David Schrock: John Wilsey, we’re glad to have you with us to talk about the article that you’ve written and updated on “The Many Lives of American Christian Nationalism.” To help us think through that, Steve Wellum, we’re glad to have you back on the podcast, brother. Let’s start with an autobiographical question for you, John: How did your interest in American history and the intersection of religion in America begin?
John Wilsey: My biggest influence growing up was my grandfather, and he loved history. I used to spend many hours with him down in his beautiful basement study, and we would sit and talk for many hours about history and about great literature and we just had wonderful conversations.
My grandfather was very important to me as a child and as a teenager. And it was because of his inspiration that I became a history major in college. I had a lifelong love of history and I was blessed to be able to teach history and write history since then.
My interest in the intersection of theology and nationalism came about in my days in my Ph.D. program. I studied under Russ Bush at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. Dr. Bush was a philosopher, but he was a historian of ideas and having him in my M.Div. and then later coming under his Ph.D. mentorship—he was one of my heroes. Dr. Bush was someone who was really influential in helping me to see those connections. So that’s how it all started for me.
David Schrock: That’s great. Certainly that’s an anecdotal piece there the goodness of having a study in your home to have books around and be able to talk through those things and how that impacts upcoming generations and children and grandchildren. That’s wonderful.
John Wilsey: Yeah, I’ll never forget those days.
David Schrock: Brother, you’ve given us a great piece here thinking about the many ways that Christian Nationalism or different iterations of that have worked themselves out in the history of America from the founding, even going back a little bit before the founding to some of the Puritans.
So we get a chance to talk a bit about that. But it’s interesting the conversation that has really come to life over the last couple of years has a lot to do with what happened in the beginning of 2021. And certainly the issues related to January 6th and Donald Trump and all the rest.
And so a question: what has Christian nationalism to do with Donald Trump? Is there something of a reaction that is taking place? How has that set the tone for some of the conversations you have?
You mentioned him briefly at the beginning of your piece. I’m just wondering how you see that working itself out to set the trajectory of this conversation.
John Wilsey: By the time Donald Trump comes on the scene in 2016, when he wins the presidential election, the term “Christian Nationalism” had already been covered ground in academic circles.
Way back in 2006, a book came out by Michelle Goldberg where the term “Christian Nationalism” was first used. The [political] left has understood and tried to lay out the term, and tried to make that term applicable to conservative Christians. Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry do this in Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (2020). They’re sociologists, not historians. And they want to also extend a well-trodden definition of Christian nationalism and pin that label on conservative believers. People who are against abortion people who are complementarian, for example. They want to say that they’re Christian nationalists. And this goes back a long time to the beginning of the 2000s.
So when Trump is elected in 2016, Stephen Wolfe’s book Christian Nationalism or Roman Catholic Integralism—I don’t believe that they’re reacting specifically to Donald Trump whether for or against (I don’t have any data to support this, but beyond that I’ve thought about it and followed it).
You don’t really hear Stephen Wolfe talk much about Donald Trump. He doesn’t mention him in his book, and I don’t think he cares all that much about Trump. But Trump taps into something broader than even what the Christian nationalists would believe.
Which is the efforts on the left and leftward academia to pin anything and everything that they would consider to be conservative as “Christian Nationalists” and “fascism” on us. That impulse on the left leads people like Stephen Wolfe to say, “You know what, fine, I am a Christian nationalist. And let’s define that, and let’s do this project of retrieval and recovery, and let’s say that Christian nationalism is a good thing.”
And in many ways, I sympathize with that. I don’t like that the left wants to take such a simplistic and hyper-political partisan move like that as a power play. It’s hard for me to criticize the Christian Nationalists on that account.
David Schrock: It’s interesting thinking about the fact that we have this language of Christian Nationalism that is used against those on the right, those who are more conservative. That’s exactly right. And then some have taken that up, certainly you mentioned Stephen Wolfe, and Douglas Wilson has done the same sort of thing.
We talked to Stephen Wolfe and will release his interview soon, and one of the things he brings out is the fact that he really doesn’t talk about America at all until chapters nine and ten of his book…
John Wilsey: That’s right
David Schrock: . . . and he’s really trying to do political theory as a historian and not doing as much cultural analysis or just moving the ball down the field, so to speak. The source of that term coming from the left as a term of derision—that is there.
John Wilsey: Yeah.
Stephen Wellum: Do you think as well, John, “Make America Great Again” with Trump’s slogan is in some sense saying, “let’s go back to the history and recover.” So he was also arguing for a pro-life broadly. He’s not agreeing with full Christian morality, but in some sense he’s going back to history—of course, that’s what the left doesn’t want. They don’t want anything of the history of this nation, which has its Christian roots and founding and emphasis and laws and everything else. So to go back and “Make America Great” and recover—that’s what they don’t want. And of course, then this is termed “Christian Nationalism.” Do you think that’s part of what’s going on here as well?
John Wilsey: Yeah, I do. I think this is an example of how important history is when we’re thinking about American identity and also about American culture and where it’s headed in the future.
On the left I think that in general there’s always exceptions to this—and I want to be charitable as much as I possibly can—but I think on the left there is a cynical read on American history. That comes out in the critique of “Make America Great Again,” as if they are saying “There’s nothing great about America in the past. There’s nothing great about America as a racist patriarchal colonialist power.” And even those kind of terms used to describe America in the past is fraught with cynicism. On the other side (I’ve argued this elsewhere), “Make America Great Again” assumes something of a declension narrative that we had a golden age in the past and that we’ve fallen away and need to recover that. Declension narratives are really common in history writing, going all the way back to the ancient Greeks and the ancient Romans. But declension narratives are often overly indebted to their ancestors’ sentimentalist nostalgia to overlook the things that really were bad in the past. It idealizes the American past and makes it look better or more attractive than it really was. So nostalgia and cynicism: both sentimental tools are employed for partisan reasons. And I think we should try to avoid those things as much as we can.
