In the wake of the Trump presidency, we are reminded of a persistent theme amongst mainstream evangelical elites: They, like the media of the last four years, have falsely attributed certain ideas, attitudes, and behaviors to Donald Trump, his supporters, and Christian nationalists.[1]

The question is why. At this point, it would be incorrect to say that many are simply confused; rather it appears they too are caught in the winds of the time. And the results are quite bad in that they perpetuate false information, sow ongoing confusion, and, worse, make slanderous accusations against their brothers and sisters.

Is this the legacy we hope to solidify in the next chapter of evangelical politics? I certainly hope not.

In fact, some have described support of Mr. Trump as the most “dangerous” development amongst American Christians. Beth Moore says just that: “I have never seen anything in these United States of America I found more astonishingly seductive & dangerous to the saints of God than Trumpism. This Christian nationalism is not of God. Move back from it.”

Really? The most dangerous? The most dangerous threat isn’t our passivity toward child murder, or the undermining of the complementarity of male and female in marriage, or the rising threat of a globalist system of values (advocating the control of all fundamental aspects of our lives), or the undermining of religious liberty, or the denigration of our American heritage? No, Ms. Moore avers, our most dangerous problem is supporting Donald Trump.

Andrew Walker and Denny Burk denounce Christian nationalism in a spirit similar to that of Ms. Moore. In the context of discussing a recent Jericho March, Mr. Walker stated: “I’m here for an evangelicalism that rejects all incursions of worldliness and captivities to idolatry.” In responding to Mr. Walker, Mr. Burk declared: “I’m here for the evangelicalism that isn’t idolatrous Christian nationalism.” [2] How Messrs. Walker and Burk would define Christian nationalism is unclear, but they clearly believe that it is not only wrong but idolatrous.

What, then, is meant by “nationalism,” and specifically, by “Christian nationalism”? Nationalism, historically, is distinct from imperialistic endeavors that seek to establish a global political monolith. Instead, nationalists recognize that places are concretely different, and this works itself out in culture, history, and heritage. Without doubt, there are different kinds of nationalism that all share a commitment to the preservation of a nation not as some abstract idea, but as a group of people who have a concrete set of customs, traditions, and values. While it is related to patriotism, it is not identical. Despite the arbitrary distinction made by Thomas Kidd recently, patriotism and nationalism cannot be sharply distinguished, and patriotism doesn’t stand on its own.[3]

Patriotism is often defined as having a great feeling or a passion toward one’s people or nation, which motivates action, but patriotism lacks a rational basis as to why one should prioritize one’s responsibilities, gifts, etc., in the service of a people or nation. Nationalism recognizes the natural ties that individuals and families have to their society. And, it is these ties that sustain and preserve a people.[4]

Finally, Christian nationalism is properly understood when we realize that “religion” is a part of culture and society. A society that preserves the predominant religion of its people is preserving the basic goods of that society.

Evangelical critics of Donald Trump and his supporters often point to three things that they believe characterize the Trump brand of Christian nationalism: militarism/dictatorial leadership, dispensational eschatology, and imperialism.

Let us take militarism and dictatorial leadership. As Tom Piatak has put it: “Despite breathless warnings about Trump being a dictator, in the end the man 1) started no wars, 2) did not initiate any prosecutions of political opponents, and 3) did not use the IRS to take away the tax-exempt status of organizations opposed to his worldview.”[5] In fact, he has shown no signs of dictatorial leadership. What about “militarism,” as suggested by Thomas Kidd? Mr. Trump, in fact, comes up short here too. He has shown little by way of military retaliation overseas. Instead, he has, on the whole, shown quite a bit of restraint—especially compared to recent presidents. He pulled out troops from Afghanistan, thereby ending a 20-year war. He has effectively cut the gordian knot in the Middle East concerning Israel and Palestine. He has de-escalated the situation with North Korea’s dictator Kim Jung-Un.

In contrast, then, to both Republican and Democratic presidents, Mr. Trump has demonstrated neither a tendency toward dictatorship nor toward militarism.

