3 August, 2021

The Problems with Christian Nationalism: An American Viewpoint


by | 1 July, 2007 | 0 comments

By Ethan Magness

A visit to the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam is an unsettling experience. From the outside everything seems so normal. If not for the small line of tourists waiting to get in, it would be indistinguishable from other houses in the beautiful old neighborhood. Cobblestones and a quiet canal belie the dramatic story of good and evil that took place inside the silent building.

The house tour leads from the printing shop through the secret door and into the apartment. The furniture is simple and functional. Even the “hiding place” seems comfortable and would have been quite nice, I suppose, if two families weren”t crammed in there 24 hours a day for two years, living in fear for their lives. As I looked at the door through which the SS guards burst, I found myself wondering, How could such awful things have happened in this lovely house on such a lovely street?

The house tour leads to a museum about World War II and the social and political forces that allowed Hitler and the Nazi party to rise to power in Germany. It was not an extensive museum, and I am not an expert on the subject, but two realities were very clear. First, Hitler and his party rose to power by appealing to the nationalism of a demoralized Germany. Shamed by their defeat during the First World War, the pro-Germany appeal of the National Socialist party reinvigorated the nation, focusing exclusively, almost obsessively, on people”s pride in the German state.

Second, and more troubling, it is clear none of this would have been possible without the cooperation and support of the German church. Most Christians were convinced a strong Germany was essential for a strong church, and so the church supported a strong Germany.

This period epitomizes what Lesslie Newbigin wrote concerning the rise of nationalism:

In the twentieth century we have become accustomed to the fact that””in the name of the nation””Catholics will fight Catholics, Protestants will fight Protestants, and Marxists will fight Marxists. The charge of blasphemy, if it is ever made, is treated as a quaint anachronism; but the charge of treason, of placing another loyalty above that to the nation state, is treated as the unforgivable crime. The nation state has taken the place of God.1

These two realities, the hypernationalism of the German people and the cooperation of the church, were essential ingredients to the start of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Certainly there were minds of extraordinary evil that led the Nazi party, but it was very ordinary evil that brought it to power. It was the common error of citizens believing their nation was better than other nations and their people better than other people. It was the even more common error of ordinary Christians thinking a political party or nation could accomplish God”s purposes.

My visit to the Anne Frank House opened my eyes to the dangers of confusing Christian commitment and national loyalty. Dangerous nationalism depends upon at least three ideas: tribalism, arrogance, and excessive allegiance to the state. All three of these are rejected by Christ.


One of the transformational marks of Jesus” ministry was his universal love for all people. His contemporaries seem to have forgotten the prophecy of Isaiah that God”s good purposes would include all people (Isaiah 2:2). The scandal of the parable of the Good Samaritan is precisely that he is a Samaritan.

Paul and Peter took the gospel to the Gentiles because they understood that God”s blessing was too big for any one nation. In John”s revelation, he has a vision of God”s gathered people: “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9).

In light of this universal love, Christians must work against the human tendency to tribalism. Tribalism has some harmless varieties. It is always fun to root for the home team, and if they don”t win it is a shame. I will always be an Elizabethton High School Cyclone. As Cyclones we knew it was an acceptable level of tribalism to inform our opponents that “We got spirit, yes we do, we got spirit, how “˜bout you.” But we knew it was going too far to egg their bus.

Similarly, “God Bless America” makes a good bumper sticker, but as a prayer it is rather incomplete. God desires to bless all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. It would look less catchy on a bumper sticker, but perhaps we should pray, “God bless America, and our allies, and especially our enemies, and everyone else in between.” It is not the prayer I want to pray, but I think it is what Jesus would have prayed.


It is exciting to be on a winning team. When things are going well in a church, or business, or family, we are ready to rejoice in our role. If things go well long enough and we are not careful, our joy and gratitude will turn to pride.

James and John knew they were on a winning team and they wanted a bigger piece of the action. They came to Jesus and asked, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” The other disciples heard that request and became angry””I wonder if the anger stemmed from the arrogance of the question or from their failure to ask it first. Jesus gathered them together to realign their thinking.

You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:42-45).

Jesus has a countercultural style of leadership. In fact, it is so countercultural he uses a different word: servanthood. Jesus” strategy for self-preservation is sacrifice; his strategy for self-promotion is humility; and his strategy for greatness is serving others. As I think back to the tribalism of high school football cheers, I wonder if I should have cheered not, “We”re Number 1″ but rather “We”re here to help.”

The nation is not the church, and we must expect nations will continue to glorify themselves. Politicians around the globe will continue to proclaim their nation the greatest. In particular, as Americans, we have taken some minor losses over the years, but in general our history is one of success after success. For the last 20 years, we have enjoyed the role of sole superpower. In such a situation, national arrogance is easy.

But the church must be the church, and Christians must proclaim through their lives that it is service and sacrifice that make one great. It is the meek who will inherit the earth.


Christ”s love for the whole world challenges us to grow beyond our love solely for our nation. Christ”s servanthood and sacrifice call us to forsake our pride and desire for power. In the same way, Christ”s lordship over the life of a Christian makes all other allegiances fade.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Christ tells his disciples, “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other” (Matthew 6:24). Jesus applies this truth to wealth, but it also applies to any allegiance that would compete with our allegiance to Christ.

Allegiance to Jesus only does not imply anarchy. I pay my taxes every year because of Mark 12:13-17. As Jesus taught us, our money bears the image of the state, so I will give the state its due. But my life is made in the image of God. So I will give to God what is God”s.

Christians should pay taxes and serve as good citizens, but we do this because of our allegiance to God and not because our allegiance is to the state itself. Peter teaches us to honor the state, but we do not love it or fear it (1 Peter 2:17). Paul calls us to submit to the governing authorities (Romans 13), but it is also Paul who teaches us that “our citizenship is in heaven and we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20, emphasis added).

When Pilate asked the crowds if he should give them their king, they shouted, “We have no king but Caesar” (John 19:15). As a Christian I must remember, I have no king but Christ.


1Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches, as quoted in Resident Aliens, by Stanley Hauerwas and William H. Willimon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1989), 34.



Ethan Magness is spiritual formation pastor at Mountain Christian Church, Joppa, Maryland.

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