Anglicanism: A Better Christian Nationalism

Concerns over Christian nationalism have filled the pages of Christian blogs, journals, and magazines especially in the wake of Donald Trump’s unambiguous co-opting of Revivalist groups’ Christo-Americanism[1] for his political coalition. It seems undeniable that their movement is at best foolish and tacky, and, more likely, heretical. But does this mean that Christian nationalism is heretical—as has been suggested by prominent centrist Evangelicals? All of these are important questions, but to answer them for our province, we must speak not as Evangelicals or anything other than what we are: Anglicans.

The first generation of Anglican churchmen were unabashedly nationalistic, even jingoistic, about their religion and their national identity. John Aylmer, the bishop of London at the end of the sixteenth century, stated unequivocally that “God is English.” The Lord’s kingdom fought against France, Spain, and other Catholic powers “not only in quarrel of your country, but also and chiefly in defense of His true religion and of His dear son Christ.” England, he declared, said to her “children” that “God has brought forth in me the greatest and most excellent treasure that He hath for your comfort and all the world’s. He would that out of my womb would come that servant of Christ John Wyclif, who begat Huss, who begat Luther, who begat the trust.” The trust, in Bishop Aylmer’s understanding, was the Church of England which he ferociously defended against Roman Catholics and Puritan Calvinists. A rector in the era saw England’s colonization efforts as an outgrowth of the kingdom’s Protestant mission to save the globe from Catholicism. “There is no doubt,” declared John Davys, “that we of England are this saved people, by the eternal and infallible presence of the Lord predestined to be sent into these gentiles in the sea, to those isles and famous kingdoms, there to preach the peace of the Lord.” England, claimed Davys, was “set on Mount Zion to give light to all the rest of the World? It is only we, therefore, that must be these shining messengers of the Lord, and none but we!” This is the generation of Anglicans that gave the Prayer Book and Authorized Bible as a patronage to the generations that followed. While we might disagree with their jingoism, they were neither heretics nor were they bad Anglicans. We must reject the idea that Christian nationalism was or is therefore innately heretical.

What of our own time then? What about the so-called Christian nationalism that appears to plague large swaths of “Evangelicalism.” To begin with, we must reject any association of Prayer Book Anglicanism with so-called Evangelicalism. We offer the right hand of Christian fellowship to any orthodox Christians, but their socio-political and theological commitments are not ours; likewise, their socio-political and religious foolishness and ignorance are not ours. Anglicans must not be shackled by the failings and incongruities of Evangelicals and Revivalists, Roman Catholics, or any other group. We must speak, therefore, on the question of Christian nationalism as Anglicans.

Anglicans retain some vestiges of historic Christian nationalism in our prayer books, but we reject entirely Christo-Americanism, the religious nationalist ideology often identified by the reductionist term “Christian nationalism.” Unlike the Evangelical and Revivalist Christo-Americanists, we reject an individualized paradigm for the Christian life. Our churchmanship and ecclesiology have no place in the triumphalist narrative of a perfectly just American order. After all, it was the Reformed and Evangelicals who got in bed with the American state and the secularizing culture of the moment in order to gain power at the expense of the Anglican churches. Perhaps most importantly, we deplore the replacement of churchly imagery with nationalist symbology. Our crosses and crucifixes must never be debased by symbols so common as the stars and stripes, which are themselves secular. Anglicans cannot countenance the syncretism of Christo-Americanism. If the standard for Christian nationalism is the type of syncretism displayed by Jericho March or Trumpist Christianity, then we are not Christian nationalists.

The ubiquity of Trumpist Christianity as the standard for what is Christian nationalism might tempt Anglicans to flee from any association of patriotism with Christianity. But that is on some level a disservice to our spiritual ancestors, and more importantly, it rejects the spirit of the Book of Common Prayer, which is the cornerstone of our liturgy. Anglican Christian nationalism is accomplished not by marches, or rallies, but fundamentally by prayer. For what do we do if not pray that God might draw our countrymen to himself when we read the liturgy in divine service? Take for example one of our prayers for the president and all in civil authority:

O LORD our Governor, whose glory is in all the world; We commend this nation to thy merciful care, that being guided by thy Providence, we may dwell secure in thy peace. Grant to THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES, and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do thy will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness; and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in thy fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

Likewise the prayer book includes a prayer for the nation:

ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of thy favour and glad to do thy will. Bless our land with honourable industry, sound learning, and pure manners. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogancy, and from every evil way. Defend our liberties, and fashion into one united people the multitudes brought hither out of many kindreds and tongues. Endue with the spirit of wisdom those to whom in thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home, and that, through obedience to thy law, we may show forth thy praise among the nations of the earth. In the time of prosperity, fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in thee to fail; all which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

To what end do we pray for the republic to dwell in peace and security? To what end do we pray for the president and all in civil authority to know and do God’s will? To what end do we pray for our liberties and for national unity? Surely it is so that the kingdom of heaven would come and God’s will would be done on earth—in and through the United States and all polities—as it is in heaven. Should we, one might ask, pray that those things don’t happen? It’s a patent absurdity to suggest that we shouldn’t. We pray for the people of other countries to know God; should we not pray for our own countrymen? Again the inverse—the notion that we should not—is ridiculous. In this sense, yes of course Anglicans pray for a Christian nation. Does that make us Christian nationalists? I suppose that lies in the eye of the beholder.