David Schrock: John, I think that’s one of the reasons why I appreciate the piece that you’ve given to us, because you bring this general history that is there: pros, cons, good, bad—and you make it specific with a number of different iterations of some kind of nationalism, some kind of understanding of Christian influence on the nation here in America. I’d like to walk through some of the things you’ve talked through to ask a couple questions and to point those things out. The first thing that you talk about is Puritan Millennialism that goes back before the founding of America. Define what that is, and then how that relates to 1776 and 1787 and how that begins to influence what we have at the founding of our country’s history.
John Wilsey: Augustine dies in 430 A.D., and in the West throughout the next ten centuries or so Augustine’s philosophy of history (articulated in the City of God as well as his eschatology) is pretty well dominant in the West. Especially Amillennialism–this notion of the city of man and the city of God being in conflict with one another. The city of man is passing away and the city of God is eternal. This view dominates until the New England Puritans. (The Puritans settled in 1620 in Plymouth and establishing the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630 under the leadership of John Winthrop, and then subsequently after that, the colony of Connecticut, and ultimately by the end of the 1600s, you have Connecticut, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.)
The New England Puritans represent a step away from that historic view of Augustine and an embrace what we might today call postmillennialism. They read the book of Revelation (and especially the prophecies of the future) not in symbolic or allegorical terms but in historic terms: that we have a role to play in the coming kingdom. So that postmillennial view of the Puritans is a break from the Amillennialism of Augustine that prevailed in the West for so long. One of the great writers who goes into great detail about this is a historian by the name of Ernest Lee Tuvison who wrote a book called Redeemer Nation (1968). It’s an old book, but it’s I think it’s still in print. And he develops this out: the history of how the Puritans were able to accomplish this. And this is one of the major innovations of the New England Puritans in the history of hermeneutics by applying that book to themselves (not to America, because America doesn’t really exist yet in the 17th century, but certainly applying it to themselves). Seeing types and antitypes and seeing sometimes themselves as antitypes and also seeing others as antitypes. You see this in the preaching during the Revolutionary period where Pharaoh is a type of King George III Joshua is a type of George Washington—things of that nature.
David Schrock: Steve, you’ve been doing some reading in postmillennial works this semester there at Southern. It seems as though it’s on the rise again today. It seems to be a popular recovery of this view. How do you see that informing today’s conversation?
Stephen Wellum: Yeah, I do think it is informing it, and I think we would have to probably distinguish versions of people who hold to postmillennialism. So with the Puritans, they’re holding to a strong covenant theology. So they’re going to see much more continuity between Israel and then even these types: Pharaoh and Joshua, Israel coming to the church and its role in the new world. Eventually these Puritans will say that America is the city on the hill and that we can build a culture here that is where the kingdom of God will be seen, and that we see the spread of the gospel and ultimately the millennial age that will lead to a golden age where the gospel will go to all the nations. And they’re tying that strongly to Israel and the church and then to land and that continuity that’s there.
You have other postmillennials. I was in conversation with someone just a few weeks ago who’s Baptist, who is new covenant theology, who is also postmillennial. So I think they’re seeing the passages in the New Testament that speak of the triumph of the gospel and the gospel going around the world.
So these other postmillennials are going to have a different thrust, but it does show up in what John has mentioned with the Puritans, and then as it is tied to nation and so on. A lot of it gets indebted to both postmillennialism and the undergirding of that with a larger covenant theology, a larger Israel-to-church connection that makes it very possible to then say that the king (or royalty) represents something of the antitype of David and Solomon and then the role of the priest and the role of the church.
And of course that was going to be probably a little different with the Puritans, but still the role of “we’re building God’s kingdom here, this triumph of the gospel, and we can build a new nation.” And it’s like Israel of old, not exactly the same but similar. So I think that postmillennialism combined with a lot of covenant theology, so it’s not just postmillennialism by itself per se, but also combined with covenant theology gives them that strong Christian nation sense to things.
David Schrock: One of the things that I drew out in the article that I wrote on Postmillennialism and Theonomy a couple months back in the 9Marks journal was just that hermeneutical move from Old Testament to New Testament that is not always centered in Christ and his fulfillment of those kingdom promises. There are all of these millennial reigning promises in the Old Testament, we see it in the Psalms in particular, but it is as though it is just analogized to the Church today to accomplish these things in the name of Christ, because Christ is ruling and reigning. Many times people don’t recognize how the New Testament categories actually show the fulfillment of that. And what does that look like with the preaching the gospel to establish churches drawn out from the nations more than actually establishing kingdoms or nations for the sake of Christ? So there’s certainly hermeneutical issues that are related there thinking historically again. So we move from “Puritan Millennialism” to a “Christian Republicanism.” So John, move us forward to the founding of America.
John Wilsey: During the founding generation—we’re talking 1763 the end of the French and Indian War through Jefferson’s election as president in 1800 and his first administration beginning in 1801 (you might even extend it out to about 1805 to embrace all of Jefferson’s first administration to include the Louisiana Purchase as well). So from this period of time, 1763 to 1805, “Christian Republicanism” is the term that I use to bracket off the historical development of Christian nationalism in America and how Christian nationalism appears in that particular historical context.
