There is No Such Thing as Christian Nationalism
It obviously exists. It's just an oxymoron.
As I was writing the last Jackal on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, I re-read this piece by David French,1 where he pushes back on the idea that we should get “more Christians” into politics, or places of political power. Money quote:
If I could distill the anger about [my essay on political violence in the church] down to a single sentence (besides simply, “Shut up!”) it would be this: “You talk about the problems in Christian conservatism too much. Talk about the Left more.”
And I get it. I really do. In a deeply divided nation where millions of people have convinced themselves that the church is under unprecedented siege, you want Christians who possess a public platform to “defend the church.” There is a deep and profound human desire for advocacy. It’s one reason why clients often bond so deeply with their attorneys.
Yet that’s not remotely the model of biblical discourse, especially of how believers talk to each other. And while none of us can remotely compare ourselves to biblical giants, we can learn from their model, which is clear: Early church fathers were far, far more concerned with the faith and virtue of the church than the maladies of the Romans.
I wanted to expand on this as Holy Week looms over us, because the theme of “building a Christian nation” has been pretty central in my mind for a while.
I should say from the outset that some of my post is going to be me disagreeing with French, but mostly because I think he is pulling punches. I should also say that even though the Jackal is primarily a Substack™ about making political news easy to digest and understand, my Christianity is the most important thing in my life. And, because politics (and writing about it) is very much about obtaining and maintaining power, and Christianity is fundamentally about how we are powerless apart from God, it’s a continuous struggle for me to reconcile these two beliefs.
To be honest, it’s awkward to be frequently writing about politics when sometimes I feel like my “day job” is just being a normal, Christian Dad. My wife and I lead a Bible study with another couple here in Denver; I read my daughter the Bible in the morning while we have some one-on-one time during the week; and we go to church every Sunday (and brunch afterwards, because this is Denver). I am, for the most part, just a normal Christian Dad doing normal Christian Dad things. And then I turn around and write about how the actions of Senator X or President Y are a threat to the Republic. It feels weird sometimes!
But there is a line in French’s piece that hit home for me, where he says that early “church fathers were far, far more concerned with the faith and virtue of the church than the maladies of the Romans.” It is just bizarre to read a line like that, which is about Christians living in a totally hostile environment (with leaders who wanted to kill them), and then hearing Christians in the United States saying that Democrats are the greatest threat to Christians in the world today. Try telling a Christian in Iran, for instance, that Joe Biden is some huge threat to them practicing their faith.
But let’s keep the focus on Rome, because it snuggles up nicely right next to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. A Twitter follower recently went a little bit deeper into the culture of Rome, when the early church was cruising around the Mediterranean:
John2 is right. The stuff they found was pretty nuts, featuring imagery of some of the wildest sex acts you can imagine (apologies to anyone whose Mom still checks their phone):
There is a museum in Naples that houses a lot of the artwork recovered from the walls of Pompeii, and it has repeatedly been shut down for being too risqué. You can’t even get in if you’re under 18! I’d show you more pictures, but I really don’t know if they are all kosher for Substack. Some are that bad!
Roman attitudes towards sex were so extreme, they’d probably laugh it off if you called them a “groomer.” Pedophilia was fine in Ancient Rome, as long as it was a (male) Roman citizen taking advantage of a “lesser” person, usually a slave or a non-citizen. When a young Roman “became of age,” he was given an experienced prostitute on the night of his “rite of passage” to basically teach him how to have sex. Women, naturally, were expected to remain virgins until they were betrothed, which sounds more like America until you find out that women got married when they were about 14, and sometimes as young as 12. And the Romans were so loosey-goosey about heterosexuality and homosexuality that there aren’t even Latin words for the concepts.
For whatever reason, Paul and the other writers of the New Testament don’t go into great detail about all of this. Back to John:
The closest you get to real condemnation is Paul in Romans 1, where he talks about how badly he wants to go to Rome so he can basically rip into them. The chapter ends with a barn-storming rant:
And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Though they know God's righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.
Christians love this verse, because it is Paul breaking out the old hits. What they tend to miss is Paul in the very next chapter:
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who practice such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who practice such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God? Or do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God's kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed (my emphasis).
Leave it to Paul to get Christians nodding their heads and saying to themselves, “Yes Paul. Tell those heathens what’s what!” only for him to come back and say, “You are exactly the same.” Talk about a rug pull. But that - like French says - is Paul’s focus throughout the New Testament, more than half of which is him criticizing different churches. If you look at another Pauline letter to Titus, you see some of the same things, only it’s Greek culture that Paul is addressing, not Roman.
Titus’s ministry was on the island of Crete, which kind of had the reputation that Camelot has in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “It is a silly place.” The Cretans were infamous for being sexually vulgar and self-indulgent, but they also had a unique view of the Greek gods: They believed that all of the them were men (or women) who elevated themselves into godhood through their good works (and they all just happened to be born on Crete). Their theology was, in practice, a sort of perverted inverse of Christianity.
