Dr. Nathan Cartagena

Christian Nationalism: A Latino Perspective 

Nathan Luis Cartagena, Ph.D. Assistant Professor of Philosophy 

As I watched live video footage of the January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C., the prevalence of Christian symbols struck me. Crosses, images of Jesus, and signs reading “Jesus Saves” filled the crowd that successfully took over the Capital building. Here was Christian Nationalism, the ideological melding of Christianity and nationalism, on display. And as I watched it, I thought of my Spanish ancestors.    

My Spanish ancestors perpetuated forms of Christian Nationalism rooted in the early Church. Consider, for example, the fourth-century Eusebius of Caesarea, an early church historian. In his Oratio de Laudibus Constantini—“Oration in Praise of Constantine”—Eusebius offers a novel political theology that draws upon Greek philosophy and Christian theology to champion that Constantine is God’s appointed Christian Monarch. Constantine participates in divine authority, Eusebius argues, insofar as he imitates God. And through this imitation, Constantine manifests the Kingdom of Heaven on earth within and through the Roman Empire. For Eusebius, then, Constantine’s Rome was a Christian Empire accomplishing the mission of God. 

Of course, not all early champions of Christian Nationalism sided with Eusebius. Pope Gelasius I (492-496) defended Papal supremacy in all ecclesiastical and secular, imperial matters. Writing to Emperor Anastasius I of the Eastern Roman Empire, Gelasius reminded the Emperor that “although you take precedence over all mankind in dignity, nevertheless you piously bow the neck to those who have charge of divine affairs and seek from them the means of your salvation.” Gelasius continued: 

Hence you realized that, in the order of religion…you ought to submit yourself rather than rule, and that in these matters you should depend on their judgment rather than seek to bend them to your will…As your Piety is certainly well aware, no one can ever raise himself by purely human means to the privilege and place of him whom the voice of Christ has set before all, whom the church has always venerated and held in devotion as its primate. 

Armed with the Petrine keys to God’s Kingdom (Matt 16:19), the Pope, Gelasius argues, is the worlds’ supreme ruler. The Pope alone has the ultimate power to bind and loose in ecclesiastical and secular spheres. For Gelasius, the voice of Christ established this political hierarchy when Jesus installed Peter and his elected successors as the Church’s leaders. On this view, the Pope is the head of all Christian Nationalist projects, imperial and otherwise. 

My sixteenth-century Spanish ancestors accepted a version of Gelasius’s teaching. Operating within a medieval Christian feudal understanding of civic power, according to which the Pope empowered monarchies which empowered those within their lands, they labored to participate in Spain’s papal-approved project of imperial expansion aimed at civilizing, evangelizing, conquering, and, when necessary, vanquishing my Taino ancestors. Papal Bulls including Dum Diversas (1452), Romanus Potifex (1455), and Inter Caetera: Division of the Undiscovered World between Spain and Portugal (1493) informed and legalized this racist colonial project. Drawing on these documents, the Spanish conquistador and lawyer Martín Frenández de Enciso wrote, “The [Spanish] king might very justly send men to require those idolatrous Indians to hand over their lands to him, for it was given him by the pope. If the Indians would not do this, he might justly wage war against them, kill, and enslave those captured in war, precisely as Joshua treated the inhabitants of the land of Canaan.” 

Enciso’s vision informed a key tool of Spain’s imperial Christian Nationalism: El Requerimiento, “The Requirement.” This document legally codified what scholars such as Robert Chao Romero and Lorenzo Veracini call the “we can conquer them in order to convert them” mentality pulsating throughout sixteenth-century Spanish Christian Nationalism. After sketching a narrative from creation to the establishment of supreme Papal authority, the legal text describes how the Pope donated the East Indies to Spain’s monarchy. It then commands Indigenous peoples to submit to Spanish rule and Christian instruction under threat of military invasion, enslavement, and subjugation. 

If you do not do this [accept Spanish rule and the Christian faith], however, or resort maliciously to delay, we warn you that, with the aid of God, we will enter your land against you with force and will make war in every place and by every means we can and are able, we will then subject you to the yoke and authority of the Church and Their Highnesses [Spanish Monarchy]. We will take you and your wives and children and make them slaves, and as such we will sell them, and dispose of you and them as Their Highnesses order. And we will take your property and will do to you all the harm and evil we can, as is done to vassals who will not obey their lord or who do not wish to accept him, or who resist and defy him. We avow that the deaths and harm which you will receive thereby will be your own blame, and not that of Their Highnesses, nor ours, nor of the gentlemen who come with us. 

My Spanish ancestors read this evil document to my Taino ancestors. Even Jonah would blush at this “call” to repent. 

What I witnessed January 6, 2021 was the next evolutionary stage in the sordid history of Christian Nationalism. What appeared with Constantine, morphed into the practices and codes that undergirded European imperialism, and mutated into a distinctively US version has surfaced with vengeance. As a Latino Christian, I mourn this these evils. And I pray that God, because of the work of Christ, will empower the Church by the Spirit to resist and remediate them and their on-going consequences.