I start this review just after having enjoyed an hour-long conversation with Stephen Wolfe, when friends at Christ Over All and I recorded a podcast with him. Wolfe was friendly, amiable, and happy to discuss his book. It was a pleasure to spend time with him, and I benefitted from the time.
We here at Christ Over All decided to essentially devote two months exploring the question of Christian Nationalism. We decided that during the first month we would record more podcasts than normal, trying to let both friend and foe of Christian Nationalism speak for themselves. The second month will be more or less devoted to our attempts to offer some analysis and criticism.
I read every word of Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism. It was dense and turgid at times, but Wolfe has clearly thought through his thesis and desired to build and support an argument. It is the kind of work that has generated significant criticism, and simply as a matter of principle I wanted to carefully grasp the nature of the argument before offering any feedback—positive or negative.
On this principle, I will offer a two-part response. I will outline the key arguments put forward by Wolfe (Part One) and will then proceed to suggest some key strengths and weaknesses—as I see it—of the volume (Part Two).
The Heart of the Argument
Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism is a 478-page volume, consisting of a sustained argument made over ten chapters, including a 38-page informal “Epilogue.” The volume is, per the title, a thorough argument on behalf of “Christian Nationalism.” Wolfe defines Christian Nationalism as:
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. (p. 9)
He admirably unpacks and explicates this definition across the volume. And if one grasps his method, or perhaps methods, one is a long way to grasping the logic and force of his volume. Consider three aspects of his approach:
- Assuming the Reformed Tradition. Wolfe forthrightly assumes the Reformed tradition, including John Calvin, Johannes Althusius, Protestant Reformed Scholastics (e.g., Frances Turretin), and more recent Reformed titans like Herman Bavinck.
- Proceeding from Natural Principles. This is key to Wolfe’s entire volume. He proceeds from “a foundation of natural principles” (p. 18), and “treats natural principles as the foundation, origin, and source of political life, even Christian political life” (p. 18). This feeds into an intriguing dualism, to which we shall return. But one example: “Whereas Christian theology considers the Christian mainly in relation to supernatural grace and eternal life, Christian political theory treats man as an earthly being (though bound to a heavenly state) whose political life is fundamentally natural” (p. 18). Wolfe will proceed to consistently turn to a “mixed syllogism”:
- “assuming that civil leaders ought to order the people to the true God (a natural principle), we can conclude that . . .”
- “. . . civil leaders ought to order the people to the Triune God. Why? Because . . . “
- “. . . the Triune God is the true God (a supernatural truth)” (p. 19).
- Embracing Complexity. By “complexity,” Wolfe simply seems to mean he is going to try throughout the volume to lay out an argument that will not necessarily be “simple.” Wolfe’s goal is to “integrate natural principles and supernatural truths such that nature is applied and fulfilled by means of supernatural truth” (p. 19).
1. “Mixed syllogism” is a term used by Wolfe to refer to “syllogisms in which one premise is known by reason and the other known only by faith” (19).
It is worth noting that in this section on “complexity” that Wolfe is quite candid that his “account of Christian Nationalism is a Presbyterian Christian nationalism” (p. 20). We Baptists, therefore, will want to keep our antennae up as we wrestle with Wolfe’s thesis.
The remainder of the Introduction (pp. 20–38) offers a fairly detailed overview of the argument. I especially recommend this for folks who may not want to wade through the entire volume.
The Body of the Argument
The first nine chapters lay out Wolfe’s argument in great detail. Even though the cover displays the United States, this is not a book about American nationalism, Christian or otherwise. Wolfe is quite clear that he is making a general argument for Christian nationalism. His conception of Christian nationalism would then have to be worked out in various ways depending on the particular time, place, and circumstances of a particular nation. Chapter 10 is then a 35-page reflection on the experience and situation of the United States in particular.
