Moore to the Point
Hello, fellow wayfarers. Why Christian nationalism cannot make the world better … How the Russian army can serve as a warning for the church … What Batman and Superman have to do with Christian ethics and some folks tied to a trolley track … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.
Russell Moore
Christian Nationalism Cannot Save the World

Just as some North Americans are explicitly claiming the label of “Christian nationalism,” the ideology is advancing around the world.

The ongoing near merger of the Russian Orthodox Church with Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian government made headlines when the church’s patriarch declared that dying in Ukraine as part of Putin’s invading army “washes away all sins.” At the same time, yet another populist leader employing Christian nationalist rhetoric won an electoral victory in Italy.

With these in mind, perhaps the world’s evangelical Christians should remind ourselves that Christian nationalism can’t—and won’t—save the world.

Analyzing Giorgia Meloni’s win, commentator Damon Linker noted that her Brothers of Italy party—with roots in the World War II remnants of the fascist strongman Benito Mussolini’s political movement—has significantly moderated its rhetoric in recent years. Some might view that with suspicion given Meloni’s post-election speech in which she blamed “financial speculators” for robbing Italians of their roots and identity—language that throughout history has almost always been equated with Jews.

Regardless of just how illiberal the new Italian government might be, Linker calls attention to the demographics behind this electoral upset, which have implications for the rest of the Western world. The populist movement, as represented by the triumphant party, is cemented with a particular form of religion—namely, “those who declare themselves to be religious but are not practicing.”

For some people, such a category sounds like “those who declare themselves employed but have no income.” And yet, as historian Adam Tooze observes, this group is not just the largest segment but the majority of the Italian population—at 52 percent. They are the people, Linker writes, “who treat religion as a symbol or identity-marker without actually believing in or practicing it.”

Linker warns those who, like him, are on the center-left or center-right that if they cannot win back working-class people, they will continue to lose to populist and nationalist movements. But he also makes the case that no one can win if they cannot appeal to “the nominally religious.”

In terms of political science, Linker is no doubt correct. And even if democracy and global stability were the only things at stake, this would still be a debate worth having. For evangelical Christians, though, much more is at stake—namely, what we mean when we say “Christianity” in the first place.

The term Christian nationalism refers to the use of Christian words, symbols, or rituals as a means to shore up an ethnic or national identity. As with every other ideology, it exists along a spectrum.

On the (so far) less extreme end are people who, like the populist leaders in Italy and France and Germany, claim “Christianity” as a key aspect of their national or ethnic identity—and as a way to distinguish their group from those they define as outsiders (Muslims, “globalists,” etc.). At the more extreme end are people who make explicit theological pronouncements as a prop for ethnic and nationalist authoritarian illiberal aggression—as Russian Orthodox patriarch Kirill did in seeking to quell protests against the war by saying that “sacrifice in the course of carrying out your military duty washes away all sins.”

In terms of the world order, one side of the spectrum clearly does more immediate damage. Kirill’s comments are synonymous with, if not identical to, radical jihadist Muslim clerics telling suicide bombers that upon death they will be greeted by virgins in paradise. That sort of promise might not only motivate desperate people to commit atrocities against the testimony of their own consciences but also give unquestionable authority to those commanding such atrocities. Indeed, in the authoritarian’s view, such an alliance of religious and political authority seems to grant him the “keys of the kingdom,” where whoever is drafted on earth is drafted into heaven.

This dynamic is hardly new. In the Book of Revelation, the political power of the Beast is propped up by the False Prophet, “who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast” (Rev. 19:20). Revelation, after all, came to John amid a Roman Empire where the caesars claimed divine status for themselves.

Such hubris would be bad enough sociologically, but what if the Bible is right about hell? What if the judgment of God comes not just against nations but against individuals? And what if sin is defined as a lack of conformity not to the group or the country but to the holiness of God? What if Jesus was right when he said that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again” (John 3:3)?

If so, then Kirill’s claim that nationalist militarism can save a person is not just manipulative but blasphemous. It empowers not just national injustice but also personal damnation.

Additionally, the truth of the gospel according to Jesus means that less bloody forms of Christian nationalism are also one birth short of the kingdom of God.

Indeed, the argument of the entire New Testament is that people cannot stand before God on the basis of ethnic, cultural, or even moral solidarity (Luke 3:8–9; Col. 2:16–22). No one stands justified even by the works of the law given by God, much less by the flesh of one’s temporal ethnic or national identity (Gal. 3:15–16). Each person must be joined to Christ by personal repentance and personal faith—not by living in a culture conformed to some external definition of “Christian values.”

