With the election of 2020 and the events surrounding the Capitol on January 6, 2021, the phenomena of Christian nationalism became front page news. While different than loving one’s country, Christian nationalism, described by one observer as "wrapping the cross in the flag" is challenging to define and holds some theological assumptions that merit close scrutiny. Join Scott and Sean as they discuss this unique fusion of Christian faith and country and they answer the questions around the American founding as a Christian nation. While upholding love of one’s country, they also point out some of the dangers of Christian nationalism to the church.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture, a podcast from Talbot School of Theology at Biola University. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics.
Scott Rae: I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, dean of the faculty and professor of Christian ethics.
Sean McDowell: Today, we're going to talk a conversation, just the two of us, about a topic that's become more and more prominent in the Christian culture today and even larger than the Christian culture, something that has do with our last administration we had in the presidency and questions that it raises about kind of the intersection between the Christian faith and the American story. It's called Christian nationalism. Why don't we just start, Scott, by coming up with a definition of what we mean by Christian nationalism? Because what I found is when people ask me, "Are you a Christian nationalist? Do you believe in Christian nationalism," I ask people what they mean and I get such a range of confusion. Some people think it's just being patriotic. Some people think it's going into the military. It typically is a derogatory term, but why don't we just start off and define what we even mean by Christian nationalism?
Scott Rae: Well Sean, I think you've put the most difficult question out there right at the start. I think that is the toughest part of this because, one, there are lots of definitions out there. Some are more, what I would call more jingoistic than others, but I think what makes the definition hard is that there are lots of adherents for whom their adherence to Christian nationalism is more a visceral, emotional attachment to America as a country as opposed to a well-reasoned and thought out definition of how their patriotism and their Christian faith intersect. So I would say that some of the things that I've heard at least that define this are more just what I would call truisms. There are things like, "Well it's when you wrap the cross in the flag."
Sean McDowell: Okay.
Scott Rae: Or it's civil religion sort of on steroids. It's fusing the kingdom of God with the national interest, those types of things. I think to be a little bit more precise, it's an understanding of, in this case, American identity and the significance where the country is the central actor in sort of the global purposes of God in the world. Now, the interesting thing about this is I wonder if we would view this differently if we were having this conversation in Sweden for example-
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: ... or in Indonesia for example. I don't hear any type of Christian nationalism in the developing world for example. I think you did have something like this. You had what I would call an atheistic nationalism during the Cold War where the Soviet Union, I think because it was based on an atheistic foundation, didn't have any kind of transcendent being to look to and so the state assumed that transcendent status. I think you had a long period of what I would call atheistic nationalism where the nation took on essentially the role of a deity. But I think for Christian nationalism in the US, it's seeing America as kind of the central actor in sort of God's historical purposes. It's sort of a baptized view of what's often called American exceptionalism, but it's putting that in distinctly Christian terms. It's exceptional because God is the one who is significantly blessing America because of its presumed Christian roots and its ongoing allegiance to God.
Sean McDowell: Do you think I'd be fair, Scott, to say that all Christian nationalists would believe in American exceptionalism, but not all those who embrace American exceptionalism would necessarily be Christian nationalists?
Scott Rae: No, that's, I think, a really helpful distinction and I would agree. I think that's right. I think you can believe that there is something exceptional about America, that it's one of the few countries that has origin based on ideas rather than ethnicity for example. I think you can make a good argument that, on balance, America's been a really significant force for good in the world, not without flaws of course, but a significant force for good. But when it becomes baptized in theological language, then you have a notion of Christian nationalism.
Sean McDowell: One question I have is why do we uniquely see this in the American context because I can't speak for other countries? I don't know enough about it, but we certainly see this emerge in America and some of our thoughts might be things like just some of the founders would certainly use biblical language, were shaped by a biblical worldview, and not all of them but some of them saw America in these terms. So it's kind of baked into our history a little bit and of course the debate over Christian nationalism is how deep that goes and what it means. I think it's unmistakable that we find that language in those ideas at least historically to a degree. I think that's a piece of it. I think another piece that's interesting is that we have had over the past few decades this powerful kind of religious freedom in America in decades as a whole that we haven't seen in a lot of countries around the world. So there's a sense amongst quite a few people that there can be a loss of that power and significance as culture changes. So one way to hang onto this is to see the American experience or the American experiment so to speak through this biblical lens. Do you agree with that? Disagree? What would you add to why you think maybe why we see uniquely in the American context?
