Skip to main content

I was introduced to Christian nationalism in subtle ways. I never gave a second thought to the overt display of the American flag alongside the Christian flag during Vacation Bible School or the rote recitation of pledges until years later. We added to those pledges a curious pledge of allegiance to the Bible, a practice that raises all kinds of theological questions about where Christian allegiance should find its center.

These milder forms of Christian nationalism were performed with complete confidence that commitment to Christ could be lived in conformity with observance of American democratic norms. However, I met more strident forms of Christian nationalism as a college student. One of my favorite professors was attacked by local partisans after he simply raised points of disagreement with a David Barton presentation on Christian Americanism. Barton has promoted a Christian Nationalist interpretation of American history for decades through his “Wallbuilders” organization. His political activism has included challenging the concept of separation of church and state as well as advocating for the adoption of questionable historical standards in Texas public schools. My professor’s faculty colleagues and the college defended my professor’s academic freedom at the time. Yet fifteen years later, while I was teaching at the same institution, letters submitted to the administration by myself and a colleague, both with doctorates, outlining reasons why the college should not invite Barton as a guest speaker were viewed with suspicion. They were entrusted by administrators to a student worker majoring in music who did not yet have his B.A. to be vetted for “factual accuracy.” Barton was still invited. 

Christian nationalism has embedded itself firmly in conservative Christian subcultures despite energetic and often heroic attempts on the part of many to counteract its false narratives of American history and idolatrous elevation of nation over kingdom. Milder forms of Christian nationalism like the ones I experienced as a child generally accept the validity of American democratic norms and retain a sense that there are limits to how far the interests of the nation can be pressed over the imperatives of the Great Commission and Great Commandment. Sociologists Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead acknowledge the diversity of Christian nationalism in Taking America Back for God (Oxford 2020) and propose helpful categories for understanding that diversity. As one slides across the spectrum from lower-level forms of Christian nationalism, we encounter Christian nationalism more devoted to revisionist models of historical interpretation, less concerned about the balance between nationalism and Christian commitments, more overtly racist, and less committed to preserving America’s democratic norms.

Concerns are mounting about how much this darkest form of Christian nationalism is growing and being normalized. Ideas that occupied the margins of Christian subcultures and were spoken in whispers only ten or fifteen years ago are now being proclaimed in the open and embraced as badges of honor. The quiet part is not only said out loud, it’s being embraced as the ideal. Journalist Molly Olmstead wrote an excellent article for Slate titled “Christian Nationalism Used to be Taboo. Now It’s all the Rage.” Olmstead included a quote from Samuel Perry, who noted that, “Christian nationalism is simultaneously becoming more stigmatized in the mainstream. And yet the people that do affirm it are becoming more radicalized, more militant, more really open about it. Like, ‘OK, if this is who we are, we just need to embrace this thing.’”

Religion scholar Daniel Miller and Historian Sara Moslener addressed the normalizing of Christian nationalism and the argument that Christian nationalism is not “real” Christianity on a recent episode of the Straight White American Jesus podcast. Moslener expressed concern about arguments labeling Christian nationalism as “fake Christianity” because those arguments ignore the seeds present within the larger religious tradition that Christian nationalists draw on to support their worldview. While forces like nationalism, racism, and authoritarianism are not necessarily inherent or organic extensions of Christian thought and practice, there are elements of the source material that can be mobilized to support racist, nationalist, and authoritarian actions if given a particular interpretive center. Moslener also made the helpful point that historians and scholars of religion walk a careful line when it comes to defining what constitutes “real” or “legitimate” observance within a particular religion. Those judgements are theological in nature rather than historical or academic.

These conversations taken together raise important questions about what the normalizing of Christian nationalism as an open political and religious movement means for American Christianity. While ultimate Christian allegiance is to the person and redemptive work of Christ, most Christian traditions also teach that the most trustworthy medium for understanding the person and work of Christ is the Bible. They don’t necessarily agree on how exclusive the Bible’s role should be or how it works in tandem with other sources of revelation, nor do they all agree on the content of the canonical scriptures themselves. Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Protestant traditions have different canons, but the Bible looms as the ultimate authoritative source for faith and practice with magisterial tradition carrying a strong weight as well in Roman Catholicism and more confessional Protestant groups.

The Bible is a complicated book and far too often it seems that those who least appreciate its complexity are those who claim to revere it the most. Fundamentalist assumptions that the “plain text” of the scriptures is “self-evident” oversimplifies the very complicated task of understanding the meaning of the text in its original context and only then wresting contemporary applications from its pages. Such careless interpretive practices can prove dangerous in approaching scripture and equally so when applied to American founding documents such as the Declaration of Independence or Constitution. Biblical interpretation turns on where the interpreter locates the center of the Bible’s message and how they rank the relative importance of the biblical texts. Many Christians would immediately respond that they don’t rank the texts in any order of importance because all the Bible is equally inspired. Even the most surface-level exploration of people’s actual application of the Bible demonstrates the fallacy of such claims. Few Christians would elevate prohibitions against eating shellfish in Leviticus over Paul’s advice to the Corinthians about food sacrificed to idols. Everyone prioritizes and orders the texts according to their sense of the Bible’s interpretive centers. Acknowledging this dynamic of primary and secondary levels of textual weight promotes honesty and integrity in the practice of scriptural interpretation.

