The Case For Christian Nationalism: A Review and Rebuttal
“Then the seventh angel sounded; and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and his Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.’” – John of Patmos, Revelation 11:15 (NASB)
Reflecting on the global rise of totalitarian regimes in the 1930’s and 40’s, two of the world’s most imminent political philosophers, F.A. Hayek and George Orwell, wrote about authoritarian leaders accumulating power through the politicization of language. Orwell labeled the manipulation of words for political ends ‘newspeak’, and Hayek entitled a chapter in his legendary The Road to Serfdom ‘The End of Truth’, in which he describes the rhetorical and linguistic appropriation of commonly accepted words and concepts to convince citizens to support policies that are antithetical to their social and political values.
To put it bluntly, the redefinition of language for political purposes is nothing new.
The term ‘Christian nationalism’ is one of those nebulous phrases in the contemporary political lexicon. Progressives now use the language of ‘Christian nationalism’ to describe almost any social or political idea with which they disagree. They apply the term not only to Republican politicians who want to seize the reins of power, but also to specific policy positions (criticism for federal Covid policies or the proxy war in Ukraine, for example) and even privately held traditional religious beliefs. Just like ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’, ‘Christian nationalism’ is a cudgel wielded by leftists to browbeat any idea they find offensive. The right, of course, is no more precise. ‘Christian nationalism’ means everything from wanting to maintain tax-exempt status for churches or ensuring that Christian bakers don’t have to bake cakes for same-sex weddings to full-blown Christo-fascists who want to impose Constantinian Christendom on the United States.
For rhetorical and political clarity, we need a stable, comprehensive definition of ‘Christian nationalism’. Without it, any conversation on the subject is doomed to an endless cycle of subjective projection.
This is why Stephen Wolfe’s new book The Case for Christian Nationalism (Cannon Press, 2022) is so significant. In it, Wolfe both defines and defends Christian nationalism, offering an authoritative statement on the concept and demonstrating why, in his opinion, Christian nationalism should be the goal of American politics. He succeeds on both counts. The Case for Christian Nationalism has become a defining statement on the subject and will certainly be a part of every conversation about Christian nationalism going forward. Predictably, it has been quite controversial. Wolfe has made the rounds in the conservative Christian media landscape, landing interviews with the likes of Daily Wire’s Andrew Klavan. Progressives have histrionically decried the book on the air and in print, and even a brief excursion through progressive Christian Twitter (which I follow fairly closely) shows that Wolfe’s book has been received as the landmark study on the subject. For those of us who reject the left-right authoritarian spectrum and want to remain faithful to Scripture, an understanding of Wolfe’s argument is absolutely essential.
The goal of this review is twofold. First, I will explain Wolfe’s definition of ‘Christian nationalism’ by highlighting six of the most significant concepts that he articulates in the book. I will then offer a rebuttal to each of these six points Biblically and through the framework of libertarian political philosophy.
The Case for Christian Nationalism: Six Critical Concepts
I. Defining ‘Christian Nationalism’
Wolfe takes great care in defining all of the terms that he uses throughout his book. He does not obscure his language or soften his argument by using flowery vocabulary; Wolfe says exactly what he means and ensures that his readers will not miss the point he is trying to make. He offers a comprehensive definition of ‘Christian nationalism’ early in the book, and this definition will be the starting point for the rest of his work. According to Wolfe, Christian nationalism is “a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ” (pg. 9). In other words, it is a nation based on Christian values, enshrined in both the laws and the customs of the land. Christian nationalism is simply a Christianized form of good old-fashioned nationalism, Wolfe argues (pg. 11), in which people understand themselves in national terms and seek the good of their nation. Wolfe then goes on to further elaborate on his definition, stating “civil laws and social customs are the material cause, or content, of Christian nationalism…since the end of Christian nationalism is the nation’s good, rules of action are proper only if they conduce to the nation’s good…[Christian laws and customs] order the Christian nation to their earthly and heavenly good” (pg. 13). There we have it. Christian nationalism means creating a Christian nation that seeks earthly and heavenly good by implementing Christian laws and social customs. This is the definition of ‘Christian nationalism’ which Wolfe will expand throughout the rest of the book.
