I wanted to pick up on a comment made on Twitter by Matthew Mason who is a tutor in Christian ethics at London Seminary and honorary “Theologian at Large” for Evangelicals Now. Matthew wrote, reflecting on the Queen’s Jubilee weekend:
This provoked some sharp responses including:
Now, I’m not convinced that it is fair to accuse Mason of a form of religious nationalism, particularly because that often has connotations with the Far Right and with Racism. We need to be careful in taking a charitable approach to others. However, I can well understand the nervousness that there is around such comments.
This nervousness arises I think for the following reasons. First of all, because of who tend to talk in terms of nations having covenants with God and where I’ve seen that kind of thinking dominate has been among US Reconstructionist/Theonomist proponents. including notably Federal Visionists such as Doug Wilson. Secondly the nervousness about Christian nationalism arises because it is exactly this kind of language and thinking that Christian nationalists have drawn upon when seeking to present the United States as exceptionalist as uniquely the Christian nation.
It is the exceptionalism which makes such views dangerous and that’s where I suspect we can draw a distinction between what Mason is saying here and religious nationalists. Mason’s point is not that the UK is exceptionally or uniquely Christian but rather, that like other countries, it at a particular time opted to be a Christian country. That’s the basis for him talking in terms of a covenant.
As Daniel Blanche pointed out in the conversation, we also shouldn’t read the word “covenant” narrowly as referring only to the Covenant with Christ.
In that respect, to suggest that a country has a covenant relationship with God is not necessarily meant to be equated with the covenant God made with Israel. Although in that respect Matthew didn’t help clarity by endorsing a tweet that uses Jeremiah 50 to justify the concept of national covenants with God when the verses referenced are explicitly about Israel.
Matthew might be on firmer ground with his reference to Psalm 2:8 which talks about the nations being The Son’s inheritance and possession. We might legitimately conclude from this that the nations including Britain and America do belong to Jesus. Indeed, some people have suggested that when Jesus commissions his disciples, that the instruction is to make disciples of the nations rather than to make disciples from the nations.
I agree that the nations are indeed Christ’s inheritance. However, I believe that this is best understood eschatologically. It’s another way of reminding us that one day, every knee will bow at his name. It does not mean that specific nations will become primarily and uniquely Christian now. I certainly don’t think that this provides an argument for us seeking to enter Christian political parties into elections.
However, I do think that there are some further things to consider about implications for countries, including our own which I believe Matthew was rightly, if clumsily attempting to highlight. If God establishes government for our good (c.f. Romans 13) and if eschatologically, God is bringing about Christ’s reign over the nations then it seems to me a good thing when a country and its government seek to establish and live by the rules we find in Scripture, to value the things in public life that God values. In other words, there is an element of common grace at work.
We can see that when a country and its government choose to value integrity, truth telling, love of neighbour, compassion for the vulnerable, human dignity and value because we are made in the image of God so that life is protected from conception to death. We see the reverse when a country turns its back on those things and I think that we’ve seem harm for national life as our country has rejected this common grace.
If that’s what Matthew means, then whilst I would have said it very differently, I suspect that I’m in broad agreement with him. It’s not that one country can claim a special relationship with God as a nation. It’s that all nations do well to seek God’s Will and when they do, temporal life here and now is better for all of a nation’s citizens whether or not they believe in Jesus.