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Against Christian Nationalism

Against Christian Nationalism

Editor’s note: This is certainly a period of tremendous political unrest which can leave many of us wondering what we Christians should do, especially how to understand the nature of Christian witness in fractured political environments. N.T. Wright and Michael F. Bird’s bring clarity to our questions in their new book Jesus and the Powers: Christian Political Witness in an Age of Totalitarian Terror and Dysfunctional Democracies. Enjoy this excerpt.


Christian nationalism is a danger to Christians and non-Christians alike. Now, of course, this depends on what you mean by ‘Christian nationalism’. We have no problem with the notion that Christianity has been part of the heritage of this or that nation. Christianity has shaped our constitutions and cultures for the better, and State and Church can cooperate for the common good in providing education, healthcare, and pastoral care. One can tussle a bit as to whether there should be an officially established church such as the Church of England. We hasten to point out that even with a state-sanctioned church in the UK, there is still a healthy degree of secularity, religious pluralism and multiculturalism. When we warn of the evils of Christian nationalism, we are warning of the danger of the government trying to enforce Christian hegemony combined with civil religion (that is, an outward and merely cultural version of Christianity).

In other words, the danger is that Christians are given special privileges by the State and Christianity becomes an outward display of patriotic devotion rather than part of true religious affection.

The idea that the Christian world needs an anointed Christian leader, a Christian emperor presiding over a Christian empire, is one that has existed since Constantine, and even persists into the present. In fact, quite recently, one prominent British theologian has tweeted, in response to Queen Elizabeth II’s passing, that ‘the Queen was effectively the Queen of the world . . . perhaps [the] necessary role of Christian world emperor has now fallen on the British monarchy’.1

We are all for commemorating Queen Elizabeth II, but we remain unsure if we should valorise her or her successor King Charles III as a ‘Christian world emperor’. The danger is that one is approaching the sycophantic position of Eusebius of Caesarea who claimed that the emperor Constantine was hailed by angels and armies alike as ‘master, lord, and king’.2 This christianisation of kingship is not far from those who claimed that US president Donald Trump was a ‘new Cyrus’. Many admirers pushed the idea that Trump, despite his bawdy and tawdry behaviour, was a man whom God had anointed to make the USA great again just as God called the Persian king Cyrus to liberate the Judaean exiles in Babylon.3

We would naturally be happy to live under the administration of a wise and benevolent Christian leader. Of course, we are also happy to live under a Pharaoh who puts a clever and capable Joseph in charge, or vote for a Nebuchadnezzar who heeds the counsel of a wise man such as Daniel. Even Martin Luther said he’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than a foolish Christian. Be that as it may, to contend that one needs a king or president, not only to protect institutions such as the Church, but actively to impose the Church’s worship on others, is always going to prove ruinous to civil and religious liberties. Such a position would imply that God not only uses governments for justice and judgement, but also needs them as the political sword by which people, whether Christian or not, will be compelled to conform their lives to Christian standards. That is dangerous because to identify any leader as ‘yhwh’s anointed’4 or a new ‘Cyrus’5 is to invest a perilous amount of religious capital in a single person. Such a person may prove to be all too human, all too given to corruption, full of depravity and easily seduced by the lust for power. After September 11, 2001, Tony Blair spoke about ‘evil’ being at large in the world and of his determination to deal with it – almost as though this was a new and unexpected problem – but that with his policies and leadership evil could be conquered. We know where that led.

When such leaders are venerated with religious adulation, the result inevitably is that any critique of them, no matter how valid, is treated as either treason or blasphemy. The UK Parliament, no less than the US Senate, eagerly backed the dangerous and irrelevant call for a war against Iraq. The messianising of leaders to prop up an imagined ‘Christian empire’ can have dire consequences for social freedoms as well as proving injurious to the integrity of the Church’s own witness when it allies itself too closely with an earthly power. Remember that the Scriptures have a special title for someone who claims to possess kingly and religious authority, who is both presidential and priestly: the word is ‘Antichrist’. Such a person is against Christ by assuming Christ’s own role, because Christ alone is both messianic King and the Great High Priest.6

Christian nationalism of the kind we have described is bad on every level imaginable. Christian nationalism does not lend itself to a tolerant society since it diminishes the rights of the people of other religions or no religion.

