What exactly is “Christian nationalism”?
How is it connected to “dominion theology”?
Many different authors researching the subject have defined Christian nationalism in multiple ways. The basic core of this belief can be seen in the following Christian nationalist narrative: America’s founding fathers were staunch believers — basically like evangelical Christians are today. As devout Christians, they imbued America’s Constitution and legal system with Christian/biblical principles.
Moreover, they fully intended to found America as an expressly “Christian nation,” with Christianity as the preferred religion of America. This program was built on the notion that America enjoyed a special covenant relationship to God, just as the Old Testament (OT) nation of Israel did. The Puritans saw themselves as the “New Israel” fleeing the “persecution of Egypt” (Europe), coming to the “Promised Land” of America. God, in his providence, had led them to occupy the land — just like Israel occupied the land of Canaan.
Ancient Israel lived under a theocracy whereby the law of God became the religious, civil and moral laws of the land. It was a conditional covenant: obedience to the terms of the covenant would bring God’s blessing, whereas disobedience and sin would bring cursing and judgement from God. This aspect of the story line is made amply clear in the historical narratives of the OT. According to the text, Israel’s repeated failure to live up to the standards of the covenant ultimately brought about God’s judgement, followed by destruction and Babylonian exile — and God, in his righteous wrath, takes the credit for directing the entire thing.
Thus, in the Christian nationalist reading of America’s reading, like OT Israel, America too has lost its way. How do we know this is the case? Christian nationalists point to with the widespread availability of abortion, which traces its roots back to the landmark Supreme Court ruling of 1973: Roe v. Wade. God has been “kicked out of public schools” with two additional Supreme Court rulings dated back to 1962 and 1963, removing school-led prayers and Bible studies in public schools. We also see widespread other evils such as homosexuality, secular humanism, pluralism, pornography, alcohol, etc. running rampant in the land.
The Christian nationalist story line can be heard in the words of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell Sr., for example, a few days after 9/11. He famously stated on Pat Robertson’s 700 Club: “The abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who have tried to secularize America, I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.’”
Therefore, due to this widespread evil and the forsaking of the one true God, the Christian nationalist concludes that God’s hand of blessing has been withdrawn from America. In the understanding of Christian nationalists like Falwell, even Christians must bear some responsibility for standing silently by while all of this evil was allowed to run rampant in American society.
But there is a silver lining to the whole thing: with their efforts — just like Israel was allowed to return from exile — America can be returned to the blessed status once enjoyed in the past. This, they hold, was the original vision of the devout founding fathers. One of their favorite verses, used as a template for the cure, is 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray, and turn from their wicked ways and seek my face – then I will hear from heaven, forgive their sins, and heal their land.”
But why should anybody accept their version of American history, as well as its possible future? This is all true, Christian nationalists maintain, because the founding fathers were firm believers in God and unabashedly put their faith in Jesus Christ. For example, Steven McDowell, in an article on David Barton’s Wallbuilders site, related to discussing the Bible and slavery, states matter-of-factly that “America’s Founders were predominantly Christians and had a Biblical worldview.”
Speaking of David Barton, he is one of the foremost — if not the foremost — champions of the Christian nationalist myth. Although he is anything but a trained historian, and has zero academic qualifications to claim that he is such, that has not stopped him from making a decades-long career of promoting the Christian nationalist myth of America’s “forgotten founding.” At one point he claimed to have several “earned doctorates,” but upon further investigation by Dr Warren Throckmorton, this claim was proven to be absolutely false. Despite his lack of academic credentials as a trained historian, Barton has written scores of books and articles promoting this myth, has a regular radio show and podcast, and speaks nationwide on the topic of “America’s forgotten history.” In his view, it is forgotten due to a relentless onslaught by the forces of liberalism and secularism to rewrite, distort, and ignore the truth about America’s founders and history. Incidentally, President Trump argued the same thing in his recent July 3rd speech at Mt. Rushmore.
Barton, as author Katherine Stewart describes him, is the “Where’s Waldo” of the Christian nationalist world — he’s everywhere! Some of his appearances include: giving Christian nationalist tours of Washington DC; influencing state of Texas schoolbook content and curriculum to reflect a more “biblical worldview”; serving as vice-chair of the Texas Republican Party from 1997–2006; president of a PAC to elect Ted Cruz in 2015; appearances on Kenneth Copeland’s “Believer’s Voice of Victory” show numerous times; nationwide speaking engagements in churches; advising politicians in DC on how to engage with evangelicals; and of course, he is the founder of WallBuilders.
