A 1638 treatise titled A Discourse about Civil Government in a new Plantation whose design is Religion, written in response to the founding of New Haven, Conn., contained this definition of a properly Christianized government:
Theocracy, or to make the Lord God our governor, is the best form of government in a Christian commonwealth. … That form of government where, a) the people who have the power of choosing their governors are in covenant with God, b) wherein the men chosen by them are godly men and fitted with a spirit of government, c) in which the laws they rule by are the laws of God, d) wherein laws are executed, inheritances allotted, and civil differences are composed according to God’s appointment, (and) 3) in which men of God are consulted (about) all hard cases and in matters of religion, (this) is the form which was received and established among the people of Israel while the Lord God was their governor.
Written by Puritan clergyman John Davenport or by his mentor, Puritan patriarch John Cotton, (scholars differ as to the author), the Discourse concludes:
The form of government which gives unto Christ his due preeminence is the best form of government in a Christian commonwealth. … That form of government (in which) the power of civil administration is denied unto unbelievers and (is) committed to the saints is the best form of government in a Christian Commonwealth.
Some 385 years later, that clergy-authored, colonial commentary sounds hauntingly contemporary. No, a Christian theocracy is not imminent in the land of the free and the home of declining church attendance. But that burgeoning reality apparently has led certain Christian individuals and groups to believe if their evangelism isn’t working like it once did, maybe the government should step in.
Mike Johnson sent me back to the 17th century theocrats. In a 2016 interview, the current U.S. House speaker, a Baptist and self-confessed Christian nationalist says, “You know, we don’t live in a democracy, because a democracy is two wolves and a lamb deciding what’s for dinner. OK, it’s not just majority rule; it’s a constitutional republic, and the founders set that up because they followed the biblical admonition on what a civil society is supposed to look like.”
The very phrase, “the biblical admonition on what a civil society is supposed to look like” is the stuff of which theocracies are made.
“There is no singular ‘biblical admonition’ toward civil government.”
It is not just a description of bad government; it’s bad biblical exegesis to boot. There is no singular “biblical admonition” toward civil government, but a multi-millennial line that stretches from 12 tribes to monarchs like Saul, David, Solomon, Ahab and Jezebel, (and don’t forget Herod now that Advent is at hand). Perhaps the strongest “biblical admonition” calls us to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with God whatever the government might be.
Religious liberty, and its accompanying religious pluralism, was a long time coming and remains a precarious gift. That the emphasis on a “Christian America” should come at a time of increasing violence against Jews and Muslims dramatically illustrates the fragility of religious freedom here and now. That’s why Christian congregations that value religious liberty as the foundation of religious pluralism must take the link between Christian nationalism and politics very seriously, offering not only dissent, but with strategies for responding should it somehow prevail.
As it gains momentum, I’m beginning to wonder if the term “Christian nationalism” is an adequate description of the religio-political dilemma taking shape around us. Would the designation “Christian autocracy” be more accurate?
Amid an array of challenges — demographic, cultural and yes, theological — are American churches prepared for the reality of an increasingly Christianized political authoritarianism that appears to be only one election away? Consider these “signs of the times”:
First, Christian nationalism/autocracy seems closely related to the leading Republican presidential candidate (Donald Trump) who, in his third run for the office, makes no secret of the authoritarian intent of his campaign and potential presidency.
- “I am your retribution” appears to be his most prominent campaign slogan, as he promises to take punitive action against his perceived political enemies.
- His political operatives are said to be developing programs that would increase the power and prerogatives of the presidency with more direct control of the Department of Justice, the reorganization of the FBI, and the appointment of thousands of new Trump-loyal employees throughout the governmental bureaucracy.
- He pledges to respond to the influx of immigrants by confining them in “camps” for deportation as protection from those who are “poisoning the blood of our country,” a phrase only half a step from the Nazi-manifested term “Aryan.”
- He even uses the word “vermin” to characterize those he pledges to destroy, as the language of violence continues unabated.
Amid such dangerous rhetoric, I find a modicum of hope in the response of certain evangelical writers who are challenging their colleagues to revisit their association with autocratic politics and politicians.
