American Separationism

Is “Christian Nationalism” something to be feared? Academics have been wringing their hands about it for almost twenty years, but they have mostly defined it in terms of things like Creationism, homeschooling, courtship, or trying to make Thomas Jefferson a Christian. That hardly adds up to a dangerous public theology. Russell Moore, Andrew Whitehead, and Samuel Perry have raised the stakes, charging Christian Nationalism with “nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.” Moore goes so far as to compare it to violent Islamic jihad or Orthodox patriarch Kirill’s bizarre beatification of Russians dying in Ukraine. David French has likewise compared Christian Nationalists in America to Putin. Perry, Whitehead, and others have tried to blame them for January 6, an association ably discounted by Daniel Strand.  

Such hysterics are hardly warranted insofar as Christian Nationalism as a coherent political theory is a nascent movement, but one finds in remarks by SBC president Bart Barber a historical divide in Protestantism. While no Christian Nationalist wants, as Barber put it, “churchly dominion over the operations of government,” his concern reveals a longstanding Baptist concern about religious establishment in America. Fear not. There will be no establishment of religion. The most important obstacle to that kind of Christian Nationalism is American Protestants themselves, who are—as far as politics is concerned—all Baptists now.

Protestants: Magisterial vs. Separatist

If we can indulge some anachronism, there is a kind of “Christian nationalism” in the DNA of what is called “magisterial Protestantism.” At the beginning of the Reformation, all Protestants excepting Anabaptists were essentially magisterial Protestants. Fearful of Rome and absent its authority, Protestants throughout Europe partnered with the “civil magistrate” (i.e., civil authorities) for protection. Magisterial authority varied among the newly-Protestant polities, but in no case did the church have authority over the state. Barber is just flat wrong about that. But the state did have authority enabling what is called religious establishment.

It would be hard to find a Protestant confession written during the first century of the Reformation that doesn’t endorse establishment. Per the original 1646 Westminster Confession, for example, magistrates had a duty to preserve religious “unity and peace,” to suppress “blasphemy and heresy” and “corruptions and abuses in worship.” This duty could even include calling a synod of ecclesiastical leaders to settle doctrinal questions. A popular Protestant trope referred to civil rulers as “nursing fathers” (Isaiah 49:23), responsible before God and the people for their de facto covenanted polities.

Dissent abounded from the earliest days of the Reformation, however, especially in England. Prominent dissenters, not content with the pace of religious reform as they saw it, were punished by civil authorities largely on civil grounds: in theory or practice they disturbed the peace and challenged standing authority, sometimes in an incorrigible manner. “Separatists” were a particular kind of dissenter who declared some degree of ecclesiastical independence from the established church. Prominent separatists, however pious and orthodox, could be treated as badly as obstreperous heretics or blasphemers and sentenced to imprisonment or worse. Congregationalist Henry Barrow, a seminal separatist, was hanged for sedition in 1593 because his defense of congregational self-government threatened to undermine the established Church of England and its rule by bishops, which it eventually did.

Separatist ecclesiology is an essential part of the Baptist heritage. Baptist historians have traced their ecclesiology to separatist theologian Henry Jacob, though he himself was not a Baptist. As separatists, growing sects of Baptists on both sides of the Atlantic were subjected to fines and imprisonment, including some levied by Congregationalists who, though initially persecuted in England for their own separatism, built religious establishments in New England not dissimilar from Anglican establishments in Virginia.

Baptists went even further than other separatists in their political theology. In 1645, for example, Baptist John Tombes argued that baptizing the nations (Matt 28:19) means only baptizing believers in every nation, not building or preserving Christian magistrates or states. Baptists likewise eschewed Old Testament Israel as a model for Christian nations (as magisterial Protestants considered it), instead reducing it to a spiritual type (i.e., foreshadowing) for the “New Testament Church” (the “antitype”). Christ alone is head of the church, they said, not bishops, presbyteries, synods, or magistrates, and His authority was delegated only to individual congregations.

The proliferation of separatism made it impossible to maintain magisterial partnerships that relied on an established parish church ecclesiology. De jure establishments obliging the licensing of dissenting ministers or meeting houses, or tax-funded clergy, for example, faded by the early nineteenth century. Legally speaking, the First Amendment was unrelated to the disappearance of these state establishments because it prohibited only federal establishment. By doing so, it arguably protected the state establishments by not threatening to supersede them with a federal establishment.

The Separatist Legacy

De jure establishments waned as separatism waxed, but the persecution of separatists left a mark on the psyche of their victims: Adrian Chastain Weimer calls this the “identity of persecution.” Those who carry this mark believe not only that Christians shouldn’t seek power, but that persecution defines the faithful. This explains why some of our Evangelical leaders eschew influence through any means other than winsome persuasion. Justifying such a social theology via “proof texts” like 2 Timothy 3:12 or John 15:20, however, runs hard up against those first generations of magisterial Protestants who never read such verses to oblige political impotence.

Separatism also undermined establishment by  advocating for a “gathered church.” To be a gathered church means not only separation from an established church but discerning true believers, sometimes by use of a “conversion narrative,” to gather them out of both the established churches and the spiritually corrupt wider world. In taking John Cotton to task in 1644 for not separating sufficiently from the Church of England, separatist par excellence Roger Williams prefigured Jefferson’s own image of a wall of separation (which Jefferson invented, appropriately enough, in correspondence with a Baptist). Williams defined the church as something “walled in” from the world so that “all that shall be saved out of the world” can be “transplanted out of the Wilderness of the world and added unto [God’s] Church or Garden.”

