Racism is a corruption of American ideals, not a basic essential element of American identity

John D. Wilsey

Just over a year ago, in the wake of the 2020 election and January 6 riots, something called “Christian nationalism” hit American mainstream culture. Numerous books have appeared that explore the phenomenon historically and sociologically. They tell us how Christian nationalism is racist, sexist, homophobic, right-wing, and even a heresy departing from the Christian faith. Our national conversation about this thing called Christian nationalism became mainstream as a response to the so-called Age of Trump.
But nationalism—especially religious nationalism—is nothing new, nor is it best understood in monolithic, simple terms. It is multifaceted, emerges from diverse ideologies, and changes as time and circumstance progress. It is manifested in both political and religio-philosophical terms. Since the colonial founding, Americans have participated in creating complex and contested nationalities. They have been divided in their visions for the nation, represented at times by loyalists against patriots, Hamiltonians against Jeffersonians, Unionists against Confederates, and segregationists against integrationists. Still today, we find competing nationalisms on left and right. Why should we be surprised? This process of national identity-creation is ongoing.
E Pluribus Unum
American history is a demonstration of the complexity of nationalism. In all our social media hot takes on Christian nationalism, we miss how nuanced nationalism has been in the American experience. The whole project of the revolution and the Constitution was to forge a nation out of distinct parts: former colonies that called themselves “states” in 1776. The process of early republican political and cultural consolidation, territorial expansion, organization of newly acquired territories—not to mention diplomacy—was a nationalistic process in that the United States was becoming a modern nation-state. Americans steadily developed through political and social nationalism, and advanced westward thanks to a commercial and transportation revolution after the War of 1812.
The first English colonists, particularly the New England Puritans, began the American tradition of religious, or Christian, nationalism. George McKenna, in his 2007 book, The Puritan Origins of American Patriotism, argued convincingly that American patriotism “dates back to seventeenth century Puritanism, yet it has adapted itself to all the modifications in Puritan-derived Protestantism over the past three centuries.” McKenna went on to say, “The one constant running through all forms of this Protestantism is the belief that Americans are a people set apart, a people with a providential mission.” While McKenna distinguished between nationalism and patriotism, Americans began their nationalistic conviction of chosenness and mission in the context of seventeenth-century Puritan New England. And this conviction is an example of the potency of the combination of theology and national identity.
Since the early seventeenth century, American Christian nationalism has evolved around the contours of historical circumstances. It is not one thing, nor is it a unique problem for one group or faction. Our conversations about Christian nationalism should be marked with humility before this complexity.
American nationalism has always been three-dimensional. That is, the people who have developed it over the generations have cast a vision of America in space (as in, the land), in time (as in, orientation toward the past, present, future, and eternity), and in matter (as in, its natural resources, its people and their actions, and relationship to other peoples). Since the colonial period, its proponents have frequently deployed themes that carry theological weight, such as a sacred land, a pure origin, the millennial kingdom, providence, divine favor, and a solemn duty. In crafting national identity, many figures have used philosophical ideas derived from sources like the Enlighten-ment (inevitable progress and equality), Romanticism (the sublime and scientific racism), and even German idealism (Hegelian dialectic). Christian nationalism in America is old, continuous, and culturally salient. In 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “patriotism is sometimes stimulated by religious enthusiasm” and that “nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.” Tocqueville observed that Americans of the 1830s were so convinced of their moral purity that they would not abide any criticism of their culture, ideas, or institutions. Because they defined their national identity in normative terms, their expressions of devotion to the nation were limited to praise and adulation. That has not seemed to change since Tocqueville wrote those words.
To help give substance to the historical picture let us consider a few forms Christian nationalism has taken since 1630. Then we will consider Christian nationalism in our own day.
Puritan Millennialism
At the establishment of the New England colonies, the Puritans saw their project in terms of a covenant with God. They believed they were fulfilling theological types introduced in the Old Testament. John Winthrop (1588-1649), the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony, famously articulated this vision in one of the most famous sermons in Americ-an history, his “Model of Christian Charity.” Faithfu-lness to the covenant would mean that God would “pl-ease to heare us, and bring us in peace to the place wee desire.” But if the people were unfaithful, then God would “surely breake out in wrathe against us, be revenged of such a perjured people and make us know the price of the breache of such a Covenant.” Samuel Danforth (1626-1674), pastor of the First Church in Roxbury, preached a sermon on Matthew 11.7-9, in which he saw Massachusetts as fulfilling the biblical type of Israel, going into the wilderness to hold a feast to the Lord after escaping Pharaoh’s wrath. The colonists thought there was eternal significance to their “errand in the wilderness.” Cotton Mather, in his history of New England entitled Magnalia Christi Americana, saw the New England churches as the golden candlesticks of Revelation 1.20.
