Proponents of “Christian nationalism” claim that they represent the truest form of the faith and that they know God’s will in a way others do not and cannot, and so they often believe they are empowered to impose their vision of the common good on the rest of the country.
“We, the church, are God's governing body on the Earth,” chanted a group of religious conservatives recently in Atlanta. “We have been given legal power from heaven and now exercise our authority.”
This audience was led in reciting this “Watchman Decree” by four leaders, including Lance Wallnau, a business consultant turned self-anointed divine emissary who has campaigned with and for Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for governor, Doug Mastriano.
Christian nationalism is growing on the political right. The movement views its quest for political power as part of a divinely inspired mission. Followers believe they are blessed and sanctioned by God to correct all that is wrong and bring it into order and righteousness.
Yet in reality, Christian nationalists are adrift from the Christian faith’s historic teachings and practice on several significant counts, argue many scholars and philosophers. These experts say many evangelical Christians are ignorant of history in general, and of the history of their faith in particular, which has led to significant consequences.
“A lot of contemporary Christianity suffers from … a failure to appreciate the nuances and dynamics of history,” James K.A. Smith writes in his new book, “How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now.”
Smith, a philosophy professor at Calvin University, an evangelical college in Michigan, argues that many religious conservatives mistakenly believe they are “wholly governed by eternal ideas untainted by history.”
Smith’s book is about much more than Christian nationalism, but it does diagnose some of the underlying causes of the political movement.
Historical ignorance leads to a way of reading the Bible — a hyperliteral interpretation — that is out of step with historic Christianity. Hyperliteralist readings of the Bible tend, for example, to prioritize the specter of a looming apocalypse, and encourage the faithful to dominate others through politics.
And so Christian nationalists “have forgotten something very, very fundamental” about what the faith says about the end of the world, namely that the apocalypse “is not something that is engineered by us,” Smith said in an interview for “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.
The “kingdom of God” is a central idea in the New Testament, mentioned often by Jesus and his followers. It is here, Smith argues, that confusion reigns about what that term means now.
“Every single day in the Lord's Prayer, Christians pray ‘Thy kingdom come,’” Smith said. “But as long as we are praying that, it's not here. So you are praying for it to come. You are laboring in line with it, you hope. But there's not the sense that we are bringing it about.”
In the Christian faith’s teachings about “awaiting the arrival of the kingdom, never is there any hint that we are supposed to sort of colonize Earth as if we knew exactly what the kingdom looked like.
“In fact, instead what you get a lot from prophetic and apocalyptic literature in the Scriptures is deep, deep cautions about not confusing our imagination with what is to come,” Smith said.
“I do think what is so … legitimately terrifying about the discourse of Christian nationalism in our country is it is able to sort of wear the cloak of a theological language but is completely unhinged from actual accountability to the theological guardrails of what Christian eschatology is.”
In Christian theology, eschatology is the study of how human history will come to an end with the return of Christ to Earth. It is the main subject of the Book of Revelation, the last section of the Christian Bible.
Smith is just one of many scholars who believe that many Christians read Revelation incorrectly. He and others believe that many Christians’ beliefs about the “end times” have been shaped by fictional literature and movies more than by a rigorous analysis of the text in Revelation.
“The book of Revelation is a work of profound theology. But its literary form makes it impenetrable to many modern reads and open to all kinds of misinterpretation,” wrote Richard Bauckham, professor of New Testament studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, in his 1993 book “The Theology of the Book of Revelation.”
“The point is not to predict a sequence of events,” Bauckham wrote, countering the popularized reading of Revelation that views it as a literal road map. Instead, it “calls on Christians to confront the political idolatries of the time … of power and prosperity.”
In recent years, right-wing politicians have spoken more openly and frequently about an imminent religious apocalypse. "We know that we are in the last of the last days," Rep. Lauren Boebert, a Colorado Republican who is often described as a Christian nationalist, said at an event earlier this month.
"But it's not a time to complain about it. It's not a time to get upset about it. It's a time to know that you were called to be a part of these last days. You get to have a role in ushering in the second coming of Jesus,” Boebert said.
Smith’s argument is that a misreading of Revelation — which can lead Christians toward a vision of violent conflict — intersects with evangelicalism’s self-certainty to create Christian nationalism, which he describes as a misdirected political movement that is absolutely sure of itself and unaware of how much it does not understand.
Smith, however, does not argue that Christians should withdraw from politics. “There's no question that we are laboring to bend the arc of justice as much as we can,” he said. But, he added, “there has to be such a tempered expectation and a tempered epistemic humility.”
Arguments like Smith’s, which rest on a way of reading the Bible as a coherent and complex whole, often run up against arguments made by those who select individual biblical verses or texts to support their argument for “taking dominion,” a phrase with roots in the Book of Genesis, which deals with God’s creation of the world.
Smith wryly notes that the Bible itself contains examples of citing Scripture to justify nefarious ends. He referred to a story in the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus interacts with a character named “the Tempter,” who cites passages of the Old Testament to him.
“The Devil quotes the Bible all the time, man,” Smith said.