‘Christian Nationalism’ and the ‘Catholic Thing’

David G. Bonagura, Jr.: Beleaguered Christians, appalled by America’s moral collapse, seek ways to stem the tide. Catholics and other Christians represent the final obstacles preventing the victory of the secular Left.

“Christian Nationalism” has fast become a favorite boogeyman term of the cultural Left. Its precise meaning, as many have noted, is intentionally ambiguous so it can tar as many believing Christians as possible with toxic intentions. The most overreaching definition, which rocked the Internet before a minor retraction, claimed that Christian Nationalists are those who “believe our rights as Americans and as all human beings do not come from any earthy authority. They don’t come from Congress, from the Supreme Court, they come from God.”

That is, Christian Nationalists are guilty of believing the truth of our nation’s Declaration of Independence (“men have been endowed by their Creator”), which is neither a Christian nor a nationalist document.

Such a fatuous description betrays a seemingly paranoid fear that Christianity might again become a public force that shapes laws and customs. A restoration of how America used to function would inaugurate, in the words of a longtime opinion writer at a supposedly responsible newspaper, “the peril of the theocratic future toward which the country has been hurtling.”

In calmer words, “Christian Nationalism” concerns the role that Christianity plays in American public life, culture, and law. Those lamenting it care nothing about Christian claims for the Triune God, the Virgin Birth, or the Resurrection. They fix their disdain on Christian moral teachings that oppose their creed of expressive individualism, which enshrines the Sexual Revolution as the first article.

Christianity, and Catholicism in particular, are the final obstacles preventing total victory. Yet, from the rewriting of marriage and family law to the sudden rush to enshrine IVF as a human right, it’s clear that expressive individualism has long had “Christian Nationalism” on the run.

Beleaguered Christians of all denominations, appalled by America’s moral collapse, have been seeking various ways to stem the tide. Public life, culture, and law are all expressions of a deeper vision, whether religious or secular, that a people hold in common.

For Christian morality to again direct American life, Americans would need not only to call themselves Christian, but they also would have to believe what they claim. For that, we need the slow, grinding work of guerilla evangelization. Top-down impositions by a “Christian government” or otherworldly power will not work.

Plus, given the GOP’s meager post-Dobbs opposition to abortion and its instant capitulation to IVF, progressives need not fret: “Christian Nationalists,” Twitter blusters aside, have little appetite for a government takeover.

As America severs more of its Christian roots, Catholics need not lose hope. We have been doing our “Catholic thing” – living out our universal faith in the particular historical context of America – for centuries, and almost always under duress. We forget that even when American law and culture embodied Christian morality – abortion was illegal, divorce was fault-based, pornography curtailed, adultery criminalized – Catholics were not entirely welcome in these United States because the reigning culture rejected their religious sensibilities.

Working within the law, Catholics responded by building their own neighborhoods, churches, schools, and universities where they could live their faith unencumbered. At the same time, Catholics found ways to participate in the general culture as Americans – through military service, civil and public offices, and working in industry.

Discrimination was rampant and nasty, yet Catholics fought the hostility as a creative minority. They prayed, they imagined, they built, they stuck together, they engaged rivals, and they offered charity to all.

“Creative minority” is a term coined by British historian Arnold Toynbee, who recognized how a small group’s spiritual vision can breathe new life into a dying civilization. Twenty years ago, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger baptized the term to articulate an approach to re-evangelize secular Europe. As Pope Benedict XVI, he identified three requirements for Catholics living as a creative minority: dialogue with agnostics, education, and charity.

In other words, the success of a creative Catholic minority today also depends on imitating the works of American Catholics in the early twentieth century, with today’s agnostics replacing yesterday’s Protestants.

Then as now, American Catholics felt uneasy in the land they loved. Balancing the “both/and” of maintaining a strong Catholic identity with engaging non-Catholic society has never been an easy feat – internal retreat or total assimilation are perennial temptations.

Individual Catholics and the Church institutions did not strike the balance properly every time, but the rise of Catholicism as a creative force – from Archbishop Fulton Sheen on television to the rise of Catholic schools and universities to the spread of Catholic hospitals and charities all over the country – enriched American culture. It’s no coincidence that when the American Church buckled after Vatican II, American culture collapsed with it.

Today, after decades of barrenness, seeds of a Catholic springtime are growing – admittedly, in unfertile soil. Among a small segment of believers, a strong Catholic identity is being rebuilt through homeschooling and classical schools, faithful colleges, online institutes, zealous young priests, and pious liturgies. The American Church once succeeded culturally beyond the dreams of her nineteenth-century trailblazers. And with her distinct identity reconstituted, she can blossom again as a creative minority that redeems the culture from within.

If “Christian Nationalism” means that Catholics cannot live their religious and moral creed publicly, or that Christian principles, as opposed to secular ones, cannot shape law and policy, then Catholics must fight this bigotry. But if “Christian Nationalism” means “government takeover” as critics allege, then Catholics are not interested. Perennial outsiders to American government and power, Catholics already know how to live their “thing” in these United States.

We look to our American Catholic forebearers for models, inspiration, and intercession.


David G Bonagura, Jr.

David G. Bonagura Jr. an adjunct professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary and is the 2023-2024 Cardinal Newman Society Fellow for Eucharistic Education. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church, and the translator of Jerome’s Tears: Letters to Friends in Mourning.

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