One major reason for optimism in the Christian nationalist fold is that they have evidently learned from the failures of the conservative movement and are working on developing a positive program, not merely a defensive strategy. And they have a convincing, historically-based case that highlights the deep imprint of America’s Protestant character that remains even today, however trampled upon and bruised.
The subject of Christian nationalism generates little light but much heat.
Since at least the publication of Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in 2006, the ruling class has used the term as a club to bludgeon evangelicals—especially in the wake of their prodigious support for Donald Trump in the 2016 and 2020 elections.
Christian nationalists, the mainstream press tells us, are racist, QAnon-addled election deniers. They want to Make America Puritan Again (in the modern, badly misunderstood meaning of that word). And they believe that the Constitution should be set aside for a Christian divine-right king who will oversee forced religious conversions and impose draconian moral codes upon an unwilling populous.
The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin has called Christian nationalism “an authoritarian, racist, dogmatic message donning the cloak of Christianity,” asserting that the GOP is “dedicated to imposing White Christian nationalism” on the country. A coterie of chin-stroking panels hosted by D.C. think tanks, “democracy” experts and sociologists, and (former) Republican members of Congress have condemned it in the strongest possible terms.
Evangelicals who aspire to be accepted by the ruling elite make a point of agreeing in full with the received view. Christianity Today editor-in-chief Russell Moore described Christian nationalism as “liberation theology for white people.” David French, who never misses the chance to steamroll his fellow evangelicals in the New York Times, called it “a blueprint for corruption, brutality, and oppression.”
The riot at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021 has been packaged as the perfect showcase of Christian nationalism’s devastating consequences for America. All Americans are required to say that Christian Trump supporters tried to overturn “our sacred democracy” and made an idol of Trumpism at the expense of their eternal souls. (Ethics Professor Daniel Strand has conclusively shown that critics flew to this ready-made narrative before any evidence was presented.)
Mainstream conservatives, for their part, generally argue that liberals indiscriminately and unfairly employ the label against all conservatives, who are for the most part not Christian nationalists but patriotic Americans. However, as that contrast implies, this defense of conservatism takes for granted that the ruling class portrait is an accurate one: Christian nationalism stamps out religious freedom and coerces people into false belief. As Hillsdale College’s D.G. Hart wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that was published close to Independence Day, Christian nationalists long to return the nation to “pre-1776 patterns of government, such as John Calvin’s Geneva or John Winthrop’s Boston,” where “the civil magistrate supported churches and cajoled citizens to practice faith.” Conservatives like Hart worry that Christian nationalists will drag us back, Handmaid’s Tale-style, to a benighted age that we worked very hard to leave behind.
Both the Left and a good portion of the Right then agree that Christian nationalism ought to be rejected by all good and decent Americans. But does it truly represent the ultimate threat to the American republic? Is it the dying gasp of a hidebound folk religion that signifies the closing stage of a less-refined epoch? Is this how Christian nationalists understand themselves?
While the Claremont Institute takes no institutional position on the question, we must take Christian nationalism seriously. The debate over it represents a new stage in the ongoing realignment of our politics and culture, touching directly on how Americans should regard and relate to ultimate questions of the human soul and the highest good. The rise of Christian nationalism, along with post-liberalism, Catholic integralism, and other overlapping yet distinct attempts to answer the deepest theological-political questions facing our nation, speaks to mounting levels of dissatisfaction with our current failing paradigm. Wishing away this obvious reality and holding fast to the dead consensus will only fuel greater levels of discontent with the status quo and heighten the chances of our nation’s disintegration.
Just as President Trump’s first presidential run offered the opportunity for a searching reconsideration of the post-Cold War political consensus, the rise of Christian nationalism likewise offers us the same opportunity in the realm of church and state.
Who Are You?
Critics like to suggest that the leaders of the Christian nationalist movement are universally members of an outlandish coalition: explicit pro-MAGA churches; pastors who hold star-spangled, “patriotic” services; Charismatic snake handlers; prosperity Gospel grifters; and Donald Trump’s less-than-orthodox circle of evangelists. Though these groups publicly promote a certain strain of Christianity, they are not supplying the leading theological and political arguments for Christian nationalism (even though they may reside somewhere in the fold).