The divide between separatists and established churches can be illustrated using a parable debated since the beginning of Christendom (Matt 13): should wheat and tares be separated now or later? Magisterial Protestants were content to let both grow up together, using variations of the parish model, infant baptism, and some form of establishment to encompass as many people as possible. Congregationalists and Baptists hoped to separate wheat from tares now by discerning true believers and welcoming them alone into full fellowship. The rest were left to the wilderness of the world until converted, which had the predictable consequence of turning the wider world into a moral wilderness.

The best argument for toleration . . . reflected a centuries-long conversation in Christendom: the conscience makes you directly responsible to God, and no person can stand before God in another person’s stead.

Baptists, the largest denominational legacy of the gathered/separatist ecclesiology, and many of their non-denominational cousins still wear this “identity of persecution.” Baptist tropes persist in broader popular memory, too, thanks to their successful deployment against establishment opponents. For example, establishments presume to either force saving faith or extirpate all religious dissenters. Neither is true. One can see such claims anticipated and refuted by Johannes Althusius, for example. Nevertheless, that narrative energizes Baptists like Moore and Barber or de facto Baptists like French.

The Rise of New Establishments

Polly Ha has argued that one can find incipient ideas of liberalism in separatist pioneers like Jacob. A similar argument has been made that John Locke cribbed from separatist theology. Finding the roots of liberalism in separatist ecclesiology is hardly seen only in hindsight. In 1645, Baptist Thomas Collier worked hard to rebut the criticism that sectarianism was de facto individualism. But even if liberalism was seeded by separatism, neither Jacob nor Locke as proto-liberals sought a Rawlsian neutrality or a broad “marketplace of ideas” that French or Moore celebrate.

Many American Christians now celebrate that marketplace, too . . . and are de facto separatists. They cannot defend separatism as a theological concept like the Baptist apologists could but have instead stumbled into it under the pervasive influence of liberalism and/or because they think that America was settled for religious freedom. But liberalism as we know it in America was just getting started in the nineteenth century, and religious freedom was enabled before that not by platitudes about
pluralism or diversity but by prudence and circumstance. Four hanged Quakers in Massachusetts Bay, for example, turned out to be four too many and elicited a sharp legal rebuke from Whitehall. Theological dissent in various forms was becoming more popular, and establishment was causing the “seditions and tumults” that Althusius cautioned against.  

The greatest loss in our default to liberalism over careful debates about ecclesiology, however, is not theological sophistication. It is the loss of the best argument for toleration, one that reflected a centuries-long conversation in Christendom: the conscience makes you directly responsible to God, and no person can stand before God in another person’s stead.

That point about religious liberty acknowledging the Final Judgment was understood even by Progressive American historians who rehabilitated separatists like Roger Williams and turned them into superheroes. For example, Perry Belmont’s Political Equality: Religious Toleration From Roger Williams to Jefferson (1927) quotes William Paley’s definition of religious toleration as “the recognition of private judgment in matters of faith and worship” and also cites in its defense the words of Matt 22 and Mark 12: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.”

Nowhere did Belmont or other Progressive historians say “Render unto the self the things that are the self’s.” Nor would the great champions of religious freedom—in the seventeenth or the early twentieth century—countenance our contemporary argle-bargle wherein one answers only to oneself about all matters both divine and human. That kind of nonsense is now so respectable that it enables our president to cite as evidence of rising authoritarianism a widespread belief about traditional marriage once held even by the Obamas, Bidens, and the Clintons.

What Kind of Establishment?

But even in our supposedly liberal tolerant order accountability does not go away. Rather than being obliged to serve God, which would prioritize piety, we are obliged to serve what most of humanity, pagan or Christian, defined as the grossest impieties. And it isn’t as though we have no religious establishment. We instead have a new eschatology, moral law, and sin that is a Christian heresy.

American Christians need to recover their noble patrimony about the conscience and stop playing the neutrality game as if any such neutral space exists. However difficult it is to cast off the identity of persecution, we need to realize that in our willingness to suffer before any new postmodern establishments, we make our neighbors suffer as well. American Protestants must stop being the dupes of a bait-and-switch. Disestablishment was supposed to clear our vision of God but has now left us to look only into ourselves.

If we did have something that could be called “Christian nationalism” under the de facto Protestant establishment undermined by incorporation of the First Amendment, it was something that Catholics like Tocqueville praised in the 1830s and Jacques Maritain acclaimed in the 1940s. Education was directed to character formation and preparation for vocation. Political institutions maintained public decency and a sphere of domestic life enabling all the blessings of marriage not only for the sake of husband and wife over a long life, but also their children. Work was not merely a means to idleness or extravagance, but duty and vocation enabled purpose and meaning. These were the principles of the de facto establishment’s catechism, however imperfect, enabling meaning from the beginning to the end of life.  

All of this was done before God and one’s neighbor, with political leaders invoking scripture to emphasize virtues public and private. This became the new de facto Protestant establishment, even if it was not the Protestant establishment of old. If this was Christian Nationalism, it stood in sharp contrast with the current regime of OnlyFans, anxiety, and addiction, and blood and treasure depleted by internationalism.

This essay is adapted from a presentation at NatCon 2022 titled “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Christian Nationalism”