Jesus taught us that nothing coming in from the outside can defile a person; rather, it’s what is within a person’s heart that defiles him or her (Mark 7:14–23). That’s why he specifically walked away from those who wanted to use his gospel for political liberation (John 6:15) or for material prosperity (vv. 26–27).

Despite their self-perceived opposition to the social gospel of old, Christian nationalists embrace the exact same view of the gospel. For the social-gospel-oriented left wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with the upward progress of humanity. For the Christian nationalist right wing, Christianity exists to build a social order in step with national or ethnic identity. The gospel is the means for a forward-looking utopianism in the one case and a backward-looking nostalgia in the other. Christian nationalism is a liberation theology for white people.

And that’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Christian nationalism is a kind of Great Commission in reverse—in which the nations seek to make disciples of themselves, using Jesus’ authority to baptize their national identity in the name of the blood and of the soil and of the political order.

The gospel is a means to no other end than union with the crucified and resurrected Christ who transcends—and stands in judgment over—every group, identity, nationality, and culture.

Christian nationalism might well “work” in the short term by cementing bonds of cultural solidarity according to the flesh. Yet apart from the shedding of blood, there can be no forgiveness of sins. Apart from the Holy Spirit, there can be no newness of life.

Christian nationalism cannot turn back secularism, because it is just another form of it. In fact, it is an even more virulent form of secularism because it pronounces as “Christian” what cannot stand before the judgment seat of Christ.

Christian nationalism cannot save the world; it cannot even save you.

What the Russian Military Can Teach the Church

Several months ago, the Ukrainian government posted a video thanking a key country for giving them needed military equipment and supplies. That country was not the United States, nor was it any allied nation in NATO or the European Union.

The country was Russia, the very force brutally invading Ukraine in the first place. That’s because Russian soldiers were often fleeing, leaving behind ammunition, weapons, and even tanks.

Since the combat hasn’t turned into the total rout Russian strongman Vladimir Putin thought it would be, he is conscripting more and more Russian young men to fight in this illegal and unpopular war. That’s going to make the situation worse—and if the church can understand why, we might just have a clue as to the future of Christianity.

At the war’s onset, most of the Western world stood with Ukraine, but very few believed the noble Ukrainians could actually win. Many of us cheered for little old Ukrainian ladies giving Russian soldiers sunflower seeds as an act of protest and for those who projected Ukrainian flag images onto the Russian embassy in Washington—but we always knew we were rooting for the underdogs. Some of our doubt came from basing Russian strength on the size of its army, without paying attention to what happens when people are forced to fight for something they don’t really believe in.

Russia may still subjugate Ukraine, but not yet. The Ukrainians, after all, are fighting for something they love—for their land, for their freedom.

The Russians are fighting for … what? A malignant narcissist’s fantasies of a renewed Soviet Union? A show of nationalist strength against the United States and its allies? The bullying of a more defenseless neighbor? Such things do not move many people to sacrifice themselves or the lives of their children.

What does this have to do with the church?

In sociologist Grace Davie’s view, Christianity has shifted from a “conscript army” of cultural (identifying but not practicing) Christians—“large numbers of people involved whether they like it or not”—to a “professional army” of practicing Christians who “join voluntarily.” She concludes that “the professionals are rather more committed than the conscripts.” After describing Davie’s research, Bobby Duffy, in The Generation Myth, observes that American culture still has “a lot of ‘conscript’ rather than ‘professional’ attachment.”

I’m not sure this metaphor is quite accurate. The apostle Paul wrote, “No one serving as a soldier gets entangled in civilian affairs, but rather tries to please his commanding officer” (2 Tim. 2:4). The difference is not so much between conscripts and volunteers. It’s between those who, when the trumpet of battle is blown, so believe in what they’re fighting for that they leave everything else behind—and those who don’t.

Putin’s army is rich in resources and numbers, but they are faltering in will. No matter how much propaganda the Kremlin puts out, the Russian soldiers’ consciences tell them that what they are fighting for is, at the least, not worth the cost and, at the worst, a crime against humanity.

The church can thrive to some degree when those “drafted” into it by birth or by cultural expectations are not expected to sacrifice much. But when the call is to carry the cross, forced conformity is not enough. One must believe that, at the other end of the orders, there’s a kingdom worth fighting for and a Commander worth following.

Batman, Superman, and the Trolley Problem

Mark Russell is a skilled satirist and cultural commentator who writes comic books. His latest contribution is a limited series called Superman: Space Age, illustrated by Michael and Laura Allred, which is meant to parody the style of the Silver Age of comics. Set in the 1960s and ’70s in an alternate universe doomed to be destroyed in the Crisis on Infinite Earths, a catastrophic event from a 1985–86 DC Comics series, the books explore the questions raised by the Cold War, Vietnam, and the nuclear age.

