Nationalism Is Neither A Heresy, Nor Idolatry, Nor Blasphemy. It’s Piety.
By Darrell Dow
How should Christians respond to the new wave of nationalism cascading across the globe? Regrettably, too many, most notably those who denounce it, fail to define the term before writing about or discussing it. And their analysis, which typically concludes that nationalism is an unalloyed evil, misapplies proof texts and appeals to emotion or rhetorical tropes. Thus do they baptize the dogma of post-WWII liberal globalism.
Consider the response to the Jericho March, an ecumenical series of prayer vigils that includes Jews, Catholics, Protestants, and media and political celebrities such as Alex Jones, Michele Bachmann, and General Michael Flynn. These small gatherings undoubtedly contain some bizarre theology and strained ecumenism alongside dubious claims of private revelation from the Almighty. But they are small and relatively inconsequential. Suggesting they are a public threat or dangerous religious movement is a little over the top.
Nevertheless, the marches have drawn the ire of Christian clergymen and public intellectuals, not primarily due to the theological commitments of the organizers, but because of a connection with the #StopTheSteal effort and the charge that Donald Trump was robbed on November 3, 2020.
Writing for The Gospel Coalition recently, reformed theologian Michael Horton lobbed charges of heresy and blasphemy, calling the “Jericho March” a “sacrilege.”
“Evangelicals marching on Washington to perpetuate a cult,” he wrote.
TGC followed up with an even more egregious analysis from Baylor historian Thomas Kidd. Kidd describes nations as “imagined communities” rather than organic, natural, Divinely-created entities. Yet because he fails to define nationalism, Kidd cannot explain why it is “bad” and offers instead the unsubstantiated assertion that “America has long nurtured more problematic forms of Christian nationalism.” He also conflates nationalism with dispensational eschatology and militaristic action designed to bring Heaven to Earth. Kidd is under the illusion that he is describing Donald Trump and Pat Buchanan. In truth, he paints a picture of George W. Bush and Bill Kristol.
Men such as Horton and Kidd are working feverishly to undermine the nationalist movement by tying it to odd and extraneous elements in American life rather than the legitimate grievances of Middle America. Indeed they seem blissfully unaware that we are living through an elite attempt to fully dechristianize the West.
Is “nationalism” an object of idolatry as Horton, Kidd and others claim? Is Christian Nationalism a heresy or blasphemy? Or are nationality and ethnicity an integral part of God’s economy? Western Civilization, once called Christendom, cannot even be discussed without reference to Christian nations, whose magistrates adopted a fundamental principle that social order and law are predicated on a belief in God. Yet Horton dismisses Christendom as coercive and incompatible with the Gospel, siding with the Anabaptists rather than Knox, Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther. Horton also assumes that he can deconstruct Christian politics apolitically. But his arguments open the door to the emergence of an anti-Christian state that enforces its own orthodoxies.
What is a Nation? What is ‘Nationalism’?
One of those orthodoxies is that “nationalism” is an evil. But if so, it’s only evil as they define it, or better yet, again, because they don’t define it.
“Nation” is an Old French term that means “birth, rank; descendants, relatives; country, homeland.” It is directly descended from the Latin (natio) meaning “birth, origin; breed, stock, kind, species; race of people, tribe.” Linguistically, it is connected to the idea of birth. Natal, native, and nativity are, of course, all related.
Many conservative Christians attempt to disconnect “patriotism” (Good!) from “nationalism” (Bad!). But patriotism is likewise tied to the language of peoplehood. It is derived from the Latin word patria — fatherland — and implies a connectedness to family, to the father (pater). Nation and love of country are tied not merely to a place but to family and people.
Writing in the 19th century, political scientist Francis Lieber, defined nation this way:
The word “nation” in the fullest adaptation of the term, means, in modern times, a numerous and homogeneous population, permanently inhabiting and cultivating a coherent territory, with a well-defined geographic outline, and a name of its own—the inhabitants speaking their own language, having their own literature and common institutions, which distinguish them clearly from other and similar groups of people, being citizens or subjects of a unitary government, however subdivided it may be, and having an organic unity with one another as well as being conscious of a common destiny.
