David Schrock: Today, we’re sitting down with practicing attorney and editor-in-chief of American Reformer, Timon Cline. And we’re going to discuss his interest and understanding of Christian nationalism. So Timon, welcome to Christ Over All.
Timon Cline: Hey, David. Thanks for having me. This is fun.
David Schrock: Glad you’re here. And Steve, welcome back, brother. Good to see you.
Stephen Wellum: Always glad to be with you, Dave, and with Timon as well.
David Schrock: Yeah, it’s been something of a marathon with all these recordings and getting to talk to good brothers all over the country and looking forward to our time today with Timon Cline.
Timon, maybe just give us a little bit of background. I know that you have experience in law. You did some seminary at Westminster. You’re now down in Florida. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you are doing these days.
Timon Cline: Yeah, standard background stuff. I’m actually from East Tennessee, originally. My parents were Southern Baptist missionaries when I was growing up, and then my dad pastored for a long time. So, I’m a MK and PK, and I moved around quite a bit because of that. Met my wife at Cedarville, actually, in Ohio. And then several years later, or I guess a couple years after, we got married. I went out to the East Coast to the Philadelphia area and did law school at Rutgers and seminary at Westminster which was a great time. If nothing else, it gave me time to read a lot of things and start thinking about—there would be the genesis of some of the stuff we’re going to talk about today, and I started thinking about it then and figuring out what my particular interests were.
I did practice law for a couple of years—did litigation in the courts, all that stuff. I was frankly bored with that. So now what I do is I’m editor-in-chief at American Reformer, which is great because I get to write a lot, read a lot, and even better, critique other people’s writing. That’s even better than writing yourself. No, I think of myself as a magnanimous editor. I never impose word counts. They’re tyrannical.
Some of my time is also dedicated, though, to a great new project I’m excited about, which is the Hale Institute at New St. Andrews College. So, I’m the director of the scholarly initiatives for that, along with Jeff Shafer who’s the director, which gives me an outlet to focus in that regard on early modern and contemporary jurisprudence and legal thought. That’s what that center is dedicated to, developing a curriculum and resources and other types of scholarly efforts. So, I’ve got two perfect outlets to keep thinking about law and politics and theology and all these things, which is exactly what I enjoy spending my time on. I guess you could say I’ve got dream jobs at this point, plural.
I live in Southwest Florida now with my wife and our one son, Winthrop. It was actually cool today. It’s been in the sixties, which is amazing. I’m not built for extreme heat as you can tell from my features. But yeah, enjoying it. And we are in the OPC and we attend a PCA church now down here. My wife was also raised in the SBC, but we have both found our way to greener pastures.
David Schrock: Yeah, you have succumbed to leave the SBC behind and go other places. If it was a different conversation, Steve and I might try to pull you back, but that’s not our conversation today.
Timon Cline: It would be boring. I have very boring reasons for all of it that entertain no one and give nothing to sink your teeth into that would allow you to pull me back.
David Schrock: Very fair. You mentioned the early modern period, and that’s certainly one of the things we’re going to get a chance to talk about today because one of the things you’ve done some writing on is—and I think American Former has been unique in putting some things out there on this—a Protestant magisterial tradition that is there. So, I certainly want to think about that and how that influences the conversation going on with Christian nationalism today.
But maybe just to begin with, how would you define Christian nationalism? And you mentioned the work of the Hale Institute up there in Moscow and New St. Andrews and certainly Doug Wilson’s Mere Christendom. We’ve talked to him about that as well as Stephen Wolfe’s project and The Case for Christian Nationalism. Those are two different flavors of Christian nationalism, two different ways that it has been articulated that have many similarities but also differences. How would you define it and how does your understanding of it compare to theirs?
Timon Cline: I’m friends with both Doug and Stephen. There’s much in their work that I completely agree with. There are other slight tweaks. I was actually asked recently by someone to distinguish myself from Stephen Wolfe. And my answer was, I completely agree with Stephen insofar as he agrees with the reformed tradition. And I disagree with him insofar as he doesn’t. So, it shows you where my interest in Christian nationalism and some of these adjacent debates, we might say—or even labels, conceptual frameworks—lies.
As you already noted, this is not just American Reformer—of course American Reformer is not taking on any labels, but I’m happy to call myself a Christian nationalist insofar as it’s useful. I’m not married to any particular label, insofar as it’s useful as a heuristic to (1) assess and critique current political assumptions that especially predominate evangelicalism and (2) recover older, now discarded, I would say, political assumptions or outlooks that I think are better and offer correctives for many of our contemporary problems and to just provide more holistic and workable theories of, we could say, governance or even just political life generally.
So, insofar as I embrace the label Christian nationalism, it is because I see it as an opportunity to recover, as you put it, magisterial Protestant political thinking, much of which is not distinctly Protestant. Actually, most of it’s not distinctly Protestant. You’ve already mentioned integralism and we can get into that. I see integralism is performing a similar service, if you will, even though the label is older. It’s a nineteenth century sort of papal adoption through various encyclicals. But it’s really just a recovery, even at that time, of medieval political assumptions, much of which are carried through the Reformation.
So, these are the things that I like and generally just agree with. And this conversation, as it’s emerged around Christian nationalism—which I think is a perfectly fine label. If someone else can find a punchy, galvanizing two-word label that’s better, I’ll be fine with that. But some of these things you don’t really get to predict or control. They just happen. And Christian nationalism has caught on, so I’m happy to be part of the discussion and defend the general premises there.
