On the Promise and Peril of an American Christian Nationalism

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  • 03/02/2023

Over the last few years, the term “Christian Nationalism” has increasingly been used by commentators on the Left as a cudgel to scare political moderates away from right-wing populism. For much of the Trump administration, a more common rhetorical weapon was the phrase “white nationalists,” which served to insinuate that anyone who happened to be white and elevated national interests over global ones was a racist. “Christian nationalist” is rapidly replacing “white nationalist” in media discourse, probably because of the mounting evidence that many non-whites now have a favorable view of the nationalist agenda. “Christian nationalism” sounds nasty enough that some audiences will still see it as tinged with racism and xenophobia. Although there is little consensus as to what it means, all the smart people (or those who are described as such) agree that it is bad. Bad for America, bad for democracy, and very bad for the political prospects of the cultural Left.

In truth, “Christian nationalism” is simply the belief that the historical tradition of cultural Christianity in the United States should be honored in the present. Christianity, contrary to the claims of the legacy media, is not a “white” phenomenon. It is a religion that was founded in the ancient Near East (not Europe), and today, the congregants of the global church are predominantly non-white. What, then, is so bad about “Christian nationalism”? For many, it is the mere acknowledgment that Christian morality played a central role in our nation’s founding. While the breadth of that role is debatable, its existence isn’t.

But those raising the alarm about “Christian Nationalism” aren’t imagining things. There is a segment of traditional Catholics who are growing more vocal in advocating an “integralism” that gives Christianity a formal role in establishing legal and cultural norms that advance the common good. Add to them the rural, evangelical cohort of the Republican base, which has never been shy in calling for the explicit recognition of Christian morality in public life. Recently, even non-Christians have observed how critical a Christian cultural framework is to the American form of government. Yoram Hazony – an orthodox Jew and President of the Edmund Burke Foundation – is one example. He has repeatedly described the way that Christianity deeply informed the founding of the American order. Further, he notes that it is not necessary for America to turn its back on the role of Christianity in public life in order for religious, ethnic, and political minorities in the nation to live out their own traditions in dignity and peace.

In short, then, there does seem to be a rising tide of “Christian nationalism” in America – but the contours of that nationalism are nothing like the exaggerated caricature drawn by liberals in media and politics. Christian nationalists – if there is any agreement among them – understand that America was founded as a Christian nation. Further, they maintain that certain American traditions and institutions which have been central to national life will not endure if every reference to Christianity is scoured from public life.

Understood by this narrow definition, then, is Christian nationalism something to be feared or embraced? As a person who “identifies” (to use the parlance of the Left) as both a Christian and a nationalist, I argue that an expressly “Christian nationalist” itinerary would hold both promise and peril. In practice, it would bolster the health of the nation, but history suggests it might also threaten the vitality of the faith.


The Christian Basis of the American Nation

How would a Christian nationalist orientation benefit the nation? It would quell the moral vacuum in America, the product of the absence of any agreement about norms. Norms are essential for any functional society. Because modern Leftists worship personal autonomy, they assume that behavioral and cultural norms are inherently coercive, and thus, evil. Liberals, for their part, have advocated for value neutrality, arguing that the state should remain agnostic on morality and norms. Getting married is no better than staying single, they say. Sexual restraint is no better than sexual profligacy. Having children is no more virtuous than not having children. Atheism is no less culturally desirable than Christianity. The idea that having children out of wedlock is not ideal is simply personal preference masquerading as a moral and social good.

But as Hazony and others have also observed, this “neutrality” isn’t really neutral at all – it insists upon elevating the minority view, which necessarily suppresses the majority view. And of course, only a majority view can serve as the basis of a general consensus about what is good or desirable. Such a consensus is a prerequisite for the stability of culture. Thus, over time, the state’s alleged neutrality undermines both the maintenance and foundation of norms. And bit by bit, the abnormal displaces the normal in the public sphere.