Scott Rae: Well I think some of it I think does goes back to the founding. I think maybe the way I'd put it is that Protestant Christianity was just part of the air that people breathed in 1776. I think you can cite certain aspects of the Constitution as having its roots in some of those Judeo-Christian moral values and principles that were just part of the culture. I say Protestant for a reason because it's really clear that Catholics were persona non grata for the most part in the early days of the republic. It actually took Catholics a long time before they enjoyed the kind of religious freedom that we espoused for everyone, but I think, for example, take the separation of powers in the Constitution. I think it's directly premised on our notion of sin and that-
Sean McDowell: Yeah.
Scott Rae: ... if you have too much power concentrated in any one branch, the opportunities for corruption or as Lord [Acton 00:07:57] put it, that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, I think was front and center in the minds of the founders. Now, did they all believe the Bible that taught that? Not necessarily, but it was just part of the air that people breathed at that time and the culture.
What I would add to this is I think Christian nationalism got a big boost during the Cold War because it was ... We've seen this more recently in the Muslim world where the mujahideen, for example, in Afghanistan, when they were trying to throw the Soviet Union out, referred to them as those godless communists. They were not the first people to do that. I mean they were widely referred to as godless pagan communists by lots of Americans during the Cold War. So if you were fighting the godless pagan communists, it's sort of presumed that if you were fighting them, you had God on your side. I think that theological notion was invoked fairly regularly by presidents and political leaders during the Cold War. So I think it got its most recent, I'd say a big booster shot during the Cold War period.
Sean McDowell: That brings up one of the concerns that I think has been tied to Christian nationalism in the sense that certain evangelical leaders, white evangelical leaders, people like Billy Graham, framed the Cold War as a conflict between Christian values of America and the atheism of kind of the Soviet Union. So this idea that we are a Christian nation gets kind of embedded into the language. He later admitted that this kind of spiritual framing led him and other evangelicals to see almost everything about Cold War politics through spiritual lenses. Thus, whoever is the toughest on communism got transformed into Christian warriors with God on their side. So there's a recognition on one hand that there are underlying worldview issues at play, freedom, human equality, et cetera, within the American experiment that was very different and are very different than this Marxist ideology of human value, but when you start to bake that with Christian language, that's where kind of Christian nationalism comes in. Is that one of the concerns that you would have?
Scott Rae: Well yeah, it is a concern, although I think we should be fair and say that things like human dignity, equal rights, a lot of the concepts that were really important to the founders do have their roots ultimately in the biblical notion of human beings made in the image of God. So in atheistic regimes that disavow that, it's not an accident that their human rights record is different. Now, that's not to say that America has always lived into its founding principles-
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: ... because we have lots of our own human rights abuses as well historically, but at least we have theological roots for some of those things that we've held dear that without those, I think you just don't have any rational basis for protecting basic fundamental human rights. So the thing, Sean, I think with Christian nationalism that we really need to be clear about is is it true theologically that the United States is sort of God's special instrument for fulfilling his purposes in the world. I think we see this sort of regularly when passages like 2 Chronicles 7:14 are invoked during times of national crisis for example. We see this on the Fourth of July sort of routinely. Then you may be familiar with this because you may have seen it in your own church. "If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sin, and heal their land." Okay?
Let's be really clear about this. That does not apply to any nation other than Old Testament Israel. The reason for that is because Old Testament Israel is the only national entity that had a covenant relationship with God in which the blessings of God would come as a consequence of obedience to his law and cursings of God would come as a consequence of disobedience to his law. We refer to that as the mosaic covenant and the mosaic covenant was done away with with the cross and resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the church. So as opposed to in the Old Testament God's purposes were centered around reaching the world through the nation of Israel, today God's purposes are centered in a multinational, multiethnic body we call the church. Right? Now, I think the nation of Israel still has a place in God's plans because God made promises to Israel originally-
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: ... that will be fulfilled ultimately, but God doesn't work through nations today in the same way He worked through Old Testament Israel. I think we have to be so clear about that, that if America is exceptional about some things, we can't sort of baptize that in theological language without, I think, running afoul of the biblical teaching.
Sean McDowell: So let me bring back to sum up kind of the point that you're making to make sure that we're tracking with this. You're making a big difference between America as a nation rooted in certain Christian ideas about human dignity, about the sinfulness of man and the distribution of power. That seems historically pretty undebatable. Taking the next step and saying just as God uniquely called the people of the Old Testament, God is calling America in the same fashion, that's where we go, "Okay. Time out. Now, we're making theological claims and confusing promises that were made to the Old Testament with America without the same level of theological justification." So number one, it seems to me it's not theologically warranted to make that step, but number two, it also could lead to, if we interpret it that way, overlooking some of the bad things that have been done in America and our spotted record because well God calls us and God is on our side, now of course we see the bad record in the Old Testament.
