A Book Review on the Topic of Christian Nationalism

By Timothy Keller

Tim Keller reviews Samuel L. Perry and Andrew Whitehead's book Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford, 2020)

God and Country

During the January 6 storming of the Capitol, rioters exhibited Christian symbols and offered public prayer. Since then the working assumption of the mainstream media is that evangelicalism has now been revealed to be a white American supremacist insurrectionist force, committed to keeping power even if it means overturning democratic processes. The term “Christian nationalist” is now being used to describe white evangelicals. Is that accurate? Are the two terms essentially two ways to describe the same people?

This issue is not a new one, despite only recently riveting national attention.   

My first pastoral charge in 1975 was as the minister of West Hopewell Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia. That church had been started by the congregation of West End Presbyterian (a founding congregation of the PCA) by its pastor at the time, the Rev. William E. Hill, Jr.  When I came to Hopewell, Rev. Hill was retired and Kennedy Smartt was the pastor, but I began to hear the stories about what a controversial figure he had been.

In the post World War II south, “God and Country” celebrations and services were common, especially around Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Often congregants pledged allegiance to the American flag during the service, and patriotic hymns and songs were sung. This description of one such service was typical:

“After…the choir and orchestra [had] performed anthems from each branch of the Armed Forces, the emcee…intoned,…”God [has] guided and protected this country throughout its history. Any victories we claim are all because of him and his faithfulness, and in the good times and bad, he’s always been on our side.” [] [1] Samuel L. Perry and Andrew Whitehead, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, Oxford, 2020, p.1.

But when Rev. Hill became pastor, he would have none of that kind of Christianity. He considered even having an American flag in the church sanctuary to be a form of idolatry, let alone singing songs or preaching sermons about how God is always “on our side.” One day Rev. Hill (a small, courtly figure, perhaps 5 feet tall and always attired in a black suit, white shirt and string tie) famously barred the entrance of a casket draped in the American flag into his church for a funeral. [] [2] Bill Hill was at most 5 feet tall, and slightly built, but he was fiery. Visualizing him barring the entrance of that casket has always been a matter of wonder to me! The next day newspapers in Richmond and Petersburg “carried stories branding Mr. Hill as unpatriotic, communistic, and anti-American….A number of veterans believed the press and…the church probably lost two or three hundred members over it.” [] [3] Kennedy Smartt, I am Reminded (self-published, no date) p.23-24. When Rev. Hill started a Christian school in the 1940’s, he insisted that it be integrated from the beginning. This was unheard of at the time; many or most of the Christian schools started in the 1950s through 1970s in that part of Virginia were white flight institutions.

In the years since, evangelicals in the U.S. have fought over the degree to which our churches have wedded our faith to the flag and white American interests. Mr. Hill was one who stood against what he considered an idolatrous merging of Christianity with American patriotism and white interests, and he paid a price for it. I was fortunate to have arrived at the church in the mid-1970s when, despite my parishioners being deeply conservative people, the leaders had largely embraced Mr. Hill’s warnings and example. One elder told me “We don’t go in for that ‘God and America’ Christianity. It’s more American than Christian.” That was one working-class Christian’s analysis of a complex phenomenon, but it was percipient.

What is Christian Nationalism?

That is also the basic question investigated in an important new book by sociologists Samuel L. Perry and Andrew Whitehead. The “God and Country” wing of grass roots Protestantism—something that has been with us for decades and, arguably, even centuries— has now taken a new and prominent political form. Through careful social science work, Perry and Whitehead identify the force called Christian Nationalism by defining it in the following ways.

First, it is a fusion of American identity “with Christianity (preferably Protestant), with race (white), nativity (born in the United States)…and political ideology (social and fiscal conservatism)” (ix-x). Put simply, it is a view that you cannot be a real American if you are a Muslim or a Jew, an immigrant, a non-white Christian or even a political liberal (161). Christian Nationalists believe that the federal government should declare the U.S. to be a Christian nation, put Christian values into law, and allow the display of Christian symbols and the offering of Christian prayer in public spaces. [] [4] The six questions asked by Perry and Whitehead to ascertain Christian Nationalist beliefs were the following. Agree or disagree: (1) The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation, (2) The federal government should advocate Christian values, (3) The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state, (4) The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces, (5) The success of the United States is part of God’s plan, (6) The federal government should allow prayer in public schools. The more someone agreed with 1,2,4,5,6 and the more they disagreed with 3—the more of a Christian Nationalist they were considered to be. See pages 7-8. So, for example, Christian nationalists would be happy to have new churches constructed in their community, but would want the government to forbid the building of mosques.