We have come to a point where the abnormal is openly valorized and the normal is derided as antiquated, traditionalist bigotry. This is why the current state of America can only be called “demoralizing.” As a result, those who insist upon judging people by the content of their character (a hard-won norm of the 20th century) are now called racists. The old norm that teachers should respect the limits of what a six-year-old’s parents have explained to him when it comes to sex – is now framed as a threat to the very health of children. The old norm that mob violence that destroys public and private property should be punished is now replaced by the idea that such destruction is a rational and necessary response to “injustice.” The notion that citizenship confers both rights and obligations has fallen to the idea that people who enter the nation illegally should be granted all the rights of citizenship, but spared from the obligations.

This is a society turned upside down, and as Christianity teaches, a house divided against itself cannot stand. But two questions arise from this. How can a Christian nationalism restore the American tradition? And why should a Christian nationalism restore the American tradition? I address these questions in turn.

Christianity has a unique capacity to sustain American community because America was founded on Christian principles. Whole generations of Americans are now oblivious to this fact. The inherent dignity and value of every individual seems like an idea of liberal origin. But it is actually a Judeo-Christian value held by Enlightenment liberals who structured democratic norms that reinforced this pre-existing value. The same is true of Judeo-Christian values like tolerance, mercy, care, and respect. The secular modern understanding of each of these concepts is an outgrowth of a bygone period of cultural Christianity. The turmoil unfolding across the nation is because these values – values that lie at the very heart of the liberal ethic – cannot be maintained when the public is entirely ignorant of the religious traditions in which they were grounded.

Ask your garden-variety atheist whether he believes that people should give to the poor when they are able. He will almost certainly tell you they should. But then ask him why we should give to the poor. He’ll probably explain that it is important that we share with those who are less fortunate, or that a society with less individual need is more conducive to forming strong communities. But these replies just dodge the question. Why is it important that we share with those who are less fortunate? Why are strong communities more desirable than weaker ones? In short, Americans remember that we should give to the poor. But in a condition of liberal “neutrality” (or more accurately, outright hostility) to religion in public life, people are oblivious to why we should give to the poor. In the Christian tradition, the answer is because each person is of equal value in the eyes of God, and his love for the poor demands that you do what you are able to ease their suffering – if you love God. Secular liberals will say that helping the meek and the poor is just common sense, that there’s nothing uniquely Christian about these ideas. The most cursory knowledge of any ancient society would show them the folly of their assumption. Although it is unquestionably built upon earlier Jewish conceptions of morality, the spread of Christianity throughout the West transformed our cultural sensibility in such a way that served as the very precondition for the later emergence of modern liberalism. Thus, restoring the Christian tradition to its place of reverence in public culture and governance would restore the theological foundation that renders the moral assumptions of liberal democracy intelligible. It will also ensure that cultural norms for behavior are transmitted and maintained.

For these reasons, Christianity plays a foundational role in American life that can’t be played by another religion or faith. Islam doesn’t offer the same support for all the ethical values that undergird our society. Neither does Buddhism or atheism. But even if audiences grant this, they might still recoil at the idea that it should be Christianity that will form the moral center of our nation. After all, they may say, to explicitly affirm Christian principles in the public sphere (i.e., to enact a Christian nationalism) would be to “exclude” those who come from other faith traditions. Further, they might add, Christianity is declining in America anyway: more and more people identify as “Nones” – those without a religious faith. (Odd how as the “Nones” have increased, American society has grown more chaotic and disintegrated.) Still, why should Christian principles be privileged instead of something else?

Aside from the fact that American democracy was structured to support a uniquely Christian moral outlook, there are two compelling reasons. The first is that even with the decline of religious faith in America and the diversification of the population, Christians dwarf any other single faith group in America. A recent Pew study concluded that Christians still make up 63% of America. The Nones now constitute 29%, and other religions (combined) make up 6%. The fact that so many underestimate the popularity of Christianity in the US is a result of liberal “neutrality” in practice: our institutions deliberately amplify minority religious (or non-religious) perspectives, which is tantamount to suppressing the majority’s faith confession. But our society cannot stay “neutral” and survive. This pretense actually empowers minorities over the majority – but in the case of morality and ethics, the minority perspective is not always conducive to maintaining the moral outlook inherent to American democracy. If we must choose a moral-religious outlook to affirm (and we must), it only makes sense that it should be the one shared by most Americans. The vitality of any nation is largely dependent on a shared perception of historical continuity – the belief that it is the same nation today that it was in the past.

