One of the prominent movements influencing American politics today is Christian nationalism. This is not a new phenomenon. Christian nationalism in one form or another has existed throughout American history. Nor is it uniquely American, as versions of it can be found in other nations. But the contemporary American form has its own distinctive shape.
Among those studying Christian nationalism are Philip S. Gorski and Samuel L. Perry, in their book The Flag and the Cross (Oxford University Press, 2022). Calling it “white Christian nationalism,” they define it in terms of its story of America’s past and vision for the future.
The account of the past “goes something like this: America was founded as a Christian nation by (white) men who were ‘traditional’ Christians, who based the nation’s founding documents on ‘Christian principles.’ The United States is blessed by God, which is why it has been so successful, and the nation has a special role to play in God’s plan for humanity. But these blessings are threatened by cultural degradation from ‘un-American’ influences both inside and outside our borders” (p. 4).
As the authors say, this story is historically false. Almost none of the founders were traditional Christians, and they were influenced by a wide array of sources, both Greco-Roman and contemporary Enlightenment philosophy, as well as generalized religious morality. The existence of slavery and the treatment of Native Americans also undermines the claim of America being a Christian nation.
Building on this story, Christian nationalism envisions a future in which America is once again a Christian nation, “or, at least, a nation ruled by Christians” (p. 6).
The authors are careful to distinguish Christian nationalism from other categories with which it is sometimes confused. It is different from evangelicalism although there is some overlap. And it is not the same as patriotism: “Patriotism is animated by love, nationalism by hatred” (p. 9).
John Wesley was familiar with a form of Christian nationalism in his own time. Nations were designated as Christian, or Muslim, or Heathen, and Christian nations as Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant. Twice in Wesley’s lifetime, a Catholic “pretender” to the throne tried to seize power and return Britain to the Catholic fold. On that level, it was important to Wesley for Great Britain to remain a Protestant nation.
But that said, we can see some clear issues between Wesley and this contemporary American Christian nationalism. Wesley was a truth-teller and would resist the Christian nationalist story as dishonest. He saw slavery for the evil it was and believed strongly in the equality of all persons.
At the heart of Wesley’s critique would be the one he made against the Christian pretensions of his own nation. Here is what he said in the concluding section of his 1744 sermon “Scriptural Christianity”:
Where, I pray, do the Christians live? Which is the country, the inhabitants whereof are ‘all (thus) filled with the Holy Ghost’? Are all ‘of one heart and one soul.’? Cannot suffer one among them to ‘lack anything’, but continually give ‘to every man as he hath need’? Who one and all have the love of God filling their hearts, and constraining them to love their neighbor as themselves?...With what propriety can we term any a Christian country which does not answer this description? Why then, let us confess we have never yet seen a Christian country upon earth. (§IV.1)
Wesley’s question to his listeners at Oxford was at the heart of his life and ministry: What is a Christian, a true Christian? He was not satisfied with the cultural trappings of Christianity. He wanted the real thing, the new life promised in Scripture. He rejected any claim to be Christian that fell short of that new life.
Wesley held this position for his entire ministry.
In his 1783 sermon “The General Spread of the Gospel” Wesley asks what acquaintance the western churches have “with either the theory or practice of religion.” He says:
Put Papists and Protestants, French and English together, the bulk of one and of the other nation, and what manner of Christians are they? Are they ‘holy, as he hath called them is holy’? Are they filled with ‘righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost’? Is there ‘that the mind in them which was also in Christ Jesus’? And do they ‘walk as Christ also walked’? Nay, they are as far from it as hell is from heaven. (§7)
If Wesley could look at Christian nationalism in America today, what would he see? He would see fear of cultural change and of persons who are different. He would see grievance and anger and in many cases hatred. What he would not see is Christianity. Where is the holiness of heart and life? Where is the love for God revealed in Jesus Christ and for all persons, not just persons like us?
God’s love was revealed in Jesus Christ, who lived it out and then died on a cross out of love for us. For Wesley, nothing deserves the name of Christianity that does not involve our seeking and growing in that love.