“Christian Republicanism” is not my term. I wish that I could claim credit for it, but it’s a term that was coined by historian Mark Noll. He develops this out in his book America’s God (2005). And he makes the argument about Christian republicanism, that it is a sort of merger between two intellectual traditions: 1) the Puritan theological tradition from New England broadly speaking, and then 2) the “radical” or “real Whig” ideology that comes out of the English Civil War, but most especially out of the Glorious Revolution in England in 1688 and 1689: the writings of John Locke (who dies in 1702), especially the two treatises on civil government, the letter concerning toleration, and his political writings. But Real Whig ideology really takes off as a result of the writings of a group of people, a school of thinkers called the Commonwealth Men in England (People like Algernon Sidney Robert Molesworth most famously John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, who wrote short form articles that were compiled in newspaper articles, but were later compiled in a book called Cato’s Letters. They wrote these essays in the context of the rise of George I at the end of the Stuart dynasty and the rise of the Hanover dynasty in 1711.
And many of the liberties that were won as a result of the Glorious Revolution in 1688 were being encroached upon by the Hanoverian dynasty. So that’s the context of the especially of Trenchard and Gordon. Their writings were popular in England in the 1720s and 1730s, but they were explosively important in America.
In America, you don’t have a lot of common people reading John Locke; intellectual elites were reading John Locke, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Roger Sherman, and people like that—but the common people are reading Trenchard and Gordon because they’re more popular figures.
In the 1600s, the concept of republicanism was often seen as incompatible with Protestant theology because it assumes or it undermines the doctrine of total depravity. But by the founding generation, Republicanism and Protestant theology find a lot more common ground, and I think it’s because of the encroachments of the parliament upon the rights of the English colonists in the thirteen colonies.
I don’t think it’s a disingenuous move that—for example—the New England preachers are seeing common ground between republicanism, ideas of liberty, ideas of things like consent of the governed, and things like that. I think that they honestly do see connections in their hermeneutics and their interpretation of scripture that, in the 1600s those preachers in New England did not see.
But nevertheless, you do have a baptizing of political theory. That comes out of the English Revolutionary Tradition with Puritan Theology during the American Founding Generation.
David Schrock: That’s interesting. One thing, as I hear all the specifics of that history that you bring out at the end, is that any genuine conversation about Christian Nationalism really requires a great deal of historical understanding.
John Wilsey: I agree.
David Schrock: So there are those who are making the case without doing the diligence to do some of the reading. I know it’s a meme online to say, “just do the reading.” But there is an element to understand the founding that goes back to Cato’s letters and everything else that you’re describing there.
And so it reminds me there should be a lot more slowness for those who are speaking. A lot more quickness in listening and learning, being able to think through those things wisely. I think that’s right. That’s right. So one question I have about the founding was, so certainly we know those who signed the Declaration of Independence, those who are the founding fathers of America, we spent some time with Mark David Hall talking about the Christian founding that was there, not as a Christian nation, but the Christian ideas and influence that was there.
One question I have is, was there a self-consciousness of Christianity? So many of the founders may not have been orthodox in their Christianity, though they would have been members of churches of some way or another. But I’m thinking about those who are going to war and those who are standing up for the independence from Britain—was there a self-consciousness of Christianity? Stephen Wolfe’s definition of Christian nationalism is that there’s a totality of self-understanding that a people would see themselves as a Christian nation. I’m wondering if there was a sense of that in the founding of America.
John Wilsey: I think the answer to that question is yes—undeniably yes. The eighteenth century is a Christian world. If you were living in the West, everybody had a Christian worldview. You couldn’t help it; it was in the water. There were no other alternatives. Mark David Hall is a very trusted voice—anything that he says is reliable—and so I’m glad that you have had conversations with him.
His book, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I think is a brilliant book because the way he asks the question is so much more helpful than to ask, “was America founded as a Christian nation?” Was America founded as a “Christian nation”? The answer is “no.” But did America have a Christian founding? The answer is yes.
And to deny that would, it was just, it would just be insane. Now with regard to Stephen Wolfe and his definition of a Christian nation [“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”, I don’t think that word “totality” would apply in the same way that Stephen Wolfe means to apply it to the 18th century. I’d love to know what Stephen’s view on this is (I think I know what it is, but I’d love to hear more). That word is a loaded term. It carries a lot of Hegelian idealism behind it. And in that sense the word “totality” doesn’t really apply—it’s anachronistic for the founding generation.
1. Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022), 9 (italics original).
I love a certain quote. I forget the name of the old revolutionary soldier who was interviewed in his old age. I can’t remember the man’s name, the old soldier’s name. He was being interviewed years and years later by a young man who was recording the thoughts from the original revolutionary soldiers.
And he was interviewing this old man who was at the Battle of Lexington. And he said, “did you read John Locke?” “No.” “Did you read this scholar or this thinker, or this philosopher?” “Nope.” “Then why did you fight? Why did confront the British at the square in Lexington town?”
And his response was something like, “young man, the reason why we went at those redcoats was this: we had always governed ourselves, and we always meant to.” I think that habit of self-government is very important to remember for that particular generation. Why were they fighting?
They were fighting because they were, in their view, were being denied their right of self-government. And did Protestant theology fit in that? You better believe it did. Because one of the very powerful rumors that was going around (and it had a lot of weight to it) was that the Anglican Church was going to establish an American Bishop. And the colonists wanted to have none of it, especially in New England. So there are a lot of moving parts to this but the overall answer to the question is yes, absolutely. You really can’t minimize the influence of Christianity in the people at that time.
David Schrock: And in some ways, that even increases as you move into the nineteenth century. As you move into the Second Great Awakening, and as you talk about Manifest Destiny, and then Lincolnian Unionism, it seems as though the impact that the Bible had on the country seemed to actually increase all the more (supported by Mark Noll’s America’s Book), so there was if not an increasing understanding, at least a perpetual understanding of the Christian roots that are there.
Help us to think through moving through that century towards the Civil War and what is happening and how that continues to shape some of these things, because one of the things that you bring out with regards to Manifest Destiny is the first iteration of some kind of racial prejudice that is there, and some of the ways that taints some of that understanding in the nineteenth century.
