Progressive Christians are critical of Christian nationalism, often attributing the label to anyone who happens to be an evangelical and hold right-of-center political views. The problem with this perspective is that progressive Christians are just promoting a progressive Christian nationalism.
Stephen Wolfe outlines the basic structure of Christian nationalism in his book The Case for Christian Nationalism, arguing that Christian nationalism is a system where the laws of a nation reflect Christian values, that the state should orient people towards the good, and that this arrangement will lead to national peace and stability.
Progressive Christians, although radically different on policy proposals, fall into the exact same structural framework as the Christian nationalists, and I explain how progressive Christianity is simply a left-wing variation of Christian nationalism. We should, therefore, understand mainstream progressive Christian political thought as operating within the same conceptual categories as Christian nationalism.
Progressive Christian Nationalism
The Contemporary Christian Left and Right Are Both Authoritarian
Christians are not immune from the increasingly overheated American political climate. A very real war is being waged, in fact, within American Protestantism. My fear is that this war has already been lost. The two belligerents, in a lamentably predictable manner, march in lock-step with the current political divide between the so-called left and the so-called right in American public life.
Standing on one side of the battlefield are the progressive Christians, alternately labeled as ‘deconstructed’ or ‘exvangelical’, who claim that their commitment to concepts such as social justice and equity are at the heart of true Christianity. Biblical authority and historical doctrine are measured not by the witness of Scripture but by their congruence (or, more significantly, incongruence) with social justice and equity, terms which are defined in ways that look suspiciously like the policy platforms promoted by the radical wing of the Democratic party.
On the opposite side of the battlefield are the supposed mortal enemies of progressive Christians, the Christian nationalists. This manifestation of modern Protestantism is committed to making (they would, of course, prefer the term remaking) America as an explicitly Christian nation. Led by outspoken thinkers like Stephen Wolfe, William Wolfe, and Doug Wilson, the Christian nationalists see progressives (and progressive Christians in particular) as threatening the uniquely Christian character of The United States of America and seek to enshrine Biblical morality (as they interpret it) into its laws and customs.
Their policy proposals, like a mirror-image of the progressive Christian agenda, bear a striking resemblance to a particular brand of post-2016 MAGA conservatism. It is conventional post-Moral Majority Republican Christianity wearing a red hat bearing a tag that states ‘Made in China’.
Radicalizing and Dividing Christians
These two sides are engaged in furious combat, leaving a trail of social, political, and theological casualties in their wake. Neither side appears to be nearing defeat; quite the contrary, these two combatants are clearing out any middle ground, either radicalizing moderate protestants into their respective camps or pushing them out of the center and into other traditions, or, indeed, away from any tradition at all.
If the fight between Christian nationalism and progressive Christianity appears to have devolved into a bloody, trench warfare-style stalemate, then why claim at the outset of this article that this war has been lost? The reason is simple: Christian nationalists and progressive Christians are on the same team. What we are witnessing is not a conflict between opposing ideologies, but rather a civil war between two groups of American protestants who believe that the only path to victory is through the authoritarian power of the state.
Let me explain.
Stephen Wolfe is the author of The Case for Christian Nationalism (Canon Press, 2022), a book which I have reviewed extensively in print and on my show, The Protestant Libertarian Podcast. His book has become the benchmark articulation of the doctrine of “Christian nationalism,” which Wolfe defines as “a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ” (pg. 9). For our present purposes, there are three important aspects of Wolfe’s definition.
- First, and most importantly, the laws and customs of a nation should reflect Christian values.
- Second, the goal of Christian laws and customs are to procure earthly and heavenly good. Christian laws will, perhaps even progressively, lead to a better society.
- Finally, Christian nationalism (unsurprisingly) conceptualizes itself in national terms. It is not an international movement, like classical Marxist communism, and it presupposes national integrity and cohesion as a necessity for political stability. While Wolfe and other Christian nationalist thought leaders further expand, refine, and nuance this definition, these three insights undergird the basic structure of Christian nationalism.
