Before There Was Christian Nationalism, There Was Christian Anarchism

Rejection of the state and the use of lethal force can be found in the founding documents of Christianity.


Around the turn of the third century, an African bishop named Tertullian mused about the relationship between Christians and the state. The previous century had seen a large number of Christians martyred for refusing to recognize Caesar as divine. A few seemingly small compromises with the empire could have relieved some of the pressure on this young religious movement that worshiped a man crucified under Roman authority. But Tertullian would have none of it: "Shall [we] make an occupation of the sword [as soldiers], when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword?…Shall he carry a flag, too, hostile to Christ?"

Tertullian would not be a good candidate for patron saint of Christian nationalism, if there were such a thing. But his questions arguably lead directly to Christian anarchism.

Stephen Wolfe, a Christian nationalist himself, has defined his movement's goal as a "totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ." In short, Christian nationalism would use the state to enforce religious values. Christian anarchism, by contrast, rejects the state and every use of lethal force. Its rallying cry is "no king but Christ."

Christian nationalism's roots began when the Roman emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 C.E.—though this predated the modern nation-state, so it isn't Christian nationalism as we usually think about it today. The nation-state would later contribute to the rise of theonomy, a Calvinist ideology holding that the state should enforce a certain understanding of God's law. Dominionism, a more broadly evangelical belief that Christians should dominate centers of power and influence, came later.

Although Christian anarchism's origin is often attributed to the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, its roots predate him—and Christian nationalism—by centuries. They begin with the New Testament itself.

Jesus went beyond the principle that it is immoral to initiate force, commanding his followers that they should turn the other cheek when attacked. The earliest Christians, drawing on this principle of nonviolence, saw the state as inherently violent and even demonic. In the Gospels, the devil tempts Jesus by offering him all political authority on earth, which he turns down. The Book of Revelation presents Satan as a seven-headed dragon with a crown on each head, giving ruling authority to a beastly creature that probably represented the Roman empire.

Christian anarchism's rejection of ethnic and nationalistic divisions is grounded in the Apostle Paul's Epistle to the Ephesians, where he presents the kingdom of God as a spiritual nation with no walls between Jews and gentiles. Though the anarchism of the early church is more separatist than the activist Christian anarchism of some later advocates, both approaches share a rejection of violence and a commitment to Jesus' words before the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate: "My kingdom is not of this world."

This commitment often led to death, as it did with the second century Scillitan martyrs. These twelve North African believers were tried in Carthage for the crime of being Christians. When called to swear a religious oath to Caesar, one was said to respond, "I recognize not the empire of this world; but rather do I serve that God whom no man hath seen, nor with these eyes can see."

In the intervening centuries, anarchist ideas have been found among self-proclaimed Christians of many different stripes. Anabaptists emerged during the Protestant reformation as a distinct movement that sought to go back to the New Testament way of living by rejecting military service. They were so committed to voluntary faith and freedom of religion that they rejected infant baptism and re-baptized adults, reasoning that babies cannot consent to be Christians. For this unfashionable view, many were given a "third baptism" by their religious enemies: They were taken by force and drowned. The movement's descendants include the Mennonites and the Amish, the latter of which could be described as proto-Agorists for their belief in separation and communal living.

Other "restorationist" movements, such as the Churches of Christ and the Jehovah's Witnesses, were founded on the idea that Christians should go back to a time before new ideas had led the church astray. Unsurprisingly, they also often rediscovered nonviolence and anti-statism. And in the 20th century, Catholic anarchism was represented inspiringly by Dorothy Day, who opened her home to the destitute, refused to pay federal income taxes, and was jailed for her activism.

Christian anarchism also left a significant mark on less conservative and less traditional Christians, such as the philosopher Jacques Ellul. Ellul reasoned in his 1988 book Anarchy and Christianity that anarchism "seems to be the position which [is] closest to biblical thinking."

Christian nationalists dream of going back to an earlier era, a time when civics and faith seemed inseparable. The response of the Christian anarchist is, "You're not going back far enough."