Four Ways of Looking at Christian Nationalism

Amid all the talk about the potential influence of Christian nationalism in a second Trump administration, and in the country as a whole, the phrase’s popularity has far outrun any coherent definition.

My colleague David French made an effort to remedy that issue in his column this week. I’m going to make my own attempt here, by suggesting four broad ways one could define a term like Christian nationalism:

Definition One: The belief that America should unite religion and politics in the same manner as the tribes of Israel in Leviticus and Deuteronomy (the more extreme case) or Puritan New England (the milder one) — with religious law enforced by the government, a theocratic or confessional state, an established form of Christianity, and non-Christian religions disfavored.

Definition Two: The belief that America is a chosen nation commissioned by God to bring about some form of radical transformation in the world — the spread of liberty, the triumph of democracy — and that both domestic and foreign policy should be shaped by this kind of providential aim.

Definition Three: The belief that American ideals make the most sense in the light of Christianity, that Christians should desire America to be more Christian rather than less and that American laws and policies should be informed by Christian principles to the extent possible given the realities of pluralism and the First Amendment.

Definition Four: Any kind of Christian politics that liberals find disagreeable or distasteful.

If I were referring to Christian nationalism, I would intend either the first or second definition. Over the years, when I’ve written on the subject, I’ve mostly focused on Definition Two — a style of politics in which Christianity is effectively subsumed into the American project, the universal church placed in the service of the universal nation.

In my book “Bad Religion,” published in 2012, I described this tendency as the “heresy of nationalism,” a “messianic Americanism” that makes liberal democracy into “a religion unto itself, capable of carrying out the kind of redemptive work that orthodoxy reserves for Christ and his church.” In this description, I had in mind everything from Manifest Destiny and progressive-era imperialism to Woodrow Wilson’s grand crusade and the utopianism of Great Society liberalism to the messianic aspects of both George W. Bush-era foreign policy and Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. But also the shadow side of this utopianism, the apocalyptic style — Glenn Beck was a key example back then — that comes in when the messianic promise fails or disappoints.

Back to top button