Once upon a time there was a nation founded by Christians, established on Christian principles and ideals, in order to be a Christian nation. A city upon a hill; a new Jerusalem. God smiled on this nation and placed His hand of providence on her. He led her and helped her grow. Soon, she became the greatest nation on the planet and took stands against moral evil and political tyrants. She came to the rescue of other nations and fought against the spread of godless ideologies.
But then, that nation turned away from God, chose leaders who didn’t honor God, passed laws that didn’t honor God. That nation gave herself over to sin and deception. It soon went from a new Jerusalem to a new Sodom and Gomorrah.
As a result, God took His hand of blessing off of her, waiting for her to repent and once again turn to Him. To once again elect the right officials, pass the right laws, do away with accepting sin and immorality, and again become the Christian nation she was established and intended to be.
Since then, good, God-fearing, country-loving Christians have had a singular target on the wall: to get their country back to being a Christian nation through any and every means possible. The lowest-hanging fruit? Doing it from the top down through the political process. In other words, get a Christian in office—or at least someone who will stand for and vote for Christian values.
Does that story sound familiar? It should. It’s the essence of “Christian nationalism,” and it is marking Christians as never before as tragically evidenced in the recent assault on our nation’s capital (not to mention countless less sensational ways).
The idea of “chosenness” and “special blessing” from God has been a constant theme throughout the history of the United States, beginning with the Puritans and their desire that, in the words of John Winthrop in 1630, “wee shall be as a Citty upon a Hill.” As historian Conrad Cherry writes:
“Throughout their history Americans have been possessed by an acute sense of divine election. They have fancied themselves a New Israel, a people chosen for the awesome responsibility of serving as a light to the nations.... It has long been... the essence of America’s motivating mythology.”
So, are the ideas behind Christian nationalism true? We need to look at the answer in three ways: 1) Is it true historically; 2) Is it true biblically; and 3) Is it true culturally?
Is it True Historically?
Let’s begin with history. The history of early America does not deserve to be considered as being uniquely, distinctly, or even predominately Christian. Not if you mean a state of society reflecting the ideas presented in Scripture.
This doesn’t mean Christian values were absent from American history. There has been a great deal of commendable Christian belief, practice, and influence in the history of the United States and the colonies that formed our country. Christian goals and aspirations were part of the settlement of North America. Christian factors contributed to the struggle for national independence. Christian principles played a role in the founding documents of the United States.
But the larger truth was that we were a religious country, but not necessarily a uniquely Christian one. And even when our forefathers and foremothers were attempting to flesh out Christian principles, they weren’t always very consistent. For example, when you think of the Puritans of the 1600s, do you focus on their desire to establish Christian colonies and live by Scripture, or do you focus on the stealing of Native American lands and their habit of displacing and even murdering those Native Americans when it was convenient?
Is it True Biblically?
Now to our second question: Is Christian nationalism true biblically? Yes, Israel enjoyed a special status as a nation under God but, since the coming of Jesus, Christians have disagreed as to whether the modern state of Israel remains special as a nation to God, much less whether the Jewish people are still God’s chosen people. Regardless, is it appropriate to look at the United States as unique among the other nations of the world as the special province of God and agent of God?
There are some interesting Scriptures to look at here, beginning with a scene from the Old Testament where Joshua, the great leader of the people of Israel and successor to Moses, was leading the people into the Promised Land.
After crossing the Jordan river, the first city they encountered was the city of Jericho, a city hostile to the coming of the Israelites. It soon became clear this was going to be an armed conflict, but God had something else in mind. To demonstrate that the Promised Land was going to be His gift and His doing, He told Joshua through an angel to march around the city seven times, blow his horns and then the fortified walls of the city would miraculously fall down.
But something happened just before the angel delivered that message. When Joshua first engaged the angel, before being told of the marching plan, they had an interesting discourse:
“Now when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing in front of him with a drawn sword in his hand. Joshua went up to him and asked, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies?’
“‘Neither,’ he replied, ‘but as commander of the army of the Lord I have now come.’” (Joshua 5:13-14, NIV)
No sides were being taken in the political back and forth of human affairs. It’s not that they didn’t matter – the angel actually came to tell Joshua what to do to take Jericho – it’s just that helping Joshua was not about taking a side in human governments. The greater redemptive drama was at hand.
You find similar political distancing in the life of Jesus. After the feeding of the 5,000 when the people were ready to force Jesus to be their king, He immediately left (John 6:14-15). Then again, toward the end of His life as He stood before the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, Jesus made it clear that His kingdom was not an earthly kingdom. “If it were,” He said, “my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, NLT). In fact, making His mission about the kingdoms of this world – about ruling and nations and politics – was one of the temptations Satan put before Jesus at the start of His ministry. It was actually the last of the three recorded temptations (cf. Matthew 6:8-10) that Jesus resisted.
Is it True Culturally?
Now to our final question: Is Christian nationalism true culturally? Meaning, is it the savviest, best way for Christians to work for the Kingdom in our day? Let’s be clear that politics do matter. We are to be salt and light, and that includes being salt and light politically. How we vote matters—there are values we should work to uphold. Who is president, who is a senator or representative, who is on the Supreme Court – their values, worldview, decision making – matters.
But – and this is an important qualifier – is the ultimate goal a Christian nation or a nation of Christians? I believe the answer is unequivocal. The ultimate goal is a nation of Christians which, I might add, will make the nation more decisively Christian than anything that could ever be legislated. If we had the same passion for sharing the message of Jesus as we do for sharing our political views, this truly would be a changed world.
And this is what is most important to remember. Most people who embrace the idea of Christian nationalism truly care about their nation and want to see it turn to Jesus. But the truth is that you can’t legislate morality. You can’t pass a law that changes a human heart. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn once wrote in his epic work, The Gulag Archipelago:
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either – but right through every human heart – and through all human hearts.”
So as much as we might pick up the political mantle and work for things that would reflect a Christian nation… the heart of the battle is working for a nation of Christians.
John Winthrop, A Modell of Christian Charity (1630)
Conrad Cherry, God’s New Israel: Religious Interpretations of American Destiny.
Mark A. Noll, Nathan O. Hatch and George M. Marsden, The Search for Christian America.
Paul D. Miller, “What Is Christian Nationalism?” Christianity Today, February 3, 2021, read online.
Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/Denisfilm
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His forthcoming book After “I Believe” is now available for preorder on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.