How (Not) to Talk About ‘Christian Nationalism’

The phrase is increasingly useless—unfairly applied to ordinary Christians yet too weak to sufficiently condemn “another gospel” in our midst.

Some years ago, the Reformed philosopher Alvin Plantinga gave a useful definition of fundamentalist. He noted that, in academic settings, it served as little more than a smear word; he offered an expletive I can’t print here, so let’s just substitute son of a gun.

Where it retained any content beyond the smear, Plantinga argued that fundamentalist meant “considerably to the right, theologically speaking, of me and my enlightened friends.” Thus did academics, journalists, and many Christians come to deploy fundie to mean a “stupid [son of a gun] whose theological opinions are considerably to the right of” their own. And because there’s always someone to one’s right, the F-word is essentially relative: It has no stable reference, but it certainly can never refer to me.

These days we might say the same about Christian nationalism. The phrase has lost all substantive content. In nearly every conversation, it has little reference beyond those “stupid [sons of guns] whose political opinions are considerably to the right of mine.” Allegations of Christian nationalism can mean almost anything: Maybe the accused is a literal Nazi. Or maybe he’s just a lifelong Republican whose big issues are abortion and tax rates.

Recently there have been thoughtful, good-faith efforts to define the phrase in a useful way. I suggest instead that we put it out to pasture. Though it may once have had limited reference to specific groups and ideas, it no longer does; the phrase is all heat and no light. In too many uses, it’s slanderous. In almost every case, it’s largely an exercise in boundary drawing.

To be sure, sometimes a boundary is exactly what …

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