Christian Nationalism and Slavery
But I digress. Picking back up with McDowell’s pro-slavery article on Barton’s WallBuilders site, he admits that there was certainly some fault to be found in the founding fathers — some of whom indeed owned slaves. He nonetheless maintains that the Civil War can be viewed as achieving God’s providential purposes in helping America overturn the evils of slavery. How convenient!
It makes sense, by the way, that those who uphold the myth of Christian nationalism must in some way come up with a “biblical justification” for slavery, since so many of America’s founding fathers (ostensibly devout Christians) were in fact slave owners themselves. And yet , they claim, God blessed America, from the beginning! Given the evils of slavery and human trafficking, how could God possibly bless America for so many centuries, until the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil War put an end to it all?
McDowell, as well as other apologists for Christian nationalism, must turn to the Bible to defend slavery. The logic is this: if God himself was pro-slavery, then justifiably he could bless America for its part in the slave trade and slave ownership. In fact, decades earlier, in his 1973 Institutes of Biblical Law, RJ Rushdoony argued similarly that there were different categories of slaves in the Bible, such as “voluntary slavery” as opposed to “involuntary servitude.” He also stated that the Bible supports the logic that unbelievers are simply “slaves by nature and by choice.” He also believed in what’s called the theological war thesis promoted by Southern racists like Presbyterian pastor RL Dabney and others, both pre- and post-Civil War. Incidentally, this view of Southern history can still be found in a great deal of Christian homeschooling curriculum.
Returning to McDowell’s biblical pro-slavery argument: in his article, he makes the case that the reason the Civil War was so important in overturning the evils of slavery was primarily due to the original “Christian vision” of America’s founders. He argues: “That America was founded upon such Biblical principles is what made her a Christian nation, not that there was no sin in the Founders. It is because of the Christian foundations that America has become the most free, just, and prosperous nation in history. The Godly principles infused in her laws, institutions, and families have had immense impact in overthrowing tyranny, oppression, and slavery throughout the world.”
Funny, because it hasn’t been exactly “just” and “free” for so many — people of color, enslaved races, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community today, atheists, etc. When exactly was America “great”?
Defining Christian Nationalism
Those who have studied the subject of Christian nationalism offer up a series of overlapping definitions as to what actually constitutes the movement. For example, compare and contrast the following definitions:
- Andrew Seidel, in his book The Founding Myth: Why Christian Nationalism is Un-American, argues that a particular narrative forms the core bedrock of their beliefs: the notion that America was founded explicitly on Judeo-Christian values. He states: “Christian nationalists are historical revisionists bent on ‘restoring’ America to the Judeo-Christian principles on which they wish it were founded. They believe that secular America is a myth, and under the guise of restoration they seek to press religion into every crevice of government. They not only think it appropriate for the government to favor one religion over others, but also believe America was designed to favor Christianity” (pp. 4–5).
Seidel goes on to point out that in reality, the “Judeo” portion of the supposed “Judeo-Christian ethic” is in reality a mere fig leaf covering, since Christian nationalists hold that Jews do not accept Jesus as their messiah. Therefore, the “Judeo” part of the “Judeo-Christian nation” line so often repeated by Christian nationalists is merely a bone that they throw out to Jews. This is to make it seem as if their vision of a Christian America actually includes the non-believing Jewish segment. Also implicit in that definition is also the notion that most Christian nationalists are rabid Zionists and pro-Israel, so this definition is seen as being wide enough to incorporate the Jewish segment of the world.
2. Katherine Stewart, in The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, defines it as follows: “Christian nationalism is not a religious creed but, in my view, a political ideology. It promotes the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation. It asserts that legitimate government rests not on the consent of the governed but on adherence to the doctrines of a specific religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage. It demands that our laws be based not on the reasoned deliberation of our democratic institutions but on particular, idiosyncratic interpretations of the Bible. Its defining fear is that the nation has strayed from the truths that once made it great. Christian nationalism looks backward on a fictionalized history of America’s allegedly Christian founding. It looks forward to a future in which its versions of the Christian religion and its adherents, along with their political allies, enjoy positions of exceptional privilege and power in government and in law” (from the Introduction).
3. Samuel Perry and Andrew Whitehead, in Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, define it as follows: “…we mean ‘Christian nationalism’ to describe an ideology that idealizes and advocates a fusion of American civic life with a particular type of Christian identity and culture…the explicit ideological content of Christian nationalism comprises beliefs about historical identity, cultural preeminence, and political influence…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” (from the Preface).