John Wilsey: When the Constitution is ratified the overall sort of prevailing view of slavery even in the South—even by slaveholders in the South—was that slavery is a necessary evil. But by the 1830s the idea was that slavery was a positive good: it was good for blacks, it was good for whites, it was good for everybody. The idea was that it was good for civilization, and that it was a manifestly scriptural biblical institution. And that is going to be lurking in the background of all conversations about political questions of the day. From the 1830s all the way through the 1860s. And the Mexican War was no exception to that.
The Whigs in the North were opposed to the Mexican War because they knew that with all that new territory would come the question of “should slavery expand into those territories?” And so you had the Wilmot Proviso which sought to ban slavery in newly acquired territory from the war with Mexico. It was passed in the House and rejected in the Senate because of the leadership of John C. Calhoun, who opposed the Wilmot Proviso under the Fifth Amendment as a denial of property rights. The Mexican War is deeply entrenched and meshed in the question of slavery. John L. O’Sullivan is a fascinating person in history. He was the editor of the United States Magazine, Democratic Review.
He coined the term “Manifest Destiny” in the context of the annexation of Texas, which occurred in 1845. And through his editorial writing he was the editor of that magazine from 1838 to 1846 (I think the spring of 1846 he sold the magazine). He was a very powerful Jacksonian democratic voice, very much pro-American expansion. He saw it as inevitable and a providential move that the United States would overspread the entire North American continent to embrace all of Canada as well as well as Mexico.
And then there were others who, advocated for the annexation of the Cuba Caribbean islands, and work your way all the way down to the South Pole. James Polk, who was of course president during the years of the Mexican War—as a result of the victory on the battlefields— demanded that the United States acquire all of Mexico all the way down to the Yucatan Peninsula.
And he instructed his minister, Nicholas Biddle, to go down and make that demand. Obviously it didn’t work out that way, but this kind of idea that it’s our destiny. It’s American destiny to expand was deeply enmeshed in millennialism, it was deeply enmeshed in providentialism some of the same intellectual sources as going back to the revolutionary period.
But in a 19th century context, I’d even say there’s a lot of Hegelian idealism behind O’Sullivan’s articulation we can get into some of those reasons later on if you want to, but in a nineteenth century context, Manifest Destiny is still —because of its debt to Protestant theology—recognizable Christian nationalism for that time.
Stephen Wellum: And just a curious question on Manifest Destiny, because if you bring in some influence of Hegelian idealism, is it also being secularized? (you mentioned it’s influenced by Protestant thought.)
John Wilsey: Absolutely.
Stephen Wellum: So it’s going in a certain direction that wouldn’t necessarily mean we’re doing this for gospel purposes?
John Wilsey: Absolutely. It’s much more secular than it would have been back in the founding generation. In fact, I think as time goes on, as time progresses, the influence and power of secular thought mixing up with Protestant intellectual, sources, becomes more and more and more salient as the 19th century wears on.
Stephen Wellum: And this becomes a real danger, doesn’t it? A danger where you use Christian terms, ideas, concepts to justify and warrant a larger political issue. You saw that in some sense with Germany in World War II using Christian language and terms, but of course Hitler meant something entirely different because he operated from an entirely different worldview. So that’s always a danger that Christianity can get hijacked.
John Wilsey: What’s really fascinating: with the influence not just of secular thought but of Protestant liberal thought that emerges in the 19th century, the Civil War is the first time that you have a conception of the nation in moral terms.
American foreign policy or American engagement against the Confederacy and the Civil War American conceptions of future, of the future are no longer so much cast in terms of American interests, like in a Machiavellian sense. But more and more they’re being cast in moral terms that the nation must stand for that which is right; it must stand for justice, and Lincoln is someone that really injects that into American national identity. That’s new in the 1860s.
By the time you get to the Spanish American War our reason for going to war in 1898 was deeply influenced with this moral duty. It’s our responsibility—“to whom much is given, much is required [Luke 12:48]”—it’s our moral duty to go and liberate the Cubans from the Old Medieval Spanish Empire. But that’s liberal theology that recasts Christianity by taking the emphasis off of doctrine and placing it more on ethics—the so called “ethic of Jesus”—which is more of a pragmatic faith than a faith motivated or animated by doctrine. I think that’s really important, too.
David Schrock: John, is that shift towards moral categories a move away from theological categories? At the founding there’s at least a recognition of providence—although even that theological category of providence is going to be watered down from a biblical understanding of providence—but is that how you’re thinking about that?
John Wilsey: No, it’s an added-on thing. You still have really sharp notions of “chosenness,” really really sharp notions of “mission” in the turn of the twentieth century. These things are very powerful motivators for Americans as they engage with the world as an imperial power after 1898.
David Schrock: So let me reframe this a little bit regarding the move to more moral categories. I know that Robert Tracy McKenzie in We the Fallen People talks a bit about a recognition of sinfulness that is there in the founders and even the checks and balances they put in place because they had seen tyranny. Is that what is being lost at that point, then, to say “we’re now moving to a nation where there’s a need to be doing moral things”? I know that the social gospel is certainly right along with the Protestant liberalism in the nineteenth century. Is that what you’re thinking of there?
John Wilsey: Yeah, the social gospel movement is really important at the turn of the twentieth century. It becomes a very powerful influence, I think, especially for someone like Woodrow Wilson. Yeah, Robert Tracy McKenzie, his book is a great book. That notion of our sinfulness that the Founders had—especially as Alexander Hamilton and James Madison talk about that in The Federalist Papers—the notion sees a really acute awareness of human corruption and proclivity to reach for power at the expense of or the exclusion of the national interest and those kinds of things.