So for me, it is wrapped up a lot in questions of church and state—or a lot of people are going to want to be a little less controversial and talk about just politics and religion or morality and society. These sorts of conversations are the ones I like to have and I think are very important. I spend much of my time and resources on them. Christian nationalism, to give it a working definition for our purposes, I think is just expressing those older assumptions in many ways, and Stephen Wolfe does a lot of this in his own book. And it’s recognizing that every polity, in this case it’s taking the nation as the scope of a polity—and I think we should talk about what that means prudentially and in the American context, historically and presently. But taking the nation as the scope of your assessment, every polity should be oriented to higher ends, higher goods. And most especially in religion, since it must reflect man’s anthropology and ends that are found both in his body and his soul. So he’s not reducible only to the material; he has an eternal end and a religious interest and a religious consciousness.
So your politics, your polity itself, should be oriented to those same goals that correspond to a truly human life, even if we can talk about the distinction between temporal and spiritual interest as they coincide with church and state. But I think it’s this basic orientation that is a religious one, and that this can’t be denied. It is, in fact, everywhere the case. So this is being open about that fact. And then it is assessing what’s the true religion because, of course, if you’re going to be oriented religiously, it should be only oriented to the true one, and Christianity is the true one.
Therefore, the polity, the nation, should self-professedly in a certain way, primarily through its law and policy, demonstrate its orientation to that true religion as a guide and conditioner of all of its activity, including even what we might say are modes or vectors of soft power, which have to do with societal stigma and customs and all these sorts of things.
So that would be my basic approach to the uses of the label and what it accomplishes. And again, I think it’s a good one, but like political parties, it’s only useful to me insofar as it’s a vehicle for ideas. And those are the ideas that I primarily find in what you call the magisterial tradition, which I think is a good label for that. But that, of course, extends, in my opinion, up through the eighteenth century. And you can still see that inheritance alive and well and active, even in our own country. So we can get into that also, but that’s the very not brief explanation of what I think about the label.
David Schrock: I hear in that kind of response both Stephen Wolfe and Doug Wilson. I think Doug, maybe on our podcast or maybe someplace else, was talking about the usefulness of the term Christian Nationalist, that it’s something that within three minutes or less, you can define the terms that are there—what a Christian is, what a nationalist is, opposing that to globalism, opposing that to tribalism, that there’s a usefulness that is there. But then also something a little bit more concrete in that, Stephen’s definition related to the totality of national action consisting of social customs and laws procuring both earthly and heavenly goods.
You mentioned just the way that that relates to body and soul. So, all of those things are beginning to be at play and thinking about the political structures of the polity that we have. And, certainly those are the types of conversations we have had and what we’re going to talk about today.
You mentioned two other things, though. I’d be curious for you to develop this further. You mentioned the usefulness of this with regards to critiquing things related to political theory or public policy today and recovering those from the magisterial Protestant tradition. Let’s go back in time first.
What are you wanting to recover from that magisterial Protestant tradition?
Timon Cline: It’s a good question. What I would basically describe anything I want to recover is being decidedly conventional up until not very long ago. I never describe America as an experiment because I like to live in a country, not an experiment, not in a lab somewhere.
But there are experimental elements that have now entered our political life that, historically speaking, have not had a long run, don’t have a long track record, but are usually assessed as being very successful now and everything that came prior to be unsuccessful. Whereas the time scope of the ideas now considered unsuccessful is much longer and in fact more successful if you just assess it at a basic political level.
So anything I’m talking about are not, as I see them, fringe given the proper historical scope, rather conventional. And these would be ideas that, again, that I don’t think the magisterials innovated in most of these regards other than adjusting a few things for ecclesiological purposes.
So to begin, you would say—which I’ve already hinted at some of this—when you approach politics, which is just our life together, right? This is basic Johannes Althusius stuff of what he would call symbiosis, which is just how you live together. So you know, politics shouldn’t be overthought. This is very basic, and you can adopt from Aristotle and every one on up that it begins with family life and it moves into the interactions of family and then the cities and these sorts of things. That’s your prehistoric narrative of how politics develops into larger units.
But when you approach these things, you should be respectful of the things you are dealing with, namely human beings in those relationships. And you should recognize the true anthropology or metaphysics involved there. And you should try to construct your polis around those truths in a way that promotes flourishing, the common good, these sorts of things. And those would all be ends-based politics that would have been very conventional, not even a hundred years ago. To say you must begin with the end and you must consider the nature of the things you’re dealing with, which are people and families and these relationships. Your focus is on getting to the ends in view for the betterment of the subjects in view.
So that basic political outlook I think is now discarded or not in play whatsoever, I guess you could say. The liberal order, the liberal approach to politics, is oriented fundamentally differently in my opinion, and we can talk about that.
So, the first part is the orientation of your political life. And as I said, that includes not just temporal or earthly goods, but even the highest goods that mark man’s final destiny. So this basic orientation which should then guide anything that comes out of that in terms of your means for achievement of order, stability at a most basic level, or promotion of true morality and encouragement of true religion and these sorts of things are all governed by this initial orientation that I think has been lost. And it shows in many ways because things that should be valued are not valued and emphases that should be emphasized are not.
So that would be the first thing. The second thing then beyond that very amorphous kind of what’s our orientation, what are the ends in view, really does come down then to your relationship between church and state, right? As you move into the development of your political structures and the necessity of law arises, the need for enforcement and judgment of those things that accord with both of man’s ends and both parts of his dualistic being, which is body and soul, you have to then think about how those two institutions relate, of course, right?
And this is really, I think, in the Christian nationalist discussion where most of the consternation comes in. Even if people aren’t adopting those more general ideas about the orientation of politics at a basic level, I don’t think that really offends people. I think it’s when you get into what are the means by which these ends and the good of man is accomplished? And how do we mediate differing views of how that should be accomplished, and so on and so forth.
So, the relationship between church and state is being fundamentally complementary, of course. In many ways, depending on which kind of expressions you’re choosing from the magisterial tradition, you might have very little distinction between the two at all apart from a distribution of labor within the polity, within a Christian polity. Or you could say a distinction between jurisdictions that are necessarily overlapping according to juridical competency. But they share an orientation in the subject matter, which is the people, as well as the ends. Both powers, as they would typically be called before we start talking about them more regularly as church and state, both temporal and spiritual powers are both oriented to the good of man. And this includes the highest good of man.
