Some years ago, the Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga gave a useful definition of fundamentalist. He noted that, in academic settings, it served as little more than a smear word; he offered an expletive I can’t print here, so let’s just substitute son of a gun.

Where it retained any content beyond the smear, Plantinga argued that fundamentalist meant “considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.” Thus did academics, journalists, and many Christians come to deploy fundie to mean a “stupid [son of a gun] whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of” their own. And because there’s always someone to one’s right, the F-word is essentially relative: It has no stable reference, but it certainly can never refer to me.

These days we might say the same about Christian nationalism. The phrase has lost all substantive content. In nearly every conversation, it has little reference beyond those “stupid [sons of guns] whose political opinions are considerably to the right of mine.” Allegations of Christian nationalism can mean almost anything: Maybe the accused is a literal Nazi. Or maybe he’s just a lifelong Republican whose big issues are abortion and tax rates.

Recently there have been thoughtful, good-faith efforts to define the phrase in a useful way. I suggest instead that we put it out to pasture. Though it may once have had limited reference to specific groups and ideas, it no longer does; the phrase is all heat and no light. In too many uses, it’s slanderous. In almost every case, it’s largely an exercise in boundary drawing.

To be sure, sometimes a boundary is exactly what we need. I don’t give eugenicists or Holocaust deniers a fair hearing. But these are marginal cases, and in a free and democratic polity, the nature of public discourse is that it’s rough-and-tumble, pluralistic, and more than occasionally unpleasant. We listen to those with whom we disagree, perhaps especially when our disagreement runs deep. If we are Christians committed to hospitality and love for enemies, our willingness to listen should only increase.

Moreover, responsible opponents of Christian nationalism (CN)—those not recklessly slinging the term at every son of a gun to their right—have legitimate concerns. I count five.

First, Christian nationalism often comes with a modifier: white.

This is indeed worthy of our excoriation, as are all ethno-nationalisms. But notice why it is worrisome: not because it is Christian nor primarily because it is nationalist, but because it is racist. Any and all political movements defined by the social elevation and political privileging of one race over others is worthy of our condemnation, full stop.

Article continues below

Second, CN opponents are rightly worried about lawlessness, often lawlessness as typified in the Capitol riot of January 6, 2021.

Sometimes lawlessness means an unwillingness to play by the rules. Sometimes it means a refusal to accept political loss. Sometimes it means a resort to violence. In these and other forms—excepting nonviolent civil disobedience in service to a just cause—lawlessness should be repudiated by Christians (not only the 13th but the 12th chapter of Romans is relevant here). Notions of a religious coup d’état in Washington, even if they look more like revolutionary cosplay than a serious mass movement, should be strangled in the crib.

Third, what CN critics are often worried about is not nationalism per se but conspiracy theories and fearmongering.

Fear “is not a Christian habit of mind,” argues novelist Marilynne Robinson. She’s right. Believers may reasonably debate the state of the world and our country. But we may not reasonably debate the lordship of Christ or the hope of his appearing (Titus 2:11–15). Even if our worst fears came true—if we were subjugated by a regime that made worshiping the Lord a social and legal burden or outright crime, as is the situation of many Christians now and in church history—our calling would be the same: to count the cost, carry the cross, and follow Christ to Calvary.

Fourth, some advocates of “Christian America” seem to envision a kind of second-class statusfor nonbelievers.

Here, Christians who fear “dhimmitude” in the Muslim or secular world seek to turn the tables and make Christian identity a special legal status. Sometimes this is packaged with a vision of the Bible as a sort of governing document, adopted alongside or instead of the Constitution. I confess I am skeptical that large numbers of Americans actually want this, just as I have yet to encounter an actual flesh-and-blood theocrat. If anti-CN pundits were to limit their jeremiads to this group, their aim would be true, but I suspect they’d have a vanishingly small target.

Fifth and finally, CN critics are right to oppose the habit of clothing all of the above—racism, lawlessness, fearmongering, and injustice—in the language and symbols of the faith.

Article continues below

This reduction of Christ to a means of worldly gain is widespread and, lamentably, goes back to the time of the apostles (Phil. 1:15–18). It trades on Christ’s name for a merely political cause. It declares that Christ is Lord to be obeyed while sidelining his actual life and teachings. It dismisses the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23) as weak and ineffective while embracing the works of the flesh—enmity, strife, anger, dissension, licentiousness, and factionalism (vv. 19–21)—as strategic assets.

If these five issues—a weak word for sinful distortions of the gospel—were all that Christian nationalism discourse concerned, I might not propose we retire the term. But this discourse also encompasses ideas that shouldn’t be flagged as “extreme” or unworthy of engagement. Here are six beliefs and practices we ought to uncouple from the label Christian nationalist.

1. Putting God into politics. This one is easily addressed. In the United States, people of all faiths and none are welcome to bring their deepest convictions into the public square. No one has to pretend. This is not France. No Christian, Jew, or Muslim is wrong—morally, theologically, or constitutionally—to bring faith into democratic debate.

