Sub-Christian Nationalism? (Part 1)

The term nationalism is inherently slippery. Indeed, the idea of a nation, as we think of it, is fairly new. We should not assume that there have always been sovereign nations the way that we think of them in the Modern period. For much of the Middle Ages, most of Europe was dominated by the Holy Roman Empire. Students sometimes write about Germany and France as though they have always existed. They have not. Germany, as such, has only existed since 1871. France, as we know it only began to exist as a sovereign nation in the late fourteenth century. What we think of as England was divided among regional kings when the Christian missionaries first arrived among the pagans of Europe. England only gradually emerged as a sovereign independent nation with a single ruler.

The term nationalism is slippery because it is used in a variety of ways. Since the emergence of Donald Trump as a national political figure, the popular press has taken to using the term nationalism to suggest that any talk of nationalism makes one a fascist, “blood and soil” nationalist, a Nazi or a National Socialist. In fact, there are different kinds of nationalism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a fair entry on nationalism in which Nenad Miscevic identifies two phenomena basic to nationalism: “(1) The attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their identity as members of that nation and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take in seeking to achieve (or sustain) some form of political sovereignty.”

What he calls the “classical, historically paradigmatic form of nationalism” typically features the claim of a nation upon the allegiance of its citizens over the claims of other political entities. This was one of the marks of the development of nations out of the Middle Ages and into what historians call “Early Modern” Europe. German people, for example, began to think of themselves more as Germans and less as citizens of the Holy Roman Empire. The same was true in France and England. The nation, rather than a transnational empire, claimed its primary political allegiance. Miscevic also points to territorial sovereignty as a mark of classical nationalism. This is obviously so. People have to live in a place, and a nation defines itself in part by its boundaries. People who decry any form of nationalism would likely be upset if Canada claimed sovereignty over their favorite coffee shop in Marin County and started taxing and regulating it as though it belonged to Canada.

Miscevic calls attention to the modern tendency to synthesize classical nationalism with liberal (i.e., tolerant) attitudes so as to distinguish nationalism from ethnic prejudice or jingoism. Liberal nationalism is intentionally, culturally, and linguistically pluralist. This is in distinction from a certain (now mostly retired) American talk show host who used to talk about “borders, language, culture.” The liberal nationalists may still favor borders, but they are pluralist in language and culture.

It was not long ago, however, that the United States put a virtual halt on immigration to the USA from 1924–64 after waves of immigration from Ireland and Southern Europe (mainly Italy) in order to help create a sense of national cohesion and identity. Since that pause was lifted, immigration has become a major source of political and cultural controversy. What does it mean to be an American?

The people of my generation (last phase baby boomers), who were born during the Cold War with the Soviet Union, were taught to be unabashedly patriotic and nationalist. America was openly and regularly said, by leaders in both political parties, to be the greatest nation on earth. There was a sense of optimism and even destiny about America. After all, we had opposed the Germans (or “The Hun” as those before my grandparents’ generation said), in the Great War (WWI, 1914–18), stopped the National Socialists and Fascists in Italy, Germany, and the Empire of Japan in WWII (1939–45), and the Soviet Union in the Cold War (c. 1946–89). Before all that, the North had defeated the South and slavery. The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s had ended Jim Crow. We put a man on the moon (1969), and we were just getting warmed up.

Today, however, all that optimism is largely gone. It has been replaced by national doubts that began during the Vietnam War (1964–75; the hot part of the Cold War, in which 59,000 Americans, mostly working class and poor, gave their lives to stop the spread of Communism) and intensified during Watergate (1973–74). In many quarters, especially in socially and economically elite circles, those doubts have given way completely to a visceral hatred for the USA. In such a climate, talk of nationalism is bound to generate suspicion and hostility.

