Being a patriotic American doesn't make you a 'Christian nationalist': Dr. Richard Land weighs in on the debate

Courtesy of Mark Creech
Courtesy of Mark Creech

When it comes to history, and American history in particular, definitions matter.

In 2006, before becoming the leader of the free world, former President Barack Obama famously said, "Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation — at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers."

It wouldn’t be the last time the 44th president would suggest America once held to an exclusivist Christian identity, but the claim begged a larger question: did it ever?

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By the end of Obama’s first term, most Evangelical leaders seemed to say "no."

A 2012 survey conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals found less than a third of American Evangelicals believed the U.S. is a “Christian nation,” though there was considerable debate over exactly what that looks like. 

A decade later, not much has changed.

In a wide-ranging interview, Dr. Richard Land, executive editor of The Christian Post, urged American Christians, regardless of their political persuasion, not to allow the Left to define how they see the United States.

According to Land, the Left-leaning American media invented the hot-button phrase “Christian nationalism” as a pejorative term that serves to undermine the fundamental relationship between Christians and this nation as defined in the U.S. Constitution. 

“I’m not a Christian nationalist,” Land said. “I’ve read about some, but I don’t know any.”

“I think it is a tactic by the Left and their toadies in the media to suppress patriotic beliefs and to suppress the idea that America is a unique country,” added Land.

“They hate that, they don’t believe it themselves.”

The notion of Christian nationalism has a contentious history, one that some commentators say stretches back at least as far as the dawn of the New Deal, when Christian leaders rallied around the Cross of Christ in response to what they saw as government encroachment.

For others, the phrase conjures up images of Jerry Falwell Sr. and the Religious Right of the 1970s and early 1980s, or former President Donald Trump and his Make America Great Again movement — and, for some, its alleged corollary, the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which The Washington Post headlined as a “kind of Christian revolt.”

Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, authors of the book, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States, defined the term as the belief that the “United States is and should be a Christian nation.”

Whitehead and Perry wrote: “Christian nationalism merely uses the Bible to impose its conservative political agenda. By asserting that they are true followers of Christ in a country that is founded on Christian principles, adherents of Christian nationalism can brand their political opponents as both ungodly and un-American.”

But Land, who also serves as president emeritus and adjunct professor of theology and ethics at Southern Evangelical Seminary,  rejects the term.

“To be a patriotic American does not make you a Christian nationalist,” he said. “To believe God has played a unique role in our history, or that America is a unique nation, does not make us Christian nationalists.

“Pejoratively, they want to tie Christian nationalism to racism and to prejudice, and I reject those labels.”

In celebration of the nation's independence back in July, Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Dallas, told his congregation that while he doesn't consider himself a "Christian nationalist,” he does believe the United States was founded as a "Christian nation.”

In his message, Jeffress said that anyone listening to "left-wing" organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union or the Freedom From Religion Foundation "will come to believe that America was founded by men with a wide diversity of religious beliefs."

That couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Jeffress, who added, “that version of American history belongs in the same category as the story of George Washington and the cherry tree: it is a complete myth.”

While Land conceded that Jeffress was making a “valid point,” he said he disagrees with him when it comes to the question of whether we were founded as a Christian nation.

Instead, Land believes America is “an experiment combining Judeo-Christian values with Enlightenment ideas,” but warned that it “doesn’t work unless the majority of the people are aware of being subject to a higher authority.”

Land said, “Jeffress and I, because we’re both Baptists, believe in separation of both Church and State, and thus believe the freedoms guaranteed to us in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution belong to everyone, regardless of their faith.”

He further noted that the Declaration of Independence makes reference to God numerous times, perhaps most famously in its conclusion in which the Founders wrote: “For the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

Still, Land said, that’s a far cry from declaring America to be a Christian nation.

“I don’t believe we were founded as a Christian nation,” he said. “I believe we were founded by people who were Christians or were operating out of a Christian worldview. 

“In the Declaration of Independence, they do not declare their independence from God, they’re just declaring their independence from Great Britain.”

Twelve of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, for instance, were Presbyterian — including the sole clergyman signer, John Witherspoon — for which reason many Presbyterians today claim loyalists to King George III saw the American Revolution as a largely “Presbyterian Rebellion.”

Witherspoon himself went on to help formalize the Articles of Confederation and the U.S. Constitution, paving the way for the birth of the U.S. federal government.

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution "prohibits the government from making any law respecting an establishment of religion" and "government actions that unduly favor one religion over another." It also prohibits the government from "unduly preferring religion over non-religion, or non-religion over religion."

