If This Is ‘Christian Nationalism,’ Sign Me Up!

The other day, Politico writer Heidi Przybyla appeared on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes” to talk about the hysteria de jour, “Christian nationalism.” Donald Trump, she explained, has surrounded himself with an “extremist element of conservative Christians,” who were misrepresenting “so-called natural law” in their attempt to roll back abortion “rights” and other leftist policy preferences. What makes “Christian nationalists” different, she went on, was that they believe “our rights as Americans, as all human beings, don’t come from any earthly authority.”
As numerous critics have already pointed out, “Christian nationalism” sounds identical to the case for American liberty offered in the Declaration of Independence. Then again, the idea that man has inalienable, universal rights goes back to ancient Greece, at least. The entire American project is contingent on accepting the notion that the state can’t give or take our God-given freedoms.
It is the best kind of “extremism.”
None of this is to say there aren’t Christians out there who engage in an unhealthy conflation of politics and faith or harbor theocratic ideas. It is to say that the definition of “Christian nationalism” offered by the people at Politico and MSNBC comports flawlessly with the mindset that makes the United States possible.
Conservatives often chalk up this kind of ignorance about civics to a declining education system. It’s not an accident. But even if progressives were fluent in the philosophy of natural rights, one strongly suspects she, like most progressives (and other statists), would be uninterested. It’s a political imperative to be uninterested.
If natural rights are truly inalienable, how can the government create a slew of new (positive) “rights” — the right to housing or abortion or health care or free birth control? And how can we limit those who “abuse” free expression, self-defense and due process if they are up to no good? You know, as President Joe Biden likes to say — when speaking about the Second Amendment, never abortion — no right “is absolute.”
The most telling part of Przybyla’s explanation, for example, was to concede that “natural law” had on occasion actually been used for good. When natural law is used to further “social justice,” it is legitimate, but when applied to ideas the Left finds objectionable (such as protecting unborn life), it becomes “Christian nationalism.”
It’s almost as if she doesn’t comprehend the idea of a neutral principle. It’s the kind of thinking that impels the media to put skeptical quotation marks around terms like “religious liberty,” but never around “LGBT rights” or “social justice” and so on.
It’s also true that the “Christian nationalism” scare is a ginned-up partisan effort to spook non-Christian voters. And, clearly, to some secular Americans, the idea that a non-“earthly authority” can bestow rights on humans sounds nuts. As a nonbeliever myself, I’ve been asked by Christians many times how I can square my skepticism of the Almighty with a belief in natural rights.
My answer is simple: I choose to.
“This is the bind post-Christian America finds itself in,” tweeted historian Tom Holland. “It can no longer appeal to a Creator as the author of its citizens’ rights, so [he] has to pretend that these rights somehow have an inherent existence: a notion requiring no less of a leap of faith than does belief in God.”
No less but no more. Just as an atheist or agnostic or irreligious secular American accepts that it’s wrong to steal and murder and cheat, they can accept that man has an inherent right to speak freely and the right to defend himself, his family and his property. History, experience and an innate sense of the world tell me that such rights benefit individuals as well as mankind. It is rational.
The liberties borne out of thousands of years of tradition are more vital than the vagaries of democracy or the diktats of the state. That’s clear to me. We still debate the extent of rights, obviously. I don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy, however, to understand that preserving life or expression are self-evident universal rights in a way that compelling taxpayers to pay for your “reproductive justice” is not.
John Locke, as far as I understand it, argued as much, though he believed that the decree of God made all of it binding. Which is why, even though I don’t believe my rights were handed down by a superbeing, I act like they are. It’s really the only way for the Constitution to work.
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David Harsanyi is a senior editor at The Federalist and the author of the book "First Freedom: A Ride Through America's Enduring History With the Gun."