Are Evangelicals Confusing the Gospel with Christian Nationalism?


Are Evangelicals Confusing the Gospel with Christian Nationalism? Many Christians refuse to get involved in politics for any number of reasons. Here are some of them:

  • Jesus didn’t get involved in politics.
  • God’s kingdom is not of this world.
  • We’re to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.
  • We’re living in the last days.
  • We’re just to preach the gospel.
  • Politics is not mentioned in the Great Commision.
  • The Christian’s citizenship is in heaven.
  • There’s a separation between Church and State.
  • Politics is dirty.
  • We’re not called on to seek political power.

Myths, Lies and Half-Truths

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A recent article by Michael Horton is another attempt to dissuade Christians from entering the political battlefield. While Horton writes that he’s grateful “for any public servant who upholds the First Amendment” and “we should applaud fellow believers who ply their education and experience as lawyers to defend religious freedom (as long as they don’t seek to privilege Christianity legally above other religions),” he muddies the waters with a number of caveats.

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It’s not that I disagree with everything Horton writes in his article “What Are Evangelicals Afraid of Losing?” I don’t. He’s correct that if a single election, like the one coming up in November, “can cause us to lose everything, what is it exactly that we have in the first place?” There have been times in history where everything seemed to have been lost. There are Christians around the world today who have to keep their faith secret. This is especially true of Muslims who convert to Christianity. In China, churches are being demolished. Is this what we should acquiesce to? Should we stand by and let the State persecute Christians so we can say that we are not being triumphalistic?

There’s much in this from Horton that we can agree with:

[T]he church does not preach the gospel at the pleasure of any administration or decline to preach it at another administration’s displeasure. We preach at Christ’s pleasure. And we don’t make his policies but communicate them. It’s not when we’re fed to lions that we lose everything; it’s when we preach another gospel. “What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” (Matt. 16:26).

Here’s my question? Should Christians sit back in the face of potential evil designs on the Christian faith or should we engage the adversarial culture before we are fed to the lions or some equivalent form of persecution?

Consider this statement from Horton:

Something tremendous is at stake here: whether evangelical Christians place their faith more in Caesar and his kingdom than in Christ and his reign. On that one, we do have everything to lose—this November and every other election cycle. When we seek special political favors for the church, we communicate to the masses that Christ’s kingdom is just another demographic in the US electorate.

Engagement in politics is not by definition placing faith in Caesar and his kingdom over against “Christ and His reign.” I’m one Christian who is not placing his faith in “Caesar” or political favors for the Church. The fact that we haven’t lived under a Caesar for nearly two millennia is significant. Christian involvement in the area of politics is one of the main reasons that we can “petition the government for a redress of grievances” without fear of being thrown in prison. Christian political theorists understood that the civil magistrate should have enumerated and limited powers that apply to everyone.

Christian involvement in politics should be to limit the scope and size of civil government in every area. That’s why I address politics as much as I do. I’m not looking to lord it over the masses. I suspect that most Christians think the same way.

Horton is the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. Machen (1881-1937) was a limited government advocate. He spoke before the Senate Committee on Education and Labor, and the House Committee on Education on February 25, 1926, in opposition to a federal department of education.

You can read the transcript of Machen’s testimony here. Machen’s testimony was an attack on Caesar and his kingdom. Horton surely has read Machen’s testimony. It’s a model for Christian political activism, but it doesn’t seem to come out in Horton’s writings.

“Beginning in 1923, Machen,” Gary North writes, “sounded the rallying cry of a frontal assault against a well-entrenched and well-funded enemy: the American Establishment–not just the religious Establishment, which today is a comparatively minor affair in the United States, but the American Establishment in the broadest sense.” North lays out some of Machen’s views relative to social and political themes:

Machen was a believer in limited civil government, non-intervention in foreign policy (one view he shared with [William Jennings] Bryan), and private charities rather than tax-financed institutions of coercive wealth redistribution. He opposed Prohibition as an unwarranted incursion into people’s freedom of action by the civil government.1 He testified before a joint Congressional committee in 1926 against the proposed U.S. Department of Education.2 He opposed the proposed amendment to the Constitution, the child labor amendment of 1935.3 He opposed military conscription.4 He opposed the New Deal’s Social Security legislation and its anti-gold standard monetary policy, which, he said, undermined contracts.5 He opposed Bible reading or the teaching of morality in public schools, since he recognized that the teachers were predominantly atheistic, deistic, or liberal in their theological opinions.6 Presumably, he would have opposed prayer in public school classrooms. This was a departure from the opinion held by A. A. Hodge in the 1880’s.7 Hodge could still claim that the United States was a Christian nation, and that its public schools should reflect this fact. By Machen’s day, such a claim was less believable. But he did not publicly reject tax-financed public education.8 His Scottish common sense rationalism did allow for some degree of common ground in education, which alone might legitimize tax-funded schools.

