Baptizing Politics

Paul D. Miller September/October 2023
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Christian nationalism in global perspective.
Illustrations by Alex Nabaum

In 1992 Benjamin Barber suggested that the post–cold war world would be shaped by a contest between “Jihad” and “McWorld.”1 Jihad was the name he picked not just for Islamist movements but for all political movements founded on cultural, religious, or national particularity. “McWorld” was his name for globalization, capitalism, and the spread of a global monoculture. Jihad was the specific, the tribal, the local; McWorld was the global, the universal, and the general.

Do Christians have a dog in this fight? Some Christians in the past felt instinctively drawn to McWorld because universalism seemed to mirror something about Christianity. The global church is a gathering of people “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” (Revelation 7:9, ESV),2 and if globalization makes the world look a little like this vision, surely that can’t be bad.

In recent years the opposite view has been ascendant. To many of today’s Christians, McWorld looks like oppression, imperialism, and tyranny, and some feel conscience-bound to oppose it in the name of justice. And some have gone further. Some feel that Christianity itself is one of the particular identities that globalization threatens. For these Christians, resisting globalization—or “globalism”—is not just a matter of abstract justice but of protecting and restoring a specifically Christian national identity. For them, Christian nationalism is the cause of our times.

Dueling Forces

The resurgence of nationalism in the 21st century is a response to decades of weakening national identities driven by globalization. After the end of the cold war, dozens of countries in Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union, Africa, and Latin America transitioned to some form of democratic and capitalist systems and joined the emerging global economic and trading regime. But that came with a price: every country that participated, including the United States, had to open itself up to foreign investment, multinational corporations, and the creative destruction—which sometimes felt more destructive than creative—of hypercompetitive global capitalism. McWorld felt condescending, arrogant, bland, imperial, and soulless.

Barber correctly saw that the two movements fed off each other. The more McWorld made inroads around the world, the more it provoked a “jihadist” reaction among locals everywhere who rejected the technocratic efficiency it promised at the price of their local identity. But the more local movements resisted globalization, the more they looked reactionary, hidebound to the past, inefficient, and probably bigoted. Their very existence became an argument to push the future forward ever more aggressively.

Subnational identities reemerged with a vengeance. In the 1990s, civil war erupted in Yugoslavia and Afghanistan along ethnic and religious lines; ethnic and sectarian violence wracked Armenia, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan; genocide tore Rwanda apart and sent chaos tumbling into the Democratic Republic of the Congo next door. In the developed world subnational identities led to calls for autonomy, decentralization, and secession, from the Quebecois of Canada, Catalonians of Spain, and Scots of Britain to the Flemish and Walloons of Belgium and the “velvet divorce” of Czechs from Slovaks.

The rise of reactionary, atavistic subnational identities accelerated in recent years, some of it fueled by the 2008 financial crisis, the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, and the 2020 pandemic. In 2005 French and Dutch voters shocked Europe by voting down a proposed constitution of the European Union. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was elected prime minister of Turkey in 2003 and Viktor Orbán was elected prime minister of Hungary in 2010. The ruling Law and Justice Party in Poland and Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in Israel began moving in markedly nationalist directions around the same time.

Scotland almost voted for independence in 2014, the same year India’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was voted into power. The British voted to leave the European Union in 2016, America elected Donald Trump the same year, Brazil elected Jair Bolsonaro in 2019, France’s far right National Rally Party gained ground, and Italy elected Giorgia Meloni in 2022.

Most significantly Vladimir Putin refounded Russia as a nationalist regime, reestablished dictatorial control, and in 2022 launched a nationalist war to—as he claimed—reunify the Slavic and Orthodox people and reclaim Russia’s Kievan birthplace. “Ukraine” was not a real country, he explained. The Russian nation was real, and it had a right to take back what the Soviet Union had wrongly given away.

Homegrown Nationalism

In virtually all these cases, religion plays a role; most national identities are tinged with a religious strain. Turkish and Pakistani nationalism is Islamic; Brazilian nationalism is Catholic; Russian nationalism is Orthodox; Indian nationalism is Hindu; Israeli nationalism is Jewish.

What about American nationalism? The American case is uniquely complex because of the circumstances of its founding and the role that liberal ideals have played in American self-definition. Because the colonists were English and Scottish; Episcopalian, Congregationalist, Presbyterian, and Baptist (and Methodist, Quaker, and Universalist); Virginian and New Englander, they could not define “America” as any one of those things. “America” had to be broader and more inclusive. Enlightenment rhetoric about liberty and equality bound together an otherwise diverse people: e pluribus unum.