Second, it is based on a particular understanding of American history. In this view, the United States was established as an overtly Christian nation and therefore has an almost (and many drop the ‘almost’) covenantal relationship with God. Today, this narrative goes on–the Left and non-believers are trying to turn America into a secular, relativistic nation. Unless we turn back to God and elect officials who will honor God, He will stop blessing America. [] [5] Sociologists Perry and Whitehead do not address this reading of American history—they just show how important it is to the ‘cultural framework’ of Christian Nationalism.  But one book that strongly and effectively critiques the “Christian America” narrative, written by three evangelical academics, is The Search for Christian America, by M.Noll, N.Hatch, G.Marsden; pub. Helmers and Howard, 1989.

Third, Christian Nationalism is implicitly and sometimes explicitly committed to a specific social order in which the old hierarchies—native-born over foreigners, men over women, Christians over Jews and Muslims, whites over non-whites—are re-asserted and strengthened. “Christian Nationalism, then, provides a complex of explicit and implicit ideals, values, and myths—what we call a ‘cultural framework’—through which Americans perceive and navigate their social world.”

Who are the Christian nationalists?

Perry and Whitehead’s research reveals unsurprisingly that Christian nationalist beliefs are on a spectrum. There are “four main orientations toward Christian Nationalism in the United States. Americans are either Rejecters, Resisters, Accommodators, or Ambassadors” (9). “Ambassadors” are full-fledged Christian nationalists, and they are estimated to constitute 19.8% of the population. On the other side, some 48% of the population are either strong “Rejecters” or at least “Resisters” who hold few or no Christian nationalist beliefs. But a last group—and the largest single group at 32.1%—is ‘Accommodators’ who hold some Christian nationalist beliefs and are sympathetic to, if not fully embracing of, Christian Nationalism. In some ways the Accommodators are key, because they create an environment in which nearly a third of the population, while not holding to strong Christian nationalist beliefs, provide sympathy and support to the more extreme adherents.

And who are in these various groupings of Christian Nationalism? Obviously the great majority of Ambassadors are white, religious people who are conservative in their political views. But after that expected result, Perry and Whitehead’s other findings are surprising.

White Americans are divided into almost equal numbers of Ambassadors, Accommodators, Resisters, and Rejecters. African Americans, however, are more supportive of Christian Nationalism than whites—65% of all African-Americans are Ambassadors or Accommodators, the largest proportion of any racial group. Hispanics are mainly found in the two middle, moderate groups, as are Asians and other races (41). All of this indicates that socially conservative views, and a general comfort with a Christian-influenced culture, are not positions exclusively held by white people. Many non-whites are religious, traditional, and conservative in their orientation and shy away from progressive political views that are highly negative and critical of America, its ideals, and its past.

Another surprise is that, while about 50% of the Christian nationalists are evangelicals, nearly 25% of the strong Resistors or Rejecters are also evangelicals.This shows that evangelical beliefs do not automatically cause Christian Nationalism. They can also be the basis for its rejection. Therefore, Christian Nationalism is far more “ethnic and political than it is religious” (10). It is not an inevitable or logical result of traditional, biblical beliefs. It uses the Bible selectively, mainly appropriating for America promises like 2 Chronicles 7:14 (that are given to Israel), promising prosperity if they obey their covenant with God. It ignores the Old Testament passages demanding justice for the poor and the immigrant, and it never deals with New Testament calls to love enemies and turn the other cheek.

