Without unity among Christians, there can be no Christian state.
In this article, I will assess the present viability of Christian nationalism as a strategy for the American right. I make these arguments as a “double outsider,” which is to say, as someone who is neither American nor Christian. But I hope this distance can bring a certain degree of objective neutrality to the analysis.
Andrew Torba, better known as the chief executive of the Twitter alternative Gab.com, and Andrew Isker, who is a pastor for a Wesleyan church, have written the book called Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide For Taking Dominion And Discipling Nations (2022). Christian nationalism has also become the rallying call of the online personality Nick Fuentes and his Groyper movement, a group of radically right, mostly Gen Z young men, who seek to supplant the establishment Republican Party. Torba was a financial sponsor of Fuentes’s recent America First Political Action Conference event. There is also Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism, and many lesser known Christian nationalists too numerous to list.
Torba and Isker advocate a tactical parallelism to reassert the Christian character of the United States. “Cut the cable cord. Cancel Netflix. Delete your Big Tech accounts,” they advise. Devote time instead to proselytizing, home-schooling your children, and taking over local government institutions through grassroots organizing. To the extent that “organization is oligarchy,” as the elite-theory sociologist Robert Michels once said, the last of these strategies could well work, but it is the organizational principle rather than the Christianity that would achieve such a result. But, as we shall see, grass-roots organizing is easier said than done.
Before outlining my own arguments, it is worth making the strongest case possible for Christian nationalism—the “steelman” rather than “strawman” argument, if you like. This is not provided by Torba and Isker, whose book is largely concerned with issues of the “culture wars” and Torba’s ongoing feud with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Some might claim that Christian nationalism is an
oxymoron since nationalism implies a kind of separatism and Christianity implies a universal inclusion of all peoples through evangelization. To refute this claim, the Christian nationalist must turn to Genesis 11:1-9 and the story of the Tower of Babel, which is the plainest statement in the Bible that God did not intend for there to be a one-world government, that he intended there to be different peoples and different nations and that they should not understand one another.
To counter the objection that all of this changed with the coming of Jesus, the Christian nationalist would then rightly point out that the Book of Revelation makes it clear that at the time of the Last Judgment and Armageddon, there are still clearly separate peoples and nations. Therefore, it is incumbent on the good Christian to combat globalism and to maintain the separation of the nations, including the defence of his or her own nation from foreign invaders.
This does not necessitate a return to throne-and-altar politics or to a Geneva-like theocratic state because the Christian nationalist can lean on the “two swords doctrine” developed in the Middle Ages; a spiritual sword wielded by the pope and the material sword wielded by the Holy Roman Emperor (though under papal authority). However, Protestants, such as Torba and Isker, also adopt a version of this view developed by Martin Luther from Augustine’s City of God, the “two kingdoms doctrine.” This doctrine posits a clearer separation between the spiritual realm, which is the domain of the church, and a secular realm, the domain of temporal leaders. Here it is articulated by Luther:
God has therefore ordained two regiment[s]: the spiritual which by the Holy Spirit produces Christians and pious folk under Christ, and the secular which restrains un-Christian and evil folk, so that they are obliged to keep outward peace, albeit by no merit of their own.
Thus, the maintenance of good government in the temporal sense is a Christian duty. As Torba and Isker state,
When a certain activity or behavior is found to be a danger to society, and such dangerous activity can be mitigated by law, without the risk of creating a police state (which itself is unchristian), Christians have the moral duty to act, bringing the full force of government to bear.
Thus, Christians are justified in being both nationalists and actively involved in politics. In what follows, I do not argue against either of these claims, but rather against the notion that Christian nationalism will be the tonic with which to cure America’s ills.