The latest issue (Book 2) raised my interest when the plot suddenly veered into a philosophical discussion of the Trolley Problem. The conversation plays into the stereotypes of Clark Kent as the “Boy Scout” whose morality extends to ordering iced milk in a bar and of the darker, “more realistic” Bruce Wayne as Batman.

At a Justice League meeting, Superman wants to establish some basic moral principles for their work in saving the world. Wonder Woman starts with the principle that the heroes should not kill people. But Green Arrow argues that they kill people every day, “simply based on who we choose to save and not save.” He appeals to the Trolley Problem, common in ethics classes, in which a trolley is heading at top speed toward five people tied to the track. The only way to stop it and save their lives is to switch the track, knowing that it will kill a worker on the next track.

While Aquaman wonders what a trolley is, Batman reflects on the dilemma of trading five lives for one, thereby having a hand in that one’s death. He responds with certainty, “Yes, you should flip the switch, even if an innocent person dies.”

However, Batman’s answer is not based on weighing five lives against one. His intent is “to deny whoever tied them to that track whatever it was that they wanted. To let them know they failed. That they will always fail. Because in the long run that’s what saves lives.”

He reasons that the purpose of the exercise “is to make you consider to what extent you are willing to play God. But if you hold the power of life and death in your hands, then you’re not playing.”

Yet Superman argues that the hero in the problem should try to save them all. “Because even if you fail and end up sending five people to their deaths,” he says, “you remain the kind of person who will do whatever it takes to save six. The kind of person who refuses to play God, even though you have the power to. And in the end, that’s what saves the most lives.”

Far be it from me to question Batman, but the dilemma isn’t intended to make one consider whether to play God. The ultimate question is whether there is a God—and, beyond that, whether this God cares only about outcomes or also about the conscience behind those outcomes.

Batman’s reasoning is … well, reasonable. It makes sense to weigh out lives on the basis of relative worth. And it makes sense to act in ways that will intimidate one’s enemies in the hope of deterring future bad behavior. That’s why the way of Jesus sounds so absurd to us.

“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good,” the apostle Paul told the first-century Roman church (Rom. 12:21). If we really think about it, this is not reasonable at all—in terms of our human reasoning. That’s why the apostle prefaces this with the command to present our bodies as a living sacrifice. And it’s why he writes, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing, and perfect will” (v. 2).

Desert Island Bookshelf

This week’s submission comes from reader Kerry Magruder, who writes that it was fun to think through what to include here. Here’s Kerry’s list:

  • Bible. Goes without saying. Oh, to have a lifetime of silence to fully contemplate the 66 books herein!

  • Book of Common Prayer. Although I’m not an Anglican, this would be my prayer book. The BCP brings faith alive through its lively dialogue, shared in the communion of saints through the ages, comprised of an intricate interplay between Scripture passages, historic creeds, and countless prayers for every theme and mood and occasion. With the BCP, one is never confessing faith alone.

  • Thomas F. Torrance, The Trinitarian Faith. This classic exploration of the formation of the Nicene tradition, the mystery of faith, is articulated in a mode of faith seeking understanding. It is theology as doxology; to read it is to worship.

  • J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings trilogy (single-volume edition). The ultimate literature of hope triumphing over despair.

  • C. S. Lewis, Chronicles of Narnia (single-volume edition). A single-volume edition exists, although my old boxed set is pictured in the photo. Sometimes children’s literature says best what needs to be said. I’ve not included Lewis’s theological or scholarly books, as much as I appreciate them, because literature feeds the human heart in a way that discursive writing never can fulfill.

  • C. S. Lewis, Perelandra. A brilliant meditation on human flourishing, even if one were to be stranded as the only human present on an entire planet. If a single-volume edition of the Ransom Trilogy were available, I would choose that, in part because of the human-animal and human-nonhuman friendships portrayed in the other two volumes, Out of the Silent Planet and That Hideous Strength.

  • C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce. If Perelandra is a meditation on the founding story of the Garden of Eden, this book provides an imaginative vision of the future kingdom of heaven. If I could add a 13th volume, I might select Dante’s Divine Comedy. The Great Divorce encompasses the themes of the latter two parts of that trilogy, Purgatory and Paradiso, with a similarly compelling imaginative vision.