And so Christian Nationalism “isn’t localized within [any] particular religious tradition” (13). It doesn’t arise from strongly-held Christian beliefs of a Protestant evangelical, Catholic or any other group. “In fact…religious commitment [to a particular theology] and Christian Nationalism appear to foster distinct moral worldviews that differ in critical ways” (13). That is—Christian Nationalism ignores much of Christian teaching and puts together a highly selective pastiche of biblical texts with commitments to nativism, white supremacy, and so on. 

Religious practice vs Christian Nationalism

But to understand Christian Nationalism, it is also important to know what it is not. Repeatedly, Perry and Whitehead say, “This may surprise (or disappoint) some readers—this isn’t a book about white evangelicals. Certainly [there is] considerable overlap…but the two concepts are not at all synonymous….While a large percentage of Christian nationalists…hold characteristically evangelical Protestant beliefs, many…non-Christians…also hold strong Christian nationalist beliefs.” Conversely, many unequivocally reject Christian Nationalism because of their evangelical faith. [] [6]Perry and Whitehead, page 28.

They make this case in an important section titled, “When It Comes to Politics, Christian Nationalism and Religious Commitment Are Not the Same.” In their research, they confronted people with statements such as: “Refugees from the Middle East pose a terrorist threat to the U.S.” and “People should be made to show respect for America’s traditions.” Christian Nationalists, of course, strongly affirmed such statements.  

But importantly, “as Americans become more religious in terms of attendance, prayer, and Scripture reading, they move in the opposite direction [from Christian Nationalists] on these issues” (84). Perry and Whitehead argue that the more Christians engage with the Bible and prayer in community, the less they move toward Christian Nationalism. “Put simply, Christian Nationalism does not encourage high moral standards or value self-sacrifice , peace, mercy, love, justice…” (84). In other words, the more Christians engage religious practices, the more willing they are—in contrast to Christian Nationalists—to welcome immigrants, welcome people of other races as equals, and work hard for justice for the poor. The reasons are obvious. The Bible is filled with material that supports these views and that wholly contradict Christian Nationalism. Increasing levels of personal religious practices make people less conservative in their beliefs about race, poverty, and justice.

On the other hand, Perry and Whitehead show that “increasing levels of personal religiosity result in more conservative attitudes toward sexuality, gender and divorce” (143). Americans who engage in more religious practices “are less likely to ostracize immigrants, less likely to espouse anti-black prejudice or fear Muslims. Here, however, we find the opposite. As Americans exhibit higher levels of religious commitment…they are more likely to desire more traditional roles in the home, oppose same-sex marriage and transgender rights, or have more negative views of divorce” (142).

This seems to baffle the authors. They suggest that “there may be a cultural lag” (147) and that most American Christians will eventually embrace more liberal and non-traditional views of sexuality. It doesn’t occur to them (or, at least, they don’t write about it in their book) that greater exposure to the Bible might make people more open to economic and racial justice, but less open to the modern sexual revolution because the Bible itself teaches those things. The Bible regularly speaks against both exploitation of the poor and sex outside of heterosexual marriage.

It is true, as the authors point out, that liberal mainline denominations have changed their views of sex and gender, but that was only after decades of conflict over the truthfulness the Bible. Those churches had to change the historic belief in biblical divine inspiration before they arrived at the place where they could embrace some of biblical teaching (e.g. on race and justice) and reject other parts of its teaching (e.g. on sexuality and gender). But the churches that have kept the historic Christian understanding of the Bible are an ever-growing majority in the world. They have continued to thrive in comparison with the mainline churches, which have collapsed. This is not only true in North America, but it is even more the case in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, where evangelical and Pentecostal churches are growing many times faster than the populations.

So those hoping, as Perry and Whitehead, that Christian churches are just lagging a little bit behind the culture on sexuality may be disappointed. Before the Bible’s teaching on sexuality and gender can lose its grip on committed, practicing Christians, there would have to be a sea change in most churches’ foundational understanding that our doctrines and beliefs must be grounded in the Scripture. In that case they could no longer claim the title “Christian.” As J. Gresham Machen said in his book Christianity and Liberalism, “Liberal religion is a different religion from Christianity.” [] [7] J.Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, MacMillan, 1923.

What do we learn?