Those things are really not lost, but they are de-emphasized by the time you get to the beginning of the twentieth century and replaced with this concept that “America can do no wrong.” It’s interesting.
David Schrock: You talked about hijacking, Steve. One of the points that Christopher Evans makes in The Social Gospel in American Religion: A History is that some of the seeds of the social gospel begin in evangelical churches. And then they move to this more social gospel, Protestant liberalism. And if the nineteenth century idea that an individual can be perfected can be fostered, then the idea that we can perfect society as well can grow.
So it seems to be moving together. And in your article, you move towards Wilson’s idealism, which, in some sense, seems to be the culmination of all of that as you move into the World War I period. Can you talk a little bit about that?
John Wilsey: Yeah, I think that’s right. Wilson comes into the presidency in 1912. He defeats William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt in the election of 1912. Taft was the Republican nominee and Roosevelt was third party for 1912: Progressive Party or the Bull Moose Party.
One of the fascinating things about that election is that Wilson and Roosevelt have much more in common than they have separating them. In terms of their policy positions, both were progressive. Both were deeply influenced by the example of European philosophy because both were well-versed in the thought of people like Hegel. Both of them were very interested in modernizing. American government and making it streamlined and making it efficient. And that would mean doing away with a strong concept of constitutional government and the checks and balances that The Federalist Papers argue for.
Checks and balances are inefficient, so they both would argue for a very strong executive and a sort of winnowing away of the legislative power. They both argued strongly for a strong executive bureaucracy because that made the government more efficient as well. Those are, ways in which Wilson and Roosevelt are very similar in their policy positions.
When it came to foreign policy, you did see them depart. Wilson—I wouldn’t call him necessarily a pacifist, because he did take us to war in 1917—but he was much more inclined to pacifism than Theodore Roosevelt was. Roosevelt would have had us go to war. If he were president, he would have had us go to war after the Lusitania was sunk in 1915.
And of course, Wilson is much more reticent for that. But once he asked Congress for a declaration of war in 1917, he was all-in. And he saw the war in eschatological terms. And he saw America in messianic terms. In fact, he called America a messianic nation; he saw America as having a thoroughly messianic role.
He said at one point that “America will save the world.” Very messianic type of a motif or a claim there. His idealism was really seen in his vision for the League of Nations. The League of Nations was a covenantal society of nations. In fact, the charter of the League of Nations was called a covenant, and he gets that from his Presbyterian heritage.
He believed that America was indispensable, that America would be the leader, the one nation that had to be part of the League of Nations, and it turned out that was probably true in the 1920s. But his internet, his idealism failed to really gain any traction in the 1920s. So I talk about John Foster Dulles, he was Secretary of State under Eisenhower.
Dulles was a thoroughly Wilsonian foreign policy thinker. One thing that he used to say all the time in the 1930s as fascism was a rising threat in Europe. was “It’s not that Wilson’s program failed, it’s that Wilson’s program was never tried.” And so Dulles wanted to see Wilson’s program put into use in the San Francisco Conference in 1945, which of course brought about the United Nations.
David Schrock: I know John Foster Dulles is your guy, that you’ve written a book on him recently. I know you could tell us quite a bit there. I want to go back to one thing before maybe asking. Question about that. So we’ve used this language of “idealism”: Wilson’s idealism, Hegelian idealism. Can you help us?
For somebody who’s not familiar with that terminology, define that and what is this idea of Hegelian? As we mentioned that with the totality, the Stephen Wolfe, I know that was one of your critiques of his work. Help us to understand what those terms are that you’re using there.
John Wilsey: Hegel is extremely complicated, and I really need to turn to Steve Wellum here for a clear explanation of Hegel. Because I know that Steve has his daily devotions in philosophy of history. [laughter]
Stephen Wellum: [sarcastically] That’s exactly right, yeah.
John Wilsey: But in, in short, Hegel’s philosophy of politics or the state is totalitarian.
In fact, that word, “totality,” the reason why I find that word so troubling is because it is the root word for totalitarian. Hegel’s theory of the state is all encompassing. The state is the divine idea. The state is the ethical norm. Individual identity of the citizens is merged together like drops in a bucket.
And the state becomes an organic whole. Stephen Wolfe uses the metaphor of a soccer team at the beginning of his book. That nobody, when the soccer team wins the game, it’s not because of one person, it’s because of the whole team. That’s very Hegelian. And I don’t, I’m sure that Wolfe is not drawing on Hegel, but it’s very consistent with how Hegel conceives of the nation state, an organic unity, a totality, where freedom is redefined from individual liberties (like freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and all those things) to the way that one historian of philosophy described it: Hegelian freedom is reimagined to be freedom to obey the law.
So the state is the all in all. So Hegelian theory of the state is really important in the late 19th century. Hegel is probably the most influential philosopher of the day. And Wilson and Roosevelt, they’re not totalitarian in their approach, but they are people that want to consolidate power, whereas the founders in The Federalist Papers, for example, will say Hamilton and Adams and Madison, they don’t want to consolidate power.
That’s what they’re afraid of. They want to scatter power. They want to disperse power through the branches of government, through the relationship of the federal to the states and the local, and through checks and balances. So they want to scatter power out. They don’t want to have it consolidated in one branch or one person. So that’s what those terms mean. It’s awful.
Steve, would you add something?
Stephen Wellum: No, but it strikes me as you go through the history, and this is why the history is so important to understand. The founding of the nation with Christianity—not as a Christian nation per se, but the founding of it—is much more rooted on the theological foundation of human sin and separation of powers (even if not all of our founders would be orthodox Christians). They don’t want to take power to themselves. George Washington doesn’t want to be turned into a king, and this type of thing—that’s still hanging on strongly. And of course, the Puritans are teaching that it’s coming out of Protestant theology, Reformation thought. But as you then see that strong emphasis on liberal theology, secularization, you move to morality, but it’s now unhinged from the theological grounding. And non-Christian thought, generally speaking, it eventually leads to totalitarianism.
