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Christian Nationalists Think God Wants to Keep Ethnicities Separate, But Does He?

The following is an excerpt from Cody Cook’s new book, Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Response. It addresses one of the dangerous assumptions of Christian Nationalism–that God wants to keep distinct people groups separate.

More extreme forms of Christian Nationalism are tied explicitly to racism and ethnonationalism–the idea found most famously in Nazi ideology that blood and soil (ethnicity and land) are inextricably tied together and that each nation and culture must remain distinct from others. The Statement on Christian Nationalism and the Gospel (edited by major figures in the movement such as pastor Joel Webbon, politician Dusty Deevers, and former Trump administration official William Wolfe) was largely crafted to separate itself from these racist mindsets, something for which it deserves credit.

 However, the Nationalist part of Christian Nationalism, along with its concomitant aggressive anti-immigration stance, seems to pull the movement inevitably toward the direction of ethnic separatism like a shopping cart with a misaligned wheel. Note, for example, how the Statement’s first draft defined a nation:

“We affirm that a particular people are necessarily bound together by both a shared culture and history and may be comprised of multiple ethnicities while sharing common interests, virtues, languages, and worship.”

 There are points that one might object to here, though ethno-nationalist ideology isn’t one of them. But look at how this sentence was altered in the second draft, after its supporters had an opportunity to make suggestions for changes:

“We affirm that a particular people are necessarily bound together by a shared culture, customs, history, and lineage while sharing common interests, virtues, languages, and worship.”

The reference to a nation being potentially comprised of multiple ethnicities is gone–replaced by a reference to nations having a “shared lineage” which seems to redirect the Christian Nationalist cart back toward ethnonationalism. In fairness, there is still a denial in the second draft “that sovereign nations must only be composed of mono-ethnic populations to be united under God” and a commendable claim of its signers to “utterly repudiate sinful ethnic partiality in all its various forms.” However, it is not above even segregationists to claim that they believe in the ultimate equality of all people even as they assert that ethnic groups should live separately. Up until 2000, one of the most prestigious fundamentalist colleges in America, Bob Jones University, did just that. The mixed messaging of the second draft of this statement seems to suggest that a nation can have multiple ethnicities and still be a Christian nation, even though this might not be the ideal scenario.

 We also see this veer toward ethnic nationalism in one of the movement’s most well-known spokesmen and author of The Case for Christian Nationalism–Stephen Wolfe. While Wolfe affirms that “the fall introduced the abuse of social relations and malice towards ethnic difference,”[i] he also makes an argument that humans would have formed into distinct nations even if sin had not entered the world, reasoning that: “The instinct to live within one’s ‘tribe’ or one’s own people is neither a product of the fall nor extinguished by grace; rather, it is natural and good.”[ii] One would be forgiven for thinking that Wolfe must be unaware that the early church fought mightily to bring Jewish and Gentiles Christians together in spite of their “natural” instincts to live separately.

Not only this, but he imagines that the boundaries between such nations prior to the fall would not be porous and terminological only–a shorthand for saying they eat X over there but we eat Y here–but that these boundaries would protect distinct cultures from outside influence that could challenge their cultural stasis.[iii] He writes:

“Even the in-group/out-group distinction is good, since it establishes who ‘we’ are in relation to ‘them’—effectively bounding particular expectations and preserving cultural distinctives. Man’s limitedness was not a divine mistake; neither is cultural diversity, separated geographically, an error. It was God’s design for man and thus a necessary feature of his good.”[iv]

You may be able to see where this line of thinking is going.

In two tweets that appear to now be deleted, Wolfe addressed the moral gray area of (I’m not kidding) ethnic intermarriage. He writes of the potential danger of such intermarriages, that “nations, peoples, ethne [could] cease to exist. It would turn into a mass, monoculture. But we are drawn to similarity (as Aquinas said), which is therefore part of our nature and so part of our good… And thus while intermarriage is not itself wrong (as an individual matter), groups have a collective duty to be separate and marry among themselves.” 

As cringey as this statement is, Wolfe is at least correct that this is probably the logical outcome of Christian Nationalism–and indeed most if not all forms of nationalism. It is the ideology of “separate but [in theory anyway] equal.” The mindset that says, “you go to your church over on that side of the railroad tracks, and I’ll go to my church on this side of the tracks.” One can almost hear Archie Bunker from the 1970s sitcom All in the Family telling Sammy Davis, Jr., “I always check with the Bible on these here things. And I think that, I mean, if God had meant us to be together, He’d a’ put us together. But look what He done: He put you over in Africa and He put the rest of us in all the white countries.”

But are Bunker and Wolfe right about the Bible placing value on the importance of separate nations and separate cultures?

You may recall the story of the tower of Babel from Genesis 11. All of the world’s people were living together as one and speaking one language. But since humanity had fallen to the power of sin, this political unity–a kind of one world government–was seen as dangerous in the eyes of God. He therefore confused the language of the people into different tongues, thus creating the divisions of nations. Moses, in his reflection upon this event in Deuteronomy 32, spoke about how God had “divided mankind” and “fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9, ESV). In short, God chose Israel as His special people, gave them a land and a law to make them distinct from their pagan neighbors, but gave the nations over to lesser spiritual beings to manage.