The most basic interpretive center in Christianity lies in prioritizing the New Testament over the Old, or at least interpreting the Old Testament in light of the New. This center sets Christianity apart from Judaism, going so far as to make a distinction between two separate religious movements. Christian traditions that emphasize the Great Commandment as their interpretive center tend to lean toward social justice, appreciate the Sermon on the Mount, and teach the importance of the Old Testament prophets. Traditions that center on the Great Commission pursue evangelism and missions, often being acutely aware of extending their reach to those outside the fold. Those who emphasize Pauline standards for proper Christian community and see the community as intentionally called often pursue spiritual and intellectual sanctification along with an extension of cultural influence. None of these tendencies are always followed with rock solid consistency. Christian traditions can be as inconsistent and lacking in self-awareness as the imperfect humans who form and follow them. But as a careful generalization, interpretive centering exerts a strong influence on the character of a Christian tradition and those who follow it.

One can say that the Jericho Marchers, for example, who descended on the Capitol in December 2020 marched out of step with the mainstream of Christianity. Certainly those who returned on January 6 and engaged in acts of violence carried their protest to a shocking and unlawful extreme. The claim that the original marchers were out of step with the mainstream probably carries an element of truth, though maybe less so in 2022 than in 2020. What critics can’t say is that the Jericho Marchers find no precedent in Christian source materials such as the Bible and Christian history for their actions. The source materials appear in the very name of the movement. The ultra-literal application of Joshua 1-6 in the form of blowing shofars and marching around the city seven times could and should be labeled extreme. Interpreters could argue that Joshua’s actions were performed at a particular moment for a particular historical circumstance and that they have no binding application for contemporary believers. Historians and religion scholars can point to how the Jericho March’s interpretation is driven by a Neo-Charismatic/Pentecostal tradition that emphasizes magical thinking over sober exegesis. What you can’t argue is that it’s simply “unbiblical.” The march’s precedent in the text can’t be denied.

For too long, Christians have defended their positions with the simple assertion that this or that is “biblical.” Conversations descend into a flurry of dueling proof texts as different sides mobilize the texts that best support their position, glossing over or even ignoring texts that muddy the waters. Shades of this simplistic approach to the Bible also appear in attempts by evangelicals to create Bible classes in public schools, a ploy that only makes sense combined with their belief that the text inherently speaks truth to any reader. Just get the text in their hands and kids will discern the “proper” interpretation of the text, they believe. If they were successful at getting Bible as Literature courses approved for public schools, conservatives would face students being exposed to questions and complexities of interpretation they are not prepared to address. Deeper engagement with the Bible leads to more questions rather than less.

Christian nationalism’s mainstreaming raises the need for Christians to develop deeper answers to why the Bible tells them so that go beyond merely citing chapter and verse. Proof texts will not cut it because it’s all there depending on how one reads the text. Religious violence and spiritual warfare are not confined to the Old Testament. One could argue that they reach their height in the book of Revelation. “Chosen nation” theologies may be more muted in the New Testament, but they persist. Xenophobia appears in Ezra and could be pulled from Jesus’ reference to the Jews as the “children” and Gentiles as the “dogs.”

Kristin Kobes DuMez

A fascinating debate is unfolding in regard to the “biblical” witness on women’s roles in the church. Christian scholars like Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr are contending that the Bible proclaims a liberating message for women in the church. Members of groups like the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Desiring God insist that the Bible advances a particular role for women in the family and church that rises to confessional status, a shocking claim when one considers that confessional status is usually reserved for matters pertaining to salvation. Dogmatic complementarians tend towards an interpretative framework that takes the basic assertions of the text literally with less concern for historical context, linguistic nuances, and debates over authorship. Religion scholar Jill Hicks-Keeton takes issue with evangelical feminists’ exegesis of the relevant Bible texts, acknowledging that the texts do carry a misogyny characteristic of their historical context, while also agreeing with them that those misogynistic ideas should be discarded as relics of an unenlightened past. Of the three views, Kobes Du Mez and Barr find common ground with Hicks-Keeton on contemporary responses to the status of women in the church while holding different views of interpretation. Establishing the degree to which each view is “biblical” requires more than proof texting. It requires reading the Bible carefully alongside other helpful resources and in light of universal human experiences.

Historian Mark Noll presented an interesting summary of biblical texts used by both abolitionists and pro-slavery advocates to make their cases prior to the Civil War inThe Civil War as Theological Crisis. One of his most sobering arguments underscores how pro-slavery advocates had more raw proof texts on their side of the debate. Abolitionists relied on the spirit of the text rather than the letter, taking the debate back to larger declarations of human worth that they believed should provide the interpretive center against which the rest of the text should be read. Christian nationalism could be a negative movement that prompts a positive reaction if it forces moderate and progressive Christians, and maybe conservatives as well, to think more expansively and critically about what is means to define ideas or actions as “biblical.”