But they have differing means and competencies for pursuing those ends. So, they should be in unity. It should be a diaconal sort of relationship between the two—like George Gillespie would describe them as being coordinate, something like this. So, it expresses or it looks to a more comprehensive view of the polity. Everything is oriented towards the same goals, and looks at the people that are being governed either according to the spiritual or temporal ends as holistic beings, right? So it’s more, I would say, organized, in a certain way, and orderly.
And these assumptions—it’s not that the reformers never wrote about these things. In fact, they spilled quite a bit of ink on them contrary to some popular belief that this is just some kind of Constantinian holdover that’s uninterrogated. But at the same time, when you do read some of these writings, there’s many assumptions embedded like the ones I was just expressing that are not worked out all the time because they assume everyone agrees with them. Even, you would say counter-reformational Jesuits or something. Or, if you read Lex Rex, Samuel Rutherford never gets tired of citing Jesuits because there’s basic agreement on many of these things pertaining to law and politics. Although there are some disagreements, these are just basic assumptions that used to govern our political outlook, even as Protestants, and used to govern the way we approach law and all these sorts of related things.
So, I think the jury is certainly still out on a liberal order and we can talk about that as well. And I don’t think that these assumptions and ways of doing political life have been defeated as summarily as especially post-war liberal advocates would assume. And much of that is accomplished, so that they don’t have to do real work on it, through certain false historical narratives that are bandied about and pretty much gobbled up even by evangelicals. Such as everything in the “medieval period” was awful and everyone hated their life and there were probably no real Christians anyway so there’s nothing to find there. That’s a very common evangelical narrative to run around with for many reasons, but it also creeps into assessment of political theory.
So that’s being somewhat challenged now, not just by Christian nationalists, but by other commentators from various vantage points, and that’s created a disruption in many ways and people are trying to wrestle with that. Which I think is productive. I think it’s overdue. It doesn’t mean everyone has to agree with me on every bit of it, but I think the exercise is important. And that’s why I’ve often said we’re at the—as Protestants in America at least—incubation stage of political theology at this point because there’s so many atrophied muscles that have not been flexed in so long that we’re just now learning to even move them again, and they’re certainly not very strong. But maybe we’ll get there. So that’s why I’m not usually that interested in exact policy prescriptions because there’s just too much to recover before you’re even prepared to make those sorts of prudential arrangements according to context. But I do talk about them some.
David Schrock: Well, I think you just spurred interest in Steve on the last point, and I’d be curious to hear more of just your reflections on that, Steve.
Stephen Wellum: Well, I’m just wondering, Timon, if you would think a policy issue was this kind of question. You’ve laid out your vision. I think I can see what you’re saying. In fact, as it’s rooted in history, we see it was made possible because of obviously the influence of the gospel in the Western society going back to making Christianity official in the Roman empire, and then, of course, with the collapse of the Western or Roman empire, the influence of the Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire and so on.
So, you can think of building a Christian society. Of course, we’re not there anymore. So, is this a policy issue of how do you get back there, right? How does this vision that was once there, that certainly, seemingly is under attack and been lost. How do we get there? Is it a matter of the influence again of the gospel and the church in society so that you win over the majority of people to vote? Or is it not tied to a voting of the people? How do you get to the vision that you’ve just laid out for us in terms of a Christian nation and the temporal role of the state and the spiritual role of the church and so on.
Timon Cline: I guess I wouldn’t classify that as a policy issue. So, we can address it. And of course, it’s what everyone wants to know because I think most Christians, at least that are trying to be good faith interlocutors, are not necessarily at a principled level against a lot of this stuff that’s brought up in the Christian nationals debate. The general response you often get is, “That sounds great, but it’s a pipe dream, right?”
So, some things I’ll, point to—I, of course, have not scripted out my step-by-step plan to get us back there. And if I had, I wouldn’t share it with anyone yet, right? So, I wouldn’t want to give that away because I want full credit for restoring America as a Christian nation. But some things to notice about political life, even in America and I assume we’re in the American context here, is things do change much more rapidly than are usually noticed and the changes occur before anyone’s aware that it’s really occurred. And it also does not require typically any kind of real majority to do so. And I think you can look at things that are very recent, like gay marriage. You can look back before Dobbs to abortion. You can look at these things and notice that people we would say are our political opponents for these purposes are very astute and motivated to make change happen very quickly, very rapidly, without really any massive amount of buy in or changes of heart in the country. What you really need is some kind of level of disinterest and apathy. And then you need like a very strong 20 to 30 percent to push something.
So, the only point there is just how easy change actually is contrary to what we want to think. And that’s been demonstrated, I think, even, within our lifetimes. The other thing I would say on this front is that what my ideal is, my political ideal, also has in it the principle that prudence must govern. And part of that is that you cannot foist upon a people—which I think America is a people and still is one and has been one—something that is completely incongruent with their history and tradition, as well as if you can help it, their constitutional structure.
So what I would say is you can transport all these things that I’m talking about into a basically American context. And I think there’s some resonance there still for people who venerate their history and traditions. But the problem is they’ve been lied to about much of what that means. So, if you could convince them just by pure exposure of (1) their religious tradition, but also (2) their political and national traditions, you could actually get a lot of buy in because I think people are still sensitive to that, and I think it’s a good thing to have a certain level of filial piety.
And, mainly conservatives, but you see of course, whether they’re disingenuous or not, liberals make very similar arguments. In our country, political debates, at least as it stands—this may go away—are still often won and lost on the basis of how much you can convince people you’re doing something that’s congruent with America. Just what it’s supposed to mean and what it’s supposed to pursue and all this. That’s how you justify many things. So, that’s where battles can still be won and lost. And I really think they are compelling to people still. And I think that can be done here.