There is also a common tendency to attribute dispensational eschatology to Mr. Trump and his supporters. Recent evangelicals have made these mistakes consistently.[6]

Rod Dreher, a confessing conservative himself, has been a consistent critic of Mr. Trump, his supporters, and Christian nationalists.[7] And from the start, he conflates the recent Jericho March with “Republicans” and the “Christian Right.” One example demonstrates this quite well: “Based on what I saw today, the Christians in this movement do not doubt that Trump is God’s chosen, that they, by following him, are walking in light, and whatever they do to serve Trump is also serving God. They have tightly wound apocalyptic religion to conservative politics and American nationalism.”[8]

But is this a charitable read? Whatever one’s full assessment of the Jericho March might be—and my eyebrows certainly went up at points, it is important that we frame things carefully so as not to superimpose our own theological ideas as the basis of our explanatory work. The most charitable read of the Jericho March would not entail all the conclusions that Mr. Dreher reaches. Instead, one can sympathize with the marchers’ belief that corruption of the American political system is growing, and that God’s providence is generally at work in the world, perhaps making use of even a flawed man.

Theologian Michael Horton picks up where Mr. Dreher concludes his critique, using the Jericho March as a model for how the Christian right has gone awry.[9] Mr. Horton’s intent, he claims, is not “to bind Christian consciences to his own political positions,” but to sound the warning call to avoid a kind of syncretism between the this-worldly kingdom of the natural world and the other-worldly kingdom found through the Church.[10] He seems to believe that we have vested too much of ourselves in the political powers of this world as a means for fostering a Christian nation, which he takes to be at odds with the proclamation of the Gospel. The syncretism gets worse in that the United States is taken to be a “Holy Nation,” but according to Mr. Horton, there is no “Holy Nation” in a “geopolitical sense.”

The problem again is that Mr. Horton conflates the distinctions between the this-worldly kingdom and the other-worldly kingdom as understood by Christian nationalists. Finally, Mr. Horton concludes with a conflation of Christian nationalist Trump supporters and a dispensational eschatology under the section, “End Times Conspiracy.” But, again, while this permutation may be a reflection of how some Christian nationalists understand the processes at work in the world, it is not accurate to conflate that with Trump supporters or Christian nationalists in general.

Thomas Kidd’s analysis is the most egregious. Though more direct in his accusations, he is also more clearly mistaken.[11] He attributes to the recent developments of Christian nationalism a growing assumption that the United States is the new Israel, and that America spills right off the pages of Revelation prophecies. But, again, this is a false ascription because many Christian nationalists explicitly do not read American events off the pages of Revelation nor do they affirm a dispensational eschatology; rather, many affirm a covenantal theology and an amillenial eschatology. The more egregious mistake is his terming the means by which this new set of religiously-motivated nationalists are attempting to bring heaven to earth as “militaristic.” As shown above, this characterization simply fails to apply to Mr. Trump, to many of his supporters, or to nationalists in general.

All three author’s arguments, then, are marked by factual errors and interpretive grids that are poorly imposed on Donald Trump, his supporters, and nationalists. The actual record shows a different narrative entirely. Mr. Trump’s supporters are concerned mainly with their national heritage, so that we might sustain life, property, and the American way. Preserving who we are comes first in a nationalist agenda. It precedes our concern for foreign affairs and globalist endeavors, and Mr. Trump’s record reflects this in his preoccupation with American traditions, the life of the unborn, the economy, national security, and his insistence to pull out of the Middle East.[12]

Conclusion

So, then, what really is going on here? Are these evangelical leaders hidden somewhere in a corner trying to find relevance in this politically divided nation? Are they attempting to retain some semblance of credibility with mainstream America? Or, are they simply uninformed?

While it may be unfair to identify the above evangelicals as “enemies,” it would be accurate to call them “traitorous friends” for all the reasons suggested above.[13] They have consistently mischaracterized Donald Trump, his supporters, and nationalists. They highlight that which on balance is far less serious than recent social and political developments: the plague of abortion, the breakdown of the traditional understanding of marriage, the detrimental use of identity politics, and, ultimately, the undermining of Western civilization.

So, I ask once again: Is this the legacy our evangelical elites wish to leave as we transition to another chapter of evangelical politics? With this, I leave my brothers and sisters with some remaining questions and exhortations as we move into a new season.

What is really at stake? Apparently, mis-information is at stake. Harming the body of Christ with unfounded claims about one’s brothers and sisters only furthers disunity and allows the secularists to fill the void. At a minimum, for those concerned with sustaining Western civilization, the actions of public evangelicals reveals a disordered set of priorities and a kind of straining at the gnat.

What should evangelical leaders do? Speak more carefully by fairly weighing the positions of their brothers and sisters, rather than painting them with a broad, sloppy brush. Furthermore, rather than merely offer a critique, suggest an alternative model of how Christians should interact with government.