Progressive Christianity is a left-wing variation of Christian nationalism
This might seem like a shocking proposal, and it is certainly true that the policy prescriptions of both camps reveal substantial differences, but the underlying substructure of both the progressive and the nationalist positions are fundamentally the same. To clarify this point, it helps to listen to what leading progressive Christian thinkers are actually saying about the relationship between church and state. A few examples should suffice.
Earthly good: equitable prosperity vs war against our opposition
Tim Whitaker, founder of The New Evangelicals, a popular network of progressive Christians, said this in a Twitter post last year: “Imagine if evangelicalism partnered with the government and people of other faiths to help bring heaven to earth instead of declaring war on everything that isn’t them.”
While The New Evangelicals has in many ways been heroically opposed to Christian nationalism, is this really any different from the idea that laws should reflect Christian values (in this case, progressive Christian values) in order to, as Stephen Wolfe puts it, “procure earthy and heavenly good”? While this statement doesn’t explicitly call for any particular legislation, the idea that the church should partner with the government and “help bring heaven to earth” presupposes that the logical conclusions of this church-state partnership would result in a shift in state policy.
Wolfe also wants to reshape the government (“for the good,” of course!). The rhetorical similarities between Wolfe’s position and Whitaker’s vision of the role of the church in American politics are remarkably similar. We should not miss the forest for the trees; Whitaker and Wolfe would probably disagree on most policy proposals, but they would both agree that policy should reflect theology and be implemented by the state.
Another excellent example of this dynamic is Zach Lambert, pastor of Restore Austin in Austin, Texas. Lambert has, like Whitaker, clearly and accurately spoken out against Christian nationalism. For that he should be commended. His vision for America, however, is functionally equal to that of Stephen Wolfe. He outlines policies that he would like to see enacted at the federal level in this post: “Yes, I would like for the government to intervene. Raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour, updating to [sic] the poverty line, and Medicaid expansion would be a great start.”
These are standard progressive policy positions. Lambert would, however, equate these policies with the moral consequences that result from his Christian faith; he is advocating for laws that reflect his Christian values, to bring about earthly good, and advocating that these laws should be imposed by the federal (read: national) government. To ask again, how is this structurally any different than Stephen Wolfe?
Sure, Lambert might wisely avoid legislating against public profanity and skipping church on Sunday, but he is quite comfortable with enabling wealthy, well connected politicians in faraway Washington, D.C. to regulate how much a small business owner in economically troubling times are required to pay a teenage employee.
He might argue that it is for the “greater good.” He might even argue that this reflects the heart of God. So does Wolfe. Again, the structural problem remains: both want to use the power of the state to implement policies that are derived from personal theological commitments.
The “village” family vs the “nuclear” family
A third example of this phenomenon comes from Reverend Benjamin Cremer, a Wesleyan pastor whose posts I often retweet because I think he is addressing fundamentally correct problems. He is also an advocate for progressive policies that are based on his Christian faith: “Imagine if we Christians pursued dismantling systems of poverty, barriers to healthcare, demanded livable wages, paid family leave, affordable childcare, and ruthlessly worked to end violence with the same passion so many of us pursue winning a ‘culture war’.”
All of these policies, if enacted, would of course be imposed by the federal government and require bureaucrats with guns to ensure that every company, no matter how small, complies with this new dictate. This is, once again, a form of Christian nationalism. It is a vision of society that is explicitly informed by Cremer’s theological perspective, which would be enacted through law by the federal government of our nation, in order to procure earthly and heavenly good.
Which theological values should be enshrined into law?
While the policies promoted by the nationalists and the progressives are indeed radically different, their basic political posture is nevertheless identical: our group’s theological values need to be enshrined in law, we want the culture to reflect these values, we expect the national government to implement them, and we believe they will lead us all towards the (not a, which is an important philosophical distinction) greater good.
The future of humanity depends on our values being imposed on society through law. After all, it is for their own good, right? The progressive Christians may claim to be against nationalism, but it takes little more than a cursory glance through progressive Christian Twitter to demonstrate their commitment to the philosophical concept of nationalism in its American form. January 6th and Ukraine, anyone?
