Nationalism in Earliest Christianity

In the last several years, nationalism has unexpectedly re-emerged as a subject of meaningful debate on the American Right. The understandably contentious exchanges on the topic have largely turned on two points: a) what is “nationalism” in the first place, and b) should we encourage and pursue it as a political and cultural objective? Indeed, the definition alone has proven sticky, even when it is a straightforwardly secular nationalism at issue. Alas, tacking on the adjective “Christian” only compounds the trouble. Even so, serious-minded Catholics, Protestants, and even Jews have taken a nationalist turn grounded in their religious ideals, looking to their respective historical precedents for support.

Take two recent exponents. Appealing to the broad sweep of Western culture and political experience as far back as the Hebrew Bible itself, Yoram Hazony has championed nationalism as the basis for a world order superior to imperialism, cosmopolitanism, or globalist internationalism.[1] In this model, each nation is left to pursue its own goods while leaving other nations free to pursue their own goods in turn. Recently, in the present publication, Brad Littlejohn has described Protestant political insights in the Reformation era with similar ideological ends in mind.[2] Nationalism, we are told in both cases, not only offers an ideal animating ethos in secular terms, but it can also draw support from Western religious traditions. However, Hazony’s argument—at least where it intersects with antiquity generally and the Hebrew Scriptures in particular—suffers substantial omissions, which exceed the scope of this essay.[3] For his part, while Littlejohn’s narrower invocation of Protestant political theology and experience is both more precise and (for that same reason) more interesting, its focus necessarily lacks engagement with earlier periods of Christianity which, as will be seen in this essay, offer a political theology disconsonant with nationalism.

To wit, we hear surprisingly little from Christian nationalists about what early Christianity, from the New Testament to Constantine, might have to say about nationalism. Given the at least nominal deference most Christians affirm for their ancient roots, one would have thought that insights from antiquity might have entered the fray sooner. Can ancient perspectives speak to the present moment? If so, what do they say?

Interview With The Empire

Were you to put the question of nationalism to an ancient Christian, you would quickly run into definitional confusion. In antiquity, the terms of national identity like natio, gens, genos, or ethnos referred to identifiable people groups with their own culture, customs, dress, gods, and often languages. Prior to Late Antiquity (c. 284–700 AD), the terminology of nationhood usually conveyed intransigent characteristics of family and blood (at risk of Latin pedantry, natio connotes natus, “birth,” which alone makes our use of the word “nationalism” rather discomfiting to Latinists overhearing the current debate in the American context).[4] Put differently, whereas our English word “nation” often slides into concepts of polity or statehood, theirs was connected to notions of ethnicity. Lacking any united polity, the Gauls were arguably still a nation. Despite their diaspora across the Mediterranean world, the Jews were also clearly a nation.[5] As often is the case with ethnicity, the ancient conceptual boundaries of nation and identity of origin could be fairly flexible, and even involve comparatively small units by our standards, like cities.[6]

After clearing the definitional hurdles, an ancient Christian might then display alarm at the prospect of encouraging nationalism politically. We can anticipate a few reasons. First, there were indeed outbreaks of such nationalism in the Roman era, and, of course, they ran afoul of the imperial program. A slightly later interlocutor like Eusebius, for example, would wryly point out to you that the clearest instances of Jewish nationalism had been less than a smashing success.[7] Nationalism, in other words, was impractical and likely to create more destruction than anything for all parties involved. On rather different grounds, other Christians would insist to you—as they did in trials before their confused Roman judges—that their shared identity in Christ made them all into a kind of nation of their own.[8] While some modern scholarship has noted with suspicion this “ethnic reasoning” in Christian identity, observant readers of Paul will immediately see the continuity with his own thought in passages like Romans 11. That is to say, early Christians might worry that our nationalist frameworks smack of ideological competition to more fundamental Christian identity: that there already is a Christian “nation,” one not coterminous with a state or ethnicity.

Even if we extend the definition of nationalism more widely to include the Roman empire, we are quickly snagged on other conceptual brambles. In one sense, yes, ancient Christians could have conceived of a Roman nation, or even the shared Romanitas of the empire’s elites, but that would have referred to those who dressed like Romans, possessed citizenship under Roman law (not universal until 212 AD), spoke Latin, worshiped Roman deities, and (ideally) had some sort of connection to other such Romans by birth. The last point is especially sticky because part of Rome’s political genius came in its syncretic capacity for assimilation. Yet even for Christians with a clearer stake in the empire and its institutions, it is unlikely that many thought of themselves chiefly as Romans. Think again of Paul, who regularly identifies himself as a Jew first and foremost, then as a product of Tarsus, then finally as a Roman citizen.[9]

Early Christianity’s Political Polarities

Viewing it through the broadest possible lens, the New Testament itself manages to hold two different perspectives together at once. Striking an oppositional tune, John 18 (Jesus vs. Pilate), Ephesians 6:12 (“powers and principalities”), and the shocking, anti-establishmentarian imagery of Revelation suggest the earliest Christians were no patsies for the empire and its social norms. Conversely, careful readers of the New Testament will also notice the ethos of Mark 12:17 and parallels (“Render unto Caesar”), Romans 13:1 (“Be subject to the governing authorities”), or 1 Peter 2:17 (“Honor the emperor”), nor will they miss the decidedly temperate attitude toward the empire throughout the book of Acts.