  • George MacDonald, Thomas Wingfold, Curate. I would want with me at least one book by George MacDonald. This one consists of about half sermons and about half dramatic story. The story demonstrates faith in action in difficult circumstances, and I would welcome such reminders that God is good regardless of my forsaken predicament.

  • Malcolm Guite, Sounding the Seasons. Living without poetry would be detrimental to my soul. These poems would be well worth memorizing in order to meditatively recite aloud. They would function as prayers throughout the cycles of the recurring years. Oh, but it’s hard to choose just one volume of poetry!

  • Chet Raymo, 365 Starry Nights. Stranded on an island below, I would want to become more at home with the stars above than ever before. This practical introduction to the night sky for the unaided eye incorporates allusions to history, literature, and science in its brief daily accounts of the stars visible each evening. There might be something to be said for selecting a more comprehensive guide to the stars, but I have read this book dozens of times already, and I believe I would not tire of its nightly guidance many, many more times again.

  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I’m tempted to include my whole shelf of nature guides or a one-volume equivalent, such as Anna Comstock’s Handbook of Nature Study, to teach me to live with eyes wide open to the wonders of the creatures below. Yet literature again (more than didactic field guides or purely scientific descriptions) can awaken me to observe with the eyes of the heart as well as the eyes of the forehead. So I will go with Dillard. Other nature literature, such as Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey, Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez, the collected works of Loren Eiseley, call out to me—but no matter how small the island I would discover myself to be inhabiting, it would clearly dawn on me before too long that my journey there is like that of a pilgrim, so I’ll go with Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In addition, no one writes more beautifully than Dillard.

  • Aristotle, Complete Works, vols. 1 and 2. My list omits entire sections of the library shelves! Where is the history? The science? The ethics or philosophy? Perhaps I should select the most comprehensive single-volume anthology of extracts from the history of science? Or a single comprehensive encyclopedia of current human knowledge that would be well worth rereading? What Aristotle has going for him is that, like an encyclopedia, everything is here—from biology and meteorology and chemistry to logic and rhetoric. But unlike an encyclopedia of current knowledge and better than having all the right answers, Aristotle inspires me as an exemplar of one who strives to observe carefully and think well across all aspects of life as a way of being. And while I shall often disagree, arguing with Aristotle would be enough to keep my mind sharp. Aristotle is a faithful, lifelong friend in that respect. (If this one title counts as two books, then I would try to find a one-volume edition.)

Thank you, Kerry!

Readers, what do you think? If you were stranded on a desert island and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you for the rest of your life, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of up to 12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of up to 12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

Do you people ever think or wonder how you’ll feel when the time comes you’ll have to meet God?

—Fannie Lou Hamer

Currently Reading (or Rereading)

James K. A. Smith, How to Inhabit Time: Understanding the Past, Facing the Future, Living Faithfully Now (Brazos)

Kim Haines-Eitzen, Sonorous Desert: What Deep Listening Taught Early Christian Monks—and What It Can Teach Us (Princeton University Press)

Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, The Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017–2021 (Doubleday)

Justin Ariel Bailey, Interpreting Your World: Five Lenses for Engaging Theology and Culture (Baker)

Currently Listening

A few days ago in his excellent newsletter (to which I think you should subscribe), my friend David French reposted the list of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, which I shared in last week’s newsletter. He included this cover of Mullins’s “Hold Me Jesus” by artists Jon and Valerie Guerra. I had never heard this version. Check it out.

Join Us at Christianity Today

Founded by Billy Graham, Christianity Today is on a mission to lift up the sages and storytellers of the global church for the sake of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Why don’t you join us as a member—or give a membership to a friend, a pastor, a church member, someone you mentor, or a curious non-Christian neighbor? You can do so here.

Ask a Question or Say Hello

The Russell Moore Show podcast includes a section of grappling with the questions you might have about life, the gospel, relationships, work, the church, spirituality, the future, a moral dilemma you’re facing, or whatever. You can send your questions to I’ll never use your name—unless you tell me to—and will come up with a groan-inducing pun of a pseudonym for you.

And, of course, I would love to hear from you about anything. Send me an email at if you have any questions or comments about this newsletter, if there are other things you would like to see discussed here, or if you would just like to say hello!

If you have a friend who might like this, please forward it, and if you’ve gotten this from a friend, please subscribe!

Russell Moore

P.S. You can support the continued work of Christianity Today and the public theology project by subscribing to CT magazine.

Christianity Today 465 Gundersen Dr. Carol Stream Il. 60188

*You are receiving this at because you are subscribed to Russell Moore's newsletter
If you would like to stop receiving member-only communication, click here to opt out of future email notifications.
Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr, Carol Stream, IL 60188, United States