Just as some North Americans are explicitly claiming the label of “Christian nationalism,” the ideology is advancing around the world.
The ongoing near merger of the Russian Orthodox Church with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government made headlines when the church’s patriarch declared that dying in Ukraine as part of Putin’s invading army “washes away all sins.” At the same time, yet another populist leader employing Christian nationalist rhetoric won an electoral victory in Italy.
With these in mind, perhaps the world’s evangelical Christians should remind ourselves that Christian nationalism can’t—and won’t—save the world.
Analyzing Giorgia Meloni’s win, commentator Damon Linker noted that her Brothers of Italiy party—with roots in the World War II remnants of the fascist strongman Benito Mussolini’s political movement—has significantly moderated its rhetoric in recent years. Some might view that with suspicion given Meloni’s post-election speech in which she blamed “financial speculators” for robbing Italians of their roots and identity—language that throughout history has almost always been equated with Jews.
Regardless of just how illiberal the new Italian government might be, Linker calls attention to the demographics behind this electoral upset, which have implications for the rest of the Western world. The populist movement, as represented by the triumphant party, is cemented with a particular form of religion—namely, “those who declare themselves to be religious but are not practicing.”
For some people, such a category sounds like “those who declare themselves employed but have no income.” And yet, as historian Adam Tooze observes, this group is not just the largest segment but the majority of the Italian population—at 52 percent. They are the people, Linker writes, “who treat religion as a symbol or identity-marker without actually believing in or practicing it.”
Linker warns those who, like him, are on the center-left or center-right that if they cannot win back working-class people, they will continue to lose to populist and nationalist movements. But he also makes the case that no one can win if they cannot appeal to “the nominally religious.”
In terms of political science, Linker is no doubt correct. And even if democracy and global stability were the only things at stake, this would still be a debate worth having. For evangelical Christians, though, much more is at stake—namely, what we mean when we say “Christianity” in the first place.
The term Christian nationalism refers to the use of Christian words, symbols, or rituals as a means to shore up an ethnic or national identity. As with every other ideology, it exists along a spectrum.
On the (so far) less extreme end are people who, like the populist leaders in Italy and France and Germany, claim “Christianity” as a key aspect of their national or ethnic identity—and as a way to distinguish their group from those they define as outsiders (Muslims, “globalists,” etc.). At the more extreme end are people who make explicit theological pronouncements as a prop for ethnic and nationalist authoritarian illiberal aggression—as Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill did in seeking to quell protests against the war by saying that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”
In terms of the world order, one side of the spectrum clearly does more immediate damage. Kirill’s comments are synonymous with, if not identical to, radical jihadist Muslim clerics telling suicide bombers that upon death they will be greeted by virgins in paradise. That sort of promise might not only motivate desperate people to commit atrocities against the testimony of their own consciences but also give unquestionable authority to those commanding such atrocities. Indeed, in the authoritarian’s view, such an alliance of religious and political authority seems to grant him the “keys of the kingdom,” where whoever is drafted on earth is drafted into heaven.
This dynamic is hardly new. In the Book of Revelation, the political power of the Beast is propped up by the False Prophet, “who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast” (Rev. 19:20). Revelation, after all, came to John amid a Roman Empire where the caesars claimed divine status for themselves.
Such hubris would be bad enough sociologically, but what if the Bible is right about hell? What if the judgment of God comes not just against nations but against individuals? And what if sin is defined as a lack of conformity not to the group or the country but to the holiness of God? What if Jesus was right when he said that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3)?
If so, then Kirill’s claim that nationalist militarism can save a person is not just manipulative but blasphemous. It empowers not just national injustice but also personal damnation.
Additionally, the truth of the gospel according to Jesus means that less bloody forms of Christian nationalism are also one birth short of the kingdom of God.
Indeed, the argument of the entire New Testament is that people cannot stand before God on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or even moral solidarity (Luke 3:8–9; Col. 2:16–22). No one stands justified even by the works of the law given by God, much less by the flesh of one’s temporal ethnic or national identity (Gal. 3:15–16). Each person must be joined to Christ by personal repentance and personal faith—not by living in a culture conformed to some external definition of “Christian values.”
Jesus taught us that nothing coming in from the outside can defile a person; rather, it’s what is within a person’s heart defiles him or her (Mark 7:14–23). That’s why he specifically walked away from those who wanted to use his gospel for political liberation (John 6:15) or for material prosperity (vv. 26–27).
Despite their self-perceived opposition to the social gospel of old, Christian nationalists embrace the exact same view of the gospel. For the social-gospel-oriented left wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with the upward progress of humanity. For the Christian nationalist right wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with national or ethnic identity. The gospel is a means for a forward-looking utopianism in the one case and a backward-looking nostalgia in the other. Christian nationalism is a liberation theology for white people.
And that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Christian nationalism is a kind of Great Commission in reverse—in which the nations seek to make disciples of themselves, using Jesus’ authority to baptize their national identity in the name of the blood and of the soil and of the political order.
The gospel is a means to no other end than union with the crucified and resurrected Christ who transcends, and stands in judgment over, every group, identity, nationality, and culture.
Christian nationalism might well “work” in the short term by cementing bonds of cultural solidarity according to the flesh.
Yet apart from the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins. Apart from the Holy Spirit, there can be no newness of life.
Christian nationalism cannot turn back secularism, because it is just another form of it. In fact, it is an even more virulent form of secularism because it pronounces as “Christian” what cannot stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
Christian nationalism cannot save the world; it cannot even save you.
Russell Moore is the editor-in-chief at Christianity Today.