The last thing I’ll say on that also as to prudence and how you do this, if you’re going to be a magisterial Protestant in your political thought, you have to also think as they did about things, as well as a Western Christian generally. So, if you think about even the most what we would say is cynical kind of observers of political life, whether you want to take Machiavelli, or a lot of the Christian response to Machiavelli, or Aquinas, they’ll all make similar points that changes to law especially are in this way violent, they’re disruptive, so you must be careful and slow in the way that you do it. And you must consider the extent to which you’re willing to cause disruption for a chosen end and whether it’s justified, these sorts of things. Even if we got our requisite 30 percent on board and we had our arguments about the nature of America and the Protestant tradition and this being a Protestant country and all this in a sort of, even if we got them into position where they’re now becoming acceptable and compelling to people, you still would need to take a gradual approach because law is supposed to mean lead men to virtue gradually, right?
So, this is not some kind of massive overhaul you could do overnight. And that’s why I usually describe it as some kind of process of renewal, not necessarily a full-on regime change. But I think it’s still not too late to try to first reinvigorate the political thought of Protestants who still dominate the country, and then try to move through various political means, meaning both law and policy as well as public arguments. And as I said before, social stigma is very powerful. You can develop all these things without needing a total overhaul and can introduce real renewal in that regard. I think that’s possible. So, in terms of the policy of how you implement it, I think that’s it’s doable. It’s within the realm of possibility.
If other changes we’ve witnessed or large departures from, as Protestants, our historic way of thinking about many of these things, and, as Americans, from much of what we inherited at the founding, have happened this easily, then in theory, you can go the other direction by similar means. It can’t just be replicated because of course, you can’t actually hashtag return or whatever the, the “trad” Twitter bros will say. But it’s possible. And that’s all my point is.
Stephen Wellum: I wonder—this may sound like a silly question and so on, but in the Reformed tradition there is a strong doctrine of sin, obviously, and the need for regeneration. When we want law to reform people, are we just assuming that with that is coming the power of the gospel that is also changing hearts so that they would want to do God’s commands? Naturally, there’s not a desire to please God and to do what is right and good. Governments are responsible to enforce that and to uphold that. But just think about how that fits in with the Reformed tradition, the doctrine of sin, regeneration, the legislation of law, changing of hearts. How are you thinking of that fitting in?
Timon Cline: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s controversial take or not, but it probably is. I’m a big fan of cultural Christianity. And when we’re thinking about political life—so when we’re at church, if we’re in church together, I’m very concerned about whether or not you’re a genuine Christian that’s in church with me. I’m of course concerned with that and we should be with each other and seek to edify one another and exhort each other to a true embrace of the gospel, right?
When I’m dealing with law or political life, I don’t care about how much you believe it. I just need you to act accordingly for the sake of political peace, tranquility, and all these things. Now, I think that if you have a legal regime that reflects the things we’re talking about in terms of Christianity and its doctrine insofar as it applies to social and political life, I do believe in that pedagogical effect of law. And I think it does actually move people towards truth. So even when we have something as simple as a law against theft, our hope is that you don’t steal because you know that it’s wrong. And you actually believe that. But for the purposes of the effect of that law and the effects on society, I don’t really care if you believe it or not. I just need you to not do it. That’s the limited scope of that law and what it’s supposed to be accomplishing.
My requirement, my prerequisite for Christian society is not that everybody’s converted. We can make Baptist and Presbyterian expectations govern here. Neither with eschatology. I’m basically disinterested in eschatology. It doesn’t come into play for me because I see these politics as a matter of justice and duty. So, the bottom line is that it’s the duty of a polity, whether it’s what we’ve describe now as a nation or however you break that up constitutionally, it’s the duty of a polity to honor God with their laws and to promote true religion. So, I would say it’s a matter of duty and justice. It’s a work of the spirit to determine how many people out of that polity will actually come to Christ and spend eternity with him. But that’s not my interest as a statesman, even as my interest is to do everything you can to encourage people in that direction.
Stephen Wellum: I wonder, in the American system—you’re saying in this context you’d want to work within the American system which is a constitutional republic—you would have to have a buy-in of people to those laws. So, once you put those laws in place, you’d have some who would want to do them for the right reasons. Others, you’re saying, may not do it for the right reasons, but they’re in place and there’s a pedagogy to it. But you’d have to have the initial buy-in to that. So, would that not require people to want to value those laws even to get them in place? And that would require a vote, right? The majority of people to do it unless it gets imposed from without type of thing?
Timon Cline: Yeah. And this is where I would bring up something that people really need to get serious about again, and that is the federalist polity in the way that it was originally meant to work. Which your focus here would certainly be state level operations, I guess you would say. This is where you did have establishments. It’s the proper purview of states to conduct morals legislation. So, even in states where you did not have an establishment historically, you of course had blasphemy laws, Sabbath laws, all these sorts of things we know about. And that’s the proper place for that to happen. As well as generally health policy, but that’s a different discussion we can have.
So to that extent, your political problem is changed a little bit because you have a smaller constituency and presumably more pockets of homogeneity. And in fact, the goal of another goal of politics should be to foster homogeneity. Not heterogeneity or diversity. These are political problems. They’re not actually things that should be pursued for their own sake, even though they’re just always a fact. So, your scope is smaller at your state level which is part of the design of the country, in fact, for these very reasons—a diversity of religious pockets and establishment and historic traditions.
And I think as people—we talk about self-sorting and all this, and we see that happening now for different reasons, although they’re not disconnected from morality and questions of religious life, I think. But the point is you could imagine a certain American map where you do actually have policies in certain pockets of the country tending more towards things traditionally. If we think of establishment as like a bundle of sticks, some of those sticks being put back in the bundle in certain places.