Scott Rae: Oh, of course.
Sean McDowell: The Old Testament doesn't hide that of the nation of Israel.
Scott Rae: Not at all.
Sean McDowell: That's for sure, but I think that's a real temptation that can occur when we start to read certain promises into America that were meant for Israel. Now, let me ask you a question. Some of the people that have asked me and raised concerns about Christian nationalism tends to be some of my friends outside of the US who will say there's this unhealthy fusion of American culture and Christianity and faith. They see it from a different context and many of my friends who are minorities also see that because their experience in America is very different than my experience at least as a whole being white. Do you see that same kind of concern? Because sometimes they'll say to me, they'll say, "Look, we're concerned about critical race theory, very concerned about it, and we see a segment of the church being concerned about that but not also being concerned about Christian nationalism." I say, "You know what? There's concerns on both ends of this spectrum we need to be willing to address."
Scott Rae: I think that's absolutely right. I think you see that if you try and sort of export Christian nationalism to another country. We, as Americans looking out ... As sort of my earlier example if we were in Sweden today, we would think, "Well what's so magical about Swedish culture that we would baptize it in Christian terms and call it exceptional?" There's nothing that we would say. We assess culture. The gospel and the scripture stand above culture in judgment on it in recognizing what's good and consistent with biblical teaching, but also being really clear as the prophets were about Old Testament Israel, being clear about what their failings are and where they as a nation fall short. So I think there's something about the US and I think it may have something to do with the Christian roots. I think it's a little strong to say that America was founded by all Christians.
Sean McDowell: Fair.
Scott Rae: I think it's a little ... I mean a number of the founders were actually quite hostile to Christianity. I think I'm not totally comfortable with the notion that America was founded as a Christian nation because I don't think that's true. Now, it was founded not specifically to have a state church. That was different. That was the purpose of the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of religion. It kept government from establishing a state-run church that would dictate matters of belief and conscience. The genius of the First Amendment is that it did away with government being the arbiter of conscience. To what degree ... I think it's fair to say that the country had its roots in some Judeo-Christian principles that were very formative. I think to conclude that it was a distinctly Christian nation designed to further the kingdom of God I think is fusing the nation and the church in ways that are unhealthy.
Sean McDowell: That's great. I think that's getting to the heart of what we need to be concerned about. Let's make a few more distinctions. I think, for our listeners, it might be helpful. For example, what's the difference between being a Christian nationalist and being patriotic? I would say patriotism essentially is love for country. Is there anything wrong with loving one's country? I would say no. Why would it be wrong to love somebody's country? In fact, John Piper had a really interesting take on this. He said we are citizens of heaven, but we could have affection and love for our earthly home. He warned about loving our home too much in a way that hurts others and compromises the gospel, but he says there's nothing wrong with loving our homes and the country that we're from. It gets harmful when we love it so much that we don't see its faults. I thought that makes a lot of sense to me, that Christians can be patriotic if we just remember where our ultimate citizenship is and have patriotism with our eye wide open.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I mean we're commanded to seek the welfare of the city in which we find ourselves. We're committed. We're part of a community. We're part of a nation. We're called to be responsible citizens, but ultimately, that's a penultimate commitment for us. Our ultimate commitment is obviously toward the kingdom of God which transcends national boundaries and ethnicities and all of that. So I think it's perfectly legitimate to be patriotic. I don't think that means necessarily being uncritically patriotic-
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: ... because I don't take the view that being patriotic means you can't ... That the country is above seeing its faults because after all, we're populated by a whole country of miserable, wretched, depraved, self-centered sinners. What else would you expect?
Sean McDowell: Right.
Scott Rae: In fact, I think the fact that so much good has come out of our country is actually the surprising part given the spiritual makeup of all of its citizens. So I think it's not only fine. I think it's important that you love your country, but you love your country realistically without papering over its faults and I think you realize it's a penultimate commitment that we have.
Sean McDowell: So let's just make one more distinction to help people. What's the difference with a theocracy and Christian nationalism? Because when we say a Christian nation, part of me wants to ask the question, "What does that even mean?" Because Jesus didn't come down to establish a nation. He established a church so to speak which is the people who follow him. He wasn't instituting a nation, but in the Old Testament, they did have a theocracy during the mosaic covenant. So maybe explain that difference between what was theocracy in the Old Testament and the role of more of the church today.