Still, the questions remain: what is a nation, and what holds it together? Are there shared national values (not virtues), ideas, and a commitment to those ideas shared by most of the citizens of a nation? For the Pre-Boomer (Greatest) generation, the Boomer, and Gen-Xers, there were some shared national values. We pledged allegiance “to the flag and to the United States of America, and the Republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We were taught the Declaration of Independence, that there are certain God-given “unalienable rights” and that among them are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We were taught to value the Bill of Rights and to think of the function of government principally to secure those natural, God-given liberties. The parents of the Boomers and the Boomers themselves, however, redefined the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of pleasure. They persuaded the Supreme Court to approve no-fault divorce, abortion on demand, and for the coup de grâce, to redefine marriage.

Perhaps most importantly, during the twentieth century, Christendom ended in America. From the foundation of the Republic, in 1789, there had intentionally been no established national church. The state churches were disestablished by 1833. Yet, the shadow of Christendom persisted. On D-Day (June 6, 1944), when the Allied Forces landed on the beaches of Normandy to begin the final push to defeat the Axis powers, President Roosevelt prayed,

Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our Nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavor, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilization, and to set free a suffering humanity. Lead them straight and true; give strength to their arms, stoutness to their hearts, steadfastness in their faith. They will need Thy blessings. Their road will be long and hard. For the enemy is strong. He may hurl back our forces. Success may not come with rushing speed, but we shall return again and again; and we know that by Thy grace, and by the righteousness of our cause, our sons will triumph.

First, that a president should pray for the nation, as though he were not merely the chief executive of the executive branch of a Republic but also her national pastor, seemed entirely normal in 1944. Most Americans, if they did not go to church every week, remembered going to church and identified as Christians. It was commonplace and entirely uncontroversial until perhaps the 1980s that America was, in some sense a “Christian nation.”

Second, a president who prayed that way today would find himself (or herself) in the crosshairs of a mighty phalanx of editorial writers and columnists. “Which God?” they would ask. When Roosevelt prayed “our religion,” Dearborn, Michigan was not predominantly Muslim, and great chunks of the American Southwest were not predominantly Spanish speaking and at least nominally Roman Catholic. The increasingly liberal Protestant mainlines were still influential. They still had access to the corridors and power, and politicians cared what they thought.

Today, American public school students, under the influence of the 1619 Project and Howard Zinn’s textbook, are more likely to think of the USA as a scourge of the earth than as a sort of savior of the earth. When they think of the pilgrims, they do not think of Englishmen seeking religious freedom but Colonialist oppressors who sought to wipe out native peoples with pox-infested blankets.

Plausibly or not, people talk openly about an American Civil War. More than a few books have been published in recent years arguing over this very topic. To judge by cable news, there is not one America but Red and Blue Americas. As one who was raised on the Plains in what is now called “Red” America, and who has spent thirty years in “Blue” America, there are striking differences. In Blue America, the default definition of freedom assumes that something is forbidden unless it is expressly permitted. In Red America, the default definition assumes that something is permitted unless it is expressly forbidden.

© R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

You can find this whole series here.


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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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  1. Brilliant analysis Dr. Clark. Thank you. As an American “Nationalist” myself (using the Stanford definition), I lament that we have allowed ourselves to become so divided by a rather small cabal of Globalists bent on the destruction of our nation. Our Lord told us, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and no city or house divided against itself will stand.” Divide and conquer is the oldest and most effective tactic in war, and we are experiencing that attack today. Very much looking forward to Part 2.

  2. I enjoyed reading this. I don’t identify as a nationalist but am very patriotic. I also appreciate how the gospel has had an effect on the nations throughout the time-line of history. I appreciate how our constitutional republic allowed the gospel to flourish and that several generations have been allowed raise their children in safety.

    • Cindy,

      That’s where I am. I am intrigued by Machen’s comment in Christianity and Liberalism, in 1923, that, in his opinion, America had been a predominantly pagan nation for 75 years. Nathan Hatch says that America could be called a Christian for most of the 19th century but wasn’t any longer by the 1890s.

  3. Are you referring to Nathan Hatch, author of ‘The Democratization of American Christianity’?

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