We would do well to approach the New Testament with a deeper appreciation for its ambivalence. By and large, the first Christians do not appear to have been eager to make political waves one way or the other, as we normally define politics. Moreover, we should recognize this ambivalence continued into the Patristic era. Consider just two of the more famous church fathers from the third century: Tertullian (our earliest Latin father) and Origen (arguably the greatest Christian intellectual of that era). Tertullian can be bitter and sarcastic in his assessment of the empire and its common culture, and the famous martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas suggests Tertullian’s community in North Africa knew all about anti-Christian violence. When we read between the lines of his On the Resurrection 22, it becomes apparent that Caesar and the persecutors have eschatological judgement coming, as Tertullian references passages like 1 Corinthians 15:25 and Revelation 18: all enemies have yet to be put under Christ’s feet; “Babylon”—Rome—has yet to fall; therefore, Christ’s final victory still lies ahead. Contrast this with Origen’s glowing assessment of Augustus in his treatise Against Celsus 2.30. Origen leaves no doubt that God has used the empire to bring about greater comity in the world, stopping the intra-Mediterranean violence that preceded Roman hegemony, such as (to use Origen’s own example) the Peloponnesian War. Whatever theological faults his critics have found, Origen was certainly not naïve about Christianity’s place in the world: he reportedly lost his own father to martyrdom as a boy, and later in his own life suffered torture as a confessor.

From what we can gather from our sources, there was probably no detailed, uniform political theology in the early church, but the overarching impression is that this small, rigorist sect was able to hold together two ostensibly incompatible elements in its theological nucleus: a) the empire has fierce judgement coming, and b) God has ordained the empire for good. Such a political paradox has obvious precedents in the Prophets, in which God can proclaim judgment against the empires that war against Israel while simultaneously claiming that they are servants doing His will (e.g., “Nebuchadnezzar my servant” in Jeremiah 27:6).

The Historical Salience of Christianity in Rome

Overall, then, one rather doubts nationalism would have won over many of the earliest Christians. At this point, some may complain that focusing on pre-Constantinian Christianity inevitably creates a skewed portrait of political theology. After all, most of Christian history happened after Constantine and the Theodosians oversaw the gradual conversion or “Christianization” (to use the academic jargon) of the empire. Would it not be more sensible to focus on the post-Constantinian church’s relationship to nationalism? Let us suggest two points of consideration for those skeptical of the value of pre-Constantinian retrieval for political theology.

First, there was indeed something approximating a Christian nationalism in the Roman empire, but it came later in what we often call the Byzantine era. In fact, not least after the political crises and economic implosions of the seventh century, a decidedly ethnic identity, the Rhomaioi, emerged out of this moment, closely-aligned with Orthodoxy.[10] Like all such systems, Byzantium’s arrangement had both virtues and vices in how it organized politics and religion. For instance, Jews would have much preferred the legal rights afforded them in Byzantium to, say, fifteenth-century Spain during the heights of the Inquisition. It is no exaggeration to say that the Late Roman Byzantine empire was the first modern state, with a complex legal code, large administrative bureaucracy, and professional army. By any fair standard, Byzantium was an impressive, long-lived success, one that beat or survived the vast majority of its rivals.

But this came with side effects. In the long term, the empire’s history suggests that when greater centralization and unity were achieved—culminating in a coherent Christian national identity—other parts of society paid a concomitant price, like the emperors’ meddling in religious affairs, ascendant statism, and the diminishment of local autonomy.[11]

Consider a few examples from Byzantine Christianity. In the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor (though vindicated by later tradition) suffered shocking mutilation as a heretic for his resistance to imperially-backed monothelitism (the heretical belief that Christ has one personal will, rather than two wills pertaining each to His human and divine natures). In the ensuing centuries, the long-running contest over icons also appears instigated largely by the emperors themselves, whose doctrinal preferences shifted from monarch to monarch. Advocates of Christian nationalism concerned with the erosion of local communities, the imposition of cultural conformity, or the rise of cosmopolitan, global elite should ponder these examples carefully.

Second and relatedly, there is good reason to look again at the lessons of Roman history in the pre-Constantinian era as our own culture appears poised to “de-Christianize.” In short, the empire is more like Rome than we generally appreciate. During the principate (i.e., before Diocletian’s rise in 284 AD), the empire was a far more federal-local arrangement than we usually appreciate.[12] Cities and the surrounding agricultural hinterlands that provided the economic base generally ran themselves without direct oversight of the emperor. Costly and undesirable, autocratic micromanagement was basically out of the question in this context. As long as the local elites kept affairs in order and upheld the tax burden, emperors usually contented themselves to leave well enough alone.