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J. Gresham Machen

Horton would place himself squarely within the Reformed tradition. He would claim to follow the views of John Calvin, J. A. Alexander, Charles Hodge, A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield, and Machen. Using only a single example, let us compare Horton’s views with those of A. A. Hodge who served as Professor of Systematic Theology at Princeton Seminary from 1877 until his death in 1886. Hodge made the case that “the kingdom of God on earth is not confined to the mere ecclesiastical sphere, but aims at absolute universality, and extends its supreme reign over every department of human life.”9 The implications of such a methodology are obvious: “It follows that it is the duty of every loyal subject to endeavour to bring all human society, social and political, as well as ecclesiastical, into obedience to its law of righteousness.”10 With these statements, one might assume that Hodge would disagree with Horton’s claim that it’s a good thing to defend religious freedom “as long as [doing the defending] don’t seek to privilege Christianity legally above other religions.”

In addition, Hodge had no problem teaching that there are political implications to the preaching and application of the Bible to every area of life:

It is our duty, as far as lies in our power, immediately to organize human society and all its institutions and organs upon a distinctively Christian basis. Indifference or impartiality here between the law of the kingdom and the law of the world, or of its prince, the devil, is utter treason to the King of Righteousness. The Bible, the great statute‑book of the kingdom, explicitly lays down principles which, when candidly applied, will regulate the action of every human being in all relations. There can be no compromise. The King said, with regard to all descriptions of moral agents in all spheres of activity, “He that is not with me is against me.” If the national life in general is organized upon non‑Christian principles, the churches which are embraced within the universal assimilating power of that nation will not long be able to preserve their integrity.11

The goal of the Christian is to limit the size and scope of civil government. When its size and scope grows, Christians need to act.

It’s not so much what Horton says that’s troublesome; it’s what he doesn’t say. For example:

This is not to say we should have no concern at all about the state of our nation. Nowhere in the New Testament are Christians called to avoid the responsibilities of our temporary citizenship, even though our ultimate citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20). However, many of us sound like we’ve staked everything not only on constitutional freedoms but also on social respect, acceptance, and even power. But that comes at the cost of confusing the gospel with Christian nationalism.

Are Christians really staking everything on politics and social acceptance? I doubt it. For centuries Christians made it their “ambition to lead a quiet life” and attend to their “own business” (1 Thess. 4:11). Over time, their business became other people’s business through the agency of the State. Yes, the apostle Paul made it clear that our ultimate citizenship is in heaven, but it didn’t stop him from appealing to his Roman citizenship (Acts 22:22-29) and ultimately to Caesar (25:9-12).

Earlier, Paul and Silas had been mistreated by the Romans. They had been ordered by “the chief magistrate … to be beaten with rods,” their feet fastened in stocks, and thrown in “the inner prison” (16:22-23). Through a direct act of God, they were released (16:25-30). Later, the chief magistrates sent their policemen to release Paul and Silas telling the jailer that they could “go in peace” (16:35-36). Paul was neither amused or satisfied:

But Paul said to them, “They have beaten us in public without trial, men who are Romans, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they sending us away secretly? No indeed! But let them come themselves and bring us out.” The policemen reported these words to the chief magistrates. They were afraid when they heard that they were Romans, and they came and appealed to them, and when they had brought them out, they kept begging them to leave the city. They went out of the prison and entered the house of Lydia, and when they saw the brethren, they encouraged them and departed (16:37-40).

Was Paul “confusing the gospel with Christian nationalism”? No. He wanted to live in peace, and the opposition party of the Jews and the local Roman government wouldn’t let him. Paul was not staking everything on political power. He pushed back to keep the State from intruding where it had no legitimate jurisdiction.

  1. Ned B. Stonehouse, J. Gresham Machen: A Biographical Memoir (Philadelphia: Westminster Theological Seminary, 1954), 387. []
  2. Proposed Department of Education, Congress of the United States, Senate Committee on Education and Labor, House Committee on Education (Feb. 25, 1926), 95-108; reprinted in Machen, Education, Christianity, and the State, edited by John W. Robbins (Jefferson, Maryland: Trinity Foundation, 1987), ch. 7. Cf. Machen, “Shall We Have a Federal Department of Education?” The Woman Patriot (Feb. 15, 1926); reprinted in Machen, Education, ch. 6. []
  3. Machen, “A Debate About the Child Labor Amendment,” The Banner (Jan. 4, 1935), 15-16. []
  4. Machen, “A Debate About the Child Labor Amendment,” The Banner (Jan. 4, 1935), 15. []
  5. “Machen to Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” New York Herald Tribune (Oct. 2, 1935); cited in D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in Modern America (Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994), 143. []
  6. Machen, “The Necessity of the Christian School” (1933); reprinted in Machen, Education, ch. 5. []
  7. A. A. Hodge, “Religion in the Public Schools,” New Princeton Review, 3 (1887); reprinted in The Journal of Christian Reconstruction, 4 (Summer 1977). []
  8. Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, 14. []
  9. Archibald A. Hodge, Evangelical Theology: Lectures on Doctrine (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, [1890] 1990), 283. []
  10. Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283. []
  11. Hodge, Evangelical Theology, 283–284. []
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