I wrote the other day examining what the Scots and Presbyterians learned of civil government, both as the oppressed and the power of corporate action and manly resistance. The traits embedded in that people traveled the Atlantic and landed in places like Cape Fear and dispersed across the southern frontier of new land. You can find that piece here. It is a response to the uptick in people discussing “Christian Nationalism”.
There is much I did not say that I should have. First, nationalism is a rather banal term, particularly when applied broadly to a propositional nation such as the United States. I am a patriot if by that we mean a person that loves the place of his birth his culture and his people – but a nationalist? In a traditional sense if I belong to a nation it is that extant remnant of Scots that came to America, bringing their spirit and Bibles with them to create a distinct culture in the upcountry, foothills, and mountains. Being nine generations removed from the first of my kind to embark on a ship in Jura Scotland to North Carolina I have just enough of what was to still vaguely identify with that nation of people. A man of my age that was born on Edisto Island and is part of the Gullah culture might rightly also wonder what ‘nationalism’ means if one applies it to America in general. He and I certainly have more in common than a man born in New York City of Italian origin. Our religion is reformed, we eat much of the same food and our music is intimately related. But we are different, different enough that we could comprise wholly different nations if we had independent political structures. So, what is nationalism when speaking of the uniquely American experience? It is preposterous, no matter how one uses it.
Beyond the absurd nature of applying the word here, it is also almost always a word with bad ends. Nobody ought to want to be a nationalist, not that word, it summons bad images from history. The word is a trap.
The word “Christian” is not even simple enough, not if we are speaking of applying theological principles to complex problems. I am of the solid conclusion that it is entirely possible for a person to be of the elect and to have accepted saving grace and also be completely clueless about anything of importance. The Gospel is simple and easy, anyone can pick up a Bible from a nightstand and read enough to know about saving grace. Theology is hard, applying theology is harder. We have principles, regulative principles, traditions, creeds, and church government to help in its application. Some of those advocating the loudest for some form of Christian Nationalism are weak theologically. Some of them have been wrong about other major cultural waves, these men are the sorts that we can say, “praise God if they are saved, now shut up and allow those that know complex things to speak”. Basically, if their theological background is merely “evangelical”, well I am often very concerned when they seek to evangelicalize anything beyond the Gospel. You should be likewise wary.
Perhaps we have to define the term better. It might be simpler to say there are Christians, those that were called and saved by grace, and there is a second category, people that fit the first category AND, they belong to a tradition that empowers them with knowledge to understand more complex things more clearly. The second category has “error protection” built into it, it is not 100% effective at all times but it works better than guys in slick suits using sophistry. There is a third category, men that may or may not be real Christians, but they belong to traditions that make them seem correct – these are philistines and pietists. They are rock throwers and name-callers. If we are going to speak of this issue, then the only men to be given a platform must be Christian men from an authentically Christian tradition (orthodox, authentic, and reformed). Truth matters, objective knowable truth matters, and a methodology that parses that truth is important.
What ought this all look like? It ought to look exactly as it did from the beginning, all of Christ for all of life. We recognize the three spheres of authority that God ordained - family, church, and civil. We acknowledge the rod, keys, and sword but that we as individual Christians live in all three spheres. In the United States, Providence ordained and blessed us with a representative government. We are duty-bound to work to see God’s plan executed in all three spheres. Christian households, rightly regulated and theologically sound Churches and Government that protect us from evil. Those are the functions of each sphere. The visible church, organized Church government has a duty to speak to families, individuals, and the civil authorities. The invisible church, the individual Christian, has a responsibility to work in each sphere for the glory of God. And Government, as its primary function, protects the people from evil.
We must envision invisible overlapping circles betwixt the invisible and visible church and families and people living under a civil magistrate in our system, people that vote and serve in government. Thus, the corporate visible body has to act and the invisible body has to do – in all things to the glory of God.
I hold that John Knox was correct. He and his were made to care and made to resist the civil authority. If we do not influence it and force it to protect from evil and not become evil itself we also will be made to care someday; all of us including the pietists, naysayers, lukewarm folks, and the confused.
In a real sense, the current talk of Christian Nationalism derives from two sources. First, it is a trap, a term to paint those that adopt it into a corner where they can be taken off the field. Secondly, it has appeal to some because they sense there is no other workable solution. These have forsaken the truth that we should apply our faith to all things and do simply what we have always done, perhaps better and with more clarity. Those that fall for this trap are falling for the trend of thinking there must be a realignment and we must find new ways of political philosophy. There is no shortage of those offering this solution but what they offer is ultimately a form of authoritarianism born of fighting authoritarianism. We do not need a new way, we need to do the old way better.