2. Putting politics into church. This one’s hairier, but it’s also unavoidable. The gospel makes public claims that pertain to the world outside the walls of the sanctuary. These claims concern Christ’s sovereign rule over the nations and his passionate affection for the poor, the marginal, and the vulnerable (Luke 6:20–26; Matt. 25:31–46). Worship of a crucified Messiah can never truly be apolitical—even Amish separatism and other peace churches’ conscientious objection are themselves political actions.

3. Supporting Christian candidates for office. Humanly speaking, there is nothing more natural than the desire for representation in democratic assemblies. Christians are not unique in wanting to vote for people who share our faith, and that tendency isn’t worth worry. Some Christians will only vote for fellow Christians, which may be unwise—taken as a nonnegotiable criterion, I think it is—but it hardly rises to the level of a political pathology.

Article continues below

4. Believing divine providence guides America. In a weak sense, all Christians believe this, and when nonreligious outlets overreact to providential language it’s just that: an overreaction. But many Christians endorse a much stronger version. They speak of America as a light to the world, a city set on a hill with a special role in God’s plan for the world.

I wish fellow Christians would give up this belief. It claims too much; it ignores the church; it forgets Israel (Rom. 11:1–2, 28–29); it overinvests in a nation that will, like all others, one day pass away (Is. 40:15, Matt. 24:35). And yet there is nothing more American than American exceptionalism. From our founding onward, this belief has always been with us, often with religious overtones. Christians who disagree with me on this issue aren’t radicals. They’re ordinary Americans, especially by the standards of older generations and immigrants. You might as well accuse them of liking barbecue or apple pie.

5. Believing America is, or should be, Christian. Like American exceptionalism, the notion of an informal “Christian America” is deeply embedded in US history, culture, and law, as historian Mark Noll has documented. This legacy can be seen in a recent essay by Sen. Josh Hawley at First Things that argues that “Christian culture has been America’s common ground,” and that this ground both can and should be recovered today.

Hawley may or may not be right. But his thesis—which is not a call for theocracy or even for an established church like that of the United Kingdom—is arguable. It lies within the bounds of reasonable public discourse. It’s no less American than arguments for a secular America. Both deserve a hearing. Neither is ludicrous or worthy of contempt.

6. Doubting liberalism, democracy, or American order. All right, here’s the sticking point. Perhaps a charitable reader can accept the first five points as acceptable, non-extreme perspectives for American Christians. But there are also Christians who are openly illiberal, skeptical of democracy, or uncertain about our entire republican project. Aren’t they beyond the bounds? Aren’t they dangerous? Shouldn’t we apply a special phrase to such people, and shouldn’t that term express disapproval in the strongest of terms?

Maybe. But hear me out on why I’m not convinced.

All too often, Christian discussion of these matters operates from a myopic “end of history” mindset. It ignores most of Christian history and casts liberal democracy as the “final form” of human social and political arrangements. In this view, we stand at the last stage of a long line of progress. There’s nowhere else to go, nothing to do except maintain our own excellence.

Article continues below

From a Christian perspective, this can’t be right. The church can and will live in all different circumstances, and the end of history is not early 21st-century America but the return of Christ. Politics change; governments rise and fall; maps are redrawn; and until Jesus appears, we have no reason to think that kind of history is finished. Certainly, there is much to treasure or conserve in our time. But treating the way things are now as sacrosanct or best frozen in amber is theologically indefensible.

The upshot? Christians can question anything. We are free to be skeptical of whatever the world takes for granted.

Sometimes that skepticism won’t be justified. But often, Christian skeptics of the established order help us see what we would otherwise miss. Dorothy Day, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich, Wendell Berry, Alasdair MacIntyre, Cornel West, and Stanley Hauerwas have each placed a question mark next to some modern shibboleth: liberalism, democracy, human rights, capitalism, industrialism, the nuclear family, digital technology, American empire—whatever it may be, they’ve put it in the dock and interrogated it. This may feel like it pulls the rug out from under us. But sometimes that’s just what we need.

So doubting democracy, too, should not be denigrated as Christian nationalism. And as for the five pathologies above, we are justified in both opposing them and affixing derogatory labels. But Christian nationalism is not the best on offer.

It’s not that it’s too strong a term. It’s that it’s too weak. A better option comes from the apostle Paul: All this is “another gospel” (Gal. 1:7, NET). The political manifestations are only symptoms of this spiritual disease. It’s within Christ’s own body, which means we have work to do. We should be chastened, though, even as we are heartened: for nothing but the power of the Spirit is sufficient to cure it.

Brad East is an associate professor of theology at Abilene Christian University. He is the author of four books, including The Church: A Guide to the People of God and Letters to a Future Saint: Foundations of Faith for the Spiritually Hungry.

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]