Anthony Smith, one of the foremost scholars of nationalism, identified six criteria for the formation of the ethnic group, or nation, as:
- A collective identity.
- A common ancestry.
- Shared myths and common historical memories.
- An attachment to a specific territory.
- A shared culture based on common language, religion, traditions, customs, laws, architecture, institutions etc.
- An awareness of ethnicity.
Nations arise organically as extensions of families. People organize themselves into distinct groups for the purpose of living together, serving the broader community, providing a series of collective goods, and securing a posterity. Edmund Burke called the nation the “eternal society” — the “primeval contract” that provides continuity among the dead, living, and unborn.
While nationalism can morph into a dangerous ideological construct, it is best understood as the means through which the nation is protected and preserved. It is the self-conscious awareness that seeks to develop and improve the nation, and to codify its existence with laws, government, mores, beliefs, and institutions that make civic life possible.
Nationalism draws much of its power from the idea that members of the nation are part of an extended family, united by ties of blood and soil. But ethnicity and nationality are also somewhat permeable and subjective realities rather than monochromatic absolutes. In the same way that a family adds and enculturates members who do not share a common lineage or language, a nation can do so, too. But as adoption is not normative, neither is the idea of a multicultural or “universal” nation grounded merely upon a common set of ideas or propositions.
What Does the Bible Say?
The question for Chrisitans who read Kidd and Horton is this: Does the Bible warrant nationalism? The answer of origins lies in Genesis.
Far from being a product of God’s judgment, God baked national differences and other forms of separation and distinction into the cake of creation that reflects Him. God created by division. He builds a house.
Scripture opens with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The Hebrew word used here for God is Elloohiym, which implies divine plurality. The Christian God is trinititarian with three distinct persons sharing the same essence. The Christian God is both one and many, unity and diversity. God created man in his own image. As there are differences within the godhead we expect there to be differences within the created order.
The Spirit of God peered into chaos and darkness, but by his word spoke creation into existence. The multiplicity of creation is a product of divine power, will and sovereignty: stars and planets, plants and trees, fish and birds. All that diversity exists within unity. Likewise, God created two sexes with multiple personalities, colors and nationalities.
God also created family — his ordained progenitor of nations — in the Garden. But again, he began by separation. Genesis 2:21-22 says: “So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.”
Clearly God’s creation was not uniform and monochromatic, but beautiful in its range. In the creation narrative that unfolds in Genesis, the phrase “according to its kind” is repeated. God created different types of plants and fruit trees. He created different kinds of sea creatures, birds, and land animals. And he created man — male and female.
Diversity sprang from Adam and Eve. In Genesis 1:28, God gave them a mandate: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” The same task is given to Noah and his sons after the flood. God gave the family the task of dominion. As God’s vice-regent, they incarnate divine image bearers via procreation and spread His glory.
The word for “families” shows up repeatedly in Genesis 10, most often translated “clans.” From families, God creates tribes and nations with borders and boundaries separating them. In other words, the Bible teaches us that nations are extended families.
What Christians “Leaders” Say vs. What the Church Has Taught
The Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 demonstrates that the desire for a total oneness of humanity — the revolt against divinely appointed and created nationality and ethnicity — stems from pride and rebellion. In verse 4, man attempts to build a city and tower to “make a name for ourselves.”
In Genesis 11:5-8, God answered:
And the LORD came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth. And from there the LORD dispersed them over the face of all the earth.
God’s message? National, ethnic, and language groups are not arbitrary human creations or social constructs, but divinely ordained entities that reflect the purposes and glory of God.
But again, most commentary from even conservative Christians casts a wary eye on nationalism.
Said Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Seminar, “when evangelicals embrace an America-first nationalism, the gospel is co-opted and betrayed.” Baptist author and “evangelist” Beth Moore recently ascended her Twitter pulpit to call “Trumpism” seductive and dangerous, warning that “Christian Nationalism is not of God.”
