In the wake of recent events in the United States, several have suggested that dispensational theology is at the root of an embrace of Christian nationalism. Few offer any substantive evidence beyond the charge, however. I want to offer three reasons I think this claim is inaccurate. 1) A misunderstanding of the distinctives of dispensationalism. 2) A failure to see that in church history, there has been far more symbiosis between covenant theology and seeing an integration between the church and the state. 3) A failure to appreciate the gamut of people who have appropriated aspects of dispensationalism into their otherwise incompatible systems.
Misunderstanding dispensational distinctives.
For too many people, when they hear the word dispensationalism, they think of eschatology. They believe it has primarily to do with end-time events, and of nailing down the prophetic calendar. I suggest this isn’t accurate, and any eschatology is derivative from the biblical teaching that Israel and the Church are two entities. Israel as a people had a covenant (given at Sinai) that the church is not part of. Further, there is a future for ethnic Israel. God is not finished with his promises to them. An ethnic Jew who puts faith in Christ today is a different thing than those promises. Such a thing is not a fulfillment of what Paul delineates in Romans 11.
One of the distinctives of dispensationalism is that the believer is not primarily a citizen of this earth, and working to set up a “Christian nation” is decidedly antithetical to this truth. The believer’s position is in heaven; we are seated with Christ in the heavenly places and our life is hidden with Christ in God. Given this, dispensationalists do not see the United States as a favored nation in God’s plan.
Which theological tradition has wanted more church in the state?
In harmony with this view of Christian position, the distinction between those under law, and those free from the law is another feature of dispensationalism. Yet it’s here especially where those opposed to dispensationalism have found a link that dispensationalists do not see. Covenant theologians, while affirming believers are not justified by the law, nevertheless affirm that the believer must live a life in conformity to the law. Heinrich Bullinger is perhaps the prime example of this admixture. He in fact said that God published no new covenant, but only a ratification of the old. Bullinger saw far more continuity between old and new covenants than dispensationalists would. He believed society should be conducted along the lines of biblical law (though he stopped short of capital punishment for heretics.) We should also remember that in the years surrounding the Reformation, were one to ask “Should society be governed along the lines of Scripture, should we have a ‘Christian nation?'”—the answer would have been “of course!” In short, Bullinger was not necessarily the odd man out (though he went further than some in his day.) Dispensationalism, with a view that the believer’s heavenly citizenship means earthly government is of secondary concern, is at odds with this.
In more recent history, theonomy (or Christian Reconstructionism) as propounded by teachers such as Rousas Rushdoony and Gary North, is very much in harmony with Christian nationalism — yet it is theologically opposite to dispensationalism. If theonomists had their way, the United States would absolutely be governed as a Christian nation, but this could not be tied to a single tenet of dispensationalism. I haven’t yet heard an explanation of the place of this movement—which grew out of Reformed theology—in terms of Christian nationalism. It is not the dispensationalist who quotes 2 Chronicles 7:14 to apply it to the United States. Rather, such a one would see that as applicable to Israel.
Populism is by nature, eclectic
Lastly, there are many who have adopted ideas they found in dispensationalism, but who, like theonomists, share little else with it. Some charismatic leaders (e.g., Jimmy Swaggart) have done this, but here, too, it is primarily eschatological ideas they are adopting. They rarely if ever expand on the believer’s relationship to the law, or the positional truths of the Christian being seated with Christ in the heavenlies.
It is indeed the case that some dispensational teachers gave way to date-setting, or looking for prophetic fulfillment in the newspaper. However, there is evidence of the opposite, too. There was no more solid a dispensationalist than the late J. Vernon McGee of “Thru the Bible” radio. Yet McGee was quite clear in his belief that the establishment of the state of Israel was no fulfillment of prophecy at all—because they were there in unbelief. (Again, Romans 11.)
Similarly, the late Harold Camping who began as Reformed, lapsed into date-setting. While Camping left the Reformed church, he could be styled a populist preacher, through his Family Radio broadcasts. His eclecticism would not allow anyone to designate him as a dispensationalist.
It is instead more accurate to describe evangelical populism as what gave rise to elements of Christian nationalism. The majority of those who support Christian nationalism are far more likely to operate on second-hand information, rather than doing their own research. They may follow popular preachers, or attend megachurches, but they are less likely to be students of either church history or Scripture. To suggest a close link between dispensationalism and evangelical populism is inaccurate. The fact is that dispensationalism is simply not that well-known or understand by the general Christian public. I’m not certain how many people are using the Scofield Reference Bible these days—but my guess is not enough to make a difference.