In 1725, writing at a time when Europe was overwhelmingly Christian and before either the U.S. or his native Italy were legally nation-states, Giambattista Vico believed Western civilization had already embarked on its death spiral. For Vico, the appearance of Socrates in Ancient Greece did not mark that civilization’s greatest achievement, but rather the beginning of its end. While the worship of reason may bring with it material benefits, greater peace and sophistication, it also invites what Vico called “the barbarism of reflection.” The genuine fear of the gods that served as such a strong spiritual and cultural catalyst in prior eras could, after Socrates, be explained away as irrational superstition.
More importantly, the moral commands accompanying the fear of the gods were now open to question and even to overturning. Eventually, the population would become so atomized and individualistic that each person is free to follow “his own” morality. Demands for the democratization of every part of life increase, and, in the words of W. B. Yeats, “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Society thus regresses back to barbarism, where people will lack “sophistication” and are able to fear the gods in earnest once again—and thus the cycle starts anew.
Vico, along with René Descartes, argued that the Christian civilization, which had been manured and fertilized by the ashes of the old Roman one, had entered its own barbarism of reflection. Fast-forward to today, and “polite society” must maintain the fiction that men are women, and vice versa. When Vico described the reversion to animal barbarity, one suspects he would never in his wildest nightmares have envisioned what the average Twitter user today witnesses in any given afternoon.
At the time Vico was writing, one would imagine that church attendance in the Kingdom of Naples, where he lived, was close to 100 percent. Vico’s observation about what was happening was not a matter of how many people attended Mass or even what they professed to believe. It was a deeper and more spiritual problem that manifests in an entire orientation towards the world. Once you have deconstructed and rationalized the world, you cannot go back to embodying in earnest the heroic ideals of the past. People would be much too knowing, much too cynical, to believe that their king or pope, or indeed any leader, was the embodiment of Divine Will on earth.
To illustrate the point, let us consider historian Brooks Adams’ description in The Law of Civilization and Decay, written in 1895, of the encounter between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII during the Investiture Controversy, in 1077:
Henry marched on Italy, but in all European history there has been no drama more tremendous than the expiation of his sacrilege. To his soldiers the world was a vast space, peopled by those fantastic beings which are still seen on Gothic towers. These demons obeyed the monk of Rome, and his army, melting from the emperor under a nameless horror, left him helpless.
Gregory lay like a magician in the fortress of Canossa; but he had no need of carnal weapons, for when the emperor reached the Alps, he was almost alone. Then his imagination also took fire, the panic seized him, and he sued for mercy.
Now let us try to imagine Joe Biden in the same frame of mind before Pope Francis. My point is, I think, made. Even with the best will in the world, most people in the West, regardless of who they are, cannot get back to the mindset embodied by the soldiers of Henry IV in 1077.
Perhaps Nietzsche put it best: “God is dead.” This saying does not necessarily mean that one can no longer believe in God or in a transcendent metaphysical world beyond ours. But it does mean that the lived reality of someone today, let us say, picking up a Starbucks coffee on their way to work, is embodied in a mundane material world, Vico’s “Age of Men.”
If someone went, for example, to his local church congregation speaking and thinking like an 11th-century knight, he would be quite rightly thought to be insane by his fellow churchgoers. This is the problem of historicity in a nutshell: you cannot ahistorically return to some other mode of being. This is not to assert the myth of Progress—Vico, to be sure, was a profoundly anti-progressive thinker —it is rather to realize the limits of the possible.
Torba and Isker complain that many people in America who call themselves “Christians” fail to embody the ideals of the religion. They write,
Unfortunately many American Christians have adopted a secular human worldview. Instead of worshipping God, they worship idols in the form of celebrities, sports players, and even politicians. They are “Christian” in name only. They seek comfort and fleeting pleasure over the suffering and courage it takes to live an unapologetic and authentic Christian life. They are lukewarm Christians. We are here to tell you today that lukewarm Christianity is over. Christians need to rise up and proclaim the name of Jesus Christ the King of Kings to the world.
