Why Do the Nations Rage? An interview with David A. Ritchie

David Ritchie
Monday, March 7th 2022

Joshua Schendel (JS): A good place to start is with your reasons for writing Why Do the Nations Rage: The Demonic Origin of Nationalism. I’d like to ask that question, though, by noting the quite bold (perhaps even incendiary) subtitle of the book: “the demonic origin of Nationalism.” Let me be frank: Is that just a clever marketing ploy to attract readers, or do you really think this topic so serious a matter?

David Ritchie (DR): Your question is a fair one. I admit the subtitle may come across as combative or exaggerative to some readers. I also certainly understand why many people would not intuitively connect the seemingly disparate academic fields of nationalism studies and Christian demonology!

However, my subtitle is not intended as a commercial gimmick or marketing ploy. “The Demonic Origin of Nationalism” is essentially a distillation of the book’s central claim. I am sincerely inviting my readers to discern the spiritual aspects and agencies within nationalist movements. By characterizing nationalism as a spiritual threat to the church, I want to show that this topic deserves serious theological reflection and attention from pastors, theologians, biblical scholars, and thoughtful Christians.

JS: Your analysis of nationalism comes from a specific perspective. You don’t offer so much a sociological or historical account of nationalism. Can you explain your angle of approach to it in this book and why you took it?

DR: I personally know and love people who have been swept into Q-Anon conspiracies, specious political prophecies, and some of the more extreme and militant expressions of contemporary nationalist ideology. I’ve witnessed the bitter resentment and division that nationalism can breed within families and church congregations, especially in this last season of the global pandemic and political animosity within the United States. So my interest in nationalism is not casual or merely speculative. My book is motivated from a place of pastoral concern, and it is intended primarily as a work of pastoral theology.

Since nationalism is a deeply felt reality in my ministerial context, I began looking into the research on nationalism by several leading sociologists and historians. However, I felt there also needed to be a pastoral assessment of nationalism that utilized explicitly biblical and theological categories. The social sciences can (and do) offer many needed common grace insights regarding nationalism, but I believe Scripture reveals a crucially vital perspective that the social sciences are not capable of seeing—namely, the spiritual powers that motivate and animate nationalism.

Moreover, there is a particularly strong correlation between Christian nationalism in America and more Pentecostal expressions of Christianity. This association, which was a reality that I experienced and witnessed in my own childhood, is confirmed by recent sociological surveys.

By emphasizing this spiritual perspective, I hope my book will provoke the interest of readers who come from that same background and might be more prone to the siren call of Christian nationalism. In other words, I pray the focus on “principalities and powers” would function as a bridge that appeals to and engages some of the readers that I most want to persuade concerning the spiritual dangers of Christian nationalism.

JS: You state at the outset of the book that you want to convince people that Christianity and Nationalism are “rival religions.” In section IV, you take up the articles of the apostles creed in an attempt to demonstrate how nationalism “subverts” and “supplants” those main tenets “with its own parodistic beliefs.” So, how do you define nationalism, such that, as you put it, to be a “Christian nationalist” is “just as oxymoronic as ‘Yahwist Baal worshiper?’”

DR: My method of examining nationalism within the categories of Christian theology is indebted to J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity & Liberalism. Machen sought to distinguish Christianity and theological liberalism as fundamentally different religions, even though both Christianity and liberalism often used the same terminology. I believe that a similar dynamic is at play between Christianity and nationalism.

I define nationalism as the exaltation of a nation to a place of ultimate concern to which all other loyalties and allegiances must be subordinated. If patriotism is a rightly ordered love for one’s nation, nationalism is when that love is twisted into idolatry. Thus, nationalism is not primarily a political ideology, per se, but rather a species of religion. Nationalism is a religion uniquely befitting of a secular age in which a nation or a particular political vision of a nation is worshipped as a functional god.

With that said, nationalism is also a profoundly variegated phenomenon. Ethnic forms of nationalism are defined by a shared race and culture. Civic forms of nationalism are defined more by a shared political ideology. However, nationalism is not necessarily unique to any one ethnicity, ideology, or period of history. I illustrate this in the book by providing examples of nationalism from various nations and historical eras. As there were many iterations of Baal worship in the ancient Levant, the various ways that the idolatry of nationalism can manifest are legion.

However, what I believe unities all forms of nationalism is that they appeal to and seek to elicit a religious level of devotion from their adherents. Those religious affections are often enflamed by various ways that nationalism commandeers and appeals to traditionally Christian categories of theology. As the book shows, even vastly different visions of nationalism seem to universally utilize messianic characterizations of political leaders, appropriate a redefined doctrine of election, and cast eschatological visions of dread or hope.

Christian nationalism, then, is best understood as a form of religious syncretism, wherein aspects, concepts, and language of the Christian gospel is conflated with an idolatrous worship of nation. In this regard, I argue that Christian nationalism is just as oxymoronic as Yahwist Baal worship precisely because Christianity and nationalism offer opposing objects of ultimate concern. However, the God who is our Creator and Redeemer tolerates no rivals.

