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.

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Posted by Miles Smith

Dr. Miles Smith IV is a historian of the American South and native Carolinian. Follow him on Twitter @ivmiles.

31 Comments

  1. I agree that the term is a bit specious. I usually see the term used to describe a brand of nationalist-populist authoritarian political vision that puts Christianity in the service of justifying the rightfulness of the would-be authority’s exercise of power. I’d suggest that the term “evangelical” is becoming synonymous with this same political movement, as you now have large numbers of self-described evangelicals who never attend church or who are members of movements that aren’t remotely evangelical, such as Russian Orthodoxy.

    I also wonder what the practitioners of this religion think is going to happen after the American Franco seized power. Such a leader would certainly put many progressives into political prisons, and Drag Queen Story Hour would probably go away. But such regimes need the technocratic elites more than they need the deplorables. In almost every instance, populist authoritarian movements end up turning against the very people who enabled their rise to power. The elites often end up making their peace with such movements and put their skills to work for the benefit of a movement they once opposed. The promised eschaton never emerges and the deplorables end up with less power than they had before. This reality seems to be glossed over by referring to this movement as “Christian nationalism.”

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  2. Regardless of how one wants to define the term ‘Christian Nationalism,’ the term Christendom applies to the times of Luther, Calvin, and Crammer and with their support. And the problem with Christendom is that it is anti-democratic. It is anti-democratic because of the groups that have been marginalized and oppressed under Christendom’s reign. Because democracy is both the rule of the majority and the absence of oppressed groups, Christendom is anti-democratic.

    Using a prayer book to Christianize unbelievers? Isn’t that what evangelism is for? And if people don’t respond to our evangelism efforts, we are called to move on. We are never called to force the faith on people. But that is what Christendom does.

    Not sure about Crammer, but Luther and Calvin were in favor of Christendom. At least they were in favor of part of the 2nd table of the law being made the law of the land. Most of western Christian theology is written with Christendom as its backdrop. However, there is no Christendom in the New Testament. In fact, there is no New Testament support for Christendom.

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    1. Have you ever read Oliver O’Donovan?

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    2. Right, but I think you are infusing democracy with more idealism than is actually there in the meaning of that word, which merely denotes a style of government, not a lack of oppression. The framers of the Constitution included a bill of rights precisely because it places certain decisions out of hands of the majority of voters and their representatives in Congress (without, of course, the kinds of supermajorities that make Constitutional amendments possible). Now, if a super-majority of persons and then states voted to repeal the 1st amendment’s establishment or free exercise clauses, no one would be able to say that that repeal was not itself a democratic process. I think it would be more accurate to say that “Christendom” is anti-democratic because it is not willing to countenance the possibility of a majority’s voting against it.

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  3. Bryan Johnson July 19, 2022 at 5:38 am

    We’re not quite at the point of Book of Common Prayer readings at the public library in America, but we’re close. Scary.

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    1. It would only be scary if attendance were mandatory.

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    2. Benjamin Campbell October 7, 2022 at 11:46 pm

      Dear heavens, I wish you were right. Someday, but soon seems overly ambitious.

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  4. Millions of Christians pray at least weekly, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” If that’s not a prayer for “Christian nationalism,” the term has no meaning. If you don’t mean it while you pray it, don’t pray it. If you don’t pray it, don’t call yourself a Christian because it’s what Christians have been praying for 20 centuries. Thus, if you are NOT a Christian nationalist, you are not a Christian.

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    1. I suppose that one needs to consider that statement in the broader context of Jesus’ ministry. Your interpretation implies that Jesus was advocating for the overthrow of Roman rule and the establishment of a Jewish state. But Jesus advocated for no such thing. In fact, he consistently eschewed this path. We have to reckon with the fact that Jesus tells us that the path to victory is via suffering and loss and not via power and gain.

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      1. Benjamin Campbell October 7, 2022 at 11:51 pm

        We do not want a revolution. We do not want to overthrow anything. Only to call everyone to repentance and submission to Christ in every aspect of their lives, even if they happen to be in government. Christ is already king of every nation. We only desire all people to be persuaded to the truth of that reality.

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    2. You would be right if Christians limited themselves to praying for it. But sometimes it can be more complicated than that.