I suggest, as per the analysis above, that most Christians will find it almost impossible to embody transcendental ideals at the present time because it is not as easy as simply turning off Netflix, putting down the Starbucks, and going to church. One still will not reignite the genuine fear of the gods that people in the ages of gods and heroes would have felt. Even if, by some long ritualistic process, one is able to foster it in oneself, the reality is that most people will not be able to; such a person will be an abnormality, an anachronism in the current age.
In reality, Christian nationalism does not actually embody these ideals either. Its aesthetics are those of populism in the Trumpian mold—irreverent, edgy, often foul-mouthed, and counter-cultural—a mode that sticks it to the stuffed shirts in Washington, exactly opposite of, say, someone like former National Review editor Jonah Goldberg. In other words, it is MAGA.
Christian nationalism’s outward manifestation as MAGA reveals a core aspect of its inner being, which has nothing to do with Christianity, even if many of its members are Christians. I think it was and still is a genuine expression of an American populism that reflects the spirit of individualism and democratization that characterized the 1960s counterculture. The typical Trump rally is a carnival of dancing and pop music, warmed-over Cold War tropes, appeals to liberal American icons such as JFK and even MLK, and liberal values such as individualism and democracy. It might not be what you or I want, but it is in keeping with the Age of Men, in tune with its zeitgeist.
My own diagnosis in my book The Populist Delusion has been that it is not enough simply to be popular; this changes nothing. In order to impose change, you must also form an effective counter-elite, or the system will destroy you, as it has been trying to do to Trump and his allies for years now, with some success.
The attempts to turn—some might say subvert—MAGA into something else, whether that is Catholic integralism or Christian nationalism or, indeed, any number of other quite distinct political projects, has been interesting to watch. But they have nothing to do with what made the phenomenon of Trump in 2015 and 2016 so spectacular. In fact, these overtly religious appliqués represent, in many ways, a return to the sort of social conservatism which has been losing elections and institutional power for the past 70 years.
In 1967, the Detroit Riot resulted in 43 deaths, 1,189 injured, and over 7,200 arrests; more than 400 buildings were destroyed. The city was overwhelmingly Christian at that time. In fact, as Angela D. Dillard’s Faith in the City: Preaching Radical Social Change in Detroit (2007) shows, the African-American clergy were intimately connected to the civil rights movement and used the church as a method of counter-elite organization.
The black nationalist reverend Albert B. Cleage, Jr., for example, established the Central United Church of Christ in the 1950s. In 1967, he installed an 18-foot-high painting of the Black Madonna in his church and, in 1970, renamed it the Shrine of the Black Madonna Pan-African Orthodox Christian Church.
Since then, the city has gone from being the fifth largest in the United States, with a population of over 1.8 million in 1950, to less than 633,000 today. We might wonder in earnest why white Christians engaged en masse in white flight from their devout black co-religionists of the type who erected the Black Madonna. The country has still not found a reasonable way of talking about white flight from mixed-race urban areas. Even white liberals who mouthed the pieties of Black Lives Matter eventually quietly abandoned the city neighborhoods wracked by the fiery BLM protests of 2020.
The U.S. is divided on issues of race, gender roles, sexuality, abortion, and so much more. Factors such as race, college education, and gender can predict with increasing accuracy which party someone will vote for. Aside from unmarried college-educated women, the white population of the U.S. now votes in the majority for the Republicans. The black population overwhelmingly votes for Democrats. The so-called Hispanic population, which is made of many different ethnicities and does not represent a true voting bloc, splits about two-thirds for Democrats and one-third for the Republicans.
The world views of America’s two parties are now so far apart that each one sees victory by the other as an existential threat. America is falling apart because of this. Any solution to its ills needs to take stock of these realities rather than wilfully deny them, which has been the strategy for at least the past 50 years.
Near the start of their book, Torba and Isker state,
Christianity is not limited to any race, ethnicity or culture (1 Cor. 12:13, Gal. 3:27-29). Therefore, Christian Nationalism cannot be limited to any race, ethnicity or culture. As Christians, following in obedience to the command of Jesus Christ to go and make disciples of all nations, our primary goal is to always preach the gospel of Jesus Christ first (Matt. 28:19-20).