Even the founders of this nation looked at history and said: most nations move in this direction. We’re going to create a country that’s going to try to be the opposite of that. And they realized the challenge that would be. But that’s exactly what we’re seeing—we’re still seeing the language of Christianity being used. We’re still seeing language of providence. We’re still seeing language of our destiny and all that. And that becomes really a serious issue, and that’s why thinking about Christian nationalism, about Christian influence, and then the role of the church, and making sure we’re making proper distinctions between the spheres of a nation, the spheres of the church, and this type of thing becomes so important.
And this history is really helpful to see people are meaning things quite different by “Christianity” and the “Christian nation” and its influence as time goes on. And of course, moving into the twentieth and twenty-first century, things can be, change even more.
David Schrock: That’s interesting to me, the illustration of the soccer team, I think Stephen Wolfe was probably close to my age, I might be a year or two older than him. There has been (I think in the last 10, 20 years or so) this concern against individualism or a hyper individualism. I think even the good work that has been done with 9Marks and calling individual Christians to see that the local church is the place where God intends for his people to grow together and that it’s not individuals who are using the church as a vending service, but rather that we are a part of an organic whole that is in the church.
So I think that Socrates’ metaphor is attractive and yet to know some of the language of totality, totalitarianism, not to say that he’s saying that, but this consolidation of power—which is something that shows up in that work with regards to the Christian magistrate, the Christian prince—is helpful.
To see that history, that Hegelian idea, that at least we need to look through that lens to look at that more carefully.
John Wilsey: And I want to be fair to Stephen Wolfe. I don’t think that Wolfe is advocating for totalitarianism. Throughout his book he’s making the argument for freedom and for flourishing and those kinds of things.
So I want to be careful. I don’t want to misrepresent him and misrepresent his work, but I also want to say that the logical entailment of what his vision is, I think, leads us straight to totalitarianism.
David Schrock: That’s where his work is a work of political theory. That’s what he has said himself. And so this is where we need to engage at that theoretical level to say, “here’s what you’re arguing. Here’s where that goes. Maybe you don’t go that far, but it’s very possible that somebody could take that ball and keep running with that.”
John Wilsey: If I could just say a word about that, this is where, this is the biggest argument I have with Stephen’s book is that it’s almost all a priori deductive reasoning.
He does have a chapter in his book on history, and I think I’ve made the statement before that he doesn’t appeal to history at all, and I regret if I’ve said that because he does have a chapter on Massachusetts and the colonial period. I don’t have a lot of quibbles and arguments with the way that he uses that history, but nevertheless, he does appeal to history there.
But having said that, the thrust of his argument is reliant on a priori thinking. What’s troubling about that is that’s the same method that progressives use, that the left uses. Leftist utopianism is always a priori. And, conservatives, true conservatives, like a Burkean conservative would always sort of bristle at that.
Because it’s much easier to criticize the world as it is rather than critique a utopian ideal. Why? Because the world as it is is real. The world of a utopian ideal is not real, so it’s very difficult to criticize or to show flaws in an ideal that has no concrete example in history or in the present in time.
Magisterial Christian nationalism has no historical precedent in America. It really has no historical precedent in the modern world unless you want to look to something like maybe Germany under the Hohenzollerns or the Holy Roman Empire in in the late eighteenth century. But that’s the main concern that I have: let’s talk on concrete terms because it’s in the real world that we live.
And proponents can say what they want about Christian nationalism that “The way that we’re envisioning it’s not gonna become persecutorial against Baptists because we have built-in safety valves” and things like that.” That’s okay to theorize about, but when you actually have a concrete example of it, human nature kicks in, and human fallenness kicks in, and then the best laid plans go out the window as soon as the first shots are fired on the battlefield (Stephen should know this better than anybody, he’s a military man).
David Schrock: Yeah, it makes me think of what Peter Robinson asked of Thomas Sowell of why he’s no longer a Marxist, and he said “facts.” There’s just the facts on the ground—the realities that need to be brought into those conversations.
So there’s a place for theorizing, but there’s also a place to then look at the history and the facts that are there.
Stephen Wellum: It would seem also as we think of the real world and our present situation and then having to wrestle with the question: what do we do in our present situation?
That’s why a lot of the discussion of Christian Nationalism has arisen. The feeling of the sense that “the culture around us is turning against us,” or “we’re collapsing,” or “what do we do and to bring back the heritage of the past.” It seems to me that we need to get back to what our constitution is supposed to be functioning like (of course there’s been many changes in the balance of powers has been greatly weakened over the years due to Wilson and others in terms of their government action. The presidency now has taken on a huge role that it probably shouldn’t have and the courts and everything else). It seems that we need a situation in terms of the founding that would require a return to a really strong church: the sense of regenerate community and the effects of that in the larger culture. Sometimes you hear with certain Christian Nationalists that we can create a Christian nation without revival, without returning to the gospel, without the preaching of the gospel, or the transformation of human hearts, or the need for people to be regenerated who then have a salt and light effect.
It seems that we’re going to have to raise those issues practically as well as to what the solution to our present problem is and what do we do as Christians as we look at this history.
David Schrock: That’s important. Let me make one more comment on our historical journey that we’ve had here. We’ve got one or two more places to go on the stop. But going back to Wilson seems to be that there is a Christian Nationalism of sorts on the left. But what is often thought of as Christian Nationalism is something on the right which I think you move towards in this idea of Christian America.
And am I right to think, John, that this is really what the left is responding to from, let’s say the eighties to the present: the moral majority, all these different things that are in the sights of the left today. Is that right?