Is the early Roman empire so different from the contemporary United States? Some historians like Colin Woodard have argued that the United States is itself better understood as a composite of multiple “nations” with perhaps as many as eleven identifiable, regional subcultures, which is not even to mention the real ethnic diversity contained in each of these subcultures.[13] If Woodard’s Eleven-Nations model is a better heuristic for understanding the United States and its many problems, then we are living in a polity not so unlike the early Roman imperial structure, and all the more so as de-Christianization feeds into pluralism. The core political challenge that Rome had to handle is largely the same one Americans wrestle with today: how to keep a large, diverse conglomeration of peoples and subsidiary institutions together under one government. There is an irony here: for as much as we might desire nationalism, we may be living in something that many in history would recognize as an empire. Nor should we ourselves overlook the more recent history, where oft-derided internationalist organizations like the E.U. or U.N. would have been impossible without projection of American power in the twentieth century. Whatever we make of it today, the international world order owes its existence partly to American successes.[14]

Thus, if American Christians—or Americans generally—need analogues to think through, they could do worse than Roman history. Interesting—and perhaps even laudable—as the cases of nationalism from the Reformation may be, examples like Elizabethan England, with a population of just several million, do not easily scale up to the contemporary United States. In fact, they are even dwarfed by the much earlier states of Byzantium (around 20–30 million) and Rome (50–60 million) at their height.

What this history means for our own approach to politics and the wider culture is of course much harder. In any case, the early Christian example would generally not advise dropping out of the wider culture and falling back into Rod Dreher’s neo-Benedictine withdrawal: an attractive, well-intentioned caricature but one too untethered from the early medieval reality of monasticism to be of much use.[15]

More positively, how did early Christians envision interaction with their society? One feature that they probably took for granted was localism: for the vast majority of people, life would have been defined by their village or city and the face-to-face interactions therein, not what was happening away in the capital or on the frontiers. Where potentially noxious imperial institutions were more visible in appendages like taxation and the army, any Christian annoyance tended not to be demonstrative. As Justin Martyr reminded one emperor, Jesus had instructed his followers to pay their taxes, which they did, and to “cheerfully serve you regarding other matters.”[16] And while some Christian intellectuals expressed pointed distaste for the army, we do find evidence of other Christians in the military, which in all might suggest more of the wary ambivalence discussed above. Finally, if the early apologists like Justin and Aristides offer any clues, Christian interaction with the wider society was to be defined by probity of character, appealing to the pagan world’s own higher ideals, like sexual continence and hospitality.[17] “So let your light shine before people,” Jesus had taught, “so that they might see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

With those ends in mind, the ancient Christian approach would also advise against Machiavellian power-grabs or cultural revolutions imposed from the top down. To the ancient Christian, these probably would have seemed like an odd distraction at best and diabolically poisonous at worst. This is not to assert that all instances of coordination between church and polity have always proven absolute, irredeemable failures. It is, however, to propose that they may not be the most salient examples at present, and that contemporary Christians might all find a bit more peace if they look again at their oldest forebears.

Andrew Koperski is a doctoral candidate in ancient history at The Ohio State University. His fields of focus include Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, and Byzantium. Much of his current research examines the formation of the biblical canon and the reception of apocryphal literature.

  1. Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018).

  2. Brad Littlejohn, “The Freedom of a Christian Nation,” Ad Fontes 4, no. 1 (2019):

  3. To mention just one, Hazony’s reading of the Hebrew Scriptures leaves out troubling passages where the default nationalist order as he defines it goes hand-in-hand with the nations’ idolatry (Deut. 32:8–9, Ps. 58 and 82, Dan. 10:13), or where God explicitly enjoins national obedience to an external, imperial power (Ps. 2, Jer. 27:17).
  4. Later, ethnos can refer to an administrative unit within the empire.

  5. For an excellent example from the pre-Roman period, see how the Athenians describe their shared kinship with other Greeks despite the lack of a shared government in Herodotus’ Histories 8.144.

  6. See Ralph Mathisen, “‘Roman’ Identity in Late Antiquity, with Special Attention to Gaul: Early Medieval Regions and Identities,” in Transformations of Romanness, ed. Walter Pohl et al., Vol. 71, Millennium Studies (Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2018), 255–74.

  7. Ecclesiastical History 2.6, 3.5–8.

  8. See examples of this ethnic reasoning (as well as the modern misgivings) in Denise Kimber Buell, Why This New Race: Ethnic Reasoning in Early Christianity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).

  9. See Paul’s self-identifications in Acts 21:37–22:29.

  10. Anthony Kaldellis, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 30–31.

  11. One accessible survey of this process is provided by John Weisweiller, “Roman Aristocracy between East and West: Divine Monarchy, State-Building and the Transformation of the Roman Senatorial Order (c. 25 BCE–425 CE),” in New Approaches to the Later Roman Empire, ed. T. Minamikawa (Kyoto: Kyoto University, 2015), 31–51.

  12. Keith Hopkins, “Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire (200 B.C.–A.D. 400),” The Journal of Roman Studies 70 (1980): 121.

  13. Colin Woodard, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America (New York: Penguin Books, 2012).

  14. N.B. Rome called many of its imperial subjects “allies.”

  15. This is of course a reference to Rod Dreher’s bestselling book The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (New York: Sentinel, 2017).

  16. First Apology 17.1.

  17. See Aristides’s Apology 25.


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