4. Michelle Goldberg defines it as follows, in a HuffPost article entitled “What is Christian Nationalism?” (based on her book Kingdom Coming): “Christian nationalists believe in a revisionist history, which holds that the founders were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic; separation of church and state, according to this history, is a fraud perpetrated by God-hating subversives…The goal of Christian nationalist politics is the restoration of the imagined Christian nation…It’s important, I think, to separate their faith [those Christians who object to it or see it as blasphemy] from the authoritarian impulses of the Christian nationalist movement. Christianity is a religion. Christian nationalism is a political program, and there is nothing sacred about it.”
5. Sarah Posner, author of God’s Profits, stated in an NPR article, “From Roy Moore to Tax Debate, A Spotlight on Christian Nationalism,” that while many Christians vote for various candidates according to their religious principles, Christian nationalism goes much further than that: “What they’re saying [Christian nationalists] is that our laws and our regulations should be affirmatively guided by these Christian principles, not just that individuals [should be] guided by these beliefs.”
Different Streams and Iterations of Christian Nationalism
There are major difference between some of the early influencers (Reconstructionists and dominionists like RJ Rushdoony, C Peter Wagner, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, Gary DeMar, etc.), and what some of the more modern iterations of Christian nationalism are today. What is significant is how the two streams are starting to merge together in many ways in terms of political activism, establishing a “biblical worldview,” and what they term “transforming the culture for Christ.”
- Postmillennialists — many of the early influencers like Rushdoony, North and other Christian Reconstructionists were postmillennialists: the belief that Christ established his Kingdom on earth upon his first coming, heralded by John the Baptist as recorded in the Gospels. In this view, “Reconstructed society” should be fashioned along the lines of OT biblical law, as believers take dominion (as mandated by God in Gen. 1:26–28), and set up Christ’s kingdom on earth. Only after this will Christ return to earth. What is significant in this stream (called “Hard Dominion theology”) is that because they are postmillennial, they believe they have plenty of time to establish the Kingdom. Thus, they see it as a long-term process that will take generations, if necessary. They believe, for example, that it is critical for Christian parents to pull their children out of “statist” or “government schools” in favor of homeschooling. Failing that, they should at least put their children in Christian schools. In this way, generations of children will be raised up, taught the ways of God and hold to a “biblical worldview.” Eventually, there will be enough of them that they will take dominion over society by establishing a “godly order.”
What is important about this stream of Hard Dominion theology (DT) is that its connections to Christian nationalism require establishing a theocratic kingdom, or what they term a “theonomy.” In his Institutes of Biblical Law, Rushdoony stated that it is the task of “reconstructed men” to take dominion over the earth, which as time goes on involves “the restoration which comes by subjecting all things to Christ and establishing a godly order over the world” (p. 24).
In Rushdoony’s theonomy, reconstructed Christians would rule the world and set up God’s law as the standard of jurisprudence. Violations of that law (“capital offenses”) would bring the death penalty, which would be administered by a limited-government state. This sort of vision, pushed by Reconstructionists, envisions a return to the “Christian America” that Rushdoony believed America to be even as late as the 1840s. And of course, he argued that America’s laws were originally based on the OT law, which he believed formed the basis of the American legal system. Rushdoony argued in his Institutes that in modern America, “The U. S. Supreme Court has extensively replaced historic American law, with its biblical orientation, with humanistic law. New legal landmarks have been used to modify old laws and to subvert the social order” (p. 396).
As an interesting aside: according to a recent Pew Survey of religion, about 50% of Americans believe that the Bible should have a “great deal” or “some influence” over American laws; 89% of white evangelicals, and 79% of black evangelicals, believe that this should be the case. And when asked the question: when biblical law and the will of the American people contradict each other, which one should have more impact? Approximately 29% of US adults say the Bible should take precedence.
2. Premillennialists — this is more of the “Soft Dominion Theology” side, and in here we find a great many Christian nationalists. The list is long indeed, and includes such figures as: Jerry Falwell Sr and Jr.; Robert Jeffress; David Barton; D James Kennedy; Kenneth Copeland; Lance Wallnau; Cindy Jacobs; Johnny Enlow; Tony Perkins; Gary Bauer; James Dobson; Tim LaHaye; Buddy Pilgrim; Ralph Drollinger; and so many more. Although there are significant theological differences among this side, in the main they hold to a premillennial end-times view.
In comparison the postmillennial position on eschatology, the core of this view holds that the world will get worse and worse; at some point in the future (which is unknown), like a “thief in the night — suddenly and without warning — Christ will rapture his saints up into heaven. (There are major disagreements, however, as to when precisely the rapture will occur; pre-, mid-, or post-Tribulation). For the pre-trib crowd, they hold that after the rapture comes the 7-year Tribulation, followed by Jesus’s 2nd coming; the final battle of Armageddon; and then comes the establishment of Christ’s literal Millennial Kingdom (1000 years).