Many timely and important lessons are here for us. Perry and Whitehead draw out three lessons in their final chapter.

They tell us, first, that the influence of Christian Nationalism matters because it supports authoritarian rule and because it can justify violence by using the trappings and rhetoric of religion and of the sacred. “It co-opts Christian language and iconography in order to cloak particular political…ends in moral and religious symbolism” (153). This means it undermines commitments to patience, respect, and civility toward opponents, to freedom of speech, debate—all things necessary for a free, democratic society.

Second, they insist that “Christian Nationalism should not be thought of as synonymous with ‘evangelicalism’ or even ‘white evangelicalism’” (19, 152) and that to do so muddies the waters. Here their argument is nuanced. They know that Christian Nationalism draws ideas and recruits from both evangelicalism and political conservatism. However, they conclude that it is wrong to think it is “just a product or manifestation of these things” (153). Rejecters often declare that very belief–that Christian Nationalism is merely evangelicalism and conservatism come to their logical fruition, but the authors insist that the data shows otherwise. While Christian Nationalism carefully co-opts elements of these other movements, it “stands on its own as a unique cultural framework.” In fact, the reverse could be argued. It is Christian Nationalism that is (badly) influencing evangelicalism as well as political conservatism today. To argue, as so many do on the Left, that evangelicals are all evil Christian nationalists (or tending toward it) is wrong and only serves to alienate many believers, perhaps even driving some toward the extreme.

A fascinating example of this is Michael Sparks, an evangelical Christian who was among the rioters who entered the Capitol on January 6. Over the last months of 2020, the more involved he got on social media, the more he grew in rage, where extremists on both sides went after each other and where he was pulled into a Christian nationalist ‘media-bubble.’ His beliefs made him susceptible to Christian nationalist ideology, but his local pastor and church friends, seeing his growing rage, advised him to get off of social media and tried to show him that all his angry rhetoric did not evidence the love of Christ. He has now been arrested for his involvement in the riot, and a Washington Post article rightly shows how his evangelicalism made him recruitable to the nationalists, but also surrounded him with influences that worked against it. Evangelical beliefs do not lead inevitably to Christian Nationalism. The reality is more complex. [] [8] Peter Manseau, “His Pastors Tried to Steer Him Away from Social Media Rage. He Stormed the Capitol Anyway,” Washington Post, February 19, 2021.

Third, while Perry and Whitehead show that Christian Nationalism is in demographic decline—its proponents tending to be older white people—it is “declining in size but not in importance” (159). The authors show that despite the current downward trend, social-political events can change that. For example, in the four years after 9-11 the number of people who espoused Christian nationalistic views increased temporarily. Further, the more Christian nationalists perceive their numbers to be diminishing, the more embattled they will feel and the more activist and extreme they may become (160).

I would draw out several other lessons specifically for Christian believers today.

First, we can love our country but we MUST look to biblical theology for our attitude to any nation and its heritage, including America. [] [9] These are spelled out on page 24-26 of the introductory chapter, written by Mark Noll. See The Search for Christian America, by M.Noll, N.Hatch, G.Marsden; pub. Helmers and Howard, 1989.

  1. The New Testament makes clear that since the coming of Christ, racial and ethnic barriers are set aside. We can and should love our country and its distinctives and be proud of its accomplishments. But if we can be proud of its accomplishments, we must also be ashamed for its sins and failures to live up to its ideals. Every nation—made up of sinners—will have great moral wrongdoing and evil in its past. To hide or minimize that past is to take a major step toward idolatry and to reject God’s righteous judgement on our sins.

    God is no longer working his redemptive purposes in the world through one favored nation or race. “All nations are put upon a level; and Christ…has taught us to look on all nations [and races] as our neighbors and brethren.” [] [10] The quote is from Samuel Hopkins, a pupil and close associate of the eminent American theologian Jonathan Edwards. It is cited by Noll on page 24. For just one example of this teaching, see the book of Galatians.