If that was all the Scriptures told us, we might have to concede that Wolfe has more than a point. But it isn’t.

You may also recall the Jewish festival of Pentecost that was celebrated after the resurrection of Jesus (see Acts chapter 2). Jesus had told His disciples to wait for this day when they would be baptized by the Holy Spirit. When it came the Holy Spirit filled them and they began to speak in different languages to the exiled Jews living in different places who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival. Whereas the Babel event had divided the people by making them unable to speak the same language, Pentecost brought people from different nations together by enabling the preaching of the gospel as if all spoke the same language. Before long, it was not just Jews from different nations that were accepting Jesus as Messiah, but gentiles also. The curse of Babel had been broken because God had inaugurated His kingdom–one that existed without regard to race or national boundaries. Even the Law of Moses which had kept Israel separate from its gentile neighbors was relativized as being as good as pagan religion in comparison to what God had done in making Jews and gentiles one new man in Christ (Galatians 3-4, Ephesians 2:14).

Revelation speaks of Christians not as a people loosely connected by our union with Christ who are more significantly defined by our national identities. Instead, we are fundamentally defined by our shared union with Christ:

“And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth’” (Revelation 5:9-10).

This reality of Jesus as King and His people as citizens of a different kingdom is the reason why Paul could go from people to people and nation to nation proclaiming the gospel that Jesus was the true King and that those who defected to Jesus had been transferred into His multi-ethnic kingdom (Philippians 3:20, Colossians 1:13). 

In contrast, Wolfe argues that Christians should be guided by the “pre-rational preference we have for our own children, family, community, and… as Johann Herder would say, the ‘family writ large’—the nation.” There is much to dispute in this short statement. Our nation is not our family and the leader of our country is not our father–this kind of collectivist, authoritarian thinking undermines our obligations to God as our Father and leads the way to a totalitarianism that makes the state and our ethnic identity into the very idols that Christ ultimately came to destroy.

Wolfe also claims that the grace of God which results in salvation “does not introduce new principles of human relations,”[v] but the early Christians were largely disconnected from their previous social relations as the result of leaving behind civil religion. In a world where social ties were necessary for survival, becoming a Christian meant disentangling from those ties which were intertwined with pagan religion. As a result, new Christians often faced ostracization and potentially even starvation. This practical reality, along with the metaphysical reality of becoming one with Christ, saw Christians become a new multi-ethnic family with new social obligations to one another that did not exist before.[vi] New Testament scholar Joseph Hellerman helpfully highlighted the old ways of creating social identities that Paul struggled mightily to remove from the thinking of the Christians he instructed:

“The problem was that Paul’s converts often wanted to be loyal first and foremost not to God’s group—the church family—but rather to the pagan interest groups that had held their allegiance before they converted to Christ. The Corinthian church split along the lines of social status. The rich identified with the rich, the poor with the poor. For the Roman Christians, the lines were drawn around the ethnic orientations of Jew and Gentile.”[vii]

 In truth, conversion to Christ asks us to do something far more radical than what Christian Nationalism asks us to do–to become new creatures with a new family and new allegiances through which we derive our new identities. This new spiritual family doesn’t undo the practical reality that we are usually best situated to serve our biological families and those we live the closest to, but it does call us to recognize that the most important and eternal identity we have as Christians is to the kingdom and family of God.

 The author of the epistle to the Hebrews, speaking of the pre-Christian saints, reminds us of the country that demands our loyalty as citizens:

All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen and welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own. And indeed if they had been thinking of that country which they left, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them.
– Hebrews 11:13-16

Buy Cody Cook’s book here.


 

[i] Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, p. 118

[ii] Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, p. 23. This author is still puzzled as to how any of this supports nationalism. Most human beings–particularly in the pre-industrial natural order that Wolfe refers to–do not do their daily living in nations, but communities. If Wolfe was arguing for localism, he would have a stronger argument. But his arguments against immigration would then break down as most Christian Americans today are quite content to travel from town to town and welcome their neighbors from the next town over to work and shop with them.

[iii] I went with a more neutral term here, as opposed to the more value-laden, but in my mind accurate, “stagnation.”

[iv] Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, p. 65.

[v] Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, p. 118.

[vi] While it would be incomplete to say that Christians become one people through a common creed, there is some truth in it. When Wolfe claims that “the intimate connection of people and place… undermines the so-called creedal nation concept, which is popular in the United States” (The Case for Christian Nationalism, p. 119), he is attempting to deny that the United States could possibly function successfully as one multicultural nation, united by one creed of freedom and opportunity. But he is also subtly undermining the biblical notion that all Christians are one family and kingdom under one Father and King because of our shared creed of Christ as King and Lord. For Wolfe, the blood of Christ may be powerful enough to save sinners, but it’s not powerful enough to overcome national boundaries. What hope could we have then of the American Dream or a belief in individual rights making English and Chinese immigrants into good neighbors?

[vii] Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus’ Vision for Authentic Christian Community, Kindle edition.