But the Enlightenment rhetoric covered a multitude of sins. The diversity that the Founders embraced did not reach wide enough to encompass the Indians and Africans in their midst. And despite Charles Carroll’s signature on the Declaration of Independence, they continued to have serious doubts about including Roman Catholics. America was very much a nation of Anglo-Protestants.

Classically, scholars used to distinguish between “ethnic” and “civic” American nationalism, the first rooted in shared culture, heritage, or ethnicity, and the second in notions of civic identity or liberal ideals. Religion is a third important headwater that feeds into the broad river of American national identity. At various points different people have defined America as a nation of White Europeans; or a nation of Protestants; or a nation of all citizens who pledge loyalty to the U.S. Constitution.

Often the three have mixed and mingled inconsistently. Note how John Jay appeals to all of the above in Federalist No. 2: “Providence has been pleased to give us this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.”

Jay was wrong, of course—he could see only the people “descended from the same ancestors” because he was a racist, and “the same religion” because he was a sectarian—but it was a myth that helped create a sense of unity among the fractious early colonies. Christianity, especially the Anglo-Protestant variety, has often played that role in American history. It is the glue that has held together our social fabric, the ordering framework of our public lives, the cultural underpinnings and unspoken norms that helped us feel like one nation when so many other forces made us feel otherwise.

That is also why American nationalism—when it does not take the form of overtly racist White nationalism—reaches for the language of Christianity, especially Protestant Christianity. Christianity provides the language, the symbolism, the myths and memories of American nationhood. The flip side is that American Christians, for generations, saw the project of American nation building as a Christian project and religious duty. White American Protestants have felt a sense of ownership over and responsibility for the American experiment, as if we are the rightful owners of the American brand and are entitled to a preeminence of place in American culture.

Christian Jihad?

In any country the majority religion ends up playing a social function whether it happens to be true or not. Religion promotes social cohesion and establishes standards of conduct. But when a historically predominant religion declines, those vested in its social position are threatened. They naturally fight back. They seek to revive and entrench the social, cultural, and political life of the old ways. This is exactly what we have seen all around the world in recent decades.

American Christianity is declining, and its decline helps explain the rise of evangelical tribalism and Christian nationalism. “In 1976, roughly eight in ten (81 percent) Americans identified as White and identified with a Christian denomination,” according to PRRI. “By 2006, that number dropped to 54 percent. . . . Today, only 43 percent of Americans identify as White and Christian—and only 30 percent as White and Protestant.”3 As numbers shrink, so does political and cultural clout—and, inversely, a movement to revive American Christianity gains ground. As the global context shows, there is nothing especially unique or surprising about this.

Should we join the movement? That depends; the movement can take different forms. It can be a wholly beneficial movement to revive our churches through preaching, discipleship, acts of mercy, holiness, and fellowship. It can be a cultural movement to teach about the influence of Christianity in American history—which can be good or bad, depending on the version of history being taught and how truthful it is.

It can be a political movement, and this is where it gets complicated, because political Christianity itself can take different forms. I want to help revive a Christian understanding of justice rooted in ordered liberty and human dignity as institutionalized in the rule of law and constitutionalism. I want to be part of a movement to defend unborn life, religious freedom for all, and the integrity of families. If that is the form revived political Christianity takes in America, count me in.

But there is another form, one that has stronger parallels to the various religious nationalisms we see around the world. It amounts to Barber’s “jihadist” or tribalist reactionary politics. It wants prayer back in public schools, crosses on public land, immigration restricted to Jews and Christians, and public morals enforced by the state under Christian control. In this form “Christian” is a tribal identity marker more than a transnational and timeless faith. It is an inherited identity, like an ethnicity, passed down by default regardless of one’s beliefs or church­​going practices. Defending “Christianity” is more about tribal power than Christian principle.

This kind of “Christian” nationalism is “Christian” only incidentally, because the nationalists who make use of it happen to live in a society in which Christianity was historically predominant. If they lived in another country, they’d be religious nationalists of a different religion. They’re more interested in the social function of religion—the cohesion, moral policework, and tribal status—than the particulars of theology.

Baptizing the Political

Nationalism is a global phenomenon, and everywhere it advances, it does so by making use of the extraordinary power of religion. Political entrepreneurs tell religious voters that God is on their side, that their political agenda is righteous, that true believers will give them their votes. It can be hard for religious believers to disagree. “The protection of the constitutional identity and Christian culture of Hungary shall be an obligation of every organ of the state,” commands the Hungarian constitution. How can a Hungarian Catholic not support that? “America is a Christian nation,” according to the Christian Right. What could be wrong with that?