Furthermore, the New England Puritans saw the discovery of America, the Reformation, and their colonizing project as evidence that God was bringing near the millennial kingdom of Christ, not in allegorical, but in historical terms. Historian Ernest Lee Tuveson argued that the Puritans replaced the traditional amillennialism of medieval Europe with a progressive post-millennialism that was much more active and optimistic for the future. Augustine posited a view of history that was essentially static, that humans should accept the fallen world as it is: cursed under the weight of sin. But the Puritans read the book of Revelation and came away with a view that God was working through his people to effect progress that culminated in the breaking forth of the kingdom. The Reformation, they believed, was the beginning of the end for this fallen world.
Speaking on behalf of the Puritans, Tuveson wrote, “Is it possible that the Reformation was the beginning of a process, within history, which is to lead to the establishment of God’s kingdom in all the world? If so, it seems almost as if the “finger of prophecy” must point to this, the last, the best child of the Reformation. Why . . . did Providence hold back the discovery of this vast part of the earth until the very time when the mystical Babylon began to suffer her death pangs?”
From the 1630s to the 1750s, Puritan millennialism was the predominant expression of the intersection between theology and nationalism. As historical circumstances changed, theology continued to inform national identity, but did so in ways unique to those changing circumstances.
Christian Republicanism
By the time of the American Revolution in the late 18th century, Americans were inaugurating their own nationality. American colonists saw the English triumph over the French in the Seven Years’ War in 1763 as the triumph of true religion over the forces of anti-Christ. After 1763, revolutionary ideas drew inspiration from the Bible, English common law tradition, classical antiquity, the Enlightenment, and radical Whig ideology, those liberal ideas emerging from the English Civil War (1642-1649) and the Glorious Revolution (1688). Historians Bernard Bailyn and Pauline Maier argued that radical Whig ideology brought together those disparate sources of revolutionary thought into a coherent whole. Mark Noll observed that colonial preaching baptized this ideology into the language of Puritan exegesis and theology that produced “Christian republicanism.” Christian republicanism was the earliest expression of American nationality.
The blending of biblical language with English liberalism is clear in another famous sermon in Amer-ican history by Jonathan Mayhew. In his sermon based on Romans 13.1-8, “Discourse on Unlimited Submission” (1750), May-hew said of a people oppre-ssed by a tyrant: “For a nation thus abused to arise unanimously, and to resist their prince, even to deth-roning him, is not a criminal; but a reasonable use of the means, and the only means which God has put in their power, for mutual and self-defence.” Mayhew believed that a nation ruled by a tyrant had a righteous duty to overthrow that ty-rant because the ruler ser-ved God as the minister of good. When that ruler no l-onger served that divine pu-rpose, the people were justified in overthrowing him.
Mayhew’s sermon, influenced by radical Whig ideology, interpreted Romans 13 in light of the principle of consent by the governed. Seeing liberal political theory as consistent with the precepts of Scripture became commonplace during the struggle for independence. Samuel Sherwood preached a sermon in 1776 based on Revelation 12.14-17 entitled “The Church’s Flight into the Wilderness,” in which he saw the American colonies in similar terms as the church. Following the tradition of the Puritans, Sherwood used typology to depict the tyrannical George III and the Church of England as the persecutors of the American colonies. The king in Revelation 12 was the dragon, and the colonies were represented by the woman. Connecticut preacher Nicholas Street, in his 1777 sermon, “The American States Acting Over the Part of the Children of Israel in the Wilderness,” saw the colonists in the role of the Israelites of the Exodus, the revolutionary leaders as Moses and Aaron, Britain as Egypt, King George III as Pharaoh, the Red Sea as the military struggle, and victory in the war as the land of Canaan.
Such a blending of biblical motifs with revolutionary ideas gave a strong sense of national purpose, and strengthened the idea that God had chosen America and blessed the nation with great responsibility.
