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Dr. Gregory W. Lee

History, Identity, and Christian Nationalism: An Augustinian Alternative

Dr. Gregory W. Lee, Ph.D. Associate Professor of Theology and Urban Studies 

In Taking America Back for God, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry define Christian nationalism as a cultural framework that fuses civic life with a particular understanding of Christianity. In contrast to evangelicalism, which is a faith rooted in the authority of Scripture and the divinity of Christ, Christian nationalism is an ideology committed to promoting the United States’ identity as a Christian nation. Whereas evangelicalism encourages Bible reading, prayer, and missions, Christian nationalism concentrates on Christianity’s place in the public square. Christian nationalists are thus concerned with issues like the removal of prayer from public schools, the removal of the Ten Commandments from courthouses, and the substitution of “Merry Christmas” by “Happy Holidays.” Though many white evangelicals are also Christian nationalists, Whitehead and Perry maintain that evangelicalism and Christian nationalism are distinct phenomena.

Crucial to Christian nationalism is the assumption that America was founded as a Christian nation. Christian nationalists differ on whether the United States is a Christian nation now—perhaps it has fallen so far from its past that it no longer merits that label. But they agree that it was once a Christian nation and that it should be Christian now. As Sam Perry detailed in the 2021 CACE faculty seminar, “Evangelicalism and Christian Nationalism,” a strong and growing majority of white evangelicals believes that the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution were divinely inspired. If our founding documents derive from God, public departures from Christianity will imperil the nation itself. That is why there is so much at stake in keeping America Christian. Making America Christian again is how we can make America great again.

What Christian nationalists rightly grasp is the connection between identity and narrative. How we recount history determines how we understand our present selves. This principle animates both sides of our political divides, as witnessed in debates about removing statues and monuments; renaming schools, buildings, and other institutions; and the use of the 1619 Project in public school curricula. Each of these controversies concerns how we remember the past, which ultimately concerns how we form our citizenry. Progressives believe we must recount this country’s injustices so that we can perceive and resist their effects today. Traditionalists see attacks on the past as destabilizing. There will be no grounds for national identity if radicals burn everything down.

I believe Augustine’s City of God offers insight into these debates. Augustine wrote his great work shortly after the sack of Rome in 410, when Rome had been attacked for the first time in several hundred years. As with our present time, this was a moment of political anxiety, and the Romans sought a religious explanation for their circumstances. Roman elites blamed the sack of Rome on the conversion of the empire to Christianity. If Rome had preserved its ancestral religion, they argued, the gods would have protected the city from such an event. The gods were punishing Rome for abandoning them.

Augustine’s response distinguishes between political and Christian identity, between earthly empires and the people of God. Christians do not belong to the earthly city. They are citizens of the heavenly city, which is that community of individuals who loves God above self, and heavenly things above earthly things. Christians have a stake in the earthly city, and it is appropriate for them to be upset about the sack of Rome. Yet they should not feel devastated by the event, since their hope is not in temporal orders but in eternal peace. God will preserve this reward for them regardless of what happens to Rome.

In order to develop his case, Augustine narrates the history of humanity from Adam and Eve to heaven and hell. As he argues, humanity has always been divided between the heavenly and earthly cities, and the earthly city has always been defined by lust for domination. The Romans began as a small people who went to war to defend themselves against outside enemies. Yet they soon began playing offense, attacking other peoples for the sake of increasing their territory and power. After the last of the Punic Wars, Rome had no external enemies. The Romans then turned on themselves, as the elites began to oppress the poor. The result was a series of internal, civil wars where the Romans treated fellow Romans worse than any external enemy had ever treated them. The persistence of conflict in Roman history proves that Rome was violent all the way down. Augustine relies on canonical Roman authors like Livy, Sallust, Cicero, and Vergil to present this story. But he does not pull punches. Augustine offers a 1619 Project version of Roman history.

As an alternate people, Christians are defined by an alternate history, namely, the Old and New Testaments. Their identity begins with God’s faithfulness to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; God’s promises to Samuel and David; and God’s fulfillment of those promises in Jesus Christ, the founder of the heavenly city. Christians have no stake in defending the deeds of Numa Pompilius or Julius Caesar. They can be honest about the wrongs of Rome’s past because they are not defined by them. They are also forgiven by God’s grace, which liberates them to be honest about the sins of their own past.

Given this perspective, one might have expected Augustine to advocate withdrawing from the earthly city, or even revolting against it. But he does not support either option. As he insists, the earthly city will persist until the end of time. There is no escaping it this side of Christ’s return. Christians should thus adopt the posture of exiles, imitating the Israelites in Babylon. The Israelites were stuck in a foreign land but they were still commanded to pray for and promote the peace of the city, “because in its peace is your peace” (Jer 29:7). As Augustine explains, although Christians hope for heavenly things, they still rely on earthly things during this life. They thus cooperate with the earthly city on temporal matters, even as they direct temporal things toward eternal ends. Christians should support the earthly city when possible but they must resist it on matters of significant moral difference.

Augustine’s political vision is utterly incompatible with the Christian nationalism that Whitehead and Perry have analyzed. Unlike Christian nationalists, Augustine rejects the centrality of any nation to God’s purposes in history, and he is deeply critical of his own political community. Yet he also acknowledges the importance of institutions and traditions. Earthly structures are of penultimate significance, but they are still necessary for this temporal life. Christians should expose the truth about nations, but they can still promote their wellbeing. To preserve this posture, Christians must root their history and identity in Scripture as opposed to nationalist myths. The antidote to Christian nationalism is the power of God’s Word in its story of God’s people.

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