It [Christian nationalism] leads to a superficial Christianity rather than to sincere faith and deep discipleship.

Political leaders end up pretending to be religious merely to win the favour of their constituents. Christianity is used to justify unchristian policies and actions related to wars, immigration, income inequality, healthcare and a myriad other issues.

  • Remember that even the devil can quote Scripture and try to rub it in the face of Jesus.

The other problem with Christian nationalism is which type of Christianity should be supreme. It is baffling that, in the USA, many Baptists are coming out as supporters of Christian nationalism. It is baffling to us because Baptists fled the religious sectarianism of the British Isles to go to America in the seventeenth century. The reason they fled was because Baptists, and other Nonconformists, were persecuted, discriminated against and cajoled in matters of religious conviction. They went to America so that they could practise their faith without government interference. As we all know, there are different Christian denominations, so which one should be supreme in a Christian nationalist state? Should it be Anglicans, who could then force everyone to baptise their babies, worship using only the Book of Common Prayer, demand adherence to the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, sing hymns that equate the British Empire with ‘Jerusalem’ on earth, and petition Heaven with ‘God Save the King’? But the same is true whether you put Methodists, Presbyterians, or Pentecostals in charge. They could impose their version of Christianity upon everyone else or grant special privileges to their version of Christianity.

Religious liberty thus protects Christians from other Christians.

And, if you are going to give religious liberty to Christians, then why not to non-Christian religions as well? The logical implication of religious freedom for Christians is religious freedom for all people, irrespective of their religion or lack thereof.

Another deficiency of Christian nationalism is that it leads government to try to regulate religion. In Christendom, it was considered normal that the king would defend Christian doctrine and safeguard Christian moral instructions. This is why Isidore of Seville in around ad 600 claimed that ‘secular powers are subjected to the discipline of religion’ while secular princes ‘may use that power to reinforce church discipline’.7 In the twelfth century, Thomas Aquinas said:

The king’s duty is therefore to secure the good life for the community in such a way as to ensure that it is led to the blessedness of heaven, that is by commanding those things which conduce to the blessedness of heaven and forbidding, as far as it is possible to do so, those which are contrary.8

Calvin similarly thought that monarchs and magistrates should promote and protect religion and morals, so that a regent’s role was ‘to cherish and protect the outward worship of God, to defend sound doctrine of piety and the position of the church’.9

The problem is that, if you take the route of the government as the guarantor of Christian religion, then that requires government to adjudicate in matters of religion, to solve theological disputes and to hold heresy trials. Will the government arrest heretics, license preachers, regulate seminaries and impose Sabbath observance? Martin Luther, at least in his early years, knew that ‘heresy is a spiritual matter which you cannot hack to pieces with iron, consume with fire, or drown in water’.10

Or, as the British philosopher John Locke put it, ‘What power can be given to the magistrate for the suppression of an idolatrous Church, which may not in time and place be made use of to the ruin of an orthodox one?’11 In a diverse and pluralistic society, governments would be wise neither to privilege one religion, nor to punish people over their religion.

  • Religion is at its most free when government does not interfere with religion or try to adjudicate in matters of religion.

Thus, a certain degree of secularity – by which we mean preventing theocracy, enabling the free exercise of religion, and permitting liberty of conscience in religion – is far better than Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalism, in its Protestant form, can lead to a certain degree of Erastianism,12 where Protestant governments attempted to regulate religion to keep it pure and publicly acceptable. Or else, Christian nationalism, in its Catholic expression, tends to a hierocratic Integralism13  built on the state-sanctioned purification of religious life and the subjection of secular government to papal authority. These should be differentiated from ‘establishment churches’ where, due to a mixture of history and heritage, certain states have established churches that have been part of the fabric of society and woven into the social landscape since late antiquity. One thinks here of the Church of England or the Church of Sweden. Contrary to reputation, these churches are not ‘Constantinian’ or ‘theocratic’ institutions, but simply attest that, historically, many churches have had a close and cooperative relationship with the government and continue to do so even up to the present.