For premillennials, a major driving notion is this: that while the end of the world is unavoidable and inevitable, Christians can delay God’s wrath long enough by helping America/the world to repent. In that “staving off” process, they’ll get as many people saved as possible in the interim. Once the rapture hits, that’s it; most believe that one cannot be saved after that cataclysmic event — the basic plot line of the terrifying “A Thief in the Night” movie series.
On this side, Soft Dominionists also tie their belief system in with a version of America’s status as a covenant nation, and cite verses like the above-mentioned 2 Chron. 7:14. This verse serves as an ideal model for returning America to a state whereby God blesses America again, and it becoming a Christian nation (like they are convinced it was in the past, and should be again).
As another example, Jerry Falwell Sr’s 1980 call to arms, Listen America, is filled with this type of theology. In it, he stated: “If Americans will face the truth, our nation can be turned around and can be saved from the evils and the destruction that have fallen upon every other nation that has turned its back on God.”
Keep in mind, however, that here again we can note the overlap between the Hard and Soft sides of dominionism. During the late 70s/early 80s, Rushdoony and Falwell Sr worked together on certain Christian Right initiatives. Although his name doesn’t really appear anywhere in the official history, Rushdoony was instrumental in constructing the intellectual framework that helped Falwell and others found the Moral Majority. He also had relationships with Christian Right organizations such as Tim LaHaye’s secretive Council on National Policy (serving on its Board of Governors in 1982), as well as the Conservative Caucus.
In the main, however, although many on the Christian Right made use of certain of his ideas and intellectual/theological framework, they avoided direct association with Rushdoony because his ideas were viewed as too extreme. In his personal dealings with other Christians he was too sectarian, combative and divisive over even the most minute theological disagreements. But as Michael McVicar comments in his book Christian Reconstruction: RJ Rushdoony and American Religious Conservatism, in the early days of the rise of the ChristianRight in the early 1980s: “Insiders [on the Christian Right] knew about Rushdoony’s influence, even if the rank-and file did not” (p.145).
What’s important in this stream of Christian nationalism, or Soft DT, is that the theology of conversionism and world missions has slowly been replaced over the decades with a view that holds that political means are the way to establish dominion. In many cases, as noted above, they have rejected some of the more extreme aspects of Reconstructionism, but adopted its call to political activism as the best way forward. But what brought about this change in focus and drive?
Decades ago, almost all evangelicals believed that your neighbor’s business was none of yours — as long as you did your due diligence as an evangelist. Your job as a Christian was to inform him or her of the core truths of the Gospel message, and the way of salvation as found in faith in Jesus Christ. Even if they rejected it, you had done your part – and could go on living your life with a clean conscience, knowing you’d been a faithful witness for Christ. Now, however, your neighbor’s business is in fact your business, because what he or she is doing (in terms of sinful or ungodly behavior) is actually negatively affecting the course of the entire nation. Therefore, in this view, morality and righteousness must be legislated and controlled from the top down, rather than a grass-roots, person-to-person evangelistic movement. They see it as the only way to make America a “Christian nation” again.
Because of this shift in focus, they now believe that it is critical for Christians to get involved in government, art and entertainment, media, business, education etc. (the “7 cultural mountains of societal influence”). And not just get involved, but ultimately take over those 7 mountains. What is interesting is that both the conservative, as well as the charismatic side of soft DT, are now both using this “7 mountains” language. Although there are major differences in how they plan on taking dominion, both streams are increasingly using the language.
The major difference between the two streams of Soft DT is, of course, that the true “7 mountains” folk are way more into the spiritual warfare side of the equation. This side tends to be located in the charismatic and Pentecostal wing of evangelicalism. But what’s significant, as I say, is that even the more conservative or fundamentalist side (though they might not believe that the charismatic gifts are operative in the church today), have adopted the language as a model, or template. Thus it serves as a roadmap for how they plan to take over all the really important parts of society in terms of cultural influence and the ultimate “transformation of society.”
What’s most concerning: leading figures from both the Hard and Soft Dominion Theology crowd are, right now, serving on Donald Trump’s “Evangelical Advisory Board.” They are, right now, advising him on critical policy issues — and laws are being changed to reflect that advisement.
That fact alone should be of major concern to us all.
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For more on this subject, catch the latest episode of MindShift podcast featuring a Rob Boston, senior editor of Church & State. We discuss Christian nationalism and the importance of the separation of church and state.