What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism?


By Andrés Reyes

Imagine that the mayor of your town comes to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Imagine you are the one to lead the mayor to Christ. What counsel would you give this new believer as the next steps of obedience in his or her newfound faith in Christ? Many of us would correctly instruct the mayor to attend a good church.

But would we say, “Christians should not be involved in politics” and tell the mayor to quit his or her job? No. We would rejoice that the mayor is a believer and would likely uphold that leadership position in Biblical ways. Maybe Proverbs 29:2 would come to mind: “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice; but when a wicked man rules, the people groan.”

Yes, Scripture permits Christians to serve in the political arena. Two verses provide that evidence: Paul “sent into Macedonia two of those who assisted him, Timothy and Erastus,” the latter being “the city treasurer” (Acts 19:22; Rom. 16:23, NASB). But Scripture does not support Christian nationalism, “the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way” (Paul D. Miller, “What Is Christian Nationalism?” Christianity Today).

America is falling headlong into a paganism that is ravishing the moral fabric of our nation and dismantling the unity of churches. Sadly, what was once recognized as evil is now called good. I empathize with believers who want to increase Christianity—and, accordingly, its culture—in America, but not all answers are equal. Not all answers are Biblical. And Christian nationalism is not the way to increase Christianity in America.

Three Problems with Christian Nationalism

Let’s look at three problems with Christian nationalism.

Seeks to Establish an Explicitly Christian Nation

Christian nationalism (CN) seeks to establish an explicitly Christian nation. In other words, CN claims that a nation can explicitly call itself Christian without a completely regenerate citizenry. In his book The Case for Christian Nationalism, Stephen Wolfe defines a Christian nation as “a nation whose particular earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ.” Contrary to Scripture, CN affirms “the possibility of a Christian nation” in a world where Christ is not physically ruling on His throne (Wolfe).

Wolfe wants to be clear. So he states that he does not argue for an “implicit Christian nation” (emphasis his). An implicit Christian nation is a nation primarily consisting of citizens who claim to be Christians, regardless of the genuineness of their eternal state.

Looking at the history of America, we can support the idea of an implicit Christian America, especially at its founding. Mark David Hall suggests this much in his book Did America Have a Christian Founding? In it, he stresses that our nation’s founders “identified themselves as Christians” (emphasis his). He writes, “In 1776, every colonist, with the exception of about two thousand Jews, identified” as a Christian. The founding fathers referred to the Bible more than any other work by a large margin. The Bible was not just the number one influence on the political philosophy of America’s founding fathers; it also permeated the American mindset so thoroughly that Benjamin Franklin wrote the following to Samuel Cooper in 1781:

It was not necessary in New England, where everybody reads the Bible, and is acquainted with Scripture phrases, that you should note the texts from which you took them; but I have observed in England, as well as in France, that verses and expressions taken from the sacred writings and not known to be such, appear very strange and awkward to some readers; and I shall therefore in my edition take the liberty of marking the quoted texts in the margin. (Mark David Hall)

The fact that most of America’s first citizens claimed to be Christians and that the Bible alone “was virtually omnipresent” (Hall’s words) at its founding is exemplary of an implicit Christian nation. That also explains why other nations have identified America as a Christian nation throughout its generations.

But anyone who holds the doctrine of salvation through faith in Christ alone will have a problem with the notion that America should be an explicitly Christian nation. An explicit Christian nation requires the nation to unanimously codify the idea that America is Christian and is governed by God’s Word. This is, of course, tantamount to people asserting that they are Christians because their parents are Christians. It is a mass corruption of what a Christian is. It is another gospel: “So now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Gal. 1:9).

This raises the question of what CN believes constitutes a legitimate expression of explicit Christianity. A person who claims to be a Christian and is in fact not a Christian is a self-deceived hypocrite. Explicit national Christianity requires a 100 percent conversion rate. A genuinely explicit Christian nation is impossible. CN affirms that a nation can explicitly call itself a Christian nation without the entire nation possessing genuine salvation in Christ alone. In reality, such a proposal is a corruption of the gospel itself and a false religion.

Misappropriates Cultural Christianity

Christian nationalism misappropriates cultural Christianity, claiming that cultural Christianity is a means, rather than a result, of professing faith in Christ. Cultural Christianity is a state of a wider social culture, where genuine Christianity has permeated culture so thoroughly that customs, laws, and social relations are largely determined by Christian ethics.

Wolfe is correct that cultural Christianity “is necessary for a just, commodious civil society.” I am thankful for many things cultural Christianity has provided in my life. In the West, genuine Christianity produced a love of neighbor.

A love of neighbor produced a Christian work ethic. A Christian work ethic produced necessities and luxuries we enjoy today. Cultural Christianity has value. So what’s the problem with it? Isn’t it good, because God uses it to prepare people for conversion to Christianity? That is essentially the argument CN makes.

