A Different Approach to Christian Nationalism

[1] In the glossary of the draft of the proposed ELCA Social Statement on Civic Life and Faith, Christian Nationalism is said to be:

A cultural framework that idealizes and advocates fusion of certain Christian views with American civil life.  This nationalistic ideology believes, among other things  that the U.S. Constitution was divinely inspired, that Christianity should be a privileged religion in the United States, and this nation holds a uniquely privileged status in God’s eyes.  Proponents range from those who believe the U.S. legally should be declared a Christian nation… to those involved in more virulent strains that are openly racist, patriarchal, or anti-democratic. (lines 2159-2165)

[2] In addition to the fine commentary on the movement offered in this issue by Karl Kuhn, I also recommend, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God, Pamela Coooper-White’s The Psychology of Christian Nationalism, Jim Wallis’ The False White Gospel, and Mark Hall’s Who’s Afraid of Christian Nationalism, for example.1  Evangelical Presbyterian political scientist Stephen Wolfe gives an insider’s view in The Case for Christian Nationalism.2

[3] This ideology’s principles are embodied institutionally in The New Columbia Movement. Other supporters of this ideology tend to identify themselves as Evangelicals and Trump Republicans, although there are many Evangelicals and Republicans critical of the movement.3

[4] Christian Nationalists believe that Biblical and Gospel values should norm our laws as the criteria for determining legislation and social policy.  Whether Christian Nationalism in the United States is an organized revolutionary movement currently, it has already won important cultural wars.  I will argue that this is the case on both the Right and the Left!

[5] Of course there is a long history for that set of commitments in America.  We ought not forget that many of the first American colonies had a State Church and that there is a heavy influence of Puritanism through U.S. politics.  A core commitment of the Pilgrims, with their fidelity to The Westminster Confession, entailed the enactment of that Puritan document’s pledge to establish governments which are commissioned “to take order, that Unitie and Peace be preserved in the Church, that… all the Ordinances of God [be] duely settled, administered,  and preserved.” There is a growing scholarly consensus that Puritan commitments have shaped U.S. ways of thinking and sense of piety.  The dynamic is called the “Puritan Paradigm.”4

[6] Most Christian denominations historically have shared the Puritan commitment to Christians bringing their Biblical insights to the political realm.  A 2020 Pew Research Center poll found that one-half of the American public (and 68% of American Christians) think that the Bible should influence our laws.  A more recent 2022 Pew poll found that 45% of us want America to be a “Christian nation.”5

[7] Contemporary theological trends further undergird the drift in this direction, not just from the Right but also on the Left.  Ever since the heroic affirmation of The Barmen Declaration, there has been a bias among some Lutherans against a social ethic which relies only on appeals to reason or a “natural” law.  Christian progressives often argue that we must rely on Christian principles when speaking to government and seeking to formulate public policy as Christians.  These attitudes reflect very clearly in the progressive and radical proposals of many Liberation, Feminist and Womanist theologians.6

[8] The concern I have with these developments is that without intending to do so, much of the theology of the Left is making the same theological mistake as those they critique even as they offer alternatives to Christian Nationalism and allies of the Presidential candidate who is selling Bibles to further his political [or personal] cause.  They are arguing for their causes by invoking Jesus and the Bible.

[9] What are Lutherans doing about all these trends?  What should we do about them?   Historically and globally, Lutherans issue social statements which appeal to Gospel principles or the Bible for support of our positions.7 And in our seminaries and in our pulpits, there is a lot of political rhetoric that appeals to the Bible or to Jesus’ example.

[10] I believe it is important for us to pause and to think more deeply about the Zwei Reich Lehre (Often translated as the Two Kingdom Ethic—better translated as the Two Realm Ethic) and how this might be a better path.  The whole idea of the Zwei Reich Lehre is to communicate that both the spiritual and temporal realities are ruled by God in different ways.  While there is no purely  secular politics, politics ought not to be governed or conducted with a distinctively Christian or Gospel-oriented agenda.

[11] The ethic grew from Luther’s concern that the Gospel not be legislated by the state.  First, as the Reformer put it:

 If anyone attempted to rule the world by the Gospel and to abolish all temporal Law and sword… he would be loosing the ropes and chains of the savage wild beasts…8

Second, not only is political rule by the Gospel unrealistic about human nature, any attempt to legislate the Gospel will distort it, turning it into the Law.