II. Nationalism and Government are a Part of God’s Good Creation
On page 16 of The Case for Christian Nationalism Wolfe explicitly states that he “make[s] little effort to interpret the Biblical texts”. Fair enough. He claims that his presentation of Christian nationalism is in line with the Reformed theological tradition and rarely exegetes or even cites any Biblical sources to support his argument. In a work that makes sweeping claims about the function of human government, this omission should elicit suspicion from all protestants who believe in the primary authority of Scripture.
He does argue, however, on the basis of what he considers to be Biblical exegesis, that prelapsarian man (that is, humanity before the fall) would have formed geographically and culturally distinct nations (pg. 57). Relying largely on the work of a small number of Reformed scholars, he makes the claim that the unfallen world “would host diverse ways of life”, and that prelapsarian communities would be relatively independent from each other (pg. 64-65). He also makes the interesting claim that humans would have had to learn to fight and defend their communities before the fall (pg. 75) and that humans would have indeed needed both civil magistracy (a government with leaders) to maintain order and spiritual ministers to direct people towards God, since, in Wolfe’s understanding of government, laws can only direct people to ‘the Good’ but not elicit faith (pg. 77ff). Before the fall, humanity would have been divided into separate nations each with their own government. After the fall, the only change is the introduction of coercion. Wolfe states “civil government continues to apply the same principles (natural law), use the same fundamental means (civil law), and retain the same end (civil peace), but now (by divine authorization) it uses coercion and targets public vice. The end of civil government has not changed, because its end is subordinate to the ends of human nature”. For Wolfe, humans were designed by God for nationhood, and as such need the wise rule of temporal magistrates to ensure a proper social orientation to ‘the Good’.
III. A Christian Nation Needs Christian Laws
According to Wolfe, generic nationalism “refers to a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs (e.g., culture), conducted by a nation as a nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good” (pg. 164). Given that Christian nationalism is a species of nationalism, it logically follows that a Christian nation’s ‘national action’ would produce a legal system that reflects Christian values and doctrine. This accounts for Wolfe’s explicit definition of Christian nationalism, which is quoted in Section I. This Christian legislative process would orient social customs to ‘the Good’. Wolfe explains what he means by this: “civil law [is] an ordering of reason, enacted and promulgated by a legitimate civil authority, that commands public action for the common good of civil communities” (pg. 248). He continues, “civil law, when true and just, is neither arbitrary nor has its force from the will of the magistrate alone; rather, it orders civil life in accordance with a higher law and has its force from the higher law…the magistrate mediates divine civil rule” (pg. 249). He gives several examples throughout the book of laws that ought to be enacted by Christian magistrates, such as regulating the Sabbath and public profanity. He believes that since it is the God-given mandate of the government to enforce these laws, Christian magistrates are justified in using force when Christian laws are broken. Wolfe claims that a fully baptized legal system will orient society to God and should be the foundation of a strong Christian nation. In order to justly impose and orchestrate these laws, what is needed is a divine ‘Christian prince’. It is to this concept we will turn next.
IV. The Christian Prince
If a Christian nation is going to be ruled by Christian laws, then there must be, as in all civil societies, a leader who charts the direction of the people. For Wolfe, this figure is the ‘Christian prince’. Wolfe defines this figure: “The Christian prince is a civil ruler (as divinely ordained in nature) who possesses and uses powers (both civil and interpersonal) to order his people to commodious temporal life and to eternal life in Christ” (pg. 292). In addition, Wolfe states that this figure must “wield his power so that the totality of national action is Christian…directly command actions as civil law…encourage righteousness and piety…[and] act as a pious father to the people” (pg. 292). To reveal a card in my hand, the Christian prince is essentially the protestant version of a medieval Pope. This prince has power given to him (sorry ladies, no girls allowed) by God to enact Christian laws, the moral authority to use violence and coercion against those who refuse to comply, and a mission to direct his nation towards God. The door for absolutism swings wide open, but in walks a moral representative of the one true God. This is the picture painted of the Christian prince by Wolfe. To anticipate yet another critique in the next section of this review, anyone whose ears are well attuned to the melodies of Hayek and Orwell can already hear the final notes of this song. The ballad of the Christian prince is written in a minor key.