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  5. […] A recent article at Mere Orthodoxy recognized this problem, at any rate. The author, Miles Smith, was not objecting to the uselessness of Christian nationalism, but rather to the uselessness of the term “Christian nationalism.” In his article, Smith makes a number of shrewd observations, with which I am in hearty agreement. And I like his intellectual honesty when it comes to historical theology—he does recognize that the magisterial reformers had an attitude toward the civil magistrate that was not, um, secular. So there is some good stuff here, and I agree with him that a term of abuse that is currently being used to marginalize any and all conservative believers is not necessarily the term we would have picked to describe our position, had we gone out shopping for a term. Which we didn’t. […]

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    1. That was quoted from Doug Wilson’s “Blog and Mablog,” in case you want to read the rest of it. (It linked to and responded to this article, so I’m reading this first.)

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    2. I guess that it’s a term of art introduced by those who are critical of what they take to be the ‘movement’. Ordinary citizens who adhere to the Christian faith probably would scratch their head if someone asked them ‘are you a Christian nationalist?’

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  6. Pay attention to word order, adjective/noun: Christian nationalists are nationalists in Christian drag. Not Christians in nationalist drag. Christian nationalists put Christian values in service of worldly values. It’s an accurate term for far too many folks.

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    1. By jove, that’s almost a good definition itself.

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  7. Stefan Stackhouse July 20, 2022 at 3:25 pm

    Any analysis of contemporary American “Christian Nationalism” needs to be informed by the experience of the “German Christian” movement during the Nazi era. This represents what was probably the most extreme subversion of the church by a nationalist ideology. Bonhoeffer and his colleagues were quite right – and fully honorable – in opposing it through the Confessing Church and its Barmen Declaration (a document that might profitably be read today).

    For the most part, the American church – and even its “Evangelical” components – are not yet so far gone, although there are some individuals and particular congregations that have already gone off the deep end. Of course, the “German Christians” did not spring up overnight, either. The Confessing Christians ultimately failed to turn things around and avoid disaster, in large part because their opposition was too little and too late. We must learn from their mistake while there is still time.

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    1. I’m not persuaded it’s even a ‘movement’. I refuse to be fearmongered.

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  8. […] also here an article titled ‘The Uselessness of “Christian Nationalism”’ by Miles Smith published at Mere Orthodoxy. Miles Smith is a historian of the American South […]

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  9. […] recently weighed in (again) on the questions surrounding the debate over so-called Christian nationalism in the United […]

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  10. I think this is fair in terms of critiquing scholars not teasing out what they mean. But I think any Christian with some connection to history and tradition would recognize that a lot of the connections certain groups on the political right in Evangelicalism are making between Christianity and politics are at best crude misunderstandings and at worst something blasphemous. I mean much of this right wing movement is more akin to the Peasants Revolt of the Reformation than any kind of sophisticated Christian politics, which is something you rightly point out. But what should we call this combination of Christian names and symbols with American values and politics? I mean when there are people putting guns and Jesus as the two most important social identifiers for themselves, something has gone seriously wrong with their religion? We literally have preachers in America, how many I don’t know, but it’s enough, saying the Kingdom of God is equivalent to the United States of America. You have things like the Patriots Bible which seems to connect divine revelation to the founding of the nation. Then you have a host of Americans who believe the Constitution is divinely inspired. I’m not sure if they mean it in the proper sense that theologians would use, but the fact that they don’t know such a distinction is concerning to say the least. To me it seems like a religion that worships America and slaps the Christian label on top. Yes, scholars should be aware that there are many Christian traditions that uphold a Christian nationalism -the Reformers were by no means proponents of what would become the secular state thought up during the Enlightenment – and should be more precise in what they call these confused and mixed social phenomena, but it’s also that there is little thought to pin down what it is because it’s a riotous mob.

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    1. ‘But what should we call this combination of Christian names and symbols with American values and politics?’

      Shrewd politicking – that’s what.

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  11. Excellent point! I’ve read dozens of articles and books on the topic and can’t find two definitions that share the same planet.

    But it’s clear what the left means by the term. “Nationalist” refers to Nazi Germany. They want to smear Christians involved in politics as modern Nazis.

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    1. Bingo.