This expansive openness to wider conversations and clear-eyed awareness of the Bible’s limitations in addressing current political issues offers one key to combating the rise of Christian nationalism. Christians need to recognize that the Bible is not a policy manual. Its moral and ethical precepts can promote great good if applied with an understanding that knowing it well is not a substitute for careful study of poliitcal issues and empathetic awareness of the actual people at the center of public debates. Religious extremists of any persuasion struggle in democratic contexts because democratic politics demands compromise and concession to foster human flourishing. Extremist movements like Christian nationalism demand that the world conform to hues of absolute black and white. Reality lies in nuance and humility, not authoritarian fantasies of cultural domination. American democracy has served us well by providing a free and open society where people of every religion and no religion are free to follow their consciences in matters of faith.

Combating the toxic growth of Christian nationalism calls for Christians to do what my professor’s colleagues and my undergraduate institution did so well in the past. Christians need to support those who promote accurate narratives of American history and responsible approaches to scripture. Even when it is hard and even if it costs something in terms of financial or popular support. Anything less allows QAnon conspiracy theorists and Christian Nationalists to undermine the hard-earned gains of American democracy and to define American Christianity for a watching world.

Scott Culpepper

Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa. He is the author of Francis Johnson and the English Separatist Influence.

6 Comments

  • What a wonderful conversation. Thank you.

  • David E Timmer says:

    Thanks, Scott. You’re right, of course, to point to biblical-hermeneutical issues as primary here. But (as you also suggest) magisterial tradition also plays a role, especially in confessional traditions; and the hermeneutics of tradition can be just as complicated. For example: Abraham Kuyper may be magister magnus in some reformed and evangelical circles, where catchphrases like “every square inch of creation” are solemnly invoked. But such maxims can be applied very differently depending on how one weighs the polarities present in Kuyper’s thought – e.g., between antithesis and common grace, or between pluralist and monist visions of society. There is a distinct danger that an antithetical-monist interpretation of Kuyper may be feeding into evangelical Christian nationalism, particularly into its “dominionist” form. (See Katherine Stewart’s article, “The roots of Josh Hawley’s rage,” https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/11/opinion/josh-hawley-religion-democracy.html?searchResultPosition=9.) What responsibility do the custodians of the Kuyper-tradition have for addressing this situation?

  • Scott Culpepper says:

    Very good point, David. There’s definitely more to be said regarding how disciples of Kuyper can address the issues raised by Stewart. I think she makes some good pints that are worth answering. My goal here was to focus on the broader context since the majority of people influenced by Christian nationalism are more familiar with the texts of scripture, though it’s worth noting that even those people are unconsciously influenced by confessional traditions whether they label themselves “confessional” or not.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Scott, This is an excellent essay that needs to be read by all Christians who want to be true to the Lord in interpreting God’s will for us. I see only two occasions where gayness is referred to in the Bible tut now we all “know:” what to think. Thank you for a thoughtful response to the problem of interpretation of the Bible.

  • Tom says:

    Excellent piece … and a painful reminder of how “bible people” (Jews, Muslims, Christian) all succumb to what Bonhoeffer so aptly noted: a desire to shed responsibility for decisions of belief and behavior by appealing to an “external” force or source that relieves the decision-maker of any responsibility – the “true believer,” (whatever the persuasion) can simply say, “the bible tells me so,” or, “god tells me so.” A convenient way of salving the conscience and paving the way for one party to demonize the other.

    The text and tradition are replete with the stuff of hate, discrimination, punishment, violence, war, racism, misogyny, nationalism, and just about every other form of behavior.

    This essay reminds the reader that we have to decide? We have to plumb the deeps of our soul, our life-experiences, our cultural milieu, how we were reared, what frightens us, what pleases us, the good we like, and the people we mistrust.

    From Bonhoeffer: “The responsible man acts in the freedom of his own self, without the support of men, circumstances or principles, but with a due consideration for the given human and general conditions and for the relevant questions of principle. The proof of his freedom is the fact that nothing can answer for him, nothing can exonerate him, except his own deed and his own self. It is he himself who must observe, judge, weigh up, decide and act. It is man himself who must examine the motives, the prospects, the value and the purpose of his action. But neither the purity of the motivation, nor the opportune circumstances, nor the value, nor the significant purpose of an intended undertaking can become the governing law of his action, a law to which he can withdraw, to which he can appeal as an authority, and by which he can be exculpated and acquitted.”

  • Rowland Van Es says:

    “Deeper engagement with the Bible leads to more questions rather than less.” Exactly. Also, “The Bible is not a policy manual.” Amen. We need more debate, more nuance, more humility, and more engagement with it.

Leave a Reply