And over time, the effect of law, and we see this now—what’s the real effect of Obergefell? No one—okay, maybe one person in Kentucky went to jail for this—but that’s not the point. And it wasn’t even the point that you needed this this sort of massive buy-in, even though states were tending that way on their own. The effect was a pedagogical declaration to the extent now that a gay marriage debate is boring. No one’s even talking about that. It’s over. It’s a foregone conclusion now. And I think we underestimate the extent to which that effect of law is very impactful upon cultural preferences and assumptions.
But I think that’s inevitable and legitimate. I think that’s just how it works. So, I think you really could—not that you need massive, purely democratic buy-in our system—but you could begin to affect the proclivities of a polity through these means. Again, I think it’s doable. And you could appreciate—or accept, you just accept politically there’s going to be a diversity of ways of doing this thing within our federal polity, and that’s just the way it is. But you could still establish your more Christian leaning or even denominational specific laws eventually in a state just like it used to be. Having to deal with popular opinion is not a problem unique to the Christian Nationalist project, right? It’s always a problem. So, I don’t see it as disqualifying.
David Schrock: So, Timon, if I can kind of summarize something of what you’re saying, you would be for establishing Christian laws of morality, we might call the second table of the law. But it also seems like you would be for establishing the first table of the law as well.
Is that fair to say?
Timon Cline: Yeah, totally fair.
David Schrock: Would you enforce them in the same way? Would there be the same kind of coercion for both of those? Help us understand how you would see both of those at work.
Timon Cline: Yeah, historically, of course, bifurcating the two tables made no sense. If the decalogue is the inscripturated summary of the natural law, then it’s the basis for all human law and everything must be agreeable thereto. It also doesn’t make much sense to me that you can detach the duties of each table from one another just because one is, as we would now say, to God and one’s to man. I don’t see how you can do justice to either of those without justice to the other. And indeed, people who advocate only for second table enforcement still predicate all those arguments on something at some point about the image of God and man and these things and the nature of justice and all that. I don’t see how you do that in this sort of almost schizophrenic way of where you break up these duties and this law.
So, I think that yes, it’s perfectly—and certainly just on traditional grounds—it’s perfectly legitimate to enforce both. This would be the basis in many ways for things like blasphemy laws. And whatever else you want to say in that way, however you want to expand that kind of thing, there’s also always a civil argument for laws like that that do not allow you to revile the predominant religion in public. And this would be the rationale of courts in antebellum America on blasphemy law cases: this is inherently destabilizing and damaging and bad and immoral to have. So, I think also for Christians to readopt a category of law that is purely moral.
I was talking with someone about this the other day. You will hear conservative arguments for something like banning pornography because they’ll list the things like it’s connected to human trafficking, it’s harmful to minors, oftentimes these things. But never just the straight up moral argument of it’s just wrong. And it’s obscene. And it’s bad.
Now, I don’t think this is that outlandish to people, actually, because you even have secular non-Christians who’ve developed on their own a sort of category of psychological harm, recognizing that there’s something beyond mere physical or material harm that is actually relevant and actionable. And I think in their own unlearned way are noticing that there’s a soul, right? There is a psyche, and that the harm can be inflicted upon it as well. And that would be done, we would say, in a Christian polity by reviling the true religion, which you actually want to encourage people to do. That’s for their good and the good of their soul.
And there’s always an argument I’m very fond of from Richard Baxter where he basically says part of the reason you have what we’d call religious law is because most people are really pliable and are easily bullied. That’s basically what he’d say. And it’s the job of the good magistrate to support them and remind them that it is good to be a Christian, and that they should do this. So, to set an example in this way, and for the laws to encourage them to do it because there’s going to be many other forces that try to discourage them from doing it. So, it’s a more paternal kind of argument, but I think it’s a good one. And that goes along with cultural Christianity.
But yes, I would enforce both tables. I’m actually fine with just complete established church in principle. I think that’s perfectly fine.
David Schrock: Yeah, I have a historical question I want to ask, but first I want to ask Steve something. And this kind of goes back to the first principles that you mentioned there where you have the orientation of life together and the family, the city, the nation, all the rest, and what should be established in the polis and the polity is both earthly and heavenly good.
So, if I understand you correctly, it sounds like that the nation itself, or the political entity, the king that’s given the sword if you will, whatever jurisdiction that is, should be coercing, should be encouraging, should be fostering something for heavenly good. Steve, what did you think about that? Is that the role of the state to do that? And maybe this is one point of difference that we would have.
Stephen Wellum: Yeah, that’s the billion-dollar question, isn’t it? Obviously, that’s where some of the differences lie. I’m a bit more hesitant to put the state’s role in that position now that we live in this place of redemptive history. Much of what is being said in terms of the application of the Decalogue in terms of the first and second table does apply very well to Israel as a nation, as God’s people. I’m not convinced of that myself, but we’re here to talk to Timon about his view here in terms of the role of the state now and then the role of the church.
I’m just wondering with that enforcement of the first table, Timon, would you then say that in America if we could get to this position, what about other religions? Would they be allowed in with immigration? Would you have religious freedom? It seems to me that if you have no other gods before me, that we would then have no ability to have any one. I guess we could say within broader Christianity—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant, and that would be primarily it. Would that be the vision of then, say, America returning to a proper sense of a Christian nation?
Timon Cline: Yeah, I’m an advocate of what I would say is the traditional concept of tolerance. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong with the phrase religious liberty, but all the baggage it carries with it now that I want to chip away at.
