On Brad Littlejohn’s Clarifications on Christian Nationalism

Brad Littlejohn’s clarifying essay at Ad Fontes on Christian Nationalism is quite helpful. He provides a good overview of the different approaches to nationalism and makes the case for a Christian Commonwealth instead. I suspect that in ongoing discussions related to Christian Nationalism that this essay will be the touchstone for getting people on the same conversational page. The essay is long and covers lot of ground, but I wanted to reflect on only a few aspects of it.

Littlejohn distinguishing between Christian Nationalism on the one hand and Christian Magistracy on the other is good, and provides a solid, conceptual rebuttal to Jonathan Leeman on religious liberty. Leeman’s position can’t seem to answer what moral/religious/objective/natural standard governments should be held to in governing. In other words, what defines the good governments are to uphold and the evil they are to punish if not true good and evil, evident in nature and revealed in scripture? Littlejohn is helpful. In this essay he summarizes seven points on the Christian Magistracy, which are below in even more distilled form.

  1. It is the task of government to both punish evil and praise/reward good.
  2. We know what good and evil look like from the natural law, as it is restated and clarified by Scripture, summarized in the 10 Commandments.
  3. Therefore, the task of government is to enforce justice as summed up in the Decalogue.
  4. The government has jurisdiction only over the external temporal sphere, not over matters of the heart: The fool may indeed say in his heart that there is no God, and who can stop him? But if the fool starts running around in the streets yelling that there is no God, that’s another matter.
  5. Just because government can punish something doesn’t mean it should; prudence is required (n.b. this is Bullinger’s sin/crime distinction).
  6. In making such prudential judgments, though, we should not forget that law has a pedagogical function, teaching us what to regard as good.
  7. Government can promote as well as restrain. A Christian magistrate should be less focused on punishing bad religion than on promoting good religion.

Littlejohn concludes his essay by acknowledging both the difficulty in the road ahead for achieving the idea of a Christian Commonwealth, and that no political project aimed at Christian Commonwealth, imposed by governance or legislation, will succeed if the nation does not have the character to be compatible with and sustain such a project. A Christian Commonwealth requires self-governance, which can only occur if the culture shifts. His final paragraphs are worth quoting at length to see how he thinks through this and to understand why I think he missteps at the end.

The cultural nationalists, then, are absolutely correct that to have any real chance over the long run, Christian magistracy must be rooted in a Christian cultural soil, in national identities shaped by a Christian imagination. Every society generates its self-understanding through (1) a common language, understood in the broadest sense as a symbolic structure that makes sense of the world, (2) common stories, which can inspire action in the present by rooting it in a glorious past, and (3) common norms of virtue, which provide a vision of how the gifts of that past might be sustained into a blessed future… In all three of these components of nationhood, the Founding generation spoke and thought as a Bible-saturated people—using biblical idioms and symbols, telling their own story in biblical terms, and rooting their vision of public virtue in the Christian tradition. The greatest challenge confronting Christian politics today is that we are now a Bible-desiccated people; even the most memorable biblical references such as ‘every man shall live under his own vine and his own fig tree’ are now thought to have originated from contemporary pop musicals.

Rebuilding a Christian politics will thus be a long slow road at best; recovering the idea of a Christian commonwealth will have to begin with recovering the idea of a moral commonwealth, which will have to begin by recovering the very idea of a commonwealth at all—a society knit together by common ends and common objects of love. Too few of us now even think of communities in terms of common objects of love—without which they are not communities at all, but merely a chaotic herd of individuals who have congregated together for safety…

The best answer to such a militant sense of identity, forged in conflict with the other, the oppressor, the persecutor, is a sense of identity rooted in history, offering capacious breadth without sacrificing depth. The depth comes not from the contemporary moment, which can only sustain the necessary depth of meaning by a ferocious stress on purity, but from the long legacy of custom and tradition…

This, then, is the task before us… we must plant our feet on more solid ground. Ours must be a retrieval project too big to stick on a bumper sticker, a rebuilding program with a timeline measured in generations rather than election cycles, a renewal that refuses to heed the Jacobin siren song.

“This is the task before us.” Well then: It is not my task to create a Christian Commonwealth. At least, not my first task. None of the Reformers or Church Fathers set out to create such a nation; some, such as in Britain, fought over what it would look like, but never set out to establish one. Why? Because they were more interested in the Christian modifier. Anytime the fruit of the gospel is prioritized as the task of the church over the witness of the gospel itself, the gospel is obscured and the fruit is lost. This was the point of my essay at Mere Orthodoxy earlier this year, ‘Our Spiritual Malaise‘. I wrote this in part because the political and cultural is obscuring the gospel in much recent Christian political debate. Littlejohn prescribes a path for establishing a sense of a commonwealth, but nothing about how to make it Christian beyond grabbing on to the heritage of America. That is not real Christianity, nor will that achieve Littlejohn’s goal. A Christian Commonwealth sounds great, but the task before us is to pursue first the kingdom of heaven and its righteousness. If you get that, then perhaps God will providentially bless the country with a blossoming Christian character. Until then, any pursuit of a Christian Commonwealth will either have to prioritize a top-down legal approach or be de-prioritized in favor of reinvigorating the church to love Jesus, first.