  2. “God has no interest in religion per se. [] [11] Noll, 25. Jesus calls people to believe in him, but is critical of mere moralism and religiosity for its own sake. For examples, see his denunciations of the Pharisees. Christian Nationalism puts stress on getting morality enshrined in the law of the land. Jesus calls for conversions and changed lives. Laws reflecting a biblical moral vision may come, but only when there are many converted Christians in the land as well as a populace persuaded that both the church and such laws are really committed to the common good.

  3. The biblical God does not judge people on the basis of what they say they believe, but on how they actually act. The book of James tells us that if we say we have faith in Jesus, but that faith does not bring us to love and help needy brethren, it is “dead”—i.e. it isn’t real. Genuine saving faith always issues in deeds of love, sacrifice, mercy — that is to say, it is displayed in our obedience to God. We don’t obey in order to be saved, but because we have been saved.

Second, we must recognize that Christian Nationalism in its most pure form is indeed idolatrous. It looks to political power as the thing that will truly save us.  It identifies a particular set of social policies as the Christian view—all others are not just mistaken, but evil heresies.  It assumes that America now has replaced Israel as the chosen people and the world’s “Redeemer-Nation.” It is true that these ideas are not usually stated out loud, but they dominate the movement as often unspoken assumptions, as unquestionable ‘’givens.” And they must be rejected as unbiblical and idolatrous.

Third, we must be prepared that if we oppose Christian Nationalism, especially from inside the church, we may, like Rev. Hill, be branded a Marxist or a Communist. When people were leaving his church because he was branded “not a true patriot,” Mr. Hill did not go to the newspapers or to the radio to defend himself, even though he could have done so. When he saw people refusing to send their children to his Christian school because it was racially integrated, when they called him names that were the equivalent of “super-woke” today, he ignored the slurs. He knew that refusing the Christian-White American fusion would be unpopular and he would be attacked. I’m sure it hurt, but he didn’t flinch. He was willing to pay the price of usefulness to his Savior. We should be willing to do the same.

Fourth, Christian Nationalism, to the degree it is influential, means the death of Christian witness. The ethos of Christian Nationalism is to not in any way try to persuade, win, or evangelize their opponents. Their attitude toward unbelievers is: “They are evil—what does their opinion matter? Sure they hate you—just hate them right back. Own the libs.” The motivation of witness—a desire to see all people come to know Christ—has been completely eradicated in Christian Nationalism, which proves that it is not ultimately a religious movement at all, just one more political movement using the power of religious language.

Finally, we should also recognize that biblically grounded Christians will never be acceptable to secular progressives because of our views on sexuality and gender. As was confirmed by Perry and Whitehead’s scientific analysis, people who go more deeply into the Bible for their moral compass end up looking more “liberal” in their views of race, poverty and justice, but more “conservative” in their views of gender and sexuality. But really, to even use such terms as liberal and conservative gives the impression of some kind of ethical schizophrenia. Actually, the biblical social teaching is a seamless, unified whole. Our understanding of race and poverty and of sex and marriage is rooted in and reflects the redeeming love of the Triune God. I cannot even begin to outline all this here. But when the Bible directs us to respect our poor and racially different neighbors—and to only have sex within heterosexual marriage—in each case it grounds the ethical norm in the nature of God and how he has redeemed us.

This means that believers who maintain historic Christian orthodoxy and who strongly resist Christian Nationalism will often take fire on more than one front. And so we may, even more than Christian nationalists, find ourselves feeling homeless, not acceptable in our own culture. Despite the exhortations of Perry and Whitehead, most Americans will for the time being equate evangelical Christianity with white supremacy and Nationalism. It will be many years before the sights and sounds of evangelical religious symbols and language in the Capitol riot will fade from national consciousness. We have all been stained with it. But we have seen that evangelical beliefs as they grow around the world do not inherently lead to nationalistic, racist ideologies. In fact, most of my evangelical friends from other parts of the world keep asking me why so many American evangelicals seem to have lost their minds. And we can take consolation from biblical promises like 1 Peter 2:12 that tell us if we are faithful we will be found both offensive and attractive, both vilified and praised. Any Christian group that is only attacked or only accepted is not being true to the Scripture and the gospel.

Samuel L. Perry and Andrew Whitehead, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford, 2020)

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