Where does this leave us? Certainly, there remains a place at the Lord’s table for those who disagree with Christian Nationalism rightly understood. But as a citizen it is my responsibility to ensure that these people—be they imperialists who reject Trumpian “America First” principles or laissez-faire libertarians who are content to let traditional moral standards, and thus Western civilization itself, go by the wayside—do not win in the civic arena. For if they do, then there may come a day when we can’t partake of the Eucharist together.

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The featured image—President Donald J. Trump walks from the White House Monday evening, June 1, 2020, to St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the church of Presidents’s, that was damaged by fire during demonstrations in nearby LaFayette Square Sunday evening. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)—is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Even the recent Capitol riot cannot be pinned on Mr. Trump, or most of his supporters. See: “No Trump isn’t guilty of incitement.” [accessed on January 16, 2020]. In his effort to say “I told you so,” staunch and vocal never-Trumper Russell Moore joins the secular media in falsely attributing the incitement of Capitol violence to Mr. Trump. See him here: “The Roman Road from Insurrection” [accessed on January 16, 2021]. Just compare the logic used by these “evangelical elites” to that of the mainstream media. For one recent summative example, see the following: “Worshiping the Law while denying its Spirit” [accessed on December 19, 2020]. See a thoughtful response to recent denunciations of nationalism by Bradford Littlejohn, “A Sloppy Attack on National Conservatism” [accessed on December 23, 2020].

[2] The statements were made on Twitter on Dec. 12, 2020. They are, of course, not the only ones. There is a trend that has recently developed. See the following examples: “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” “Lets Talk about Christian Nationalism.” “Under God, The Rise of Christian Nationalism.” “What is Christian Nationalism.” “Tim Keller says being an evangelical is harder under Trump” [accessed on December 19, 2020].

[3] See Thomas Kidd, where he distinguishes nationalism from patriotism, “Christian Nationalism vs. Christian Patriotism” [accessed on December 19, 2020]. The distinction he gives is rather arbitrary. In fact, it is difficult to understand his distinction.

[4] Of course there are variations of nationalism that have a shared set of ideas. There is political nationalism, cultural nationalism, and economic nationalism. See the helpful work by Yoram Hazony, The Case for Nationalism (Basic Books, 2019). Building on Mr. Hazony’s work, there is a recent website devoted to nationalism: National Conservatism [accessed on December 19, 2020]. For a defense of economic nationalism, see Darrel Dow’s helpful article: “Economic Nationalism” [accessed on December 19, 2020]. For a theological defense, see John Rushdoony, “From the Easy Chair, War.” For an alternative defense of nationalism from a Roman Catholic perspective that is grounded in a robust view of natural law from the perspective of Pope John Paul II, see: “Pope John Paul II and the Theology of the Nation” [accessed on December 19, 2020]. Also see an official site on Christian nationalism here: About Christian Nationalism [accessed on December 19, 2020].

[5]The Hysteria Worked for Now” [accessed on December 19, 2020].

[6] These are not the only examples, but they happen to be the most recent, and, possibly, some of the more glaring examples. Both Christianity Today and Together for the Gospel have and continue to wrongly attribute all sorts of errors to Mr. Trump, his supporters, and nationalists. For other examples, see the following: “Lets Talk about Christian Nationalism”; “Christian Nationalism Leveled by a Conservative”; “How Postmodern Pseudo-Prophecy Dishonors God” [accessed on December 23, 2020]. Nationalism and Donald Trump have become hobby horses of these two popular evangelical sources, but they frequently repeat the errors described in this article.

[7] It has been argued that he is himself a nationalist of a sort and he writes for a journal, the American Conservative, that has historically been a nationalist source, but for those committed nationalists it is difficult to discern where he is politically.

[8]What I saw at the Jericho March” [accessed on December 22, 2020].

[9] Mr. Horton has made these weak associations before, but his analysis often lacks a bit of analytic clarity. See: “Christians Cannot Let Fear Guide their Support for Trump”; “Theology of Donald Trump”; “The Cult of Christian Trumpism” [accessed on December 22, 2020].

[10]The Cult of Christian Trumpism” [accessed on December 22, 2020].

[11]Christian Nationalism vs. Christian Patriotism”  [accessed on December 22, 2020].

[12]Is Our Second Civil War also a Forever War”; “Why Evangelicals Should Vote for Donald Trump.” [accessed on December 22, 2020].

[13]My New Year’s Resolution: Make More Enemies.” [accessed on January 16, 2021]. I am reminded of this term from David Deavel’s recent and helpful essay, in which he makes a distinction between “traitorous friends” and “enemies.” In one sense, the former can have a greater psychological effect on the latter due to the expectations that come with each distinctly.

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