In 1923, J. Gresham Machen wrote a significant and influential book, Christianity and Liberalism. In the midst of a knockdown, drag-out fight between modernist revisionists and orthodox Christians, Machen was a persistent and often forceful voice arguing, among other things, that the revisionists of his day were actually creating a new religion that could not properly be called Christianity. Not surprisingly, the revisionist did not agree and continue to claim to be Christians despite often having little association with traditional Christian belief.
Setting that debate aside for the moment, there is another assault on orthodox Christianity underway. In this case, rather than being an assault from the left, it is an assault from the right. In this case, instead of directly modifying Christian doctrines to make them more palatable, there is a move to substitute the good of the nation. The question is now whether the church will be most attracted by authentic Christianity or nationalism.
As with any critical debate, definitions are important.
Nationalism is the preference of one’s country above all others and the belief that the nation’s interest is (if not ultimate) among the highest goods available to motivate political action. In the most extreme cases, nationalism espouses the idea that what is beneficial (typically economically) for the nation is good without exception. Such nationalism can justify taking over neighboring countries by force, barring refugees, and making policies that recklessly harm minority communities that are not properly considered part of the national identity.
The specter of nationalism is typically a politically right magnet. It often is accompanied by enthocentrism and identity politics. It is on the rise in the United States and throughout Europe especially. Presently, it is being demonstrated by animus toward people of color, especially refugees and immigrants.
Even among non-racist strains of nationalism, there are problematic elements. Nationalism is often summarized in the U.S. by the slogan “America First.” Notably, the government of a territory exists primarily to serve the interests of its people. This is not really debatable. What is often neglected by nationalists is that some actions or policies that privilege American people and businesses may, in fact, unjustly harm people in other nations. For example, protectionist economic policies are often supported by “America First” rhetoric. In some cases, they can be extremely harmful businesses and workers in other nations. When that is deemed either a good thing or simply a consequence not worth considering, a government and a people may well have crossed from healthy self-interest to nationalism.
To be clear, there is a love for country that is healthy and good. This would better be called patriotism. It is a good thing to cherish the positive events in our nation’s history. It is a good thing to feel a desire to defend our nation against harm. It is reasonable to expect that the government will enact economic policies that serve to correct injustices in another nation’s trade policies.
The difference between patriotism and nationalism is often presented as one of degree. However, it is better understood as one of ends. In other words, for nationalism the primary goal is the good of the nation, for a healthy patriotism, the primary goal is the good, with the expectation that one’s nation will pursue that both internally and externally.
Nationalism and Christianity
There is room for a healthy level of patriotism and Christianity to coexist. Though we are ultimately sojourners in every nation, state, and town we inhabit, Christians are also residents charged with seeking the good of the city. (Jer 29:7)
However, when the good of the nation becomes the summum bonum, it usurps the place of God in the heart of Christians. Nationalism, as I have defined it, is not compatible with orthodox Christianity, it is a replacement for orthodox Christianity.
Evidence for this abounds in our present political context. A few particularly egregious examples will be sufficient to demonstrate the nature of the problem.
One clear example is in the continued defense of sexual immorality by many nationalists. Any stream of political thought that seeks to justify supporting politicians like Roy Moore, who was credibly accused by a number of women (including those politically aligned to him), as necessary for the good of the nation has missed the point. Not only was he politically unsavory in other areas, but there were people (some who identify as Christians) who claimed that his behavior simply didn’t matter. Or, in the accusations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, those who argue that a sexual assault simply doesn’t matter have supplanted an ideological support for their preferred politics for good. (This is not to say that he did it, or that any accusations should disqualify a person, but there are people arguing that if the alleged assault happened, it simply does not matter.) In other case, President Trump is a known adulterer, has paid hush money to a porn star for an affair while married, and was caught on tape admitting to something that sounds an awful lot like sexual assault. It is one thing to hold one’s nose and vote for such a candidate, but there are Christians arguing that such rank immorality simply does not matter because the good of the nation is at stake, so they continue to vocally support him on that front.
In all of these cases, there is a demonstrated ethical relativism that has evolved. Previously, the sexual exploits of politicians were considered disqualifying for office, often by some of those now vocally supporting sexually immoral politicians. Now, there are people arguing that since David sinned and was used by God, so the most heinous immorality of a politician may be excused because it benefits the nation.
What is clear in these circumstances is that the ultimate good of these vocal supporters has shifted, or, perhaps, the ultimate good has been revealed. Instead of the ultimate good being God’s moral law, which is universally revealed, the ultimate good is whatever is supposed to best serves the nation.