[12] Another core commitment of the Zwei Reich Lehre is Luther’s confidence in the role of reason in the temporal realm in marked contrast to his negative assessments of reason’s role in the theological sphere.9 In one of his sermons in 1522 the Reformer put it this way:

  … it is necessary to make a distinction between God and [humans], between spiritual and temporal things.  In earthly, human affairs, human judgment suffices.  For these things he needs no light but that of reason.  Hence God does not in Scriptures teach us how to build houses, to make clothing, to marry, to wage war, to sail the seas, and so on.  For these things our natural light is sufficient.10

This confidence in reason and a sense that the Bible is not directly applicable to some matters in the temporal realm later surfaced in Luther’s writings.  He wrote:

To be sure, God made the secular government subordinate and subject to reason, because it is to have no jurisdiction over the welfare of souls things of eternal value but only over physical and temporal goods…For this reason nothing is taught in the Gospel about how it is to be maintained and regulated…11

[13] What is clear here is that the Gospel is not about politics, except insofar as it might motivate us to seek justice and receive forgiveness for our all-too-imperfect efforts.  To be sure, justification does play a role in ethics in the sense that it shapes our behavior when engaging particular neighbors in their personhood.  But it does not provide norms for engagement with institutions, politics, or political programs, for to try to legislate Christian teaching about love and forgiveness is to turn the Gospel of grace into the Law.

[14] Of course none of this contradicts the idea of the First Use of the Law and the role of the Law as a norm for politics and government legislation.  But it is important to remember that Luther considered that the content of the Second Table of The Ten Commandments to be accessible to all.  As he put it in a 1540 sermon:

Natural Law is the Ten Commandments.  It is written in the heart of every human being by creation… finer indeed than any philosopher has stated it.12

[15] Appeals to the natural law and orders of creation can be concerning for some in Lutheran circles since World War II.  The concern is that these concepts often lead to a conservative social ethic, founded in an idea that the orders of creation are static.  But Luther’s Catechism (Pt.II.1), claims boldly that creation is ongoing; its structures are still in progress.  To appeal to natural orders and structures for social ethics, thus, ought not entail an unwillingness to observe change.

[16] Also, most seriously there is often a fear among some Lutherans of falling prey to oppressive powers, like the German Christians did in the Nazi era, when opting for the Zwei Reich Lehre.  But this only becomes a problem if, like them, we so totally separate church and state as to abdicate a role for the First Use of the Law as a check-and-balance against government.  When that happens, when church and state are totally separated, little wonder that all reality becomes interpreted in light of Nationalism.  But this only becomes a danger when we fail to administer the First Use of the Law (the Second Table of the Decalogue).  However,  to contend in principle that the Two-Kingdom Ethic without Gospel norms leads us away from holding the powerful to account, we are forgetting the anti-Nazi movement lead by the Church of Norway during the Nazi occupation of Norway during World War II.  No less than Christian faith, reason and the natural law check tyrannical power and point us toward justice and freedom.

[17] It is important to note that to rely on reason and natural law as our norm for social ethics and politics does not entail negating the Biblical witness and the Gospel.  There is a compatibility between the universally accessible natural law and the neighbor love response to the Gospel, analogous to the compatibility between the Old and New Testaments as a single book.  Lutheran Christians seeking to implement the Decalogue and Leviticus’ command to care for the neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) are not contradicting what Jesus also commanded (Luke 20:27, Matthew 22:37-39; Mark 12:30) as an appropriate response to the love which flows from the Gospel.  It is just that we want to avoid legislating Christian principles.

[18] What we need is a social ethic relevant for our time, a real alternative to Christian Nationalism.  We need not impose our faith on American institutions and its people, but simply using our reason to find the best ways to care for our neighbor and the best solutions for what ails the United States and the world.  As a church dedicated to advocating for reason in politics, we ought to spend a lot more time trying to educate the flock on the issues, to use those who have expertise in the topics and the political experience to know what it takes to accomplish the goals.

[19] This would clearly be functioning in a counter-cultural way, breaking with the image the public has of Christian denominations if we came to be known as Christians who were not trying to impose values on America, but as a significant core of fellow citizens thoughtfully trying to address the issues at hand with the best knowledge to which we all have access together.  We might draw more partners, have a better chance to play a role in building winning coalitions, and learn from the insights of non-Christian community builders.  The media and the politicians might begin to pay attention to our counter-cultural Two-Kingdom Ethic approach and its ability to build winning coalitions!