V. The Justification of Violent Revolution
One of the many aspects of Wolfe’s work that I appreciate is his complete disregard for political correctness, a quality that is absolutely essential in the human pursuit of truth. He is not afraid or ashamed of making bold, provocative statements, which, in my mind, is a hallmark of intellectual honesty and sincerity. That being said, I get the sense from his work that he is attempting to deliberately enrage reactionaries; he often frames his arguments in ways that would offend or trigger those with which he disagrees. The most trigger-happy chapter in the book is entitled The Right to Revolution. Christians, explain Wolfe, have the right to reclaim civil power, and to do so with violence if necessary. As usual, Wolfe provides a helpful definition: “Revolution is the forcible reclamation of civil power by the people in order to transfer that power on just and more suitable political arrangements (pg. 326). It should come as no surprise that he spends a considerable amount of time explaining that ‘just and more suitable political arrangements’ really means ‘a Christian nation ruled by a Christian prince’. Jesus might have inaugurated the kingdom of God by getting himself crucified, but apparently Wolfe believes that the current world order can only be overturned with less cruciform measures. In short, the imposition of Christian nationalism might require a violent revolution, more Maximilian Robespierre than Jesus of Nazareth.
VI. American History
In Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry’s The Flag and the Cross (2022, Oxford Press), which is a blatantly progressive attack on what the authors deem ‘white Christian nationalism’ (an attack which, I must admit, does land a few satisfying punches), they produce an unfortunately tropey interpretation of American history that uncritically and predictably conforms to mainstream modern leftist sensibilities. We all know the script: America was built on the back of slaves, systems of oppression (race, class, gender) are hard-wired into every aspect of American life, only progressive government made our country better…this story is repeated ad nauseum by the likes of CNN, MSNBC, and (state-sponsored) NPR. The monster lurking in the background of their analysis is, of course, white Christian nationalism, which we have to actively oppose lest we participate in its systems of oppression. Bad revisionist history is nothing new, and it is a phenomenon on both the right and the left. Wolfe devotes a chapter of the book to demonstrating that not only is Christian nationalism constitutionally permissible but actually integral to the American system of government. If only those progressives hadn’t ruined it. His interpretation of American history is a funhouse mirror-image of Gorski and Perry. Instead of Christian nationalism ruining our country, it is the only political structure capable of saving it.
While Wolfe’s book does contain more detail and nuance than I have outlined above, these six core concepts were chosen because they clearly intersect with the concerns about Christian nationalism that naturally arise from a libertarian Christian perspective. With that in mind, I now turn to my critique of Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism.
The Case Against Christian Nationalism: A Rebuttal
“Jesus began to preach and say, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand’.” – The Gospel According to Matthew 4:17
“Have this attitude in yourselves, which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted him.” – Paul of Tarsus, Philippians 2:5-9
The philosophical a priori of libertarianism is the non-aggression principle, which states that we as human beings do not have the right to initiate violence against other human beings. The non-aggression principle, or NAP, is, in my judgment, the product of a Christianized society. As the brilliant popular historian Tom Holland argued in his 2019 masterpiece Dominion (Basic Books), the Western world has been indelibly shaped by Christian values. The NAP is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. This refusal to initiate violence, even to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, is at the heart of my critique of Christian nationalism. It is the philosophical subtext for my critique of The Case for Christian Nationalism. I believe that the NAP is a secularized version of a deeply Christian vision of power and social relationships, shaped like the cross. It is with this principle in mind that I make my case against Christian nationalism.