Thus, while many secular critics view the primary threat of Christian nationalism as national politics becoming too influenced and shaped by Christian dogma, I have the exact opposite concern as a Christian pastor. The far greater menace of Christian nationalism is that many Christians are allowing their faith to be molded by their political allegiances into something that is quite different than Christianity.

JS: The argument of parts II and III of your book seems to rely on the “cosmic geography” or “Deuteronomy 32 worldview” reading of several significant Old Testament texts, recently made popular in the writings of Michael S. Heiser and others. You note throughout those sections that there are dissenting views to this reading. Does the argument of your book—the specific connection you draw between the “powers” and the “nations”—hinge upon this “Deuteronomy 32 worldview” reading?

DR: A major lynchpin of my argumentation does rely on a connection between Paul’s understanding of “principalities and powers” and the gentile nations. Along with this line of thought, I find the proponents of “cosmic geography” rather persuasive, and I do think that Deuteronomy 32:8–9 offers particularly helpful insight to Paul’s background understanding of the “principalities and powers.”

With that said, the connection between powers and nations can be observed in the writings of Paul independent of any Old Testament reference point. Paul presents the spiritual tyranny of the powers as being coordinated with the division between Jew and gentile (cf. Eph 2:1–2; 11), and when Christians of the nations are included within the covenant community of God’s people, it is a display of the manifold wisdom of triumph to those powers (cf. Eph 3:10; Col 2:15). Moreover, the powers are revealed to be diligently working to seduce Christians into elevating their ethnonational allegiance or cultural ideologies above the sufficiency and supremacy of Christ (cf. Col 2:8–23). It is not a stretch to acknowledge how this spiritual dynamic that Paul describes may be associated with what we often refer to today as nationalism.

Thus, while I believe the “Deuteronomy 32 worldview” certainly enriches and adds fascinating depth to Paul’s doctrine of powers, it is not necessary to subscribe to the “Deuteronomy 32 worldview” to observe a strong biblical association between nationalist devotion and spiritual forces that are at enmity with Christ and his people.

More importantly, I think the notion of “cosmic geography” unveils another layer of Christ’s triumph over the powers. By his resurrection and ascension, Christ has delegitimized the authority the powers once held over the peoples of the world. Many of those who were once under the cosmic tyranny of anti-god spiritual forces are now being included into the people of God. Because Christ has been given all authority in heaven and earth—an authority he reclaimed from the powers—disciples can now be made from all nations (Matt 28:19).

JS: The final section of this book, V, attempts to chart a way forward for American Christians. It is pastorally sensitive in tone, and offers salutary reflections on important New Testament themes related to spiritual warfare and Spiritual fruits. But I still found myself wondering whether there might be some who are tempted to use a book like this—quite contrary to your intentions—to ‘demonize’ those they think guilty of this type of nationalism. Can you help us think through how Christians ought to engage with other Christians on this hot button issue?

DR: I firmly believe that shame is a terrible motivator that rarely leads to true repentance or transformation. So, with the utmost sincerity, I do not want my book to shame or demonize fellow believers who are susceptible or sympathetic to nationalist affections. Truly, we do not wrestle with flesh and blood. Our contest, then, is not against our fellow image-bearers—or fellow brothers and sisters in Christ—but rather spiritual rulers and authorities; with powers and principalities.

However, while Christ has most certainly defeated the powers through his redemptive accomplishment, those powers are still at work in the world, and they are capable of deluding and deceiving the people of God. Thus, my hope in writing this book is not to demonize fellow believers but rather to name and unmask a genuine spiritual threat to the people of God in the present age. To be sure, nationalism is not the only threat or idolatrous ideology threatening the church. However, it is a threat—and a threat that is particularly felt in my pastoral context.

When I was much younger, I was exposed to environments that were very prone to expressions of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” My sense is that in the last few decades, by the grace of God, the prosperity gospel has waned in influence, largely as the result of compelling biblical, theological, and pastoral critiques. In a similar regard, I hope Why Do the Nations Rage? would serve as at least one source that exposes the demonically idolatrous aspects of nationalism, not for the sake of demonizing fellow Christians, but for the sake of pointing them to place their ultimate love and highest allegiance to a true and better kingdom that knows no end.

JS: Thank you, David, for your labors on this book. It has proven to be a provocative and thoughtful read on a really important issue of our time.

David A. Ritchie (M.A.R., Reformed Theological Seminary) serves as the Lead Pastor of Redeemer Christian Church and an Instructor of Religion at West Texas A&M University. He is an op-ed writer for the Amarillo Globe News (part of the USA Today Network) and the author of Why Do the Nations Rage? The Demonic Origin of Nationalism. David and his wife Kate have three sons and live in Amarillo, Texas. You can follow David on Twitter @DavidARitchie and on Instagram @DavidAustinRitchie.

Joshua Schendel is the executive editor of Modern Reformation magazine and an author at Conciliar Post. He lives with his beloved wife, Bethanne, and three children in Southern California.

Monday, March 7th 2022

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