John Wilsey: I think that’s right. And it’s an easy target. Starting in 1977 with the publication of Peter Marshall and David Manuel’s book, The Light and the Glory, which is probably on every single pastor’s bookshelf in the whole country. It’s amazing. They sold, I think, over a million copies. Wow.
And that book argues that America is the new Israel. That book inaugurated a new kind of iteration of Christian nationalism. And this one would be embraced mainly by conservatives. So one thing I said in the article was that that all these versions of Christian nationalism that we see over time, going back to the colonial period, are progressive in that they situate the nation in time by looking ahead to the future.
So they orient the nation to the future. And so that’s what makes them progressive. We’re progressing into the future. Christian America, the Christian America thesis that is argued by people like Marshall Emanuel, Tim LaHaye, Jerry Falwell, John Eidsmoe, David Barton—they look back to the past. They look back to the founding, they look back to the founders and say things like “The founders were all Christians” or “The founders were all evangelicals” or “It’s Christian principles that the founding is based on” or D. James Kennedy said, “John Calvin is the virtual founder of America.”
What are they doing? They’re looking back, they’re looking back to a Christian founding, looking back to the Christian founders we were founded as a Christian nation, so they orient the nation to the past. And that’s something that’s unique. That’s something that’s different. But that view prevails from 1977, and through people like Robert Jeffries at First Baptist Dallas and people like that, it prevails.
M.A.G.A.—Make America Great Again—is also, looking back to the past. It’s looking at American history as a declension narrative, as I talked about at the beginning of the segment here.
David Schrock: Yeah, I heard one pastor, Josh Buice, make mention of this at the G3 conference recently. When people hear “Christian Nationalism,” they’re not thinking of the reformed crowd; they’re thinking of the hyper Pentecostals: those who would have showed up at January 6th, those like Marjorie Taylor Greene and others who are taking that name and then doing things that are clearly not Christian with that term. So there’s certainly that. I’m curious though, Steve, to think about someone like a Francis Schaeffer, or even a R. J. Rushdoony. Are they looking back in the same way? Schaeffer is thinking about statism as a problem. How would you read those guys? They talk about a Christian foundation of America. Are they only looking back? Are they also looking ahead?
Stephen Wellum: Yeah, I think you have to be careful to put Schaeffer in that category. Now, of course in his stance against abortion—he and C. Everett Koop—he was one of few evangelicals who actually first stood up. It was mostly Roman Catholics who stood against Roe v. Wade. The Christian right, of course, latched onto him. And he was identified with them. But I would say Schaeffer is thinking in terms of worldview. He’s thinking in terms of ideology. “Ideas have consequences”—to use Richard Weaver’s term. and Schaeffer is saying, “Look, for a hundred years now going back to Darwin, with the impact of liberalism, we’re seeing dehumanization take place.”
He would have a strong view of the church, strong view of regeneration, he would talk about the primary benefits of the gospel, which would be regeneration, people becoming true believers, but then also the secondary, tertiary benefits of us being salt and light, that we have a responsibility—and he’s reformed.
So he is Kuyperian in the sense of Christ as Lord over all. We have a responsibility to speak and protect human life, to stand up. He would also acknowledge, I think the founding of the nation, that we have resources in this nation that we should utilize and freedoms that we have here.
He’d speak about form and freedom that we would have the forms and laws and structures that gave us incredible freedoms and God gave that blessing to us. But I think it’s not so much just a recovery of the nation per se, but the protection of freedoms and doing what is right in terms of people and the Christian influence in the world.
Rushdoony is probably doing something similar, but of course he’s bringing together his postmillennialism. He’s bringing together his strong covenant theology and has a particular view of Theonomy that is even different than some contemporary views of Theonomy— it’s much more of the civil order being brought over to the nation.
Schaeffer didn’t argue in that way at all. Schaeffer actually was a historic premillennial, he was reformed and covenantal, but I do think he’s working more out of “we need to have an influence on society, we should have that influence,” but he does have a proper church state distinction. He’s not hoping that “the gospel’s going to be found in the nation of America because it’s going to save the world”; for him it’s ultimately the gospel and the church that will do this.
So I do think Rushdoony is going to analyze the culture very well, but he’s going to come from that postmillennial and the older theonomic view. Schaeffer’s doing something different, even though the Christian right grabs a hold of him.
John Wilsey: I think that’s exactly right.
David Schrock: Yeah, that’s a good distinction.
John Wilsey: Schaeffer only really writes one thing about American identity in the Christian Manifesto. And other than that, he really doesn’t say much about it.
David Schrock: Yeah, that’s good. Bringing all these things together: We’ve gone all over the place or hopefully it’s been at least for our listeners, a progression through the decades and the generations of America.
John, you’re just bringing these things together. And maybe this relates to some of the magisterial work that is going on today. There’s a magisterial focus. How do you just synthesize all this? What has helped, and what is not helpful? You’ve got to make a point at the very end that Christian Nationalism as a term can serve as a useful category.
How do you think about the pros and the cons of that language, that term today?
John Wilsey: That is the question of questions, isn’t it? Yeah. I have here on my desk a great book by one of my favorite authors, and he gives a really helpful definition of “nationalism.” Anthony D. Smith was the Dean of Nationalism Studies for half a century or so (he’s just passed away in 2016). This is his six-fold definition:
One, the world is divided into nations, each having its own character, history, and destiny.
Two, the nation is the sole source of political power.
Three, loyalty to the nation overrides all other loyalties. And I think that’s qualified. But politically speaking, we’re not loyal to Russia, we’re loyal to America.
Number four, to be free, an individual must belong to a nation.
Five, nations must attain autonomy and full self-expression.
And lastly, six, peace and justice in the world can only be built on the plurality of free nations.
