’s used in 2022, represents neither the Reformers nor the best of the disestablished liberal Protestant tradition of the American republic. So I’ve changed my mind: The term is at best probably useless, and more likely cartoonishly silly altogether. Whatever energy spent trying to rescue the term could be better spent on more substantive Christian socio-political pursuit.