Manifest Destiny
In 1845, John L. O’Sullivan, founding editor of the Jacksonian periodical United States Magazine and Democratic Review, coined one of the most recognizable terms in American history: “manifest destiny.” In the context of the American annexation of Texas, O’Sullivan wrote that Europe aimed at “limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.” Along with a Christian concept of providence, manifest destiny also employed Christian-inspired themes of innocence, mission, and millennialism. Thus, there was a divine inevitability to American expansion. O’Sullivan’s conception of manifest destiny was an important justification for the Mexican American War (1846-1848). It was important also in the Spanish American War of 1898, and America’s acquisition of an overseas empire.
O’Sullivan was an important figure in the years prior to the Civil War—a prominent editor, but also a member of the diplomatic corps, having served as minister to Portugal from 1853–1857 under the administration of Franklin Pierce. As an editorialist, he gave voice to the particular form of Christian nationalism that prevailed in the context of westward expansion. He thought of the Christian gospel in thoroughly American terms, presenting “a secular version of millennial ‘political religion,’” in the words of nationalism scholar Anthony D. Smith. He was convinced it was the will of God for America to overspread the North American continent, and because of this, America’s rise to continental dominance was inevitable. Since America was the providential nation, it was morally pure. It was also in the vanguard of human progress. “All history has to be re-written; political science and the whole scope of all moral truth have to be considered and illustrated in light of the democratic principle” which America embodied, as O’Sullivan wrote in 1837. Furthermore, America was chosen by God to spread freedom to the world—“freedom of conscience, freedom of person, freedom of trade and business pursuits, universality of freedom and equality. . . . For this blessed mission . . . America has been chosen,” O’Sullivan wrote in 1839.
We see the continuation of Puritan millennialism and Christian republicanism in O’Sullivan’s Manifest Destiny, but articulated in a new context. We also see O’Sullivan’s racial prejudice inform his nationalism, in that he saw the Anglo-Americans as superior to indigenous people, blacks, and Mexicans. In contrast to O’Sullivan’s providential certainty and racial chauvinism, Lincoln’s nationalism was benevolent, generous, and exemplary while retaining its debt to theology.
Lincolnian Unionism
Lincoln was committed to preserving the Union, and by 1862, he knew that it was impossible to save the Union as it was. By 1865, the fate of the Union, what Lincoln called “the last best hope of earth” in 1862, rested in God’s hands. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln noted that “Both [sides] read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” But in Lincoln’s view, God was judging all America for its 250-year embrace of slavery and Americans had to change their conception of their relationship with God. God, Lincoln insisted, should not be described as being on the side of either belligerent. Americans should care more about whether they were on God’s side, and to be on God’s side was to be on the side of right.
This national vision was confirmed in the Union victory, and sacralized after Lincoln’s assassination, as evidenced especially in the construction and 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. The Memorial describes itself in a carved dictum over the awesome statue of Lincoln as a “temple,” and it has served as a symbol of Lincolnian justice merged with American nationalism for a century.
The Gettysburg Address may illustrate Lincolnian Unionism better than any single document that Lincoln wrote. Lincoln conceived of the Civil War as a great testing of whether or not the American experiment in democracy could actually survive. That experiment, which Lincoln described as “a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” was in stark contrast to the European monarchies that were still dedicated to the principle of natural hierarchy. Men gave their lives to defend that proposition of the Declaration of Independence at Gettysburg. What was required now, said Lincoln, was a renewal of dedication on the part of the living.
Such a rededication should take the form of a “new birth of freedom.” Historian Allen Guelzo likened this to a “religious revival,” the success of which would guarantee the success and spread of liberal democracy. Guelzo observed that Lincoln placed the ongoing strife of the Civil War into a “world historical context.” In doing so, Lincoln normativized the American nation as the paragon of righteous government for all time, but without the racial chauvinism of O’Sullivan. Lincolnian Unionism was a Christian nationalism that was an exemplar to the world, manifesting hope and flourishing through human freedom and equality under God.