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  12. I’d note that Paul Miller takes some pains to define the term in his recent book. He defines Christian Nationalism with a two-pronged test.

    Prong 1: The assertion of a tight association between certain cultural features and the political nation-state, where these certain cultural features focus heavily on the practice of Christianity.

    Prong 2: The assertion that the nation-state should use its authority to enforce cultural conformity to the cultural features so identified. In the end, this means a movement towards a more authoritarian state that would reward conformity to Christian practice and punish non-conformity to Christian practice.

    This definition probably encompasses the views of Calvin and the other magisterial Reformers. But the results of that experiment didn’t work out so well. Throughout Europe, the church eventually became a handmaiden to state power. The state shaped the church more than the other way around.

    One can see much the same today among those most commonly identified as Christian Nationalists. In his weekly newsletter, David French noted the comments of several evangelical speakers at a recent event hosted by TurningPoint. None of these speakers offered much in terms of a positive vision of greater justice, liberty, or human flourishing. Instead, they promoted a political vision centered around inflicting cruelty onto those who disagree with you politically. Nothing seems further from the message of the Cross than that.

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    1. The language of the prongs is a little vague. ‘tight association’ – how tight? what kind of association? ‘certain cultural features’ – which ones? ‘focus heavily’ – how focused? to what extent?

      prong 2 – are we talking about repealing the 1st amendment or not? If not, we’re just talking about what every concerned citizen does – vote in such a way as to reflect their own preferences and wish that the country will come ’round to seeing things the way they do.

      Substitute ‘LGBTQ’ rights for Christian practice and let us ask: have we just invented ‘LGBTQ nationalism’?

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  13. “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.”

    Such is exactly how I understand Christian nationalism. When used pejoratively, I think it’s speaking to this sort of, as you put it, folk religion. And the “Baptist” part is probably there only as a matter of geography, just like many Muslims are one branch or the other simply as a matter of birth, family tradition, and geography. There is no deep connection or understanding of their faith or its origins beyond those factors.

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  14. I keep hearing people say something like, “but there is no real definition of Christian Nationalism” and then not interacting with any of the definitions that have been offered.

    Yes, some are using the term without defining it well.

    But even if you disagree with some of the ways it has been defined, there is no real way forward without interaction with the proposed definitions, either positive or negative.

    And we can’t ignore the history and reasons why people are objecting to the concept even if it isn’t defined as well as one would like. There are very much real problems with some that are positively claiming the term.

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    1. I am interested in finding examples of those who are, as you say, ‘positively claiming the term’. Do you happen to have any? I am finding them hard to come by.

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      1. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Doug Mastriono, Michael Flynn—to name only a few recent examples.

        The heart of the general term “Christian Nationalism” is the Dominion Theology of Rushdoony and North. From the generally good Wikipedia entry on Dominion Theology: According to [Sarah] Diamond, “Largely through the impact of Rushdoony’s and North’s writings, the concept that Christians are Biblically mandated to ‘occupy’ all secular institutions has become the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right”[46]: 138  (emphasis in original) in the United States.

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  15. Is it not possible to wish for the conversion of one’s fellow citizens, and even to invite them with thoughtful arguments to consider Christianity as a way of believing and living, without also insisting that state power, with its legitimate monopoly on the use of force, be used to legislate a specific path to salvation? More generally, can’t one and the same person work to Christianize the world and yet insist, too, that force ought not to be used as an aid in that work? Isn’t this the very model that Jesus left to his followers? I would like for the definers of ‘Christian nationalism’ to distinguish between a Christian’s wish for and work toward the conversion of one’s fellow citizens through persuasion to a more Christian way of life, and a Christian’s demand that the state start making laws with penalties to this effect with force (‘compel them to come in’). To the extent that ‘Christian nationalist’ is a name being applied to the former – to those who are content to evangelize through persuasion – it’s just a name and shame exercise designed to fear-monger (or sell books). I want to know who among the so-called Christian nationalists wishes for the repeal of the 1st amendment’s establishment and free exercise clauses. If that’s a lot of them, then I will worry. If it’s hardly any of them, then I don’t see a reason to worry and I am content to support my side at the ballot box and if I lose, well, hey, that’s democracy.

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