Yes, there is a certain danger of civil religion or cultural Christianity when churches have an established status, but that is simply the price paid for the success of the Christian mission in those countries. Our point is that, whether one exists in a country with a wall of separation between Church and State, or whether there are established churches, the regulation of religion by the State and the punishment of religious dissenters by the State are not conducive to the freedom of worship of a country’s citizens. Moreover, using religion to manufacture social and ethnic homogeneity is doomed to give sanction to prejudice and to weaponise religion in the hands of wicked actors.

Christian nationalism also lends itself to feelings of ethnic superiority and promotes interracial tensions especially when Christianity is aligned with ‘whiteness’. In countries where one religion is dominant, it is usually dominant among one ethnic group. Thus, religious privileges get fused with the hegemony of one ethnic group and its political apparatuses. For example, in Malaysia, the country is dominated by its Muslim Malay population. Thailand is dominated by its Tai majority who are also majority Buddhist.

But Christianity is not an ethnic religion. Christianity is a global religion, not the religious expression of an ethnic identity. As Wolterstorff argues, the Church included Romans but not all Romans. So the Church is not Roman. The Church included Slavs but not all Slavs. So the Church is not Slavonic. Similarly, the Church includes Americans, but not all Amer cans, so the Church is not American. The Church includes Brits, but not all Brits, so the Church is not British.14

The Church breaks down the classes, caste systems and ethnic divisions so that God’s people are those from every tribe, tongue, ethnic group and nation.

Christian nationalism, requiring state interference in religion and ethnic homogeneity, is a threat to the multi-ethnic nature of the global Church.

1 John Milbank, Twitter, 9 September 2022: 1568177131967991808 (accessed 11 September 2023).
2 Eusebius, Speech for Thirtieth Anniversary of Constantine’s Accession 1, cited in From Irenaeus to Grotius: A sourcebook in Christian political thought, 100–1625, ed. Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), p. 60.
3 Isaiah 45:1–13.
4 Cf. Psalm 2:2.
5 Isaiah 45:1.
6 See especially Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the roots of political theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 203, 214–15.
  1.  Isidore of Seville, Sentences 3.51, cited in From Irenaeus to Grotius, ed. O’Donovan and O’Donovan, p. 208.
  2.  StThomasAquinas:Politicalwritings,trans.anded.R.W.Dyson(Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2002), p. 53.
  3. Calvin, Institutes 4.20.2; followed by Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology 3.316–36. The Westminster Confession of Faith 23.3 (1647) declared that the magistrate ‘hath authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed’ with ‘power to call synods, to be present at them’. Many Presbyterian churches around the world have modified this line so it doesn’t grant such authority to the civil powers over their synods. Interestingly, the 1689 London Baptist Confession, which uses the Westminster Confession of Faith as a template, conspicuously avoids granting the magistrate such authority over Baptist churches.
  4.  MartinLuther,TemporalAuthority502–3.
  5.  John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (London, 1689), p. 34.
  6.  Erastianism is a political doctrine that advocates the supremacy of the State over the Church even in religious matters. It originated in the sixteenth century and was named after Thomas Erastus, a Swiss theologian who supported the subordination of the Church to the State.
  7.  There is a species of Catholic political thought known as ‘Integralism’, which postulates the theory that the ideal state is one that is guided by Catholic principles and that the Church should have a direct role in the governance of society. Catholic Integralism is premised on recovering the integration of Church and State (or pope and king) that disap- peared after the decline of Christendom and the rise of nation states in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a tension in Catholic thought, exemplified by the differ- ences between the Vatican II document Dignitas Humanae (1965) which affirms religious freedom, and the way popes of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries had con- ceived of ‘Christ as King’ even over civil affairs, such as in Pope Pius XI’s encyclical Quas Primas (1925). For a critique of Catholic Integralism, see Kevin Vallier, All the Kingdoms of the World: On radical religious alternatives to liberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2023).
  8. Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Mighty and the Almighty: An essay in political theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 112.

Excerpted with permission from Jesus and the Powers by N. T. Wright and Michael F. Bird, copyright The Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Text by Tom Wright and Michael F. Bird.

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Your Turn

In this important voting year, it’s more important than ever to remember that we, the Church, are one Body. Christian nationalism isn’t a unique phenomenon. Let’s remember that as such we are not separated by class systems or ethnic divisions. We believers are from every tribe, tongue, ethnic group, and nation! Praise Jesus! ~ Devotionals Daily