I really do appreciate Jonathan Leeman, and he’s been a kind and gracious interlocutor in the past both in responding to me personally and joining us on CrossPolitic. So what follows should be considered a friendly critique, not any kind of guns blazing heresy hunt. However, Jonathan Leeman’s latest article on Christian Nationalism is quite the bundle of, what shall we say, assertions. It feels a bit like the character in the old Looney Tune cartoons when asked ‘which way did he go?’ who crosses his arms and points in opposite directions. Or maybe at the end of Pixar’s Incredibles where the boy, Dashiell Parr, is competing in track and his dad is cheering him on while also telling him to slow down. Go faster! Not that fast! Or something like that…
Leeman writes forcefully at one point: “The public square, I’ve said over and over, is a battleground of gods. Either my God or yours will win the majorities and pull the levers of power.” And I’m standing on my seat cheering. And then in a somewhat jarring juxtaposition:
“Yet an actual Christian nation has never existed and never will.” And there I am standing on my chair with a confused look on my face. Go faster! He says, No neutrality! Either my God or another! And then a moment later, it feels like he pulls the chair out from under me. Nevermind! Not that fast! Slow down! Don’t try to win!
Identity vs. Influence
At the center of his confusing declarations is some kind of tension he sees between a Christian nationalism that self-consciously seeks an identity as a Christian nation, and a Christian nationalism that merely desires to be influenced by Christian norms. “Advocates of Christian nationalism in terms of influence have in mind Christians opening their Bibles; doing their best to understand what God requires of a nation; and then stepping into the public square and seeking to pass laws, establish practices, and encourage traditions in keeping with a biblical view of justice and righteousness… you can count me in with this group. To deny the role of Christian influence in the public square is to deny the Lordship of Christ.”
So, Jonathan Leeman wants Jesus to be “Lord” of the public square, but when Jesus shows up in the public square His job is to be a TikTok influencer. Jesus is Lord like Taylor Swift on Instagram. Now Leeman is trying to eek out his position in terms of a pseudo-Kuyperian sphere sovereignty, what he calls a “jurisdictional limit.” He wants his God to win the majority and pull the levers of power, but he also insists that a “religion that require[s] the force of the sword [i]s a weak religion.” Leeman is playing with words. Are there godly levers of power or not? And if Jesus Christ commands a righteous magistrate to execute a murderer, is that an example of weak religion requiring the force of a sword?
Let me assure Leeman that I’m firmly in his distestablishmentarian camp. No state sponsored churches for me, and I also happen to agree with his general assessment that American disestablishmentarianism has likely preserved our Christianity longer than those European nations with established churches. Agreed.
But when Leeman writes, “a senator’s job isn’t to tell us who to worship, but to protect life. That job is not morally (or religiously) neutral.” He’s sucking and blowing at the same time. His job isn’t morally or religiously neutral – says who? Says Leeman? Or says God? My guess is that Leeman would say God. And I would say, which God? And presumably, again, Leeman would say the Triune God, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Now, if all Leeman means is that a senator must not compel or coerce worship of the Christian God, all well and good. But the word he used was “tell,” a senator must not tell you which God to worship, but it is not unjust coercion for a civil magistrate to “tell” his subjects that He serves the only true God who made heaven and earth who sent His Son for the salvation of the world, and that all his people should serve Him too. In this sense, it is a senator’s job to “praise the righteous” (Rom. 13:3) and in so doing, he most certainly is telling us who to worship. Or even if you limit his job to protecting life, by what standard will he do so? Presumably, Leeman means that the senator ought to protect life according to God’s Word, but how can a Christian do that and not proclaim that Christ is Lord, and that everyone ought to worship Him? Isn’t the ministry of biblical justice a testimony that Christ is Lord and worthy of all worship?
The Nations of Them That Are Saved
But when Leeman says that the Lordship of Christ merely means influence, we’ve got a problem, Houston. Leeman quibbles over whether a nation as a nation can even be “Christian,” and as a presbyterian in the covenantor tradition of John Knox, I think that’s a bit silly. But I think the central question is whether magistrates (elected or appointed) have a duty to submit to Jesus Christ in all that they do. Is the gospel a command to every magistrate, judge, mayor, senator, president, and prime minister to repent (Acts 17:30)? And does that repentance include obedience to King Jesus not only in their personal lives but also in their public roles as public civil servants? And if Leeman agrees, as I would hope he would, must they do so in the name of Jesus or anonymously? Must they announce that the slaughter of the unborn will no longer be legal in their jurisdictions because Jesus is Lord and they have submitted to His authoritative reign over the nations of men or merely because they considered the matter deeply and have arrived at vague notions of morality that arose from the influence of a deeply personal faith that subtly impacts what they do?
Leeman has serious doubts that any nation has ever actually repented and turned to Christ. Actually, he’s very sure that no nation ever has. Although, Jonah might have been surprised to hear that: “So the people of Nineveh believed God, and proclaimed a fast, and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them even to the least of them” (Jon. 3:5). Too bad Leeman wasn’t there to warn the king of Nineveh about nominalism and the dangers of Christian nationalism. But I do wonder if Nineveh would count. And man, that sure sounds like Jeremiah 31, doesn’t it – “from the greatest of them to the least of them”?
Or what about the nations who walk in the light of the New Jerusalem and the kings who bring their treasures into it? “And the nations of them which are saved shall walk in the light of it: and the kings of the earth do bring their glory and honour into it” (Rev. 21:24). Now Leeman may want to point out that technically “nations” cannot “walk.” No one has ever seen a “nation” “walk.” And I happily grant this point. But may we not speak of the nations of them which are saved?
Here I Am With a Third Way
In other words, there really is another alternative to the two options Jonathan Leeman has presented. It is not merely a national Christian identity that is institutionalized and formal like old Europe or else some kind of TikTok “lordship” that influences the public square sort of passive-aggressively, wielding levers of power, but not really, except maybe, but not.
There really is another way, a better way. That way is through obedience to King Jesus in every sphere, in each respective jurisdiction. Civil magistrates are required to bow their knees to Jesus, to kiss the Son, lest they perish when His anger is kindled (Ps. 2). We are not interested in an ecclesiocracy, like in Islam, even if that’s what we are frequently accused of. No, we simply insist and preach that civil magistrates are required to punish evil doers and so protect life and property in direct obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ, their Sovereign Lord. I don’t really have a dog in the fight over the nomenclature of Christian Nationalism per se, although, if the leaders of a nation are obedient to Jesus and want to be faithful leaders under their Lord Jesus, I’m not sure how that nation wouldn’t *in some sense* be Christian, while rejecting an established church and doing everything to combat nominalism.
Conclusion: Lordship Nationalism
What happens when the King of Nineveh repents? What happens when Constantine converts? We are supposed to pray for the conversion and obedience of kings and all authority, right? And what if God answers those prayers? What if King Alfred asks you for advice on how to rule England in a godly way? It is certainly true that nations do not exist apart from the people that make them, and therefore “nations” cannot be baptized and discipled, but let us be done with silly grammatical ploys and simply admit that we’re talking about the people of the nation. We are to disciple the nations. We are to teach them, the people, everything Jesus commanded. We are to preach and teach and baptize until every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord. And He must reign until every enemy is put beneath His feet, and the last enemy will be death itself.
I call this position Lordship Nationalism. In this position there are no established churches, but Jesus is acknowledged as Lord openly, explicitly because happy is that nation whose God is the Lord (Ps. 33:12).