Can a Baptist Be a Christian Nationalist? On Appeals to Baptist History

Over the last couple of years, there has been a lot of chatter online about the promises and perils of Christian Nationalism. Definitions vary. If you espouse some form of nationalism (as opposed to globalism) and are a Christian, does this make you a Christian Nationalist? Or does Christian Nationalism entail something more? If it does, just what is that “something more”? The establishment of a particular denomination? Or at least some form of mere Protestantism? Or mere Christianity? Or mere theism? Does CN require that certain privileges be afforded to Christianity? Does it also warrant certain punishments for expressions of non-Christian beliefs? Does CN demand Sabbatarian or “blue” laws? Is the punishment of blasphemy and heresy permissible, at least in principle (even if prudence may call for some measure of toleration)?

To be honest, I’m not all that interested in the online wars over this (I got off Twitter for a reason!). My research interests lie elsewhere. And my normal tasks as a professor lead me elsewhere. I am more interested in helping people understand the trinity, the incarnation, and the atonement. I’m more interested in helping students mortify sin, grow in holiness, share the gospel, deal with grief and pain, and prepare for death and judgment. I’m more interested, in short, in helping people understand the gospel and its implications for their lives. To be sure, some of those implications are civil and political. But too many Christians (especially extremely online Christians) can give outsized importance to politics and political theory. By all means, know the issues, vote according to biblical principles, volunteer at the local level, etc. But don’t let the political tail wag the theological dog.

But I digress. As a student of Baptist history and theology, I get more interested when people start making appeals to our Baptist forebears in defense of this or that political theory. Can a Baptist be a Christian Nationalist? Can a Baptist even support a kind of magisterial Protestantism or a de facto “mere Christendom” establishment? In answering these questions, Baptists often and rightly look to our past for guidance. But danger lurks here. It is possible to cherry-pick quotes or particular thinkers, which may be outliers, and treat them as typical. It is possible to do what Matt has called “control-F” theology: you hit control-F on the keyboard to find a particular term in a historic text, read it out of context, and voila! find support for your predetermined conclusion.

This blog post isn’t going to settle the debate over the possibility of a “Baptist Christian Nationalism.” To lay my own cards on the table, I think such a notion is a contradiction in terms, if by CN you mean some kind of overtly religious establishment or giving the state the power to prosecute religious matters (the first table of the law). But I’m not here to make that argument. What I want to do in this post is more modest. I simply want to point to a few principles that should guide our appeals to Baptist history when making contemporary theological arguments. I think these principle have broader application, but I am thinking about them especially in terms of the CN debate.

History is subordinate. For the Protestant—and perhaps especially for the Baptist—the fundamental question of theology isn’t what this or that historic author wrote, but what Scripture teaches. The question of what we ought to believe is a matter of biblical theology, not historical theology in the first instance. For a Baptist political theology in particular, it is a matter of Baptist covenant theology and its logical and theological entailments: What is the relationship between the old covenants and the new covenant? What kind of hermeneutical priority does the New Testament have? What NT principles and precepts govern the development of a political theology? What jurisdiction does the NT give to the church, the family, and the state, and how are they diffferent? And so on. History can be a guide in answering those questions. But the Bible retains its pride of place as the infallible rule of our theology.

History is contextual. When we appeal to Baptist authors in the past, we have to recognize their particular historical location. They lived in particular times, in particular places, and under particular political arrangements. Their horizons were limited (and in some cases, perhaps, enriched) by those particularities. Baptists have thrived under a variety of political circumstances, in both persecution and toleration, but mostly from the margins of power (maybe with the exception of my home state of Alabama!). We have to be careful not to enshrine any of those circumstances as the standard Baptist view.

History is complex. Related to the last point, we also have to recognize that no particular author and no particular place speaks for the entirety of the Baptist tradition. Some have recently appealed to John Gill or Isaac Backus as possible sources in defense of a more explicitly Christian government.  I’ll let the experts on those theologians and those eras make those judgments. But even if Gill says something more in line with the magisterial Protestants here or there, that doesn’t mean that he speaks for the Baptist tradition as a whole (We certainly wouldn’t want to appeal to Gill on, say, eternal justification as the standard Baptist view). Gill’s judgment that the magistrate has authority to prosecute the first table of the law puts him out of step with at least a substantial portion (the majority?) of the Baptist tradition more broadly (not just later authors in the early American republic, but also back to the foundational seventeenth-century Baptists). Furthermore, the Baptist tradition is not limited to Anglo-American majority culture authors either. The Black Baptist experience is also worthy of careful study, as is Baptist history in continental Europe and elsewhere. We also have to be careful not to judge our own moment in history as definitive either. To argue against CN is not necessarily to argue for the superiority of liberal democracy or anything else. We have to avoid both a whiggish view of history and a naively nostalgic view of history. Again, history, including our own present moment, is complex.

History is hierarchical. What I mean here is the hierarchy of tradition, which I have written about elsewhere. Under Scripture’s ultimate authority, the derivative, interpretive authority of tradition is stratified: creeds have the greatest authority as the expressions of the universal church; confessions come next as expressions of particular denominational convictions, and individual authors come last as important but subordinate standards. What this means for Baptist political theology, is that the confessional tradition deserves greater weight than any individual author, even an esteemed author like Gill. Especially significant in this regard is the great Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, which is the most influential confession in Baptist history. An examination of the so-called 1689 Confession and its statement on the civil magistrate is paramount on this question, especially the omissions and revisions it introduces to its source material, the Westminster Confession of Faith. For Southern Baptists, the Baptist Faith and Message (2000) is also worth careful inspection on these matters (especially articles XV—XVIII). If you want to make a claim about the historic Baptist view, the confessions are a surer guide than a particular individual author or two (who may be outliers).

So there you have it. A few principles to keep in mind when appealing to Baptist history. Again, this doesn’t settle the debate over CN. I’d have more to say about that, and perhaps I will in this space or elsewhere. But in meantime, here’s some homework: go read Andrew Fuller’s excellent sermon on Christian Patriotism (and Michael Haykin’s clarification about its historical context and place in Fuller’s overall thought).

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