In the opening pages of his newly published polemic against Christian nationalism, American Idolatry, Christian sociologist Andrew Whitehead describes his unsettling discovery, as a young man, of tension between his identities as a Christian and an American. In his childhood church, the “American flag and the Christian flag at the front of the sanctuary symbolized the close connection between the two,” he writes. “To be one was to be the other,” and finding space between them was “disorienting” and “uncomfortable.”
As Whitehead’s faith matured, he left behind the unconscious Christian nationalism of his youth. But in that same span, a large swath of the American Right—some evangelicals and other professing Christians included—have taken it up, in many cases explicitly adopting the label.
When I began researching my own book on the subject, the term wasn’t in wide use, but it went mainstream in 2021 following the January 6 attack on the US Capitol, where symbols of Christianity mixed freely with political violence. Since then, Christian nationalism has been widely advocated in works such as Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s (R-Ga.) reportedly forthcoming book by the same name. Critique of the belief has accumulated, too, in books like Whitehead’s and mine.
But a troubling third branch of the conversation has also sprouted: anti-anti-Christian nationalism. It’s a branch that should be cut off.
Following the pattern of anti-anti-Trumpism, anti-anti-Christian nationalism is not in favor of its object—or, at least, not openly so. But Christian nationalists and anti-anti-Christian nationalists (CNs) share enemies in common: Anti-anti-CNs busy themselves with warning of the dangers not of Christian nationalism itself but of warning against Christian nationalism.
We critics are at risk, anti-anti-CNs say, of exaggerating the threat, smearing fellow believers, and giving aid and comfort to the secular Left. We are mischaracterizing the church, they charge, caricaturing the average American Christian, and telling the elites exactly what they already believe about “those people.” There is a class component to some of this, pitting salt-of-the-earth regular Christians of the heartland against the sneering, condescending elites of academia and the media out to tar Christianity as an extremist movement.
Daily Wire reporter Megan Basham is a prominent voice in this camp. Critiquing an upcoming event with Southern Baptist Convention President Bart Barber, for example, she laid out low expectations for the panel discussion of the “pernicious rise of Christian nationalism.”
“I think the question is whether they will reflect Christian Nationalism as its proponents would define it, and not the way that secularists who might want to use it for scaremongering would define it,” Basham wrote last month on X (formerly Twitter). “Because misrepresenting what Christian brothers mean when they talk about it in front of unbelievers would obviously be an issue. I have no problem with critiquing it, it just has to be done in good faith. And that title ‘perniciousness’ sure seems to suggest that’s not the aim.”
Her push for fair, charitable representation of opponents’ views is well made (and it is why I spent a chapter defining Christian nationalism in the words of its own advocates before I critiqued it). But Basham’s phrasing here points to a serious flaw in the anti-anti-CN approach: It suggests that Christian nationalism is all but indistinguishable from well-intended God-and-country patriotism, just one of many legitimate political options for American Christians.
This is a false equivalence. Patriotism—an affectionate, open gratitude for the blessings of our life here—is a virtue, which is why is it so important to distinguish it from the vice of nationalism. And it is a vice, though anti-anti-CNs depict Christian nationalism as mainstream, harmless—even beneficial—and peaceful, while they cast the act of warning against Christian nationalism as unfair and counterproductive because of what it slanderously implies about fellow believers.
Anti-anti-CN arguments like Basham’s are plausible to the average conservative American Christian because there’s real ambiguity within Christian nationalism. As in all social movements, Christian nationalism exists along a spectrum. There is a moderate end filled with Christians who love their country but have some confused theology about how church and state relate. These are the people Basham’s post invoked when she talked about misrepresenting fellow Christians.
But there is also, indisputably, an extremist end filled with political agitators who use Christianity to cloak an illiberal, conspiratorial, even violent agenda.
Christian nationalism is increasingly mainstream, but even its moderate form is not benign. It is pernicious: Moderate Christian nationalism is theologically and politically damaging, while extremist Christian nationalism is dangerous in more direct and obvious ways. Describing Christian nationalism as “pernicious” does not preclude describing it fairly, and that is exactly why anti-anti-Christian nationalism is wrong.
Both moderate and extremist Christian nationalism have their scholarly advocates and their populist embodiments. They also share core beliefs about Christianity and America: that America is a “Christian nation”—definitionally marked by Christian values, heritage, norms, symbols, and rhetoric—and that the government should keep it that way.
Beyond conscious belief, Christian nationalism is also an attitude, a stance toward America and the world, a way of situating ourselves and our nation in a moral and theological framework. In this framework, Christianity and America go together: Christian nationalism is a presumption that Christians are America’s first citizens, architects, and guardians and that we have the right to define the nation’s culture and identity. And, crucially, it is an assumption that the government has rightful jurisdiction over the nation’s cultural and religious identity—something our Constitution forbids and, for Christians like me who oppose state-mandated religion, something our faith rejects.
Like any ideology, Christian nationalism can be espoused peacefully or violently. Thus Christian nationalism is both a broad, mainstream phenomenon that encompasses beliefs and practices that are popular and peaceful as well as (I believe) unjust and wrong and an extremist movement that dabbles in unfounded conspiracy theories and political violence.
What does this distinction look like in practice? Moderate Christian nationalism is posting Psalm 33:12 (“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”) on Memorial Day or Independence Day, emblazoned over an American flag. Extreme Christian nationalism is flying the Christian flag and playing worship music while beating police officers and trying to overturn the 2020 election.