Suffice it to say, Raytheon and Lockheed-Martin would be on the side of the progressive Christians. Also, it is telling that progressive Christians by and large seek a top down approach to progressive social change; why is it that the conversation is always aimed at implementing these policies through the federal government instead of through state and local governments?
The entire nation must conform to the progressive Christian political project. This is one of the many practical consequences of nationalism, and demonstrates yet again the fundamental logic of progressive Christian nationalism.
Protestant “civil” war
All of this supports my thesis that the major contemporary conflict within American Protestantism is an intellectual and cultural civil war. Just as libertarians understand that the political spectrum is not left-right but rather authoritarian-libertarian, Christians need to come to terms with the reality that the differences between progressive Christianity and Christian nationalism are a chimera.
Like communism and fascism, they are nothing less than the same authoritarian haunted house concealed by a shiny facade of policy disagreements. The underlying authoritarianism, and the dramatically destructive consequences, are ultimately the same. If Hayek, Mises, Rothbard, and Sowell were commentators on Christian culture, they would whole-heartedly agree.
None of this is to disparage the intention of progressive Christians, especially the ones with which I have engaged in this article. All three of them are worth a follow, often offer thought-provoking commentary, and sincerely want a better future for the entire human race. That alone is certainly commendable.
As libertarians, we also want to see an end to poverty, mass incarceration, homelessness, racism, discriminatory legal practices, and war (including the ones that enrich US defense contractors). We also want to see stable families, a prosperous domestic economy, and religious freedom. We just understand that the heavy-handed authoritarianism of the state can’t solve these problems.
In fact, the state itself is the biggest perpetrator of these crimes against humanity, and both the nationalists and progressives fail to see the second or third order consequences of their social, political, and economic policy proposals. They aren’t good Austrians, after all. Or they haven’t read Thomas Sowell’s Economic Facts and Fallacies. Either way, they are more similar than they would like to admit, and if the war between the progressives and nationalists draws to a conclusion, the winning side would likely be accused of fratricide.
Another point to consider, that I owe to a private conversation with the great CEO of the Libertarian Christian Institute Doug Stuart, is the thought experiment of a progressive Christian repentance of 45 himself, Mr. Donald J. Trump.
If Trump gave a speech in which he acknowledged that the progressive Christians were correct and that we need a $15 minimum wage (or more, why be so greedy?), student loan forgiveness, and a more radical and aggressive affirmative action, would the progressives balk if he declared his new campaign slogan to be ‘Make America Christian Again’, would progressive Christians balk at that?
The more perceptive progressives might realize that his promise to ‘drain the swamp’ resulted in a much bigger swamp, and the petty partisan politics that result in a sports-team level of irrational fidelity to the ruling political party (as a northern Kentucky native, I live in Cincinnati Bengals country and understand the desperate but eventually satisfying payoff of supporting a losing team), but this change of heart might make some progressives reconsider their opposition to free minds and free markets. Such are the consequences of living in a world where few people understand the value of having substantial political principles.
The more things change, the more things stay the same
Unlike the Christian nationalists, the progressives do occasionally see the fatal flaws of nationalism. Benjamin Cremer correctly notes in another Twitter post, “A Christianity that acts as though it needs a political party, a president, a Supreme Court, and a government to secure, maintain, and impose the will of its god on our culture is a Christianity that doesn’t really believe its god is powerful enough to stand on its own at all.”
With this sentiment I am, of course, in whole-hearted agreement. But these ideas are mutually irreconcilable with progressive Christianity, which can only accomplish social justice through the coercive monopoly power of the state. My hope is that more Christians will be awakened to the reality that neither side has the answer to the problems plaguing our society, and that the only real solution is for the church to preach the Gospel and embody radical, cruciform love for others.
This doesn’t mean voting for men with guns to force people to go to church or pay a teenager above-market wages. It means internalizing the separation of Church and state and rejecting any attempts to impose our values on society through force. The message of the resurrection is powerful enough. We don’t need any help from the state.
If we are ever to call an armistice to this intra-protestant war, it must begin with rejecting the political will to power inherent in both conservative Christian nationalism and its equally authoritarian twin sibling. Progressive Christian nationalism is, when we strip it down to the basics, just another form of nationalism.