I. The True Christian Nation is the Church
Abraham’s family was called by God to undo the sin of humanity. There is a reason that Abraham’s calling in Genesis 12:1-3 immediately proceeds Genesis 1-11, which is a beautiful and sweeping narrative about God’s good creation, the people that he made in his image rebelling against him, and the increasingly degrading consequences of human disobedience. God woefully divides up the human race (a point with many consequences for Wolfe’s work) in Genesis 11 because, in His response to the tower of Babel, “they are one people, and they all have the same language…nothing they purpose to do will be impossible for them” (Gen. 11:6). So much for a prelapsarian understanding of human division. God calls Abraham, promises him a family, rescues them from slavery in Egypt, makes a covenant with them (several, technically) which is outlined in the laws of Exodus-Deuteronomy. Israel is to reveal God to the nations by being distinct, by being “Holy, for I the Lord your God am Holy” (Lev.19:1). Israel is a nation set apart because of human sinfulness, but God, the true God, is to be their king. The story doesn’t have a happy ending. Israel fails to be obedient. In 1 Samuel 8, they reject God as king. God warns that this will lead to disaster, and this warning comes to pass. Israel is divided into two kingdoms and eventually both are conquered. One king, David, is promised that his royal line will eventually continue forever, and the prophets long for the day when God will rescue his people from the consequences of their sinfulness and restore the David monarchy, and act, according to the prophet Ezekiel (34:11), that must be accomplished by God himself.
God’s people, known as ‘Jews’ after the Persians conquer the Babylonians and allow the exiles to return to their homeland, await a coming king. They know they have broken the law, broken the covenant, and believe that obedience to the law will keep them pure while they await the day of God’s deliverance. Jesus, a Jew from Nazareth, proclaims the kingdom of God and the rescue of God’s people. His followers believe he might be the son of David, the long-promised King. He is tried as a criminal in a Roman court and crucified. Then, God raises him from the dead. This vindicates His message that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated in and through his life as messiah and that God’s people are restored. The Apostle Paul calls this message of the crucified and resurrected messiah the ‘Gospel’; it is the announcement, according to Romans 1:1-5, 1 Corinthians 15:1-5, and 2 Timothy 2:8 that Jesus is the king.
It sounds like a great story, right? But what does it have to do with Christian nationalism? Everything. New Testament scholar Scot McKnight explains the gospel in his book The King Jesus Gospel (2011, Zondervan): “the gospel is the Story of Jesus as the completion of the Story of Israel as found in the Scriptures, and that gospel story formed and framed the culture of the earliest Christians” (pg. 69). Jesus is the long-promised king who will rescue God’s nation, Israel. But what does that mean in practice? For Jews in the 1st century, the world was divided into two groups of people; the Jews, God’s chosen nation, and the Gentiles, who are not God’s chosen nation. Jews maintained their distinct identity by practicing the works of the Law, Jewish expressions of identity such as circumcision, sabbath, and food laws. This all changes with Jesus. When people put their faith in the gospel of Jesus, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit; this gift isn’t poured out on just Jews, but on Gentiles also. This leads to Paul’s infamous statement in Romans 1:16 that “the Gospel is the power of God for salvation for all who believe, for the Jew first and also for the Greek” [read:Gentile]. The all-Jewish leadership of the early church was flummoxed by this strange turn of events, but after a strange revelation to Peter in Acts 10 and council at Jerusalem in Acts 15, the church decides that Gentiles are now fully a part of the family of God without needing to follow the law. In Galatians 3 and Romans 4, Paul makes the case that both Jews and Gentiles are now equally a part of the nation of Israel, the family of God. Paul can even refer to this new Jew/Gentile church as ‘The Israel of God (Gal. 6.16)’ and those outside of it as ‘Gentiles’ (Eph. 4.17).
I am belaboring my explanation, yes, but what I am about to say is critical for the arguments I am going to make on the other five (and, I assure you, much shorter) points: the only true nation is the family of Abraham defined by faith in the gospel of Jesus the Messiah. That is what counts. Wolfe believes that human beings were designed to be divided by culture and custom. The gospel states otherwise. The only identity that matters for Christians is faith in the messiah and the gift of the Holy Spirit. That is what defines the people of God. Paul says it best in Ephesians 2:19, speaking about the unity of Jews and gentiles in Christ: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints, are of God’s household”. Those of us who have faith are citizens of the Kingdom of God. Nowhere in the Gospels, Paul’s letters, or the book of Acts do we see the need for national magistrates to enforce laws and customs to direct and define the people of God. Faith and the spirit are enough. The Christian nation is the one that has faith in the messiah, and it radically transcends the concept of nationalism as outlined in Wolfe’s book.
