Random Thoughts on Christian Nationalism

Yesterday I wrote about a big blow up in the “Christian nationalism” discourse. Thankfully that has ended with the truth coming out.

But searching for “Christian nationalism” on the Google Books Ngram viewer had me thinking of how this term has been used before the current moment. Specifically I was interested in the spikes before the 2000s.

The reason why I am interested in this how I believe, as I mentioned before, the term is basically useless. I’ve cited Miles Smith’s essay before but it really is true. The term is so broad that it just doesn’t have a meaningful definition for us to center discussion around.

So in no particular order, I’ve cited some of the more interesting books that use this term from the 1890s to the 1970s. Some of them are rather boring but some show a fascinating understanding of how Christianity and politics should intersect.

For instance, some of them simply use the term to refer to national church independence from the wider Roman Catholic Church during the early modern period in Europe (as quoted in Robert E Speer’s Christianity and the Nations in 1910)

The term is also used similarly in Ernest Llewellyn Woodward’s Christianity and Nationalism in the late Roman Empire from 1916. I haven’t really started this book yet but his book seems to be about how the growth of Christianity intersected with the development of ‘national consciousness’ between various groups within and without the Roman empire near its collapse.

What has been more interesting is its use in Africa and Asia. Due to the influence of the British Empire and Protestant missionaries (often American), there is a really old Anglo-American legacy of modernization and, ironically, nationalism in places across Africa and Asia. Interestingly a disproportionate amount of nationalist modernizers. Folks like Sun Yat-sen, Itagaki Taisuke, Syngman Rhee, and Chiang Kai-shek were all Protestants who played a huge role in the nationalist modernization of their country. Others like Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Lee Kuan Yew and Mahatma Gandhi all were formed by their time in English and implicitly Protestant institutions. Books like Christian Social Thought in India, and periodicals like The Chinese Recorder use the term differently. Sometimes, like in India, it simply is used to mean the intersection between Indian Christianity and Indian independence. Other times, in China, it is referring to a concern that the indigenization of Chinese Christianity may compromise the universal and catholic nature of the church there.

By contrast in Japan, as noted in The Christian Movement in Japan, Korea, and Formosa edited by D.C. Holtom in 1923, local Christians argued that Christianity was uniquely suited to the national consciousness of the Japanese people.

In Africa the term seems to have been most consistently used (and this is troubling for the American conversation) in connection with the Afrikaner nationalist political program in South Africa during the apartheid years. As South Africa, the prospects of peaceful change by Theodor Hanf, Heibert Weiland and Gerda Vierdag note:

Unfortunately as explained in South Africa: The Limits of Reform Politics, the Christian nationalist influence was instrumental in the architecture of apartheid. In fact it was the Christian nature of this nationalism that informed how exactly apartheid was structured, as pointed out in T. Dunbar Moodie’s The Rise of Afrikanerdom: Power, Apartheid and the Afrikaner Civil Religion. That being said Christian nationalism’s relationship with Afrikaner politics was, as argued by Andre du Toit, fairly fuzzy:

And yet the term “Christian nationalism” can also mean the exact opposite in an African context. For instance Obed Mutezo, the Zimbabwean African nationalist, is described as an explicitly Christian nationalist. In Nigeria, the term is associated with a desire, like in China, for an indigenous Christianity without westernization and colonialism:

The 19th century and early 20th century use of Christian nationalism in America strangely mirrors its variegated use in Africa. There doesn’t seem to be any one understanding of Christian nationalism and the term seems to be used extremely loosely. For instance in the late 19th century Edward Bellamy, himself from a Baptist and Calvinist family, started a movement called Nationalist Clubs, advocating for a complete state takeover of private industry. Bellamy seems to have used the term Nationalism as to mean a non-Marxist (class struggle and Marx’s other views on, say, religion don’t seem to play any role in Bellamy’s socialism) form of socialism. Lipow in his book, Authoritarian Socialism in America: Edward Bellamy and the Nationalist Movement, notes that Bellamy’s support usually came from upper middle class white Protestants and trade unionists, disproportionately in California and the Northeast. Bellamy’s use of the term Christian nationalism seems to be exclusively as a defense of Bellamy’s project rather than a philosophy or political program:

In the 20th century it switches from a loose association with Bellamy’s nationalism, to simply a Christian understanding of how politics should work, naturally depending on one’s own confessional tradition. This is how Sidney Gulick (a Christian progressive activist of old Yankee Protestant missionary stock) uses it in his article about progressive Christian internationalism. It is used in a similar way by the Catholic Association for International Peace in 1935.

Naturally as the United States tended towards involvement in WWII, Christian nationalism was also used by those who were sympathetic to Nazi Germany. When in 1940, the House on Un-American Activities questioned Gerhard Wilhelm Kunze, a leader in the German-American Bund, on their use of the swastika, he reverted to this language:

It’s probably not a coincidence that an anti-Semitic organization was founded in 1942 called the Christian Nationalist Crusade, dedicated to “preserve America as a Christian nation being conscious of a highly organized campaign to substitute Jewish tradition for Christian tradition” This organization operated on the fringes of the white supremacist movement during the Civil Rights Era, eventually disbanding in 1977 in California.

The term would fall into disuse but was oddly enough revived by Black nationalists in the 1970s. Notably minister Albert B. Cleage, Jr wrote a book Black Christian Nationalism: New Directions for the Black Church arguing for a synthesis of Black nationalism with the Black church in America. The digest Black World in 1974 quoted Cleage Jr’s creed as:

Somehow I find it difficult imagining folks like Stephen Wolfe or Thomas Achord getting around such an idea. To circle back, what is Christian nationalism? It doesn’t seem it really has any useful definition or program. It is fascinating to see how the term gets used and defined prior to the 2000s as it proves Miles’ point: the term lacks any serious definition. If American Nazis, radical Black nationalists, African independence fighters, pro-apartheid Afrikaners, Roman Catholic trade unionists and Gilded Age socialists can unite around a term like “Christian nationalism,” maybe it doesn’t describe very much at all.


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