Moderate Christian nationalism is the sort found in Rich Lowry’s book, The Case for Nationalism. Extreme Christian nationalism is the sort found in Wolfe’s book.
Moderates are not the people who stormed the Capitol, but they might be the ones who gave Fox News and OANN clicks and ratings every time they ran a story calling into question the 2020 election. They are not the ones attending white nationalist conventions that platform openly racist figures like commentator Nick Fuentes, but perhaps they watch ex-Fox pundit Tucker Carlson, who recently (without evidence) praised Hungary and Russia as examples of Christian nations.
That spectrum is what allows anti-anti-CNs to argue that Christian nationalism is no big deal and that its Christian critics, like Barber (or me), are unfairly smearing siblings in Christ. Christian nationalism is big and broad, and parts of it do look benign and peaceful. Nothing to see here, just some faithful American patriots who love their country. But parts of it are self-evidently extreme and dangerous, and they can’t be dismissed as a minority fringe with no bearing on the moderate majority.
It is precisely this connection that is at issue: The anti-anti-Christian nationalist position overlooks the relationship between extremists and mainstream movements and the responsibility of the latter to police the former.
A more ethically straightforward and politically distant example may help us see more clearly here. For decades, Sinn Féin, a political party in Northern Ireland, acted as the political arm of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA), a terrorist group fighting to end British rule in Northern Ireland. The two groups were formally separate but shared the same goals and, sometimes, overlapping membership. The party pursued Irish irredentism through the political process, including by running for and winning seats in the British and Northern Irish parliaments. The IRA pursued it through tactics more violent than anything that happened on January 6, including intimidation, assassination, and bombings.
Sinn Féin gave political representation to the IRA. And, in practice, the IRA gave Sinn Féin an edge in political bargaining. Sinn Féin could present themselves as moderate compared to the murderers on their side. Sinn Féin could always argue that if they did not get their way, republican frustration would boil over and fuel the IRA’s terrorist campaign.
IRA violence hung like Damocles’ sword over Northern Irish politics. If the political process didn’t produce outcomes favorable to the republican cause, terrorism was always possible. The Sinn Féin–IRA alliance enabled the republican side to have its cake and eat it too: I tried to play fair, but look what you made me do.
Was Sinn Féin morally untainted by the IRA’s terrorism? Of course not. By benefiting from the IRA’s campaign, refusing to cut ties with them, and issuing hollow denunciations unsupported by any concrete action against the terrorist group, Sinn Féin was complicit in the IRA’s extremism—and guilty of mendacity for pretending it wasn’t. The IRA was at least honest about its murder. Sinn Féin used its relative moderation as a shield behind which the IRA was able to grow and operate unchecked.
Christian nationalism on the American Right does not have the terrorist record of Sinn Féin and the IRA. But on a different scale and to different ends, moderate Christian nationalism is similarly a gateway to the more extreme kind.
It is a permission structure that allows alienated and disenfranchised young men to gravitate toward groups, like the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and Three Percenters, which have extremists in their membership. The Proud Boys, in particular, use nostalgia for Western Christendom to fuel a racist and seditious movement. Moderate Christian nationalism is the respectable ideology that extremists exploit.
Moderate Christian nationalists are not dominionists or theocrats calling for a repeal of the First Amendment. They do not deserve to be smeared or have the sincerity of their faith called into question. But they do blur Christianity with American identity in a way that functionally excludes many Americans from being counted as full citizens of the nation. They do hold beliefs at odds with our Constitution and basic principles of religious liberty that protect our own worship and practice. These are politically dangerous beliefs, even if never accompanied by a violent deed or thought.
As a lifelong conservative, I support some of the same causes, like the pro-life movement, that moderate Christian nationalists do—which is why I feel a special obligation to examine the plank in our side’s eye. Anti-anti-Christian nationalism is a stance of pointedly ignoring that plank.
By the same logic, moderate Christian nationalists have an obligation to call out the extremists in their ranks. Good leadership requires gatekeeping. If you don’t denounce extremists, you are tacitly running cover for them, giving them legitimacy in exchange for the rhetorical firepower they train on the opposition. If we wink at our side’s extremism while denouncing the other’s, our denunciations will ring hollow as the protestations of unprincipled hypocrites.
We cannot presume we get to cherry-pick the public face of a movement or ideology to which we may subscribe, as if we unilaterally get to say who counts as “us.” Movement membership is significantly self-selected and to some degree found in the eye of the beholder. If we fail to denounce extremists on our side, we are accepting their support. That gives us some share of responsibility for their actions too. If we taste the fruit of sin, we are relying on its roots, even if our hands don’t appear dirty.
Christian nationalism—both the moderate and extremist kind—preaches falsehoods about the relationship between church and state, between the kingdom of God and the United States of America. It is vital to clarify that the gospel of Jesus Christ is not a political ideology (though it does have political implications) or a requirement of authentic American identity.
Extremists have hijacked the language and symbols of our faith to wage a campaign against religious liberty and the rule of law. Every Christian should join against them, especially if they are on our political side.
I love the United States and believe it to be more just and humane than any other great power in history (sadly, a low bar). But America is not a chosen nation; it is not the “nation whose God is the Lord” (Ps. 33:12); and Americans are not the “people who are called by my name” of 2 Chronicles 7:14. All Christians should join in that affirmation.
That is why American Christians have a special duty to lovingly correct Christian nationalism. It is why moderate Christian nationalists have a special duty to denounce extremists in their ranks, even if they remain persuaded of Christian nationalism’s tenets. And it is why we should reject anti-anti-Christian nationalism, politically useful though it may be.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.