Chapters 1 and 2 are theological reflections on man in his “three states.” Chapter 1 (“Nations Before the Fall: What is Man? Part I: Creation”) treats (1) man as created in a state of innocence; Chapter 2 treats (2) man as fallen and (3) man as redeemed. Wolfe argues in Chapter 1 that man—from the beginning—had two ends: earthly and heavenly. Wolfe also argues that some sort of political reality (civil government) would have emerged even apart from sin. Indeed, something like “nations” (distinct political entities of some sort) would have emerged apart from sin. Wolfe offers a clearly Thomist understanding of sin (in general) in Chapter 2: “The fall’s principal effect concerned man’s relationship to God and the promised heavenly life, for it removed man’s highest gifts (those that drew him to heavenly life)” (p. 22). This is key: “Man retains his earthly gifts, those that lead him to the fundamental things of earthly life, such as family formation and civil society. Thus, man still has his original instincts and still knows the principles of right action, which incline him to what is good” (p. 22). The key: “I argue that postlapsarian social organization—viz., as human society has manifested in post-fall history—reflects true and good principles, but in every time and place there is some degree of abuse of those principles. Thus, the formation of nations is not a product of the fall; it is natural to man as man” (p. 22).
Chapter 2 (“Redeemed Nations: What is Man? Part II: Fall and Redemption”) addresses man as both fallen and redeemed. The key question is: “what changed and what stayed the same in human society before and after the fall?” (p. 81). Wolfe’s key premise is that neither sin nor redemption fundamentally changes the pre-fall reality of the rightness and goodness of particular nations. That is, distinct and particular nations would have emerged apart from sin. Neither the entrance of sin into the world, nor God’s redemptive activity fundamentally alters the proper status and goodness of individual, particular nations. Rather: “Grace does not destroy what is natural but restores it. Grace also perfects nature, and thus nations can be Christian nations and commonwealths can be Christian commonwealths” (p. 116).
In Chapter 3 (“Loving Your Nation: The Nation and Nationalism”), Wolfe advances his argument. Wolfe argues: since neither the fall nor grace destroys or abrogates natural human relations but perfects such relations, we know that the “fall did not introduce the natural instinct to love one’s own, and grace does not ‘critique’ or subvert our natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to us” (p. 118). That is: “The fall introduced the abuse of social relations and malice towards ethnic difference. Grace corrects this abuse and malice, but it does not introduce new principles of human relations” (p. 118). It is this chapter that has ginned-up a number of Wolfe’s critics. Wolfe is happy to argue that persons naturally (and remember, for Wolfe: “nature” is good, and is perfected, not destroyed, by “grace”) have affections for their own place and for people similar to one’s self. In a kind of summative statement: “a Christian people, whose good is found both in cultural particularity and in a universal religion, can and must be for itself as a distinct people in the interest of earthly and heavenly good, for itself and its posterity” (p. 135).
In Chapter 4 (“Perfecting Your Nation: The Christian Nation”) now gives more explicit attention to not simply nationalism, but to Christian nationalism. And the nature/grace schema (“grace perfects nature”—including the pre-fall “natural” reality of nations) is front and center. Wolfe provides the following thesis statement: “A Christian nation is a nation whose particularly earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ, having been perfected by Christian revelation as grace perfects nature, without undermining that particularity but rather strengthening it so that the people might achieve the complete good” (p. 174). In this chapter Wolfe lays out a syllogism which has already been percolating throughout his volume. This syllogism (p. 183) is in a sense the heart of the book in a nutshell:
- Civil government ought to direct its people to the true religion [Major Premise: “a principle of nature”].
- The Christian religion is the true religion [Minor Premise: a “supernatural” premise]
- Therefore, civil government ought to direct its people to the Christian religion [a “supernatural conclusion”].
Thus: “a supernatural truth [the Minor Premise] can interact with a natural principle [the Major Premise] and soundly produce a supernatural conclusion” [the conclusion] (pp. 184-85).
I believe this syllogism is virtually the pivot upon which the whole argument turns (and Wolfe says as much, p. 185). So: “civil government must, by its design, be capable of knowing man’s higher end so that it can order man properly to earthly good” (p. 188). Or: “Thus, civil government has an interest in directing people in true religion” (p. 190). Or: “Since, civil government is able, it ought to direct people to true piety” (p. 191).
Even though Wolfe disagrees with “the modern version of two-kingdoms theology” (and David Van Drunen receives a brief rebuttal—pp. 96–101), he offers his own version of the “two kingdoms.” Wolfe summarizes contemporary two-kingdoms theology as holding that the church (the locus of the “redemptive kingdom”) is to be concerned with redemption/grace, and not with “transforming” culture. But Wolfe makes a distinction between redemption (that with which the church is primarily concerned) and restoration of earthly life (that with which Christians should be concerned, even if the church as the church does not really focus here) (pp. 193–94). But, as Wolfe sees it, redeemed persons will then be concerned with the restoration of all things. The key question becomes: “whether Christians ought to seek the Christianization of the family, civil society, and civil government” (p. 194).
