Christian Nationalists?

As the President promotes the term “nationalist” in the midst of two terrorist attacks by men who seem to have also embraced Trump’s nationalism, the question arises as to the meaning and associations of the term. UNESCO claims that with “the birth of modern nations, anti-Semitism became essentially ‘nationalist.’”[1] The UNESCO report connects the rise of modern nationalism to a new and more virulent form of anti-Semitism. While the United States, in the words of George Washington in his letter of assurance to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R. I., “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” there is a clear rise in anti-Semitism (the Anti-Defamation League logged a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017) as the rhetoric of nationalism heats up. With the murder of the 11 worshipers in Pittsburgh (the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history), it is clear that Jews can no longer depend upon this country being a sanctuary from anti-Semitism.[2] Inasmuch as Christian evangelicals are key supporters of the source of this amped up rhetoric, the question is whether one can be a follower of Jesus and a nationalist? Contained within this larger question is the question whether Christianity is inherently nationalistic and anti-Semitic and, of course, there are historical moments where this appears to have been the case.

The best of German theologians, in Susannah Heshel’s account, were steeped in anti-Semitic ideology. In The Aryan Jesus, Heschel links anti-Semitism to the primal formation of German nationalism, so that even leaders of the Confessing Church, being good German nationalists, were also anti-Semitic. The distinction between the Confessing Church and German Christians was one of degree: Martin Niemöller opposed sending Jews to death camps and yet, did not oppose the persecution of the Jews. Niemöller embraced German nationalism and the National Socialist Party, in part, because he opposed the atheism of the Communist party, and in part because he was not unappreciative of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Niemöller, as well, appreciated Hitler’s apparent  religiosity and it was only much later that he recognized in it an evil greater than communism.

Hitler embraced or acknowledged (publicly if not privately) in a de-Judaized version, the Bible, Christianity, and religious belief, which in Niemöller’s later assessment, was simply a form of neo-paganism. Nazi theologians, as Heschel shows, denied Christ was Jewish, and through the Institute for the Study and Eradication of Jewish Influence on German Church Life (a self-explanatory name), published treatises arguing that Christ was non-Semitic and that his mission was directed against the Jewish people. Christ, in other words, was the ultimate anti-Semite. Nazi theologian Walter Grundmann, a key figure in this nazified Christianity, along with other Nazi theologians published The Message of God Bible without the Old Testament, without John’s Gospel, and omitted any reference to Jesus as servant or lamb of God.  In their “recovery” of the true Jesus it turns out Christ was a warrior who, though he preached the Sermon on the Mount, never said anything about blessings for the merciful.[3] The Nazi theologians are simply following the lead of Hitler who said, “My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter.”[4] In this “manlier” Christianity, hatred must be met with hatred, especially in regard to the Jews – who as Hitler explained, had been permanently cast out of the Temple by Christ.

In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.[5]

In this understanding, the entire work of Christ is aimed at driving out the Jews. The death of Christ makes the Jews “Christ killers” and guarantees they are a people permanently repudiated. As I noted here, Niemöller propagated the notion that Jews are “Christ killers” and as long as they persist in their Jewishness they cannot be accepted as Germans.

Hitler, as with Niemöller,  appealed to Luther’s notion of the two kingdoms to make it known he would brook no interference from the Church and that he expected obedience to the State in turn:

I know that here and there the objection has been raised: Yes, but you have deserted Christianity. No, it is not that we have deserted Christianity; it is those who came before us who deserted Christianity. We have only carried through a clear division between politics, which have to do with terrestrial things, and religion, which must concern itself with the celestial sphere. There has been no interference with the doctrine of the Confessions or with their religious freedom, nor will there be any such interference. On the contrary the State protects religion, though always on the one condition that religion will not be used as a cover for political ends.[6]

The notion that the Church depends upon the State for its protection and survival, and that the Church offers up acquiescence in return, would prove  deadly for many in the Confessing Church who refused to acquiesce.

While there are obvious differences between this present political moment and that of Nazi Germany, what is disturbing is the number of theological parallels with the German situation. The Old Testament as a theological resource is negligible among liberals and evangelicals, with focus (due to the Reformation) on the individual, two kingdoms, and departure of the terrestrial world for the celestial realm. Instead of adhering to Paul’s notion that the church is Israel today (Galatians 3:8-14), the socio-political-cultural reality which was Israel is mostly set aside. The Church, for the majority, is not a politic, or a kingdom, or an embodied entity, so much as a benign ward of the State.  As N.T. Wright has described it, Christianity is now profoundly psychologized by many liberals and evangelicals in a way that would have made no sense to first-century Palestinian Jews.

The hope of Israel was not for disembodied bliss but real-world liberation. Likewise, the first Christians saw themselves embodying a national, or social and political, way of life and they did not psychologize it or etherealize it to make it theirs. (This is not to deny the deep psychological nature of the Gospel – but it is to say that the way to transform this deep part of persons is not separate from the social and political.)

Israel’s story was their story and as “Gospel” it evokes competition with the Roman emperor cult, the good news of which originally announced the birth of an heir to the Imperial throne. Ecclesia is a “town meeting of God” with its “liturgy” a public work (originally applying to military service and public entertainments). This was not a cultus privatus or private religion, which Rome, in fact, allowed for. As Rodney Clapp has put it in A Peculiar People, “The original Christians…were about creating and sustaining a unique culture – a way of life that would shape character in the image of their God. And they were determined to be a culture, a quite public and political culture, even if it killed them and their children.”  There was no unquestioning submission to the State, nor any notion that Christian ethics does not pertain to the public and political realm.

Christian Nationalism, whether Roman, Nazi, or American, is a non-sequitur or oxymoron that should be seen as a profound contradiction. The fact that it may not appear so at this moment, does not mean that we live in a Christian Country but rather, that those who worship at the altar of American Nationalism, by definition, cannot claim to be subjects of the one true King.



[2] As reported in The Washington Post,

[3] Susannah Heschel, The Aryan Jesus, (Princeton University Press, 2008).

[4] Speech delivered at Munich 12 April 1922; from Norman H. Baynes, ed. (1942). The Speeches of Adolf Hitler: April 1922-August 1939. (New York: Oxford University Press) 19-20.

[5] Ibid

[6] Speech delivered at Koblenz 26 August 1934; from Norman H. Baynes, ed. (1969). The Speeches of Adolf Hitler: April 1922-August 1939. (New York: Howard Fertig) 386.

Discover more from Forging Ploughshares

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

One thought on “Christian Nationalists?”

  1. I saw yesterday on Facebook someone making a distinction between patriotism and nationalism, Patriotism was used to describe a people caring for others. Nationalism was used to describe a people concerned only about themselves. I suspect there is some overlap between the two terms. However, as Christians, our lives, our message, our actions, should all transcend culture, ideologies, and political persuasions. Believers in the King of the Universe live as subjects to a kingdom that reigns over all kingdoms, physical as well as spiritual ones.

Leave a Reply