Paul writes to Titus because the Christian church on Crete was imbibing too much of the local culture. There were false teachers who were preaching a more “Crete-specific” gospel, as well as people claiming to be Christians, but who were really just in it for the money (hello, Prosperity Gospel!). But Paul doesn’t tell Titus to go into the streets and mess up the Cretans, or go to the local government and pass a, “Don’t say Zeus,” law. He tells Titus to reform the church. Here is Whitney Woollard:
Finally, Titus needed to straighten out the Christians who were giving the gospel a bad reputation. Paul says gospel belief should result in a new kind of household where older men and women are models of integrity and self-control for the younger. The women should reject the alluring pull of the “new Roman woman” in favor of godly faithfulness and sobriety. The men should turn aside from greed, injustice, and violence and be productive, helpful citizens in society. Even the slaves (as part of the household) should honor their masters and refuse to participate in slave rebellions to prevent any bad-mouthing of the gospel. They were to live in a way that made Jesus compelling to the watching world.
And here is what Paul says, in one of the most beautiful passages in the New Testament:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Christians aren’t called to overthrow the Cretans. We are, instead, supposed to be ready to do “every good work,” because (as Paul says in Romans 2), nothing we have actually done has earned us Christ’s blessing. We are, fundamentally, the same as everyone else: Sinful, rebellious, and full of malice.
One of the big narratives laid out in the Bible is that humans are constantly seeking to build a kingdom without the king. The secular world tries to do this by providing secular answers, but it ultimately doesn’t work. Every attempt by man to create a utopia has failed because we are inherently sinful and fallen. Mark Sayers outlines this in his book The Reappearing Church:
The world we were promised has not arrived. Well, some of it has appeared. We are more affluent, more technologically connected than ever before in human history. Our technological and scientific knowledge has increased. But have we progressed morally? Thinkers such as scientist Steven Pinker argue we have, that the liberal democratic West is the fairest, most equal, peaceful, and moral sphere to ever exist in human history. Yet at the same time, we see a return to tribalism, a growth in economic inequality, and social divisions expanding. Some speculate that our age will be referred to as the age of genocide.3
That last line really hits home, because right now we are watching a “Christian” nationalist wage a genocidal war against Ukraine. It should further illustrate that any Christian desire to build a perfect earthly kingdom will inevitably produce something closer to Putin’s Russia than Christ’s kingdom. In the same way that the secular world cannot build a perfect “secular” kingdom, Christians can’t build a perfect kingdom either. Jesus actually tries to make this point in the Gospels.
Even though Jesus pointedly said that the kingdom He is building is “not of this world,” it’s His rebuke of Peter in Matthew 16 that always stands out to me. Only a few verses earlier in the same chapter, Peter gets some daps from Jesus for recognizing the latter as the Messiah, but in Matthew 16:21 it says:
From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
Here, it’s important to understand Peter’s background, and for that we should turn to Sam Whittaker (I like him because he writes like me):
[The Jewish] expectation of the messiah was that he would be a nationalistic, probably militaristic leader who would rescue Israel from the powerful nations who they were constantly in subjugation to. This is the promise that they were waiting to see fulfilled. They were waiting for a messiah who would show up, kick the bad guys’ butts (at the time of Jesus, it was Rome), and establish Israel once again.
So when Peter meets Jesus, decides to follow him, and eventually recognizes him as this messiah he has been waiting for, he is coming at it from completely the wrong angle. He got the who of the Messiah right, but not how the Messiah was going to accomplish his goals. He’s like someone watching Star Wars Episode IV, but expecting Obi Wan to saber-chop Darth Vader to death when they finally meet.4
Jesus tells His nationalist friend that not only is he a “hinderance,” but He also calls Peter Satan. That is pretty rough, but you see this theme throughout the New Testament; not only did Paul reject the idea of converting Rome by compulsion, Jesus did too.
When Jesus is being taken by the Romans to be crucified, Peter pulls another big dumb dumb move and slices off someone’s ear. Again, Jesus has to put Peter in his place:
But Jesus said to him, "Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?
It’s here that Jesus says it the most clearly: If I wanted to actually overthrow Rome, I could do it in a second, but what I’m about to do is more important. When Christians continually assume that we can make changes that God has not sought to implement Himself, we are sort of returning to the original sin in the Garden of Eden: We think we know better than God. Jesus’s words here are an almost constant reminder to Christians that God has a greater work to do than anything we think we can accomplish on our own.
I don’t doubt the good intentions of many parents who are in favor of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and I’m also not saying that Americans (on the Right and Left) shouldn’t support political candidates that they think will help produce a more equitable society. But I do think one thing should be clear: We cannot build a perfect kingdom on our own, because we are fundamentally an immoral people. One day, America will collapse and another nation - either more moral or less moral - will take its place as the world’s superpower. Ancient Rome’s5 dominance lasted for 1,100 years; America is still just a baby in terms of global history.
This is why the actual text of the Bible and the actual teachings of Jesus are so important to read. Nowhere in the New Testament are the disciples ordered to go into places like Crete or Rome or Ephesus to establish a government to forcibly will the people into good behavior. Jesus gives one directive to the disciples: Preach the gospel, and tell people about the “goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior,” which “saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
That great truth is the most rewarding thing about being a Christian. When you realize that you cannot build your own kingdom, you fully understand what Jesus meant when He said, “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” His way of living pulls us out of our own kingdom-building and puts us back into His presence. He, on His own, is better than any “Christian nation” that we could hope to create.
Have a blessed Holy Week, and I will see you again on April 22nd.
A lot of French’s stuff at The Dispatch is paywalled, but I would encourage you all to subscribe.
I don’t know if John is really John or if he is just admiring the philosopher. Either way, his points are salient,
Pages 27-28 of The Reappearing Church.
I am now realizing I have not made enough Star Wars references in the Jackal. I like the prequels.
I’m talking about the Roman Kingdom, Republic, and Empire.