This, in effect, repeats the mainstream Republican refusal to confront racial divisions. In the recent 2022 midterms, had there only been white voters, the GOP would have won a resounding landslide victory. This has been the case for some time.
America’s political climate has been such that progressive forces, and Democrats wherever they are in power, have pushed for what is in effect a two-tiered justice system that increasingly turns a blind eye to the transgressions of favored mascot groups. It is Sam Francis’s “anarcho-tyranny” dialled up to 11. America’s 10 most violent cities all have significant black populations that also happen to commit most of the violent crime. These are all majority Christian cities.
Torba and Isker do not even attempt to suggest how Christian nationalism might realistically deal with the racial divide or indeed whether black churches would be invited to be part of their coalition. Such a union would represent a significant challenge, because black churches have aligned themselves with the “woke” left, just as they were aligned with the civil rights activists in the 1960s. In their current form, black churches would no doubt frame Christian nationalism as a form of anti-black racism.
Churches have a long history of acting as conduits of temporal power. Recently, Pope Francis denounced “the sirens of populism” and has consistently voiced support for the current globalist regime. “Render unto Caesar,” as the Bible says. Of course, the initial reference was regarding the legitimacy of paying taxes. But when Caesar became a German warlord, Christians became warlike and somehow found justifications for murderous conquest. When Caesar became a merchant, Christians found arguments to justify commerce. Now that Caesar has become a globalist-backed Equality, Diversity and Inclusion officer, many Christian churches have dutifully flown the rainbow flag.
This malleability to secular power has been one of the factors that led Christianity to becoming the world’s most populous religion, but it also means that each local manifestation of Christianity retains a strong element of preceding customs, cultures, and tribal affiliations. Christian groups in America are no different. In fact, there is already a split between Protestant Christian nationalists, as represented by Torba and Isker, and Catholic Christian nationalists, as represented by Fuentes, who is half Mexican, as well as the more mainstream Catholic integralists writing for magazines like First Things and Compact. There are also lesser-known Lutheran and Orthodox Christian nationalist factions.
“The most substantial cultural and political divides are between white Christians and Christians of color,” a Public Religion Research Institute report observed in 2020. But there is also the problem of divisions between Christians and non-Christians in America. Both Torba and Fuentes have had numerous run-ins with the ADL and its president, Jonathan Greenblatt, who has rushed to call them anti-Semites. Torba and Isker devote special time and attention to the question of Zionism in their book, even providing trolling instructions for “lazy journalists” on how to search for “Jews” in the book.
The problem for Torba and Isker is that the most pro-Zionist voices in America are their fellow Christians, the evangelicals. The fact is that there are more Christian Zionists than there are Jews who believe that the modern state of Israel was given to the Jewish people by God.
Thus, before it even gets going—even assuming that its Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox factions could unite as one (which, given the abrasive personalities of faction leaders like Torba and Fuentes, is doubtful to last for long)—Christian nationalism is going to have to overcome interdenominational doctrinal disputes.
Even supposing they can find the theological wherewithal to do this, the likes of Torba and Fuentes have, as far as I’m aware, no backing from mainstream churches, plenty of enemies in mainstream media, and the ADL and other Jewish groups arrayed against them. They would need to carry out what would be nothing less than a revolution or “circulation of elites” within the leadership of most churches, replacing many of the existing cardinals, priests, and pastors with a Christian nationalist counter-clergy. Catholics would, it seems to me, quite literally need to install a new pope.
Christian nationalists would need to transform the institutions of Christianity in much the manner that Donald Trump has been replacing establishment GOP politicians with MAGA loyalists “from the top down” against the resistance of Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and company, who have tried to undermine such efforts. At present, I see virtually no plans from any of the leaders of Christian nationalism to make such a thing happen. And the idea that a Christian nationalism might take off through a few internet personalities and renegade politicians is, I’m afraid, politically naïve to the point of fantasy.