“You will recognize them by their fruits,” Jesus reminded us (Matthew 7:16, ESV). We can judge the merits of any political movement, including political Christianity, by examining its fruit, the record of its actions in power, what sort of vision of justice it upholds. We can ignore the rhetoric and look at the works. If the works are not the works of mercy, justice, and peace, we can, and should, refuse to cooperate with Christian nationalism, no matter how loudly it professes its Christian bona fides.

What are the works of nationalism? The problem with nationalism is that plenty of people do not want to be part of whatever culture the state tries to enforce as the national model. In the face of cultural pluralism, change, and dissent, the nation can enforce its traditions, heritage, and identity only through coercion. Christians will have to use force to make their fellow citizens into good nationalists. The firstfruit of nationalism is authoritarianism. Nationalism is, by definition, illiberal—inconsistent with the classical eighteenth-century ideals of the Enlightenment and the founding—and the longer nationalist movements stay in power, the more pronounced and unchecked their illiberalism becomes.

For example, precisely as Hungary has drifted toward nationalism and inserted “Christianity” into its constitution, it has also gradually abandoned many of the key safeguards of an open society. Since 2010 Orbán’s government has “pushed through constitutional and legal changes that have allowed it to consolidate control over the country’s independent institutions,” and legally harassed “opposition groups, journalists, universities, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) that are critical of the ruling party,” according to Freedom House.4

That’s one of the more benign examples. The global and historical record of nationalism is troubling—and that is an understatement. Historically, nationalism has an unsettling tendency to attract racist, xenophobic, and sectarian fellow travelers. Putin’s war is the parable of the age. In the name of serving the Russian nation and with the blessing of the Russian Orthodox Church, Putin has murdered tens of thousands of human beings and brought the world closer to global war than at any time since the end of the cold war. He did so claiming it was a Christian duty to “unify” the Slavic, Orthodox people under Moscow—people he calls Russians, but who call themselves Ukrainians.

Most damningly, the Russian Orthodox Church has thrown in its lot wholesale with Putin’s murderous war, disgracing itself and dishonoring the name of Jesus. Christians who want to use the state to defend a Christian national identity find themselves complicit with whatever else that government does; in turn, the government uses them to baptize its policies with their approval. The heyday of American Protestant nationalism overlapped with slavery and segregation, and many Americans were more than happy to accommodate their theology to their nation’s racist sense of itself.

The Main Point

Nationalism is a dangerous path; Christian nationalism doubly so. (That doesn’t mean globalism is the right answer; that has its own, very different dangers.) Nationalism turns Christianity primarily into a political project with all the temptations and compromises inherent to politics. Yes, Christianity has political implications, but those are incidental to the main point. C. S. Lewis warned against turning Christianity into the handmaiden of some otherworldly cause; he insisted in Mere Christianity: Christ for His own sake, not for what following Him gets us in this life. Social cohesion is not the point of our religion. Jesus did not come among us to promote a certain cultural blueprint. The church doesn’t exist to do moral policework among the unconverted. The resurrection of Christendom is not the point of Christianity.

Christian political theology should be rooted in the creation mandate to cultivate the garden of creation; in the commission God gave to government in Romans 13 to bear the sword against evildoers; and in Jesus’ command that we love our neighbors. We are to love our neighbors, including in our political lives. How do we show them love politically? Do we love our neighbors by using force to compel them to conform to our cultural preferences? Or do we love them by pursuing justice and upholding a framework of ordered liberty for all? Which is more “Christian”: a democracy that respects the rule of law and treats all citizens equally, or a tyrant waving the cross?

1 Benjamin R. Barber, “Jihad vs. McWorld,” The Atlantic, March 1992.

2 Scripture quotations marked ESV are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

3 Daniel Cox and Robert P. Jones, “America’s Changing Religious Identity,” Public Religion Research Institute, September 6, 2017.

4 “Hungary Country Report,” Freedom in the World 2023: Marking 50 Years in the Struggle for Democracy, Freedom House, March 2023.

Article Author: Paul D. Miller

Paul D. Miller is professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He spent a decade in public service as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff, an intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, and a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army. He is a widely published author, with his work appearing in major national publications. His most recent book is The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2022). Follow him on Twitter at @PaulDMiller2.