  1. Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); Pamela Cooper-White, The Psychology of Christian Nationalism: Why People Are Drawn In and How to Talk Across the Divide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022); Jim Wallis, The False White Gospel: Rejecting Christian Nationalism, Reclaiming True Faith, and Reforming Democracy (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2024); Mark Hall, Who’s Afraid of Christian Nationalism? (Nashville, TN: Fidelis Books, 2024).
  2. Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022).
  3. See newcolumbiamovement.org. See also the March 3, 2023 issue of Christianity Today; Marjorie Taylor Greene, “Speech at Turning Point USA Summit” (Phoenix, Dec. 23, 2022); Lauren Boebert, “Speech at Truth and Liberty Conference,” (at Woodland Bible College, Winston-Salem, NC, September 10, 2022): Doug Mastriano, “Primary Victory Celebration Speech,” (Chambersburg, PA, May 17, 2022).
  4. Michael Lipka, “Half of Americans say Bible should influence US laws including 28% who favor it over the will of the people (April 13, 2020); Pew Research Center, “45% of Americans Say U.S. Should be a ‘Christian Nation’,” (Oct. 27, 2020).
  5. For more details on the Puritan Paradigm, see Sydney Ahlstrom, A Religious History of the American People (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1972), pp.3,12,1079,1094-1096; H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (New York: Harper & Row, 1937), esp. pp.8, 45ff.
  6. For example, see James Cone, “Black Theology and the Black Church: Where Do We Go From Here?”, Cross Currents 27, 2 (Summer, 1977): 148-149; Rubem Alves, A Theology of Human Hope (St. Meinrad, IN: Abbey Press, 1974), pp.122-123; Rosemary R. Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk: Toward a Feminist Theology (Boston: Beacon Press, 1983), pp.18-19; Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), pp.164-165,176-177. It is often said that the Civil Rights Movement operated with these suppositions, but see below.
  7. See my analysis of Lutheran Social Statements through the 1980s in my The Cutting Edge: How Churches Speak on Social Issues (Geneva: WCC Publications, 1993). Little has changed regarding these patterns in the last thirty years.
  8. Martin Luther, Von Weltlicher Oberkeit, wieman irh Gehorsam schuldig sei (1523), in D. Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Vol.11 (Weimarer Ausgabe) (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1883ff.), p.251, l.22 [hereafter cited as WA]/ English translation: Luther’s Works, Vol.45 (St. Louis and Philadelphia: Concordia Publishing – Fortress Press, 1955ff.), p.91 [hereafter cited as LW]: “Wenn nu niemand wollt die wellt nach den Euangelio regien und alle welltliche recht und schwerd auffheben und fur geben, sie weren alle getafft und Christen, unter wilchen das Euangelion will seyn recht nich schwerb haben, auch nicht nott ist – lieber, rabt, was wűrde der selb machen?”
  9. Martin Luther, Weinachpostille (1522), WA10!/1:6,11/ LW52:196; Martin Luther, Wider die himmlsichen Propheten von den Bildern und Testament (1524), WA18:164,24/ LW40:174-175.
  10. Luther, Weinachpostille (1522), WA10!/1:531,5/ English translation: John Lenker and Eugene Klug, eds., Collected Sermons, Vol.3/2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), p.319: “…du must hie scheyden gott and den menschen, oder ewig und zeitlich Ding. In zeilichen dingen und die den menschen angehen, da ist der mensch vornunfftig genug, da dard er seyness andern liechts den der vornunfft.  Darumb leret auch got ynn der schrift nit, wie man hewesser bawen, Kleyder machen heyratten, kriegen, schiffen, oder berglichen thus soll, dass sie geschehen; den da ist das natürliche Licht genegsam zu.”    [For the sake of consistency, I have translated the words “menschen” and “mensch” as human, while Lenker and Klug sometimes use “human” and sometimes “man”.]
  11. Martin Luther, Auslegung des 101 Psalmos (1534-1535), WA51:242,1/ LW13:198: “Zwar so hat Gott das weltlich Regiment der venunfft unter worsen und befohlen, weil es nicht der seelen heil noch ewiges gut, sondern allein leiblich und zeitlich gűtter regiern sol, welche dem menschenn Gott unterwirfft. Gen. 2.  Derhalben auch im Euangelio nichts, man sole esehren and nich da wider sich setzen.”
  12. Martin Luther, Predigtam tae der Beschneidung, nachmittags (1540), WA49:1f,24ff.: “Naturlich recht is die 20 gebot. Dassel best scriptum in corde omnium hominum per Creationem.  Et ist klar und sein gefasst in monte Sinai und seiner quam a philosophis.” For other affirmations of the natural law and its role in government, see Luther, Von Weltlicher Oberkeit, wieman irh Gehorsam schuldig sei, WA11:279,30/ LW45:128; Martin Luther, Tischreden (1531), in D. Martin Luthers Werke: Tischreden. Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Vol.2 (Weimarer Ausgabe) (Weimar: Hermann Böhlaus, 1912-921), p.338, l.1.



Mark Ellingsen 

Mark Ellingsen is Professor of Church History at the Interdenominational Theological Center.  He is the author of over 400 published articles (several on the abortion controversy) and 26 books, most recently a book he co-authored with Civil Rights leader James Woodall, titled Wired for Racism? How Evolution and Faith Move Us to Challenge Racial Idolatry (New CIty Press).