So, having an established religion wherein the laws and the government itself is in some ways deferential to the teaching of the church and at least wants to protect it—when Franciscus Junius says that it’s the job of the magistrate to lead the people to the eternal gates of salvation, he says he’s doing that in conjunction with the church and by protecting it and promoting its teaching and doctrine of scripture, right? So, it’s not that he’s taken over the keys or anything, and he doesn’t have any role in administration of the sacraments, preaching, or the discipline within the church, but he’s supporting it to the hilt in this scenario. Having that preferential treatment and that establishment, which can look many different ways, doesn’t negate a mode of toleration either for dissenting factions, which I think are just a reality. I don’t think you can actually eradicate that, and I don’t think you can use tyrannical means to accomplish good ends. I think those are contradictory.
So, I would be perfectly fine in a polity where there’s even large contingents of minority groups that are dissenters. And there’s no need to run around killing them or something like this. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have the preferential treatment for the established religion. It also doesn’t mean that you can’t, at least in principle—and this is where prudence comes in a lot because you have to think about larger political realities—but in principle, it doesn’t mean also that you can’t limit the expression of those tolerated groups to the extent where, publicly, they will not have the same abilities as the established faith. They will not be able to propagate openly or do various sorts of things.
People now will typically say religious liberty not only means I can believe whatever I want, it not only means I can practice this over here, it means I should have equal status and ability to participate in public life with everyone else which requires a certain indifference politically towards religion, period, in order to allow this radical sort of egalitarian principle and religion to succeed. And I think that that is a big problem. It’s actually the solution Jefferson proposed to religious factionism. And he said you can’t mediate between these various theological traditions. The best thing to do is for us to be to ignore them so that they’ll die because they’ll have no public importance. And that’s basically been accomplished.
So, an alternative solution is to say we can have tolerance for dissenters that do not disrupt public life. The classic example in New England is the Quakers, and this is always an episode that I think is treated unfairly. But if you have people that basically come into your polity, not to live in peace and believe differently, recognizing they won’t have preferential treatment, but in fact to disrupt everything you were trying to do as a polity and publicly so with the intent of doing just that, I think you’re perfectly justified then in suppressing that dissent as it’s expressed because it’s gone beyond just toleration. Now there is a political problem.
And you can say functionally that this is a reality that’s always true. We mentioned post-liberalism; It’s a very typical post-liberal critique to notice that there’s always some kind of moral establishment to which laws are deferential, and everything else is merely tolerated and usually sidelined or ostracized.
So, it’s just a political reality.
David Schrock: I’m not sure we actually defined post-liberal in our recording. That might’ve been beforehand. Define for us your understanding of post-liberalism that you just threw out there. What are you talking about?
Timon Cline: Yeah, post-liberalism is really a broad umbrella of various thinkers that have their own positions engaged in this, which is to critique what they see as the liberal status quo or liberal order, especially in its post- or mid- twentieth century expressions, which many people might now just chalk up as progressivism. But the post-liberal critique typically goes beyond that to what we’d say were prior conditions of thinking, political thought, of course, that we would classify as liberal, that produce some of the ills that we now notice. And that’s why those have to be investigated.
So you have lots of, Patrick Deneen is typically considered in the post-liberal discussion, and he probably has the most famous book doing that even though there’s others from various perspectives, including some Protestants. So, it’s just the critique of, as they define it—which you’re going to get various definitions of liberalism—but for the ideological front, you would say some kind of egalitarian principle or liberationist principle in political life that the orientation of everything should be to compound and produce freedom at every turn, which is always rooted in the individual.
David Schrock: Yeah, that’d be one distinction that I would make—the difference between a society built on individuals and societies built on little platoons and certainly the ordering of the family and civil institutions and all the rest. Steve, I think I might have cut you off. Did you have something to say?
Stephen Wellum: No, I’m just curious—in your response about the application of the decalogue, right? The two tables of the law—it seemed to me, and I just wonder how you’d respond to that, that the first table is being applied differently to the society than the second table is. In that there’s nowhere in Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 that you would have religious toleration. So, some kind of difference is going to have to be made between the use of the Decalogue under Israel and then its application to us.
You can elevate it as moral law, natural law, whatever you do. But as it comes over to where we are in redemptive history, some kind of difference is going to have to be made. So even when you say, “Have no other gods before me,” in the Old Testament where that’s given, that’s functioning in a certain way that doesn’t seem to be functioning in how you are applying it, right?
You wouldn’t say if you go kill somebody, then we’ll have toleration towards that or something like that. So, how would you respond about how you are drawing from the biblical warrant for the role of the state, the role of the church, the application of the decalogue, and so on?
Timon Cline: So, I should say if it’s not evident, I’m not a theonomist. They’re good guys, but I critique theonomy for the simple reason that I don’t think that, of course, the civil or judicial model in the Old Testament Israel is readily applicable or necessarily applicable to any given polity.
I don’t think that that’s necessitated by Scripture, nor by the Protestant tradition. If you have people like Luther and Aquinas and everyone else will say this, if you have laws from Old Testament Israel that are civil and they’re readily applicable to your polity because of its conditions, go for it. There’s nothing wrong with them. But what you have in Old Testament Israel is a perfect legislative act, meaning that you have God demonstrating through—and this is beyond the Decalogue, of course, so we’ll return to that—but demonstrating the appropriate way according to prudence and context and the condition of a people to apply the very general natural law to a polity.
So, the benefit of reading that is to learn from example of how to do it in your own context. But that again must be governed by the particular condition of your place. So, you’re going to have to make concessions to political realities, which I would call tolerance a concession. I would say this is just a fact of the matter.
So this is why you have the hypothetical from Aquinas talking about brothels in Paris and saying he thinks at that point of a wise ruler, it would be too disruptive and you simply can’t eradicate them from Paris. It’s too perennial, so you might not be able to try. If Aquinas had a blank slate, he’s not saying all just polities have brothels. He’s just saying that you have to consider these things. This isn’t the typical mirrors for princes type literature where they have to get very nitty-gritty. Theologians used to do this and say, “Here’s the realities on the ground you’ve got to consider.”