More than two centuries after an 1802 letter from President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in which Jefferson famously described the First Amendment as "a wall of separation between Church and State,” Land and others contend that all the limitations in the First Amendment are on the State, not the people.

The amendment was intended, Land added, to protect “the church” from “the state.”

Two days after he sent the letter, Jefferson attended a church service conducted in the House of Representatives.

Five years before the first Congress convened, the Capitol building was used as a church, according to the Library of Congress. The first services were held in the fall of 1800 in the north wing of the House.

Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson himself began attending church services at the Capitol, before he later famously created his own version of Scripture to omit fundamental tenets of the faith, including the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

In what might be the judiciary's most overt reference to America as a Christian nation, U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Brewer, writing the majority decision in the 1892 caseChurch of the Holy Trinity v. United States, noted the observance of the Sabbath and other traditions as a "clear recognition" of faith in civic life.

"These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation," wrote Brewer.

It’s that extensive confluence of Christian faith and American history that, according to Land, raises the question of defining exactly what is meant by phrases such as Christian nationalist.

“When people who are liberal try to label a Christian nationalist as anybody who believes America has anything to do with God or that God has anything to do with America, they’re denying most of American history,” he said.

Many of the Founding Fathers, added Land, “believed that God, for some reason, had a special interest in the United States of America.”

John Adams, the country’s second president, who, according to Land, “had more to do with the Constitution than anybody except James Madison,” said in 1798: “We have a government designed only for a moral and religious people. It is insufficient for any other.”

“What he meant by that was, if you’re going to have limited government … you’ve got to have a majority of the population who are voluntarily obeying the law when nobody else is around because they are aware that they are accountable to a higher authority,” Land said.

He pointed to Puritan founder John Winthrop, who spoke about America as "a city upon a hill," a phrase echoed over 300 years later by President Ronald Reagan.

“Was [Winthrop] a Christian nationalist?” Land asked.

Abraham Lincoln once called America the “last best hope of Earth,” one that “the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

“Was he a Christian nationalist?” again asked Land.

As the U.S. lurched toward World War I, Woodrow Wilson, the son of a Presbyterian minister, spoke about fighting “the war to end all wars.”

“Was he a Christian nationalist?” Land asked rhetorically.

Pointing to John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, Land said while the speech became well-known for a number of reasons, many overlook what Kennedy said was the driving force behind our nation: “For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.”

“That’s pretty clear,” said Land.

In fact, with a handful of exceptions, nearly every president in American history has been identified with Protestant Christianity.

Yet with the exception of Trump, none of them have been historically accused of appealing to Christian nationalist ideology.

2016 presidential election 

When it comes to global use, the term Christian nationalism was relatively — though not completely — nonexistent for the first two decades of this millennium, seeing only slight bumps during the George W. Bush administration.

Part of that, according to Google, is due to a lack of search engine data.

Around the time of Trump’s election in November 2016, the term “white nationalism” — a much more pejorative precursor to the more narrow Christian nationalism — saw a sharp rise in searches, fueled in part by allegations of Trump’s support from white nationalist figures like David Duke and William Johnson.

The first significant spike in searches for Christian nationalism came in August 2019 following a pair of mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.

But it wasn’t until the U.S. Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, that both search terms were seemingly conflated and the contemporary notion of Christian nationalism seeped into the national consciousness.

Outlets like HuffPost ran articles suggesting the events of Jan. 6 — which it described as “an episode that was permeated with the symbols of Christian nationalism” — were directly tied to the government allowing and even funding conservative Christian education in the United States.

Even more left-leaning media sites such as Vice reported hearing from Christians around the country who “said they’ve witnessed their congregations lose focus and slide into Christian nationalism” even as churches grow “older and whiter than before.”

During a 2021 webinar hosted by Christians Against Christian Nationalism, a coalition of faith leaders and organizations, the progressive Rev. Michael Curry, presiding bishop of The Episcopal Church, said while he believes that there are “innocent forms of Christian nationalism,” he warned of a “more virulent or dangerous kind” that involves people viewing their country as “God’s favorite.”

“That borders on blasphemy, idolatry,” argued Curry. “That kind of nationalism is dangerous. It is dangerous to civic health; it is dangerous to the health of a Christian.”

Progressive Christian activist and author Shane Claiborne, who is listed as one of the endorsers of Christians Against Christian Nationalism, called on churches to remove the U.S. flag from their altars or consider adding the banners of other nations following the Jan. 6 violence. 