The problem is with the value CN places on cultural Christianity. CN expects the explicit Christian culture to “normalize Christian cultural practice” (Wolfe) and views cultural Christianity as a minor means for converting the unsaved, reflecting Heaven, and maintaining sanctification.

Cultural Christianity is, however, a result of salvation, not a means of it. Social peace results from God’s children faithfully engaging in their churches, families, and gospel-teaching institutions, and it spreads as believers make disciples.

About one hundred years ago, J. Gresham Machen faced similar circumstances to those we find ourselves in today. He may have agreed with the notion that we should strive to bring all things under the lordship of Jesus Christ. But he disagreed with the notion that somehow the church could retain its purity while being like the world. Machen reminds us that the church is not called to shape culture and create cultural uniformity but, rather, to bring all things under the lordship of Jesus Christ through local expressions of faithfulness.

The church does not win the world for Christ by joining the world and making the world appear like itself. That leads to the church’s corruption and the self-deception of the lost. Instead, the only way to establish a truly Christian culture is through faithful evangelism.

CN wants cultural Christianity as much as we all do. Cultural Christianity is how nations survive and keep their wits about them. The absence of cultural Christianity leads to cultural foolishness (Rom. 1:20–32; Eph. 2:1–3). But CN believes in cultural Christianity more than God does. In reality, cultural Christianity is strictly a result of people accepting Christ as Savior.

Forms an Imperial Cult

Christian nationalism forms an imperial cult by making Christianity the official religion of the nation. Describing CN as an imperial cult comes from Timothy Miller’s article “Rome, Caesar, and the Historical Setting of 1 Peter.” Miller reminds us of the mindset of people in Peter’s day:

Gods, kingdoms, and ethnicities were not separable in the ancient world. One did not determine his gods; his birth determined them… . If one asks why the Imperial Cult followed wherever Rome went, the answer is that religion and politics were not separate in the ancient world.

In CN’s imperial cult—with Christianity as the official national religion—civil government would be responsible for restraining false teaching. Wolfe writes, “The church’s duty is to teach true religion, and the civil government must ensure that truth is taught and that harmful false teaching is restrained.” He goes on to state this principle:

The civil magistrate may restrain outward expressions of false religion that, in his judgment, (1) can injure souls, (2) are subversive to Christian civil government, Christian culture, and sacred ministry, or (3) threaten civil disruption and unrest; and he restrains in order to establish or maintain the best outward conditions for his people to live.

All of us can agree with point three. It is consistent with Scripture and our nation’s Declaration of Independence. But points one and two create enormous problems for point three, because they establish a government that “becomes destructive” as a result of total depravity (John 8:34). (The Declaration of Independence reads, “Whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends [life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness], it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it.”)

I am convinced that infant baptism injures souls. Should a civil magistrate who is convinced that infant baptism injures souls have the right to restrain that religious expression? No—because God has given civil government one duty: to secure people’s “unalienable rights” “endowed by their Creator” (Declaration of Independence).

By seeking to establish Christianity as the official religion of the nation, CN conflates the God-ordained duties of the church and government. The result is an imperial cult where “one [does] not determine his gods; his birth [does].” This then casts the nation’s people into the self-deceptive state of believing that they are genuine Christians without professing faith in Christ.

It equally violates the Bible’s teaching on autonomy of local churches. That is, churches are not controlled by any outside organization. The moment people place the power to restrain religious dissent into the hands of the government is the moment all churches lose autonomy, and persecution ensues.

One example of this took place in our land five years before the nation was formed:

In the summer of 1771 in Caroline County in Virginia, an unlicensed Baptist preacher was preaching outdoors when from across the fields a priest of the Church of England galloped up at the head of the Sheriff and other men, thrust his horsewhip in the preacher’s mouth, dismounted, and then subjected the preacher to a thorough flogging in an open field, in plain sight of the assembled crowd. (Michael Novak, On Two Wings)

Moments like this were a major catalyst for James Madison’s persistence in getting the Bill of Rights through two houses of Congress and the legislature in only two years. Many have rightly identified “the Bill of Rights, and especially the first amendment, as the single most important part of the Constitution” (Novak).

CN unintentionally overturns religious liberty for genuine Christians as much as it does false religion. Placing any authority to suppress perceived religious dissent in the hands of government leaves religious liberty to the whims of political representatives. Overturning religious freedom for one means overturning religious freedom for all.

Share the Gospel Instead

So how do we increase Christianity—and, accordingly, its culture—in America if not through CN? Machen was right a hundred years ago: “A nation is more stable the looser its control is over individual lives” (Defending the Faith, D. G. Hart).

Instead of seeking salvation in government to legislate morality, we should lead our homes for Christ and share the gospel. In so doing, we will rear great preachers like D. L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, and Jonathan Edwards. We will rear great political leaders like George Washington, John Witherspoon, and John Adams. And through the spread of the gospel, Christianity will flourish.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2024 Baptist Bulletin. © 2024 Regular Baptist Press. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

Andrés Reyes is pastor of First Baptist Church, Perry, Iowa.