I’ll close with an anecdote. Last fall I was privileged to bear chalice for my bishop. He picked the hymns for the day. He selected “I Vow to Thee My Country” and as I stood by him at the altar I was struck by the—undeniably patriotic—words of the first verse:

I vow to thee, my country, all earthly things above,

Entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love;

The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,

That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best;

The love that never falters, the love that pays the price,

The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Stirring stuff, and without a doubt not focused on the heavenly kingdom. That might be enough for Evangelicals and the Reformed to reject it as inappropriate for divine service! Won’t America pass away?! There won’t be America in heaven! True enough, but my bishop had the foresight to know that love of country is important because it points to a higher allegiance. The presence of Christian patriotism or a hope that God might use the American people and republic to do the work of the kingdom does not negate the ultimate allegiance of the Christian to the Kingdom of God. The song goes on:

And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago,

Most dear to them that love her, most great to them that know;

We may not count her armies, we may not see her King;

Her fortress is a faithful heart, her pride is suffering;

And soul by soul and silently her shining bounds increase,

And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.

The question of the Christian nation will be debated for years to come. We may rightly pray that our own nation might come to know God, not for the sake of America, but for the sake of “another country,” whose invisible king will one day visibly return to claim His shining bounds, extended and increased by the fortified hearts of Americans and all other peoples who know God.

  1. I did not come up with this term, but I am entirely devoted to it.

 



Miles Smith IV

Miles Smith is a historian of the American South and the Atlantic World. He has taught at Hillsdale College, Regent University, and Texas Christian University. His research interests and his writing focus on intellectual life and religion in the Nineteenth Century United States and Europe. He lives in Hillsdale, Michigan.


'Anglicanism: A Better Christian Nationalism' have 3 comments

  1. July 9, 2021 @ 7:04 pm Jake Peachey

    Anglo-Saxon Protestants were foundational to the greatest civilization this world has ever seen. The common, ordinary people never had such freedom and prosperity in all human history.

    It’s not about white people or pigment on the skin; thought doesn’t occur on the epidermis. It is about fundamental ideas in the basic worldview of Protestant morality and work ethic.

    I’m glad the founders weren’t Germans (my ancestry–Germans would have built a heavy-duty authoritarian system), French, or Spanish. These cultures were acclimatized to authoritarian rule. I’m very thankful that the Anglo-Saxon culture brought traditions of Parliamentary rule and the common law.
    The common law is largely independent of statutory control. No other political culture has this feature.

    Reply

  2. July 9, 2021 @ 7:13 pm Jake Peachey

    Here’s a little window into the perspective of “original Americans”, who built the greatest civilization ever, from Laura Ingalls Wilder.

    These were commoners in the Dakota Territories in the 1870s developing their local communities, then territorial governance in the process of applying for statehood within the union

    A Fourth of July celebrations that were a religious service, of a sort, by men with the law written on their hearts:

    A farmer/settler selected as master of ceremonies: “Well boys, I’m not much good at public speaking, but today is the glorious fourth. This is the day and date when our forefathers cut loose from the despots of Europe………………. (S)o here we are today, every man Jack of us a free and independent citizen of God’s country, the only country on earth where man is free and independent.” Etc.

    Next, the reading of the Declaration of Independence with hats off. “Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words”.

    Next, the song of My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.

    Here is Laura at approximately the age of 14: “suddenly she had a completely new thought. The declaration and the song came together in her mind and she thought: God is America’s king. Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free……. the laws of nature and of nature’s God endow you with the right to life and liberty….. you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you the right to be free.”

    Laura intuitively understood that to have maximum freedom, without the Hobbesian world of anarchy, depended on upon man’s voluntary internalization of the rule of law. This is what the Christian faith provided. With the fundamental perspective that “God is America’s king” and that all men are created equal before God, a wrenching war was fought. Nothing like this happened in all human history. All other wars are fought for dominance and control by authoritarian ruling classes. While America does not reach the stars in perfection, it still tries to guide by the Northstar of the rule of law.

    Reply

  3. July 12, 2021 @ 1:56 pm John

    Professor Smith, thank you for this essay. Your criticism of right-wing Evangelical syncretism is certainly insightful, and I think you are right to argue that Anglicans can rightly understand the nation as a body which can offer worship to God. You should have gone to Richard Hooker instead of Elizabeth’s propagandists, however, to develop this thesis. Robin Ward’s excellent book “On Christian Priesthood” explores that possibility.

    “God is English” is, if taken literally to any degree, heretical. If taken merely as propaganda it is, at best, propagandistic garbage. That England’s colonial enterprise was a missionary endeavor is indeed a curious thesis to dig up given that most successful English evangelism occurred in spite of and frequently in open conflict with colonization. Colonization was, if anything, a tremendous barrier to English missionary activity. The opposition to and impairment of Anglican missionaries by Parliament and the imperial companies in central and south Africa, India, and Melanesia does not support that thesis. I am reminded of Parliament’s interference in the Colenso affair.

    If by “Christian Nationalism” you mean that there is an essential link between Englishness with Christianity (I do not think you mean this, but the at least one of the clergymen you quote apparently did), then Nationalism was antithetical to the spread of the Gospel and the development of the Anglican Communion. Remember there was a great controversy over the consecration of bishops outside of England. In becoming a global communion which understands itself as a catholic church, Anglicanism ceased to be English, politically and culturally.

    Again, I am not sure if that is what you mean by nationalism, and as I do not understand how “nationalism” can refer to anything other than a secular ideology of political self-determination, I do not see how it can be a useful term for Christians to use in forming a contemporary approach to the city of man. Citizenship is a very boring word but it comes to us through Ss. Paul and Augustine, and it seems that some of your essay is merely advocating a sort of responsible and uncynical Christian citizenship. If so, that is commendable. If otherwise, I think you might be coming awfully close to error.

    Mr. Peachey – “Anglo-Saxon Protestants were foundational to the greatest civilization the world has ever seen” –
    No. It can be fairly countered that the society which has learned to export its secularism, consumerism, social disruption, and moral chaos internationally is hardly worthy of such praise. Anglo-American society is simply not the summit of human history.

    Reply


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