Wilsonian Idealism
Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth President, led the American war effort in World War I beginning in 1917. He believed God had commissioned America to lead the world into Christian civilization through the defeat of the Central Powers and the establishment of the League of Nations. Historian Milan Babík connected Wilson’s vision to Puritan millennialism: “the old Puritan dream of returning to the old world from the transatlantic refuge in order to spread the American millennium worldwide seemed to him on the verge of fulfillment.” Wilson’s dream of an international order of Christian civilization, led by the United States, animated American interventionist foreign policy during the course of the twentieth century. John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under Eisenhower, said in 1955, “Our people have always been endowed with a sense of mission in the world. They have believed that it was their duty to help men everywhere to get the opportunity to be and to do what God designed.” That sense of divine mission and of solemn duty undergirded American actions, especially in the early years of the Cold War.
Dulles represents Wilsonian idealism as a Christian nationalistic manifestation better than Wilson, because he was more successful at advancing Wilson’s vision. Where Wilson’s efforts at achieving a lasting peace at Versailles failed, Dulles’s efforts at forging peace after World War II in the Pacific were successful. And whereas Wilson died before he could see America face down the Nazis to “make the world safe for democracy,” Dulles became the most powerful diplomat in the world during the early years of the Cold War, as the United States and its allies confronted the Soviet threat.
Dulles repeatedly reminded Americans that theirs was a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles, and the most powerful champion of civilization. Thus, America had both a unique capacity, and a solemn duty, to stand for human freedom against the great foe of human freedom, the Soviet Union. If America retreated into itself, the whole world would fall. Thus, Dulles conceived of the world in Manichean terms, seeing the United States as the champion of light and justice and the Communists as the purveyors of darkness and tyranny. Wilsonian idealism represented a continuation of a tradition in Christian nationalism in which, as historian Richard Gamble argued, Americans “have seen themselves as a progressive, redemptive force, waging war in the ranks of Christ’s army . . . liberating those in bondage and healing the afflicted.”
Christian America
In 1977, a book appeared that launched the Christian America movement. The Light and the Glory by Peter Marshall and David Manuel, sold hundreds of thousands of copies and remains popular today. Marshall and Manuel argued that America was God’s new Israel, chosen to be “a light to the Gentiles.” The book served as a path forward for the nation to recover its Christian origins and calling. The Christian America thesis—the argument that America was fou-nded as a Christian nati-on—is based on a declension narrative. America, it argued, had fallen from its glorious Christian past and needed to recover what had been lost. Figures like Tim LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, Sr., David Barton, John Eisdmoe, and others produced books, pamphlets, curricula, and multimedia to advance the Christian America thesis.
The Christian America thesis can be summarized in themes under three categories: historical, theological, and philosophical. Historically, advocates of Christian America have argued that the founders were Christians, the Great Awakening set the stage for the revolution, and the founding documents were inspired by Christian sources. Theologically, they argued from a providential view of history that American exceptionalism was evidence of God’s unique blessing on the nation, and that America was the chosen nation of God. Philosophically, the original intent of the founders may be discerned using hermeneutical methods similar to what would be used to interpret Scr-ipture. The founders intended to build Christian principles into the fabric of the nation. This form of Christ-ian nationalism seems to be most prevalent today, and critics are reacting mainly to this.
The Christian America movement is different, in that its proponents orient the nation toward the past. They are concerned with the faith of the founders, the Christian origins of the nation, and returning America to a golden age. Nostalgia plays a crucial role in this brand of nationalism. Prior to about 1970, every generation of Amer-icans took for granted that America was a Christian nation. With the slow dissolution of an American Pro-testant consensus however, this is no longer broadly assumed. Advocates of Christian America are now trying to recover a Christian nationality
There are many nuances to American Christian nationalism. One thing we can say for sure is that nationalism is necessarily historical. All nationalistic paradigms orient the nation in time, but not all in the same way. Puritan millennialism, Christian republicanism, Manifest Destiny, Lincolnian unionism, and Wilsonian idealism were oriented toward the future. Puritan millennialism looked ahead to the thousand-year reign of Christ. Christian republicanism and Manifest Destiny saw America turning its back on the past and turning toward the future. Lincoln cast America as being in the throes of a national death, but also experiencing “a new birth of freedom” as “the last, best hope of earth.”
Wilson and Dulles looked forward to an international order with America as the indispensable nation, guaranteeing free trade and world cooperation. Each of these nationalisms was committed to the idea of inevitable progress. These nationalisms are progressive in that they situate America as the nation of the future. And Wilsonian idealism, as a progressive nationalism, directly emerged from the political and religious left. (Richard M. Gamble has written extensively on this subject.) The fact that nationalism is necessarily historical is deeply important. Those who comment, reflect, disparage, or praise it must understand the historical complexities inherent in nationalism. Progressive nationalism and conservative nationalism are both nationalism. And both progressives and conservatives have always been nationalists at different points in American history.