II. Genesis 1-2 Does Not Presuppose Nationalism and Government
‘Hermeneutics’ refers to the philosophy of interpretation; it outlines the methods that one uses to interpret a given text. The major flaw with Wolfe’s hermeneutical approach to Genesis 1-2 and his resulting claims that they presuppose nationhood and (temporal) government is that he simply doesn’t engage with the Biblical text. Genesis 1-2 is a graveyard of speculative Biblical interpretation. While it contains a beautiful narrative of God’s good creation and the human image-bearing vocation within it, the author of Genesis frames his narrative around those massive themes. While we would love to have more information about how human relationships would have worked in the time before the fall, we simply aren’t given it. Sober, critical interpreters will attempt to understand it in its historical context while only drawing secondary theological conclusions that are warranted by what the text clearly states. Unfortunately, there are few mainstream interpreters that have that sense of hermeneutical restraint, and Wolfe falls prey to easy speculation. So much of his argument hinges on the idea the prelapsarian man would have naturally divided into nations that needed civil governance. Unfortunately for Wolfe, however, the author of Genesis was not interested in answering those questions. It would appear to me, more plausibly, that the post-fall narrative shows the fracturing of human relationships as a result of human rebellion. God is forced, in Genesis 11, to divide humanity and confuse their language to prevent further evil. It is also apparent that violence is a result of the fall; there would have been no need for Wolfe’s ‘martial values’ in a world without sin, pain, and death. Wolfe claims he doesn’t engage in detailed exegesis, and this undercuts his contention that nationalism and government are intrinsic to creation. It appears as if they are rather concessions to the fall.
A short comment needs to be made on the inevitability of government after the fall. The textus classicus is Romans 13:1-7, which is admittedly a very difficult passage to interpret. The obscurity in the text has led to a wide degree of interpretations, each of which conveniently support the political biases of the interpreter. With respect to Wofle’s argument that government is intrinsic to creation, Paul’s statement in 13:1 that the governing authorities are established by God, needs further clarification. I will make two brief points. New Testament scholar Christoph Heilig wrote The Apostle and the Empire (Eerdmans, 2022) to show that Paul is actually deeply uncomfortable with Roman power and often explicitly expresses his unease in his letters. Romans 13, Heilig argues, is so uncharacteristic of Paul’s explicit critique of Rome that it needs to be carefully analyzed in light of the situation in Rome. What might be a possible background scenario? N.T. Wright, in his book Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress, 2013), explains that by the mid-50’s CE the Roman emperors were openly claiming divinity for themselves. Paul’s quip that the authorities are ‘established by God’ actually subverts this claim to imperial divinity. This insight sheds light on an often-darkened passage and should be a starting point for political readings of Romans 13. Wolfe, of course, attempts no such exegesis.
III. Faith is Not Dependent Upon Christian Laws
The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises has an infamous (and controversial) line where he says that we have to ‘plan for freedom’. What he means by this statement is that, in order to ensure human flourishing, you must have systems in place that protect individual liberties and private property. With that I completely agree. Within a Lockean view of natural rights, this is precisely where the proper role of government begins and ends. In contrast, Wolfe’s presentation of Christian nationalism demonstrates his deeply subjective (and in my view naive) understanding of ‘Christian law’, one that could easily be turned against him were he ever to find himself in a truly “Christian nation” as he envisions it.
The apostolic church was successful despite the many legal obstacles that were placed in their way. The Romans, like many ancient and medieval imperial structures, allowed local leaders who were absorbed into the empire to maintain local control so long as there was no civil unrest and the taxes were paid. Because of this, the first Jesus-followers (who were, in the first several chapters of Acts, exclusively Jewish) were at the mercy of local (also, of course) Jewish leaders who were hostile to the Gospel. When Peter and John are arrested by the elders of Jerusalem in Acts 4, how do they respond? Do they wage a violent uprising, protesting the great injustice of imprisoning apostles? Do they lecture the elders on political philosophy, stating that the laws of Judea should reflect the teachings of the gospel? No. Instead, they share the gospels with the politicians (in Wolfe’s terms, civil magistrates) who have taken them captive, and, when summoned not to speak, answer simply but powerfully “whether it is right in the sight of God to give heed to you rather than to God, you be the judge, for we cannot stop speaking about what we have seen and heard” (Acts 4:19-20). Paul spends the second half of Acts traveling around the Mediterranean, meeting many local Jewish leaders, local magistrates and governors, and high-ranking Roman politicians. There is not one instance of Paul advocating for a change in law or a violent revolution. What does he do instead? Preach the gospel. Why? Because, to repeat an earlier point, the gospel is the power of God for salvation for all who believe. Not the Christian civil magistrate, and not Christian laws.