Scott Rae: Yeah, a theocracy is really simple. It's where the law of God is automatically the law of the land. Theonomy is another term for that. The theos God and nomos law, which is the law of God is the law of the land. There's no legislature. There's no debate. You either accept it or you don't. There are a handful of theocracies in the world today. Most of them are in the Muslim world. The founders obviously did not intend for the United States to be a theocracy. Otherwise, the First Amendment would have been an anathema to them if that had been their intent. That's why I think I wouldn't see our founding documents ... They are inspiring, but they're not inspired in the same way that the scripture is.
Sean McDowell: That's good.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I mean they were world-changing documents and combined the Declaration of Independence with Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations which was also written in 1776, that's a pretty influential year because you got both democracy and markets coming out, for going public in the same year. For myself, I would much rather have a competent and non-believing president than a believing and incompetent president. I don't look to the president to be the spiritual leader of the country. I think if he or she is a believer and competent, that's all so much the better, but I don't think we look to the political arena to do what God has called the church to do.
Sean McDowell: One of the distinctions, if I can jump in here, that was helpful is you and I both read this book called Taking America Back for God which was Oxford University Press written by two sociologists, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry. I'm not sure if they believe in God or not, but they're certainly not evangelicals. They kind of make the point, they say there's a New York Times article that said 81% of evangelicals voted for Trump. Whenever I hear this kind of statistics, I'm always leery because I wonder do most evangelicals know what it means to be a evangelical.
Scott Rae: Yeah.
Sean McDowell: Second, do people in the culture even know and understand what that term means? He says if you look at evangelicals in terms of, say, their views about conversionism, about being born again, about the Bible being inherent, those core evangelical beliefs were not statistically significant whether people voted for Trump or against him. In other words, when people who voted for him would actually used certain evangelical beliefs to support him and those who were against him would use certain evangelical beliefs such as character mattering and voting against him, but the statistically significant difference was the belief in Christian nationalism about voting for him or not. I haven't seen further studies in this. I don't know exactly what to make of that, but that's a very interesting distinction that I think is often lost in these conversations, that the wider culture will try to demonize evangelicals because of their alleged voting habits, but that's more to this story within evangelicalism than just the core beliefs that define us. Do you see that? What are your thoughts on that when you were reading that book by Perry and Whitehead?
Scott Rae: Well that's a really perceptive question because I've often wondered in what sense is Christian nationalism genuinely Christian in terms of following Jesus as opposed to following a national ideal. I think it's very telling that for many adherents of Christian nationalism, some of those core beliefs that we would consider defining for evangelicalism don't seem to be all that significant. I think part of what I wonder is sort of explaining or understanding why people supported the candidacy of Donald Trump both in '16 and in 2020 and I think some people supported Trump because what I would call an unqualified way where it was sort of ... I mean he sort of captured what they considered really significant about making America great again, but I think some people voted for Trump because in spite of his character, in my view they sort of held their nose when it came to matters of character and voted-
Sean McDowell: Sure.
Scott Rae: ... because of his commitment to advocate for the unborn and for religious freedom and other things that the evangelical community held dear. Now, I think part of the issue is that the church in all of its forms, any time it becomes captive to any political agenda, the gospel always ends up being the loser. The unwillingness, I think, of some evangelical leaders to be critical of Trump and the Trump administration, I think, is a bit of an abdication of the church's prophetic role over all political systems. We shouldn't be surprised that every political platform falls short of biblical expectations because nobody, no party platform, no group of delegates sat down and wrote their platform specifically with biblical faithfulness in mind. So we shouldn't be surprised that all political platforms are flawed. So I think the part that I guess saddens me a bit about Christian nationalism and how it's been associated, I think in some cases fairly but in other cases not, with evangelical faith is that I think that connection between Christian nationalism and evangelical faith has ultimately harmed the gospel.
Sean McDowell: That's a huge concern.
Scott Rae: Let me leave it at that.
Sean McDowell: Oh, gotcha. In some ways, I think we should drop the mic and end this because what do we care about more, saving America, a certain political party, or the gospel? That doesn't mean saving America, whatever that means, is unimportant. Politics is important. Let's be clear.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I'm concerned about some of the directions our country was taking both during the Trump administration and in the current one.
Sean McDowell: Sure. Sure.
Scott Rae: So I think there's room to be concerned about both of those and I want the very best for my country, but my country's not the kingdom of God.
