Are 51.9% of Americans “Christian Nationalists?” That’s the claim made by a recent book: Taking America Back for God. Its authors, Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, are regularly cited by mainstream media outlets as experts on Christian Nationalism, supposedly a widespread ideology capturing the minds of Right-leaning Americans. Whitehead has even warned that “Christian Nationalism is an existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States.”

On the other side of the debate, the most provocative book this year by a proponent of Christian Nationalism has been Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe argues that “Christian nationalism is not only the necessary alternative to secularism, it is the form of government we must pursue if we want to love our neighbors and our country.”

On September 15 in Louisville, the Commonwealth Policy Center is holding a conference to consider the claims of Christian Nationalism and critique them in light of what the Bible says about government. But first, it’s important to clarify what Christian Nationalism actually is. Wolfe identifies a Christian nation as “a nation whose particular earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ” (174). On its face, this argument may be attractive to believers who view the rapid post-Christianization of our nation with just dismay.

Many concerns lie behind the striking claims of both its opponents and proponents.

Critics of Christian Nationalism are concerned by both the popularity of former President Trump among believers and a rising ‘New Right’ movement among Republicans which questions many traditional assumptions of American conservatism like limited government, free markets, and the disestablishment of religion. An example of this is the National Conservatism Statement of Principles’ assertion that “Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private.” Opponents of Christian Nationalism wonder if the success of this movement would change America’s political order. Could the means of a ‘postliberal’ posture towards American democracy lead to totalitarian ends?

But supporters of Christian Nationalism also see concerning trends. Conservative Christians are worried about secularization and challenges to religious freedom. Instead of just the sexual revolution and progressivism of the 1960’s, they wonder if the flaws in our political and cultural order lie at the foundation of liberal democracy itself? Christian Nationalists claim that more stable foundations might lie in the state churches and explicitly Christian public policy of the Middle Ages and Protestant Reformation. Rather than backing away, Christian Nationalists argue that we should push for America to adopt laws which recognize the Christian God and potentially limit the involvement of unbelievers in our nation’s politics.

On the surface, the faithful Christian might wonder what could be wrong with Christian Nationalism. How could an ideology which encourages believers to get involved in civic life and calls a nation to promote Christian values in politics possibly be incorrect?

There are at least two major flaws with Christian Nationalism, but before we consider those we must admit that many critics of Christian Nationalism use the label indiscriminately and lazily. For example, Whitehead and Perry include the following as tenets of ‘Christian Nationalism:’ “The federal government should advocate for Christian values,” and “The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.” These categories are unclear at best, and there are many people who would check ‘yes’ to these on a survey but have no understanding of Christian Nationalism.

When we criticize Christian Nationalism, we must avoid using the term in a promiscuous fashion which condemns many believers who simply want to be faithful citizens. We should reserve the term for those who identify America as a Christian nation which should, among other policies, specifically advocate the Christian religion, require civil magistrates to be Christians, and possibly establish a state church. Now let’s consider the two problems.

First, Christian Nationalism misunderstands the Biblical relationship between church and state. Both institutions are ordained by God, who has authorized them to exercise authority within their own jurisdictions. Christ is Lord of both, but the church and the state have different roles and responsibilities. The church’s role is to exercise “the keys of the kingdom” (Matthew 16 and 18): preaching the gospel and gathering Christians into local churches, which are embassies of God’s kingdom in this age.

The state is established in Romans 13. God gives it the power of the sword: preserving order, justice, and peace under God’s common grace. While the state legislates morality in accordance with the law “written on their hearts” (Romans 2:15), God has not given it the authority to declare who is and is not a Christian, just as God has not given local churches authority to reward good and punish evil in society (Romans 13:3-4). Christian Nationalism breaks down this God-ordained institutional boundary by giving the state power it does not have: to declare true religion. God gives that power to the congregation alone.

Second, Christian Nationalism is also in tension with the American political tradition of federalism and limited government. For example, as Dr. John Wilsey has described, Stephen Wolfe has written in favor of a ‘Christian Prince’ who can revive Protestant faith in America. This is a far cry from American conservatism; it’s actually a progressive view of history which implies the fulfillment of Christian civilization not in the coming kingdom of God but through human effort.

The Founding Fathers intentionally planned a limited constitutional government divided between three branches precisely because they saw the dangers of absolute rulers. This is not only wise; it is based on a Biblical understanding of persons as both image bearers and sinners. Whether the divine right of kings or totalitarians of the 19th and 20th century, unchecked power, even in the hands of professing Christians, can lead to great suffering. The American principles of federalism and religious liberty are far superior.

How is CPC critically examining these debates? On September 15 from 6-8pm, CPC and the Kenwood Institute are holding a conference at Kenwood Baptist Church in Louisville to offer a constructive critique of Christian Nationalism and explore the Biblical relationship between Church and State.

The event will feature Biblical, ethical, and historical arguments respectively from Colin Smothers, director of the Institute, and two professors from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary: Andrew Walker and John Wilsey, referenced above.

Our contention is that God’s design for institutions like the church and the state is better than any alternative, and we look forward to presenting it at the conference. We hope to see you there!