Wolfe’s approach to Christian nationalism is also deeply subjective. Wolfe states that he is part of the Reformed tradition, an autobiographical detail that I am inclined to believe. Let’s assume that Wolfe’s policies are implemented at the federal level, and the United States becomes a Christian nation. The laws and customs reflect his Reformed view of theology, doctrine, and practice. So far so good for Wolfe, right? The problem with systems of power, and one of the main libertarian critiques of the state, is that those institutions of power can always be taken by someone else. There are thousands of Christian denominations, many of which I am sure Wolfe would consider heretical. What if the voters decide they don’t like his Reformed Christian nation, and want to replace it with a Wesleyan one? That would certainly be more agreeable to a Christian like me! Or what if it was taken over by the Catholics, or by progressive Christians? Those ‘Christian laws’ would almost certainly exclude people like Wolfe, who might find himself fined, imprisoned, or, if the history of post-Reformation sectarianism in Europe demonstrated, much worse. The problem with erecting the gallows while in power is that you might wind up hanging from them when you are out of power. Wolfe seems to just simply assume that his theological tradition would win the day with all of his subjective doctrinal preferences enshrined into law forever. The pendulum of power always swings back to the other side.
IV. If Jesus is the King, We Do Not Need a Christian Prince
In New Testament scholar Joshua Jipp’s 2020 book The Messianic Theology of the New Testament (Eerdmans), Jipp makes the provocative and convincing case that “the messianic identity of Jesus of Nazareth is not only the presupposition for, but is also the primary…content of New Testament theology…Jesus’s messianic kingship is something of a root metaphor, a primary designation and driving image for making sense of NT Christology (pg. 3)”. Jipp is correct. The first line of the New Testament, Matthew 1:1 is as follows: “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham”. All of the themes I have discussed come rushing together in this one passage. Jesus is the King, and we, those that have faith and the Spirit, are his people. It really is that simple. Jesus is king. No other pretender shares the throne. We have already unraveled the thread of Christian nationalism, demonstrating that the only nation is the united people of God in Christ, as well as arguing that government is not intrinsic to creation and the power of the gospel does not need the support of laws. But what about the idea of a powerful temporal ruler? Churches need hierarchies, even if it is a small congregational church with a part-time pastor. Why not apply the same logic to the political realm?
Wolfe says that the Christian prince is responsible both for enforcing Christian laws and setting an example of righteous behavior. Both of these responsibilities are redundant. In Matthew 13, Jesus explains the kingdom of God to a large crowd, speaking to them in parables. In 13:24-30, Jesus tells of a farmer who plants good seed in a field, but an enemy sneaks onto his field at night and plants weeds. When it is discovered that the weeds are growing among the wheat, a slave asks the farmer if they should pull up the weeds. The farmer says to let them grow until the harvest lest the good wheat be uprooted with the bad weeds, and after the crops are reaped the weeds will be separated from the wheat and burned. Jesus explains to his disciples that the wheat represents the sons of the kingdom and the weeds the sons of evil; at the end of the age the weed produced by the bad seeds will be removed from the kingdom. Two powerful points are made here; first, there will always be those that reject the kingdom, and we have to learn to live with that reality. Wide is the path that leads to destruction. Jesus does not say to uproot the weeds now, but rather that they will be uprooted at the end of the age. The second is that an attempt to uproot the weeds will damage the wheat. The parable speaks for itself. Christian nationalism will damage other Christians. Remember, Wolfe only wants a version of Christian nationalism that conforms to his theological presuppositions. But power is like Pandora’s Box. Once you let it loose, you cannot put it back in the box.