Nationalism is a form of idolatry.
A Christian Nation?
A significant contributor to the subversion of orthodox Christianity and its replacement with nationalism tinged with Christian belief is the perpetuation of the myth that America is or was a fundamentally Christian nation.
Clearly, the United States was not founded as a secular nation in the same sense that the French Revolution of the Soviet Union was. In both those cases, there is a virulent strain of anti-religious sentiment that led to unhealthy attacks against religious beliefs of various types. The ongoing harassment of Muslims by the French government is one symptom of that bigoted bias.
However, organizations like David Barton’s Wall Builders that attempt to argue that the founders were largely orthodox Christians with a view for an abashedly Judeo-Christian nation are unhelpfully imposing their desires onto the historical record. Though Barton, who has no academic credentials in history, claims to have rediscovered historical truths that others have failed to understand for centuries, the reality is that he is doing hack history that distorts the reality of the history of the United States. Inadvertently, such romanticizing about a supposedly Christian United States significantly contributes to the problem of the conflation of Christianity and nationalism, with the usual result of a nationalism that trumps Christian ethics.
When one believes that Christianity is the only fully true religion-- a reasonable belief for any orthodox Christian--and combines that with the mistaken idea that one nation in particular is a distinctly Christian nation, it can easily lead to switching the order of the old slogan “God and country” to “country and god.” Few would articulate it that way, but in light of the present secularism and cultural hostility to Christian ethics, it can be tempting to do whatever is necessary to “return” to a previous state of “greatness” in which a presumed Christian consensus existed. Though “God and country” might remain the order of the slogan, the closer one views a particular view of “country” to embody God’s own ideal for country, the more likely it is for nationalism to become the functional idol.
The Idolatry of Civil Religion
There is a popular song that embodies some of the most sentimental, but potentially dangerous attraction of the idolatry of nationalism.
Lee Greenwood’s song is played at many civic ceremonies as a tear jerker that is meant to inspire patriotism. But the lyrics of the song reflect a tendency to misunderstand the purpose of Christianity lived out in the public square. The most egregious of the saccharine lines is, “I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.”
Human freedom is a good thing, in general. It is frequently misunderstood in our contemporary context as a freedom from all restraint rather than a freedom to do that which is good and right. However, that is an argument for another post.
However, a Christian should carefully consider what that line means. Is freedom the ultimate good? Is that, then, the main purpose of the nation? Is the United States primarily a vehicle for guaranteeing that good? And, if so, for whom?
Believers are called to seek the good of the city, even when we are not free. That is the message of Jeremiah 29. On the balance, it is better to have freedom to seek the good of the city in the way that is most consistent with one’s religiously formed conscience. However, it would be better to pursue justice and virtue as a prisoner than to promote an idolatrous quest for power in the name of Christianity, even if that power promised to promote a version of Christianity in the culture.
Civil religion is attractive, because it can be useful for generating cohesion and, especially in the West, often has a strong connection to the language of historical Christianity. The difficulty here is that civil religion in the United States often sounds an awful lot like Christianity. Like theological liberalism, such terminological similarity is simply a means of hiding doctrinal revision under the cloak of traditionalism.
However, civil religion is often merely the ideology that enables nationalism.
When one views one’s nation as divinely ordained, then the defense of that nation becomes an ultimate good. The logic runs something like this: America is a Christian nation. God has particularly blessed the United States to be a testimony of his goodness in the world. Therefore, whatever is good for the nation is glorifying for God. This is idolatry, even when it is pursued in more oblique language.
Christianity or Nationalism
American Christians, particularly those on the political right, are faced with a pretty clear decision: Will be put our faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ or in our nation?
In Machen’s day the split occurred on the left, with the revisionist Christians attempting to make the United States into the Kingdom of God through comprehensive welfare policies. There was often an unnecessary conflation between a view of a welfare state as the Christian ideal and a Christianity that had little connection to the orthodox faith.
Now, the decision is on the political right, with people that go to congregations with orthodox faith statements needing to decide whether the ultimate good of the nation is synonymous with the goodness and justice intrinsic to God’s nature. In other words, will we be American Christians or Christians who reside in America? There is a fundamental difference that cannot be overlooked.
For those who desire to remain authentically Christian, we must remember that our allegiance is ultimately to the King of Kings and not to a political party. Good should be judged not by an upward trend in GDP or the number of cabinet members who attend evangelical churches, but by the unchanging Word of God.
The choice is clear, and our decision should be reflected in how we live our lives. Will we pursue holiness in the Christian tradition or a form of nationalistic idolatry?