The gallows got my attention. They arose from the chaos, signaling murderous intent, as the mob surged like a tsunami around the Capitol steps. “Hang Mike Pence!” voices shouted in unison as realtors and veterans and insurance agents, now insurgents, pressed and burst into the federal building. Lawmakers fled, as men wearing tactical gear swept the legislative chambers with zip-ties in hand, presumably for the purpose of arresting and punishing those leaders deemed treasonous. Some of the rioters came prepared for revolution. Some seem to have been swept up in the spirit of the moment, unaware of the ramifications of what their choices would have on their lives and their nation.
On that day, January 6, 2021, as I saw pictures and footage of the events transpiring in the United States Capitol, I felt angry that the violent political rhetoric in American politics had now increasingly manifested in violent actions. I felt concerned that this extreme event might be a prelude to an even more extreme future. I felt ashamed that such displays had now come to be expected from my nation’s toxic political theater. Most of all, as a pastor, I felt grieved that images of the name of my Savior were displayed alongside this spectacle of nihilistic division and death.
In the days that followed, videos surfaced of worship songs being sung on the Capitol lawn during the invasion and of the man with the iconic horned helmet and star-spangled face-paint offering a prayer “in Christ’s holy name” within the invaded Senate Chamber. Consequently, think pieces on the topic of “Christian nationalism” began to dominate editorial pages and social media feeds.
How did it come to this? How did Christianity come to be so identified with the ideology known as nationalism? How could some Christians themselves be so enchanted, so deceived, so (dare I say) possessed so as to justify conspiracy theories, mob violence, and insurrection?
Despite the recent focus on what many term as “white Christian nationalism” in America, nationalism itself is not inherently bound to any one ethnicity, religion, or nationality. Nor is it by any means a recent phenomenon. In fact, nationalism studies surged as the dust settled from World War 2, as a way to understand, reckon with, and hopefully prevent the devastation of such global conflict. Interestingly, the same time period saw a corresponding increase in interest regarding the Apostle Paul’s doctrine of “powers.” In exploring the powers, theologians rediscovered biblical language and categories to describe the spiritual evil that inspired Nazi Germany to inflict the unimaginable horror of the Holocaust.
But what if nationalism and the powers are more than casually related? What if the biblical category of powers actually helps explain the spiritual aspects and agencies behind nationalism in ways that the social sciences could not? What if the Apostle Paul can help us understand why nationalism is such an enduring and alluring form of idolatry, even among people of faith today?
I have no intention of demeaning or devaluing sociological or historical perspectives on nationalism. Studying nationalism through the familiar lens of the social sciences can yield helpful and indispensable insights. We don’t need less than the social sciences. But we do need something more; something that helps us see beyond the confined horizons of the “immanent frame.” Indeed, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our secular philosophy, and a biblically-derived spiritual realism brings forth a necessary perspective for Christians to understand and navigate the transcendent dynamics behind nations and nationalism.
Since nationalism involves the exaltation of a nation (or a particular conception of a nation) to the highest place of allegiance, concern, and devotion, it is essentially idolatrous, as several Christian critics of nationalism have observed. However, in the coming pages, I will argue that nationalism is inherently demonic as well.
Through an interdisciplinary analysis of scholarship on nationalism and Paul’s doctrine of powers, we will learn how the impulse behind nationalism is as ancient as the tower of Babel and as demonic as the worship of Baal. Indeed, when examined through the lens of biblical demonology, you will discover that there is little distinction between the ancient pagan’s worship of a national patron deity and the contemporary nationalist’s tendency to exalt a particular nation to a place of functional divinity.
I will be upfront with my goal. By the time you come the final page of this book, I want you to see that Christianity and nationalism are rival religions.
I write about nationalism, not as an armchair theologian with a political axe to grind. I write about nationalism because my experience as a pastor in the West Texas wilderness has led me to believe that nationalism—not atheism, not new age spiritualism, nor any other traditional world faith—is the greatest religious rival to the Christian gospel that vies for the worship of the people whom I love and serve in my congregation, my broader community, and, increasingly, my nation.
Praise for Why Do the Nations Rage?
“Why Do the Nations Rage? is a timely work, offering much pastoral and theological insight into the phenomenon of nationalism. Readers will benefit not only from Ritchie’s careful analysis but also from his thoughtful approach to the subject. Written with admirable clarity, his book demonstrates why Christianity should not be confused with nationalism.”
—Paul Jeon, Senior Pastor, New City Church
“Nationalism is a scourge on the global Christian church and the world. … For Christians, nationalism is a rival religion, demanding service and sacrifice. For the American church, that sacrifice is her integrity and global witness in exchange for culture-war victories—a Faustian bargain. With a theologian’s eye and pastor’s heart, Ritchie warns against the demonic idolatry of nationalism and shows us a better way.”
—Samuel L. Perry, Author of Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States
“David Ritchie has written a book for our times. Only in God’s providence could David’s passion for biblical truth, academic research, and love for disciples of Christ be channeled to serve us in our current cultural moment. I’m thankful for David’s pastoral insight, incisive wisdom, and kingdom conviction for the spiritual warfare around us—you will be too.”
—J. A. Medders, Author of Humble Calvinism
“Exploring both biblical antecedents and historical precedencies of nationalistic spirits over time, Ritchie calls attention to why nationalism is not only on the rise but also why it is seemingly irresistible—its source is what Ritchie names in unabashedly Pauline apocalyptic terms as the demonic powers of nations. Why Do the Nations Rage? is a timely call to an increasingly demi-Christian culture, lured by this subtle idolatry, to beware. Eye-opening.”
—Esther E. Acolatse, Knox College, University of Toronto
“Christian nationalism is a buzz phrase with a variety of meanings to different groups. David Ritchie takes a step back and defines and evaluates the phenomenon from a biblical and cultural perspective. The political left and right can attempt to use Jesus for political and national purposes, but David helps us see this is a dead end for biblical Christianity.”
—Dusty Thompson, Lead Pastor, Redeemer Church
About the Author
David A. Ritchie was born and raised in the West Texas wilderness city of Amarillo, where he serves as the Lead Pastor of Redeemer Christian Church. He holds degrees from Amarillo College, West Texas A&M University, and Reformed Theological Seminary. In addition to pastoring Redeemer, David is a part-time Instructor of Religion at West Texas A&M, an op-ed writer for the Amarillo Globe News, and a highly engaged leader in the Amarillo community. He serves on the boards of numerous non-profit organizations and ministries, including the Refugee Language Project and the Redeemer Network, and has also been an advocate for racial conciliation efforts in Amarillo.