This brings me to my final point. One of the most influential books I have ever read is Cruciformity (Eerdmans, 2001) by Michael Gorman. It is a work of theology, history, and ethics, and in it he demonstrates that Paul’s understanding of Christian ethics is shaped by the cross. He calls Philippians 2:5-11, quoted earlier, Paul’s ‘master narrative’. Christians have an obligation to embody the cross; our lives should be lived in humble self-sacrifice towards other people. When we look at how we ought to order our lives and conduct our behavior, our actions should conform directly to the cross. It is Jesus’s humble death that leads to his powerful resurrection and enthronement. Jesus doesn’t wield the sword; he bears the cross. This is the ultimate model of Christian behavior, and it is not behavior that can be enforced with a sword. A Christian prince who imprisons and kills Christians that don’t live up to his legally imposed Christian order is a blasphemous parody of the cross. Any so-called Christian that acts like Wolfe’s Christian prince and not like Jesus will find themselves among the weeds at the end of the age. Let the reader understand.
To drive my point home, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom offers a penetrating insight into the nature of powerful leaders, against which Wolfe’s Christian prince cuts a sharp contrast. In a chapter entitled ‘Why the Worst Get on Top’, Hayek explores the political and social factors that allow the worst elements in society to appropriate power. He states, “the desire to organize social life according to a unitary plan [for Wolfe, Christian nationalism] itself springs largely from a desire for power. It is even more the outcome of the fact that, in order to achieve their end, collectivists must create power-power over men wielded by other men…their success will depend on the extent to which they achieve such power”. The Christian prince is nothing but a thinly veiled will to power, a desire to exercise dominion over those that are different than Wolfe. Between Matthew, Paul, and Hayek, there is no theological or philosophical basis for the role of a Christian prince.
V. The Kingdom of God is a Rejection of Violence
Wolfe makes the case that violent revolution is sometimes necessary, with the obvious implication that one just might be needed if his vision of Christian nationalism is to be realized. Revelation 5 presents a major stumbling block to this thesis. Alongside the obvious rejection of violence in the two passages cited in the previous section (Matthew 13 and Philippians 2), Jesus is presented in Revelation 5 as sitting at the right hand of God in heaven. Jesus is portrayed as the Lion of Judah, the Root of David who has overcome (5:5), but he is also and perhaps more centrally portrayed as a sacrificial lamb. The elders around the throne of God bow down before the Lamb (5:8), and they sing with a loud voice “worthy is the lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (5:12), as well as “to him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever” (5:13). Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb, is given eternal co-dominion with God precisely because he was the slaughtered Lamb! Instead of inflicting violence, he took it upon himself, and defeated it forever. His qualification for an eternal rule is His sacrificial death. As Michael Gorman says in another fantastic book, Reading Revelation Responsibly (Cascade, 2011), “in his exaltation Jesus remains the Lamb, the crucified one. He participates in God’s identity and reign, making him worthy of worship, as the slaughtered Lamb, and only as such” (pg. 111). It gets better. What does this sacrifice of the Lamb create? “You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth” (Rev. 5:9-10). If there is a legitimate version of Christian nationalism, it is the nation of the people of God, united in worship of the sacrificial Lamb, and sharing in his everlasting dominion over creation. How is the secured? Through Jesus’s violent revolution against the Romans? Does John 18:36 say that Jesus’s kingdom is of this world, so his disciples should fight? To quote Paul, may it never be! Instead, this kingdom is secured by the sacrificial death of the Lamb, who is the true king (remember Jipp’s point that Jesus’ messianic identity is fundamental to New Testament Christology), and his people are to, recalling Philippians 2, embody his sacrificial death in the way they treat other people.