I think that’s a good definition of nationalism and I think most reasonable people in America, left and right, could gather around a definition like that on most of those points.
So when I say in the article that we’re all nationalists, we really are all nationalists. On the left, they have dreams and aspirations for the nation. They’re different than mine. I’m not on the left. I’m not a progressive. I’m a conservative. My aspirations and dreams for the nation are radically different, but nobody that I know of is in favor of dissolving the United States of America. Maybe their policy positions would result in that like open borders and other things, but everybody who subscribes to the supremacy clause of the Constitution is a Nationalist. So I’d say that.
Another thing I would say is that, and I’m working on this on a book I’m writing now on conservatism and religious freedom. I’m thinking through the role of the imagination on a conservative disposition. Whereas I have argued in other writings about the dangers of idolizing the nation: making America our god and worshiping America. Obviously, we want to be careful not to do that.
I wrote American Exceptionalism and Civil Religion in 2014 as a sort of a warning against what I was seeing in the culture (and Christian circles) was tending towards the idea that “American could do no wrong” or that “America is a chosen people with a mission” and all that.
I was troubled by that. So I wrote a book critiquing that. Now I’m in the position where I need to go back and make an argument in the direction of patriotism. We ask “what do we do?” If not Magisterial Christian Nationalism, then what?
My answer to that is we do a retrieval project. We retrieve The Federalist Papers, we retrieve Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville, we retrieve Federalism, a right relationship of the federal government to the states and the states to the local government. We recover and we retrieve what the original vision of federalism was always supposed to be.
And how do we do that? We got to start by picking up The Federalist Papers. How many people have read all 85 Federalist Papers? How many have read anything at all in The Federalist Papers? Number 10, 51—anything? How many people have ever actually read Democracy in America, to see what he says about the power of religion, how the mores, the customs, what he calls “the whole intellectual character of the people” is informed by Christianity?
It’s informed by the preaching from the pulpits. And the mores are more powerful than the laws. The laws are rooted in the mores. That’s what we want to recover. It might take a long time. We might not see it in our generation. Our children might not see it, but I think we need to have a little bit of patience.
We might not see the promise, to use a biblical expression. But we can work and we can fight towards that to recover America. America is a great country. And America has inspiring ideals and inspiring heroes. One thing that I regret is that young people don’t have conservative heroes like we did growing up.
We had Reagan, we had Thatcher, we had John Paul II. We had great conservative heroes to look up to. Reagan saved the world. You don’t believe me? Read the new book Peacemaker by William N. Bowden on Reagan’s foreign policy. That man was a great man, and we had heroes. Young people today don’t have anybody to look to for conservative heroes like that.
But conservatism is inspiring, and the American tradition and American stories, and all the wonderful traditions of America that unite us as a people, they’re real, and they need to be recovered. We don’t need to flush the American project down the tubes. We need to recover American stories, American traditions, American federalism, American constitutionalism, and it’s up to us to do it.
David Schrock: Steve, you want to add anything else to all that? That’s a good plea for returning to those sources.
Stephen Wellum: Yeah, it is returning to the sources. We have the resources still to be able to do that. Sometimes you get concerned that those resources are quickly departing. Yet, we still have them.
We can still work within that. I do think—and you and John would say as well—that we’re going to need the churches to be churches. We’re going to need the faithful preaching of the gospel. We need new hearts to have that brought, to go back and have that as a result. We have to have a moral people. Even our founders knew that. Alexis de Tocqueville knew that and witnessed that. And that comes through the power of the gospel and it comes through churches being churches. And again, you can’t idolize the nation. The nations will come and go, but we can certainly look for Christian influence.
We can look for us being salt and light. We can look for a more humane society as the impact of Christianity. I think this was Francis Schaeffer was calling for Christians to make a better place. And our responsibility as Christians is to do that. Whether the Lord blesses and brings a restoration of that is in his good prerogative. But we as the church are to be the church. We’re to be faithfully proclaiming Christ and living out the lordship of Christ in all of our life.
David Schrock: That’s well said. I’m just reminded of what you were talking about, John. 2014, probably at the same time I was pastoring a church in Indiana, and I would say “God and country” Christianity was a great concern.
Because there was the bringing in of the worship of America into the services of worship at the church. It was definitely in my time standing against that, questioning why we’re doing that, because there’s a great difference between worshiping Christ and worshiping the red, white, and blue. Nine years later in a new context in a new situation, I feel I’m pulling in the opposite direction and recognizing that my love for the Lord means that there’s also love for neighbor, and my neighbors have to be those in America. There’s a project that began here in 1776 and the Constitution codified in 1787 has a great source of blessing. But I think we all would say that the political theories that were laid down in the founding nation or the founding of the nation were derivative of truths that we find in the word of God.
And if there’s going to be a moral people, they’re going to be, the power and the light to do that. Then it has to be from the gospel and churches being churches, proclaiming Christ. So it’s not a one or the other. It’s a both-and—knowing which one comes first. It comes in the power of the gospel, preach, and be faithful.
And if we’re going to have any kind of Nation or culture that is Christian or at least influenced by Christianity, then the churches have to be Christian. And so many churches are not, and that has to be a priority at the very beginning
John Wilsey: Y’all said it better than me.
David Schrock: Thank you this has been a great conversation this afternoon and we’ve got a little bit longer than usual but we trust people will be profited and blessed by this. So John, Steve: Thanks so much for your conversation today.
John Wilsey: “Watch till the end” as the kids say!
Stephen Wellum: Yeah. Good conversation and glad to be a part of it.
David Schrock: Absolutely. Absolutely. And friends, thank you for listening to Christ Over All today. If this conversation has produced any more desire to learn more about the founding of our country and the history of Christian nationalism therein, go and read or listen to the longform article that John Wilsey wrote for us at Christ Over All.