This gets us to the importance of history in general. What all the talk about Christian nationalism indicates to us is that history matters. Who we think we are matters to the way we approach one another.
It seems to me that there are two common problematic approaches to history when it comes to Christian nationalism. Some people are simply ignorant about history because they do not think it is relevant to their daily lives or because they had bad teachers (the football coach who showed movies like The Patriot in class to substitute for actual teaching). Others know their history, sometimes quite well, but their knowledge of history does not extend to being able to think historically. So they use their knowledge of the past to cherry pick from the historical record, mining those elements from the past that they like and using them to advance their ideology, all the while ignoring evidence they don’t like, which wou-ld undermine their agenda.
Now add the dynamic of religion in thinking historically—how has religion shaped the way Americans have identified themselves in relation to God, to other nations, and even to themselves? How religious have Americans tended to be over the generations? How has religious affiliation changed in America since the eighteenth century? Is religion as important to Americans in the present as it was in the past? These questions, and others like it, are significant in addressing the changing ways that Americans have thought about themselves as the United States grew from its independence, to continental supremacy, to world power status, and to superpower status in a bipolar world, and later, in a multipolar world.
America was founded upon transcendent ideas, as in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” During the Civil War, it was re-founded upon other transcendent propositions, such as Lincoln’s words in his Second Inaugural Address: “with malice toward none, with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to . . . do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” Since America is a nation predicated on ideas that are essential, above and beyond space and time, apply morally and ontologically to all generations, religion plays a unique role in American national identity. Without religion, the ideas that are necessary to the American project are meaningless. Thus, an American nationalism devoid of religion or religious presuppositions is inconceivable.
In such a nation as the United States, founded as it is on transcendent moral ideas, we can count on controversy and contest in the way Americans think of the application of those ideas. We can be certain that religion will be, just as it has been, abused and perverted to suit particular national interests, and some of those means and interests will be unjust and contradictory to the very ideas expressed in the founding documents. But aberrations such as these cannot justify the jettisoning of religion in American nationalism.
All Americans are nationalists, of some sort. As long as we abide by the laws, acknowledge the supremacy of the Constitution, enjoy the blessings that America gives, appeal to American ideals, and contend for justice in the name of the United States both domestically and internationally, we subscribe to American nationalism. To do away with religion or nationalism is to do away with America.
We should think carefully about American history, nationalism, and the interplay of religion with American identity. And we should stand against expressions that twist and debauch religion and nationalism to ends that militate against American ideals that many of our forefathers and mothers gave their lives to defend and extend. As we do so, we may think of our loyalties along the lines of Augustine’s ordering of loves. As Augustine wrote in City of God, “When the miser prefers his gold to justice, it is through no fault of the gold, but of the man; and so with every created thing. For though it be good, it may be loved with an evil as well as with a good love; it is loved rightly when it is loved ordinately; evilly, when inordinately.” This is where the distinction between patriotism and nationalism becomes necessary to explain clearly, as Steven B. Smith has done for example, in his 2021 book Reclaiming Patriotism in an Age of Extremes.
We must take the many nuances inherent in American identity seriously. The term “Christian nationalism” can serve as a useful category. Christian nationalism, to be sure, has often been articulated in ways that pervert Christianity’s message. But we should work to understand it, and when we condemn it, we should do it in precise terms. Racism is a corruption of American ideals, not a basic essential element of American identity. Religious bigotry contradicts the constitutional guarantee of disestablishment and freedom of conscience, and freedom of conscience cannot be appealed to in the name of bigotry. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, but we do live in the world. We Christians do not contradict ourselves when we express ordered love for Christ’s kingdom first, and our nation subsequently. We must recognize that we all inherit something from nationalism, whether political or religious. Most importantly, we cannot allow critics of Christian nationalism to use the concept as a way to further undermine the necessary place of religion and religious people in the public square. Religion must always have a place in the public square, and patriotism as devotion to the national idea is a good thing, provided it is rightly ordered and conceived. Historical and philosophical precision are needed to pinpoint whatever kind of religio-philosophical nationalism is at hand, so that we may intelligently separate the precious from the worthless.