This isn’t an argument for pacifism, although I respect those Christians come to that conclusion. I believe that violence is sometimes necessary to defend innocent people. This is a Christological appeal to the non-aggression principle. For Christians, there is no possibility of violent revolution. Evil empires are defeated by the cross, not by the sword. Wolfe completely misses this vision of sacrificial revolution in The Case for Christian Nationalism. Remember that between Calvary and Milan the church had no political power, and yet it continued to grow. The church is explicitly called to reject violence and embrace sacrificial love. Murray Rothbard said it best in The Anatomy of the State: the state is nothing more than the organization with a monopoly on violence that generates revenue through coercion. While this definition applies to Wolfe’s Christian nation, Christian prince, and the violent revolution that are necessary to achieve these ends, the vision of a united people of God rescued by the Lamb is the Biblical foil to the Christian nationalism. No violent revolution is necessary to rule over creation.
VI. Subjective American History
I must admit that, while I am indeed a history teacher, I am not a distinguished scholar of American history. My critique of Wolfe’s understanding of American history cannot, therefore, be on historical grounds; it must instead be philosophical. In my all-too-brief explanation that Wolfe sees a constitutional basis for Christian nationalism sown into the fabric of the American experience, I compared his historical analysis with that of Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry, who offer an alternative (to put it mildly) interpretation of American history that conforms to their progressive anti-Christian nationalist agenda. Both sides use American history as a foundation for their contemporary political ideology, and both manage to make it seem as if their conclusions were historically inevitable. Hegel would approve. The problem with this, of course, is that both narratives can’t be correct.
Once we are aware of our limitations as rational beings, we can self-reflexively examine our biases and presuppositions, both of which are necessary for understanding the world around us but also capable of being deeply flawed. We begin to project our own experiences and desires onto the canvas of reality, with the result that we see only an image of ourselves without ever glimpsing the truth. All humans are guilty of this. The greatest thinkers acknowledge their epistemological blind spots and seek to overcome them. I get no sense in Wolfe’s reconstruction of American history that he is aware of this problem. This is not to absolve Gorski and Perry, who also claim to present an ‘objective’ interpretation of American history. Rather, they demonstrate the fraught and perilous roads one must walk when attempting to form history within their own ideological mold. Both Wolfe and Gorski/Perry impose their political agenda on history, instead of following in the footsteps of effective historians who examine the primary sources and allow their understanding of the subject matter to be shaped by the data.
Historiographically, our innate subjectivity subtly but thoroughly enables us to export our own modern concepts and categories back into historical periods. Wolfe is, without a doubt, guilty of this. To be fair, a work of his size would not be able to deal with the complex questions surrounding historiographical inquiry and method, but his review of American history looks suspiciously like an attempt to root his problematic presentation of Christian nationalism in the hard soil of antebellum America. I am sure that he would unflinchingly extend the same objection to Gorski and Perry, and, as someone who takes issue with both approaches to Christian nationalism, the probability is not that one is correct but that both are wrong. I will leave the details to the professional historians, but we should always be aware of historical narratives that read just a little too contemporary.
By no means do I claim that I have exhausted The Case for Christian Nationalism. I hope that I have given a fair and accurate representation of the views espoused by Stephen Wolfe. This book is required reading for anyone curious in the strange phenomenon of Christian nationalism, and will most likely become, as stated previously, the landmark working definition of the concept going forward. Just as my review could only deal with major themes, my critique also suffers from a lack of sufficient space. I am sure that there are many thinkers and writers that could come up with objections to Christian nationalism that I didn’t see in my critique, and there is certainly more work to be done in responding to it both theologically and politically. I hope that this serves as a starting point for further study.
Wolfe is correctly concerned about left-wing authoritarianism. He has a section at the end of his book where he examines the many social ills in American society, and, if we are being honest, I tended to agree with much of his diagnosis. Our society is sick, and progressivism is a lethal co-morbidity. His remedy, however, only transfers the radical authoritarian power of the woke left into the hands of a “Christian prince”, which can be more properly understood as an anti-Christian, right-wing religious zealot. This infectious power will eventually result in death, regardless of which side of the aisle is responsible for infection. Orwell’s 1984 offers a dark, melancholy insight to the nature of authoritarian governments. It doesn’t matter if the flag over the Ministry of Truth displays a hammer and sickle or a cross; the end result is pain, poverty, and despair. Both Christian nationalism and progressivism are vehicles that drive us further down the road to serfdom. The only way to merge off this highway is by embodying the sacrificial, self-giving example of the one true Messiah. He is our king, and we are his people.
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