Rather, the group leading the Christian nationalist movement is a small pan-Protestant coalition of Christians from multiple denominations (e.g., Presbyterians, Baptists, and Anglicans) who want to restore the political theology of the Magisterial Reformers. Works in this tradition include Martin Bucer’s De Regno Christi, Theodore Beza’s The Right of Magistrates, and Samuel Rutherford’s Lex Rex. And pivotal Protestant confessions that inculcate such views are the original Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession, the Irish Articles, and the Thirty-Nine Articles.
The arguments that buttress this project are limited to a few books—with just one systematic treatment among them so far, Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism—a number of lengthy essays (some of whose authors do not even call themselves Christian nationalists), and assorted private group chats. There are no foundations or nonprofits solely dedicated to advancing Christian nationalism. Very few institutions would dare publish anything sympathetic with its aims.
Christian nationalists see themselves as leading a counterrevolution against the post-World War II order. In a bracing series of aphorisms in his book’s epilogue, Wolfe describes the Left as the managers of New America who have long since discarded the founders’ Constitution. They have captured virtually every major public institution and are working zealously to stamp out any vestige of Old America, with its heroes, traditions, and ways of life. The inheritance our forefathers left us has been rejected in favor of a toxic cocktail of oligarchy, feminism, transgenderism, and wokeism. Even the U.S. military, once thought unassailable, is in service to the Global American Empire—an online moniker given to America’s imperial project of exporting “universal principles” (in truth particularist claims that benefit certain “dispossessed classes”) to foreign lands. All told, Wolfe asserts, “Americans live under an implicit occupation; the American ruling class is the occupying force.”
Christian nationalists see the suppression of traditional Christian teachings and practices in public as a defining element of this occupation. This includes: a series of disastrous Supreme Court rulings on the First Amendment’s religion clauses; hoary clichés such as the “neutral” public square and the supposedly impregnable “wall of separation” between church and state; and “religious liberty” that allows Christian business owners to be sued into oblivion. As Kurt Hofer has noted at The American Mind, Christians “have accepted the terms of battle dictated to us by liberalism—we have, in effect, already conceded defeat.”
The pushback to our current regime has either been completely ineffective or nonexistent. The modern conservative movement’s often facile and uncritical embrace of open markets, open trade, and (in many cases) open borders has helped strip mine America of its once plentiful resources and contributed to our present disorders. Meanwhile, Wolfe argues that a group of Protestant regime theologians have been busy reconciling evangelicals to their dhimmitude status, ensuring that they will never pose a threat to unraveling the 21st-century moral consensus.
According to Christian nationalists, America’s men inhabit the Longhouse. In First Things, the anonymous writer L0m3z described that now ubiquitous online term as the “overcorrection of the last two generations toward social norms centering feminine needs and feminine methods for controlling, directing, and modeling behavior.” Christian nationalists argue that modern feminism’s fatwa against “toxic” masculinity pathologizes healthy masculine virtues and renders men subservient and docile. Innumerable pits of quicksand are ready to engulf any man who makes a wayward step: kangaroo tribunals led by college administrators ready to prosecute the merest suspicion of sexual misconduct, heavily biased family courts, and phalanxes of white knights and doxxers on social media apps who seek to destroy the lives of those who run afoul of regime-approved orthodoxies.
Amidst this carnage, Zoomers and young Millennials are searching for a path by which they can achieve greatness, excellence, self-mastery, and vitality. This is why men in these circles have exhorted being in good shape, lifting weights, and eating right—not due to a base materialism but because preserving the physical body is an implication of the Sixth Commandment. And they champion other aims, including getting (and staying) married and having kids, building productive households, buying land and establishing anti-fragile homesteads, and being engaged in every facet of their local communities.
Above all, Christian nationalists reject the status to which Christians have been assigned: naïve patsies who believe that Christ’s teachings mandate the destruction of one’s nation and people. They want nothing to do with year-zero theology, the notion that Christianity best flourishes when Christians have no political power and face routine persecution and martyrdom.
Instead, they are looking to recover the collective will of Christians and confidently assert their interests in public. They would heartily agree with Kevin Slack’s cri de cœur made in this publication that Christianity “must once again become a fighting faith, the inheritance of the battles of Edington, Tours, and Lepanto.”
Defender of the Faith
How, exactly, can a nation be Christian? Crucially, according to Wolfe, the term does not imply that every citizen needs to be a believer. Instead, Christian nations exist when “everyday life is invested and adorned with Christianity (e.g., Christian manners and expectations) and when life orients around distinctly Christian practices such as the worship of God (e.g., sabbath observance).”