Peter Wehner, David French and others offer such dissent from inside evangelicalism. In a Nov. 22 essay in The Atlantic titled “Have You Listened Lately to What Trump is Saying,” Wehner writes:
It is a rather remarkable indictment of those who claim to be followers of Jesus that they would continue to show fealty to a man whose cruel ethic has always been antithetical to Jesus’ and becomes more so every day. Many of the same people who celebrate Christianity’s contributions to civilization — championing the belief that every human being has inherent rights and dignity, celebrating the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Good Samaritan, and pointing to a “transcendent order of justice and hope that stands above politics,” in the words of my late friend Michael Gerson — continue to stand foursquare behind a man who uses words that echo Mein Kampf.
Second, through Project 2025, the Heritage Foundation, partnering with 80 other conservative organizations, has developed a blueprint for authoritarian control of government offices and policies, with clearcut Christian nationalist/autocrat implications. Project 2025 recently released Mandate for Leadership: The Conservative Promise, a 1,000-page document that provides guidelines for implementing conservative, some suggest authoritarian, positions throughout the national government. These include:
- A plan for a conservative “governing agenda and the right people in place, ready to carry this agenda out on day one of the next conservative administration.” A process that would enhance and extend direct presidential control of autonomous government agencies.
- An assertion that, “with the right conservative policy recommendations and properly vetted and trained personnel to implement them, we will take back our government.” An attempt to replace thousands of current civil service employees with conservative loyalists committed to an authoritarian agenda.
- Reshaping the Department of Health and Human Services toward efforts to “maintain a biblically based, social science–reinforced definition of marriage and family.” Government action reaffirming that “God ordained the sabbath as a day of rest, and until very recently the Judeo-Christian tradition sought to honor that mandate by moral and legal regulation of work on that day.”
PRRI founder Robert Jones raised the alarm in Baptist News Global and elsewhere, writing: “We must realize white Christian nationalists are not a fringe movement but one that has now fully seized control of one of our two political parties. And we must grasp that they are dedicated not to a fair process, but to a predetermined — indeed predestined — outcome, one that corresponds to their self-serving interpretation of the Bible and American history.”
Third, governmental approval of Christian nationalist/autocratic agendas are already under way, illustrating a plan to privilege a highly selective type of Christianity, not the entirety of the American Christian community. This approach was clearly evident in May 2023 when the Texas Legislature approved a law that allows Christian chaplains to replace guidance counselors in Texas public schools.
“The autocracy is not only in having chaplains, but in limiting them to one kind of Christianity.”
Prior to approval, a Democratic representative proposed an amendment that students from varied faiths be allowed to request a chaplain from their particular religious traditions. Another amendment would have barred “proselytizing” by such school-based chaplains. Both amendments were defeated. Will other states follow Texas in promoting chaplains over counselors in their public schools? The autocracy is not only in having chaplains, but in limiting them to one kind of Christianity.
In response to the law, some 100 chaplains signed a letter opposing the action and cautioning that it would lead to “religious proselytization and coercion of students.” The letter noted chaplains “are generally affiliated with specific religious denominations and traditions. In deciding which chaplains to hire or accept as volunteers, schools will inherently give preference to particular denominations, violating the ‘clearest command’ of the Establishment Clause: ‘One religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.’”
As Christian autocracy encroaches on church and state, I continue to find hope and courage in a variety of Baptist forebears who saw what others of their day did not. John Leland, Virginia Baptist preacher, is a case in point. Demanding a “bill of rights” in the newly minted Constitution, Leland observed:
Religious Liberty is not sufficiently secured. No Religious test is Required as qualification to fill any office under the United States, but if a Majority of Congress, with the President favour one System more than another, they may oblige all others to pay to the support of their System more than another … and if the manners of people are so far Corrupted, that they cannot live by Republican principles, it is very dangerous leaving Religious Liberty at their Mercy.
Leland wrote those words in 1789, yet his words sound all too applicable in the latter days of 2023 as “Republican principles” are under siege from multiple political and ecclesiastical perspectives. Are our consciences troubled enough to respond until religious liberty is sufficiently secured?
Bill Leonard is founding dean and the James and Marilyn Dunn professor of Baptist studies and church history emeritus at Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, N.C. He is the author or editor of 25 books. A native Texan, he lives in Winston-Salem with his wife, Candyce, and their daughter, Stephanie.