Speaking of the recent “Jericho March,” Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professors Denny Burk and Andrew Walker said the event represented an incursion of worldliness and “idolatrous Christian Nationalism.”
Moore, who laughably claims that Jesus was an illegal immigrant, spent 2016 chiding Southern Baptists from elite media outlets and gloating over the demise of the “white” church, the Christian Right and the historic American nation.
“The wrath of God,” said Moore, is revealed against “blood and soil.” This is bumper-sticker theology. The rightly ordered love of family (blood) and place (soil) is obedience, not idolatry. Moore also conflates and flattens natural distinctions in his confusion about the nature of the heavenly and earthly kingdoms. “My family includes many Mexican-born immigrants and second- or third-generation Mexican-Americans. My family is the church of Jesus Christ.”
Wheaton College graduate Michael Gerson, who wrote speeches for President George W. Bush, opined that conservative backers of Donald Trump “are setting the Republican Party at odds with the American story told by Lincoln and King: a nationalism defined by striving toward unifying ideals of freedom and human dignity.”
Here, Gerson appealed to a liberal form of civic “nationalism” predicated on a set of abstractions, propositions and “unifying ideals.” Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, agreed. Mohler thinks that America is not a nation in the traditional sense defined above, but defined strictly by the “creed” of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence — the ideals of classical liberalism, the ideals of the “American experiment.”
[I]f we could put together in a room Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, then fast-forward to Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan, I think that all would absolutely agree upon and insist … that America is a creedal nation. I think if you put all those men in the room, all disparate and diverse as they were, they would be very close in articulating that creed. What has happened to America as a creedal nation?
Responding tartly to a column by Ann Coulter, Mohler wrote that “toxic” American nationalism, “flies right in the face of the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the command of Christ given in the Great Commission.”
The language these Christian leaders and academics use is historically new and primarily a phenomenon of the post-civil rights era. Prior generations of Christians spoke of the value of nations and also couched their discussion within a web of obligations and duties–a this-worldly piety.
Geerhardus Vos, for example, wrote that nationalism “has the divine sanction,” and that “under the providence of God each race or nation has a positive purpose to serve, fulfillment of which depends on relative seclusion from others.”
“Nations,” said Alexander Solzhenitsyn in his Nobel Prize speech, “are the wealth of humanity, its generalized personalities. The least among them has its own special colors, and harbors within itself a special aspect of God’s design.”
“Piety must begin at home as well as charity,” wrote Baptist Charles Spurgeon. Purtian Matthew Henry believed that “the highest degrees of divine affection must not divest us of natural affection,” wrote Puritan Matthew Henry.
“The Hebrew Scriptures do indeed say enough, as in the text, to justify an intense love of native land and its institutions,” Southern Presbyterian R. L. Dabney wrote:
The aggregation of men into separate nations is therefore necessary; and the authority of the governments instituted over them, to maintain internal order and external defence against aggression, is of divine appointment. Hence, to sustain our government with heart and hand is not only made by God our privilege, but our duty.
Finally, St. Thomas Aquinas:
Man is a debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country [i.e., one’s people]. The worship due to our parents includes the worship given to all our kindred, since our kinfolk are those who descend from the same parents.
Nationalism Is Not Hostile To The Gospel
Most Christians once understood these obligations and grasped that the cultivation of natural duties preceded the pursuit of supernatural virtues. But now they are taught, and fear, that nationalism impedes the proclamation and spread of the Gospel.
Thus are those Christians — mostly the eggheads to whom leftist reporters run for scare quotes — not only undermining the country to which they owe allegiance but a proper understanding of Scripture and traditional Christian teaching.
In fact, as I have shown, Scripture assumes nations as divine creations that serve the purpose of aiding man, as Act 17: 26-27 says:
He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.
As Christ Himself said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
Nationalism is not thus hostile to the Gospel. It is normative and good. Don’t let any priest, prelate, pastor or professor tell you otherwise.
Darrell Dow, who writes from Kentucky, is a regular contributor to American Remnant. A longer version of this article appeared at CrossPolitic.