I would say toleration is one of those, depending on your polity. But even in a sort of—I don’t know what we’d say—seventeenth-century Massachusetts, they were well aware of various dissenting groups that were around. And they didn’t run around trying to hunt them down just to do that, but it was made very clear if you’re going to participate in civil life at the highest level available, then you’ve got to conform to what we’re doing here, and you’re also going to be punished for trying to supplant that.
But at the same time, we have a fair amount of immigration happening and lots of different Protestant sects, for lack of a better term—whatever we want to do with Quakers—and we’re just going to have to deal with that politically. That’s fine. Is it ideal? No. Ideally, you’d have complete homogeneity with everyone agreeing and also everyone actually saved.
So, I would say tolerance is a political reality. I think that it’s not unprincipled in that way. It’s not purely cynical because we of course do recognize that we can encourage virtue and can encourage true religion by law. But ultimately, it cannot in itself change the hearts and will of people. So, the idea behind the promotion of true religion and the church itself is that will be the vehicle and avenue towards them embracing, at even a personal level, true religion and true faith.
So, you do want to provide some leeway for that to happen. Your hope is that they will come to true faith. But you can certainly subject them to things like public preaching on a regular basis and see if that’s instrumental and disallow false preaching. And that’s not intolerant in my opinion from this kind of traditional perspective.
David Schrock: Our time is running to an end. I got two questions for you as we wrap up. We’ve talked about the state. We talked about the law. We talked about its implementation. I’m curious just about the role of the church. So that’s my question, but I want to tee it up like this. So, if there was an establishment of the Decalogue, if there’s an establishment of Christianity in the nation or in a state—something that has been done in the past—what is the church’s role at that point?
And in the past where we had an established religion, an established Christian religion, what did the church do wrong that it didn’t continue to fund, if you will, the regeneration that was necessary? Obviously, regeneration comes from the Lord, but it comes through the means of the preaching.
What did the church not do that the church would need to do in the proposal that you’re making with this establishment of Christianity?
Timon Cline: So as I said—I think I said this already—to me, when we’re talking about these political arrangements, that is a matter of justice and duty, not in terms of the salvation of individual people. That outcome is hoped for, but not necessarily in scope when we’re talking about the political theory of these things. In the same way that the church has been given certain duties and markers in Scripture to perform and is to leave the rest to the Spirit that we can’t put that in a box or determinant ahead of time, we just do our duty to the best of our ability and then leave the rest to God.
I think it’s the same for the temporal power. There’s a certain duty in relation to true religion and the church that it needs to perform and as justice to the one who’s given it power, which is God. I don’t think that the temporal power is allowed to reject or not notice both modes of revelation from God which would include Scripture as well. It just then is a question of competency to use Scripture, which is better found in the church.
So, these are a matter of duty, and I would say all political arrangements and regimes are finite, necessarily so. They’re human creations in the immediate sense inside of Providence, and so they’re bound to fail. They’ll always fail at some level. And I guess I reject the common narratives out of many people I’ve talked with and debated that establishment regimes were a failure that produced cold Christianity and probably mitigated against actual salvation and all these things. I don’t know how that’s falsifiable. I don’t know how to investigate that claim. It’s just made, and the evidence for such is to point to European countries that are now highly secularized that had, or still formally have, establishments. And I don’t think it demonstrates the case, at least on the terms that I set up to assess it with.
So, what did the churches fail at or succeed at? I’m not really sure. They failed in the things they did bad and succeeded in things they did good. And these sorts of arrangements fail for various reasons. Just as if you look at the track record and resultant trajectory of so-called liberal disestablished regimes, I think they’re trending pretty badly. At least the other ones had maybe a thousand years of success, which you have to assess these things at a very basic level. Did they survive? I think that’s pretty good. If you told me I could get my ideal right now but I’d only have a thousand years to enjoy it, I’d say I would take it. That seems pretty good.
Churches should exercise their prophetic witness regardless of the political regime they live in. And that doesn’t change when they have an establishment. There will be opportunities for correctives that need to be offered by the church through its weapons of word and sacrament and discipline of these things. And then it’s the state’s job to heed those pronouncements and to act accordingly. If you’re a Protestant, one change you’re going to make in this theory is that there is going to be a role for the magistrate to also potentially correct the church if it becomes corrupt. You have to say that, otherwise you can’t be a good Protestant because how do you explain how you’ve gotten here?
So, you have to have this sort of idea, but they will also say that because this relationship between church and state is coordinate and diaconal, there’s also a sense in which the church must correct the state when it becomes corrupt. If these things are symbiotic in this way.
So I think those duties for the church though, since that was your question, transcend any kind of context. Even now the church should be exercising itself publicly that way. And we don’t.
David Schrock: Yeah, one thing I might just answer, and this would be historical, but I also think just the nature of what you’re saying is that the church would have to say that cultural Christianity doesn’t regenerate anyone, right?
So, someone who is in a culture like that, to understand it on your terms, it seems as though it’s important to recognize that someone may see themselves as a Christian because they have been baptized into the nation, if that’s how you understand that, but to say that that’s different than regeneration. So, one of the things the church historically hasn’t done is to keep the sound doctrine and to guard against error, right? And we know that just with Protestant liberalism and the modernist movement, all the rest of the nineteenth century. So that’s at least one thing of kind of thinking through the incubation of the discussions that you’re having right now. It seems highly important to say that the mission of the church continues to be to preach the gospel in such a way that it says if there is a nation that is recognizing Christ as King, this doesn’t mean because you’re in that nation, that He is your king.
So, there does seem to be something that is personal for the preaching of the gospel in a church in that context.
Timon Cline: Yeah, totally. I would say that your preaching should emphasize that all the time no matter what. And you need to be preaching the true word and the true gospel and exhorting people to embrace it.