Sean McDowell: So do you look at, oftentimes those who are Christian nationalists, I don't know the studies, but almost overwhelmingly would be Republicans who would hold that. It tends to be a fusion between the Republican Party and the way Jesus would vote. It seems to me in my mind there's a big difference between says, "Okay. As a Christian, I'm going to take values that I see in scripture, look at these two parties, and come to a conclusion of which one I think is going to best help the welfare of the city in the way that you described and advance human rights. I'm going to take my Christian faith and I'm going to critically apply it to Democrats and Republicans." That's different than starting to say, "Hey, if you don't vote a certain way, you are voting against Jesus," as if Jesus is particularly a part of a political party. That's where some people raise the concern. So I don't mind somebody saying, "Hey, I'm a Democrat or I'm a Republican because here's why I think Jesus would side with these views." I say, "Great. Game on. Make your case. Let's look at the teaching and evaluate that." That's very different than the way Christian nationalism assumes that Jesus had a political party the way it's understood in modern-day America.
Scott Rae: Yeah, and that if you don't adhere to that, you are not only less American, but you are less Christian. I think that's the troubling part of this on both counts. I think part of the reason that Christian nationalism is on the rise more recently is because I think there is a constituency that feels like they have been marginalized and that the country that they knew, they've lost and they want to regain that. The interesting thing is I think you hear that same sentiment on both sides of the partisan aisle. I heard a number of people who are on the left side of the aisle saying during the Trump administration, "What happened to my country?" I think there are others who are saying in the Biden administration, "What's going to happen to my country," and during the previous Democratic administrations, "What happened to my country?" I think that sense of losing my grip on what my country stands for is some of what motivates Christian nationalism.
Sean McDowell: And you would probably argue that some of that can be that America's been an amazing experiment in history for a number of reasons as flawed as it is, but sometimes our hope is more deeply in something outside of the gospel. Your call is, and I agree with this 100%, that when it's all said and done, what matters is the gospel. That's what we're committed to. If there's any position from critical race theory or from Christian nationalism that causes a compromise in the gospel, that should be a huge red flag to us who want to live the way that Jesus lived.
Scott Rae: Yeah, I'd say that's the thing that's really worth getting exercised about and yet I don't see enough people getting exercised about that. That's the part that saddens me about sort of where we've been. I don't think that's necessarily the case, but I think that's certainly the way I think a significant part of the culture perceives it.
Sean McDowell: Last thing I'll say is I think because of our backgrounds, I think we tend to see certain things and miss other things. So I've grown up in the conservative Christian home and culture so it's taken some time and reading and reflection to see certain elements of Christian nationalism that I didn't even recognize that were there. To recognize some of the faults in critical race theory comes much more natural to me, but we have to be critical of both and any other ideology and be willing to consider those ideas compared next to the gospel. So did I miss anything or are we good?
Scott Rae: No, I think we may have raised more questions than we answered for our listeners which is okay. This is just the beginning and I think the beginning of a long conversation. I think this phenomena is going to be with us for a while and I would encourage our listeners to look at, as we say, to think biblically about everything including politics, including how you vote, including the party platforms that you support, including the issues that you think are crucial and important. Think biblically and theologically and Christianly about all those things because our culture, I think, is looking for people who have transcendent convictions, but also have articulate compelling reasons to support them. Given that I think what sociologists have discovered is that sometimes the commitment to Christian nationalism is more visceral and emotional thing rather than something well-reasoned and thought out I think is another thing that gives me cause for concern, but ultimately the reason I think this issue is important is because ultimately we have to get our allegiances straight.
Sean McDowell: Amen.
Scott Rae: We can't have penultimate things taking on ultimate significance. It's the gospel first and the kingdom of God first. Our citizenship is in heaven ultimately. We love our home. We're called not to get too comfortable in it, certainly not to place our security in it, but ultimately to place that in the kingdom of God.
Sean McDowell: Scott, this is great stuff. I can envision we'll get a lot of emails about this, but I wanted us to kind of process this together because our culture is processing it right now. I'm not sure anybody has all the answers, a clear definition, but when it's all said and done, like you said, let's bring it back to scripture, be willing to challenge any assumptions that we have, and make sure it's faithful to what Jesus taught. That's what we're concerned with. So thanks for your wisdom. This was a fun one.
Scott Rae: Yeah, hear, hear. Good stuff.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of a podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. The Think Biblically podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our Master's in Christian apologetics now offered fully online which I teach in. Visit biola.edu/talbot to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share with a friend. Thanks for listening and remember, think biblically about everything.