“To be part of the Body of Christ is to transcend nationality,” the Red Letter Christians co-founder and leading figure in the New Monasticism movement argued. “That’s part of what it means to be ‘born again.’”

But Land said while he’s personally faced criticism for churches he’s attended where both the American and Christian flags were displayed, there’s never been any doubt about which one comes first.

“Every church I’ve been in, we understand the pecking order: the ultimate flag is the Christian flag,” he said.

Land recalled memories of being a young boy in Houston, Texas, and being led to recite a Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag, the Christian flag and the Bible.

So, why then do we have the American flag in church when there are so many people who come from other countries to our churches?

“The reason is, the American flag has never tried to persecute Christians,” Land said. “Almost all of the other countries in the world at some point in time, they have persecuted some kind of Christians. 

“But in America, the American flag has been the symbol of the First Amendment, which is about religious freedom. And it’s the First Amendment for a reason. All the other freedoms protect the ‘first’ freedom, which is the right to worship God as we please or not to worship Him at all. 

“So I have no problem with the American flag being in churches. The American flag is a symbol of soul freedom.”

The corporate press 

Since the events of Jan. 6, some of America’s best-known media outlets have published a number of stories referring to Christian nationalism in relatively stark headlines, including: 

  • “The Far Right Christian Quest for Power” - The New York Times
  • “Christian nationalism is surging. It wasn’t inevitable” - The Washington Post
  • “Christian nationalism is a threat, and not just from Capitol attackers invoking Jesus” - USA Today
  • 'Lynchburg Revival' Activists Warn Of Rising 'Christian Nationalism' - NPR
  • “White Christian Nationalism is the Most Dangerous Weapon in America” - Newsweek
  • “Trump's army of God: Doug Mastriano and the Christian nationalist attack on democracy” - Salon

While by no means a comprehensive list, even such a relatively small sample of headlines underscore what Land described as a “Southern Poverty Law Center kind of attitude” among the American media establishment toward patriotic Christians.

Land said the use of Christian nationalist and nationalism is merely another attempt by the political Left to “label Christians with what they see as a negative label … the same way they tried to make cisgender a negative label.”

“Basically, if you believe in any sense that America has a unique role to play in the world, and that God in His providence has had something to do with the United States, then you’re a Christian nationalist. 

“Then they start saying, ‘This is just for white people.’’”

For Land, such a view, both secular and otherwise, is incompatible with American history.

He recalled one episode where our first President George Washington wrote a letter to a Jewish congregation in Rhode Island, welcoming them not as guests, but as fellow Americans.  

“May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants,” Washington wrote.

Land said that sentiment is intrinsic to the fabric of our country.

“We believe in religious freedom,” Land said. “You’re free to have your mosque, you’re free to have your Shinto temple, you’re free to have your synagogue.”

He pointed to a 2015 poll that found 62% of American adults believe in the notion of American exceptionalism, that God has granted America a “special role” on the world stage.

“We are not [a] chosen nation, but America is exceptional, and God has blessed us in unique ways,” he said. “We are the recipients of divine providence, divine blessing, and blessing, by definition, is undeserved. Otherwise it would be called a reward.

“No nation has been blessed by God more than the United States of America, and that incurs certain obligations.”

For Land, understanding Christian nationalism or any other intended pejorative involving patriotism and faith should be viewed not through the lens of social media tribalism, but in its historical context.

“On the whole, and it is on the whole that such questions must be answered, American influence in the world has been a positive influence and not a negative influence. Wherever America's gone, there’s been more freedom, been more respect for minorities, more respect for women.

“That’s why so many people want to come here.”

In fact, Land said, it’s the continued desire of people from all over the world trying to make their way to the U.S. that speaks to America’s decidedly remarkable place in history.

“I don’t think it’s Christian nationalism to say America is a unique country,” he said. “Every other country in the world is founded on blood and soil. People of certain ethnicities, people of a certain geographic location. Not the United States. 

“The United States is based upon an idea: anybody can become an American.”

Facing opposition from ideological movements like critical race theory (CRT) — which, according to Land, seeks to “deconstruct American history and make America out to be an awful place” — Land said now more than ever, it’s important for Christians to push back against blanket descriptors like “Christian nationalism.”

“They should reject the term and replace it with things like ‘patriotic American’ or ‘someone who understands how unique the Declaration of Independence is,’” he said. 

“It’s not racist. Anybody can become an American, and we’ve demonstrated that by our history.”

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