Misgivings about—I’m not saying you’re saying this—but misgivings that cultural Christianity introduced uniquely—and that somehow an atheistic secular context is better for this—but the cultural condition of Christianity introduced a unique amount of confusion over this issue, whether you’re truly saved because of reasons other than accepting Christ, or doubt, questions of justification, all this stuff, they just seem like perennial questions to me of theology that people wrestle with in every context.
So, I don’t see it as a unique threat in that way, but it is something to always be preaching. And people today, even as cultural Christianity, so-called, is on the down slope, I think they’ll still wrestle with that. Maybe it’s because they attend church that they’re Christians and not really because they’ve accepted the gospel. Maybe it’s because they do good works, because they have a good family, whatever. There’s always avenues for people to acquire false hope that’s not sound. So, I think it’s on balance worth it to have to preach against. What a great place to live where one of your biggest problems is to preach against how virtuous the country is and that people should remember they really need to accept Christ themselves.
I think that’s a pretty good problem to have politically.
David Schrock: Last question for you, Timon. And this is just a, what time is it now question. You’re talking about going back to—and I know you’ve done some writing and Stephen Wolfe has done this, and you’ve supported him—thinking about this idea of a Christian prince and some of the Protestant magisterial understanding goes back before the founding of our country and would see the power that is being given to a king to be able to lead a nation towards righteousness and all the rest.
But we also have a founding as Steve was saying earlier of a constitutional republic. There are founding documents that are there. What do you see? Do you see a situation that today we are beyond the Constitution? There’s so many ways that it seems to be undermined by what is going on in Washington, D.C. and other places. Have we gone beyond that? Are we trying to return to that? Or are some of the things you’re thinking about in this beginning of this incubation stage for something else that comes beyond that?
Certainly, we don’t hope for the total collapse of our country, but I’m just wondering the kind of conversation you’re thinking? It’s at the beginning stages, political theory. Are you thinking about ways in which to bring about, as you said earlier, not a revolution, right? There is a restoration that would be moving more incrementally. But just trying to think what time is it, and how do you see that conversation leading to what comes next?
Timon Cline: So, I think this is something I say frequently. We’ll just say that the founders—we of course know it’s more than five guys, so I don’t have to drone on for too long. I would love for us to be able to think like the founders did about politics and get beyond just parroting curated quotes from what they said. And the founders were excellent statesmen. I think that generation is some of the most brilliant people to live and that they were very astute in this regard. And they were not unaware of the fact that their own constitutional order could fail. And for the same reasons that those various other regimes they surveyed failed, and that they were not immune from that. So, I think if you’re going to be a good political thinker today, you have to have the same recognition that this could fail.
It doesn’t mean you want to be a total accelerationist or something or long for its demise. But that’s just a reality, and your political structure should be in service of preserving a particular people. That’s its goal. And if it fails to do that, look at what the declaration says, right? So, this is what the entire rationale at the beginning of the Declaration of Independence is. This current political relationship is no longer conducive to the proper ends.
So that’s that. On the other hand, we’re recognizing that could happen and it’d be a lamentable future is one thing. You should desire to work within the system you’ve been given that’s, again, native to the people. And you should find ways to do that. You should be generally agnostic at a very principled level as to the form of government except for pure democracy. That’s always bad. Don’t accept that.
But a mixed polity is the Aristotelian ideal. And people don’t often recognize the strong monarchical element of our polity. In fact, one of the strongest elements is the monarchical element. We just call it the executive, right? But it’s the same thing. And we’ve seen periods of time in history where that element has been emphasized more than others for similar purposes—to restore order, to reorient in many ways the constitutional order itself. We’ve had several evolutions in this way. And that’s also different. Even that analysis was saying we can work within this system, we can appreciate its mixed form, and all we would want to do is make it function the way it’s supposed to.
It’s another thing to make Stephen Wolfe’s argument—and when I wrote a review of that chapter to say just in principle, there’s also nothing wrong with talking about the Christian prince the way he does. In fact, it’s very conventional, historically speaking. That doesn’t mean you want to plop it down here, but it means that it’s in principle fine, just as other arrangements are in principle fine.
The one thing I would add is that we’re so far removed from a polity that would have a really strong, both formally and in a sort of obvious way, monarch where the character of that person trickles down and defines the polity in many ways and it’s aspirational. We’re really far away from that. And it does have benefits to it, I think. But as Aquinas would have said, monarchy is like high-risk, high-reward. Democracy is low-reward, high-risk. And, aristocracy is like middle of the road. So, it depends on how much of a betting man you are.
I think the mixed form is the best form for the same reason the founders did. And I would like for it to function the way it’s supposed to, but it’s been subverted in so many ways. And having predictive analysis about what will happen, it should not be rejected in my opinion. There’s been far too much hysteria, I think, around that kind of exercise. I think it’s very fruitful. And no one is saying they want to usher in a dictatorship tomorrow or something, just because you’re recognizing the merit of monarchy or something.
So anyway, that’s a roundabout way of saying I’m not sure what to think about all that, all those reactions, but it does touch on something which is interesting to me, which means most people politically aren’t thinking soberly. Because our founders were perfectly happy to engage in this sort of thought exercise and think about how do you establish a good polity?
So, I just want it to be healthy.
David Schrock: That’s why we’re here and spent the last hour thinking through these things. And hopefully it’s been, again, more light to help us think through these things. Steve, any final thoughts?
Stephen Wellum: Great discussion, Timon, laying out your view. And obviously a lot of commonality with many, but also some differences and you’ve clearly given us your vision and version of Christian nationalism, so we thank you for that.
Timon Cline: Thank you guys for having me.
David Schrock: Yeah, it’s been a joy, brother. Stephen, Timon, good to be with you today.