Of course, a Christian nationalism – if such a thing came to have some real power in American life – could not serve as an excuse for bigotry, cultural chauvinism, or political intolerance. On the contrary: properly understood, the Christian moral outlook is the condition of whatever (imperfect) political toleration has existed in America (remember the Puritans and other groups arrived on these shores because they were not tolerated in Europe). Further, that moral outlook undergirds the aspiration toward perfect tolerance. It is clear, then, that Christian nationalism could revitalize the American tradition. And yet, while such a shift might be good for the nation, it may also be very bad for the faith.


The Christian State as Corrupter of the Faith

Christianity itself began as a minority religion – a community of outsiders. When it emerged in and around Jerusalem, it was a blasphemy to the Jews who vastly outnumbered the people who would come to be called Christians. And yet Christianity flourished, even as it was persecuted by the Romans. History shows that during periods when Christianity became entwined with real political power, the faith was often corrupted. Constantine the Great was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity in the early part of the 4th century. His motives for doing so are not wholly clear, but it appears that they were at least partly political. Shortly thereafter, Christianity became the state religion of Rome. Interestingly, only a little more than a century after that, the western Roman empire would collapse, inaugurating the Middle Ages.

In some sense, the political story of the Medieval period is the story of Christianity becoming ever more intertwined with state power in Europe. Indeed, in parts of the continent, it was nearly impossible to separate monarchic political power from ecclesiastical power. The blurring of these lines gave rise to considerable conflict over the centuries. When the Middle Ages came to an end the church had become so corrupted in the eyes of many of the faithful that Protestantism arose as a movement that sought to restore the sanctity to the church. That project ultimately produced a decoupling of Christianity from the state.

The modern political project was an attempt to excise the individualist moral orientation of Christianity from its religious trappings, and graft it onto a liberal democratic state that expressed that morality in a secularized idiom. The founding documents of the country made explicit reference to this religious heritage. But in the aftermath of the New Deal and the cultural revolutions that followed, there arose a conviction that such references in public contexts were a form of intolerance. As public life became ever more secularized, the implicitly Christian morality that underpinned the American order persisted for a while, largely because a private Christian faith endured among Americans. The persistence of a latent Christian morality amidst growing secular sentiment tricked many into believing that this consensus never really depended on the public practice of the faith. After more than a half-century of dogmatic secularism posturing as liberal neutrality, we now find the consensus in tatters.

As in other historical contexts, the early intermingling of the religion and the state in America unfolded in such a way that the state benefited from this association and then readily compromised it when it proved a hindrance for political purposes. The church is now left hollowed and depleted. The political presumption that cultural Christianity would persist – a presumption that could only occur in a nation that had at some point agreed on a necessary overlap between religious belief and particular forms of government and social life – ultimately bred apathy and lassitude when it came to the practice of the faith.

As a nationalist, then, the prospect of a renewed Christian nationalism is enticing. It might restore a moral consensus and provide the social means by which that consensus could be maintained and transmitted. But as a Christian who remembers that the faith has been most vital in the places where it has been a marginalized faith – when it was furthest from the locus of worldly political power – I wonder whether saving the nation is worth it if the cost is an atrophied, lackadaisical faith – one grown tepid from a false sense of security and an erroneous confidence that the Christian worldview is (or even can be) neatly reconciled with the machinations of secular liberal democracy. In this sense, critics on the Left might be right that we should be wary about the rise of a Christian nationalist sentiment. But as is nearly always the case when they’re right, they’re right for all the wrong reasons.

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