Chapter 5 (“The Good of Cultural Christianity”) pushes back against a fairly common tendency to denigrate “cultural Christianity.” Wolfe distinguishes between “cultural Christianity” (a good, albeit a limited good) and “Christian culture” (a more robust good). Wolfe affirm that both (1) the “civil power” of magistrates and (2) cultural Christianity are “supplemental” modes of religion. That is, they support true religion, and point people to their goods—both earthly and spiritual (pp. 208–09). Hence, “Cultural Christianity is a ‘mode of religion’ because it orders people to eternal life in Christ” (p. 209). “Cultural Christianity” is defined the following way:
Cultural Christianity is a mode of religion wherein social facts normalize Christian cultural practices (i.e., social customs) and a Christian self-conception of a nation in order (1) to prepare people to receive the Christian faith and keep them on the path to eternal life, (2) to establish and maintain a commodious social life, and (3) to make the earthly city an analog of the heavenly city (pp. 208–09).
On the other hand, “Christian culture” is different:
Christian culture is a public culture in which a people presume a Christian relation between themselves and adorn their collective, everyday life with Christian symbols, customs, and social expectations in order to mutually orient one another to worship God and love one’s neighbor in Christ (p. 212).
In short, cultural Christianity is preparatory for true religion, which manifests itself here in a Christian culture, which in turn continues to shape and direct persons to both their earthly and heavenly goods.
Sometimes a certain version of his Presbyterianism is front and center: “paedobaptism (i.e., infant baptism) is the position most natural to Christian nationalism, for baptizing infants brings them outwardly (at least) into the people of God. When the body politic is baptized, all are people of God” (p. 217).
Chapter 6 (“What Laws Can and Cannot Do: Civil Law”) hopes to “complete . . . the material cause of Christian nationalism, or the content of Christian national action” (p. 243). If Chapter 5 (on cultural Christianity) was more concerned with “social custom,” Wolfe now turns to potentially more dicey issues—the question of law, what a nation both prohibits and requires. Wolfe defines “law” as follows:
Law is an ordering of reason by an appropriate lawgiver for the good of the community (p. 245).
Wolfe is working in a natural law mode, and he speaks of the agreement or congruence of “eternal” law, “natural” law, and “human (or civil) law” (p. 245).
Wolfe will go on to define “civil law” as:
An ordering of reason, enacted and promulgated by a legitimate civil authority, that commands public action for the common good of civil communities (p. 248).
By now, we know where Wolfe is headed: civil law must direct, point toward, etc., persons to their earthly good, but an earthly good cannot be properly understood until that earthly good is seen as including that very earthly good being pointed to its ultimate, heavenly good.
One must consider the principle, the end, and the means of civil law. The principle should be “ordering civil life in accordance with natural law principles and circumstances,” the end is “a commodious, quiet, and godly life” (p. 255). The means, on the other hand, will change given the different circumstances. But in general, the means are “civil judgments concerning outward action” (p. 256).
In short, civil law should be such that it orders people, or colludes in ordering people, to the earthly and heavenly goods. Thus: “a Christian body of law, which contains laws that are distinctively Christian, order the community in reason, indeed to the highest reason and its fulfillment. A Christian body of law is the only complete and true body of law” (p. 263).
In Chapter 7 (“The Christian Prince”) Wolfe addresses who will be the “chief agent of Christian nationalism” (p. 277). This person is to be “a mediator . . . one who translates that national general will into specific commands of action that lead the nation to its good” (p. 277). This chapter, then is concerned with “the efficient cause of Christian nationalism; . . . the agents that bring about the things of Christian nationalism” (p. 278). Wolfe notes that he could have used another moniker for this title, perhaps simply “civil government” (p. 278). But Wolfe prefers something like a “prince”: “I cannot conceive of a true renewal of Christian commonwealths without great men leading their people to it” (p. 278). And: “I envision a measured and theocratic Caesarism—the prince as a world-shaker for our time, who brings a Christian people to self-consciousness and who, in his rise, restores their will for their good” (p. 279). Wolfe prefers “Caesarism in our time because it emphasizes personality in civil rulers” (p. 279, fn. 2).
Wolfe is clear that he affirms the traditional notion of the consent of the governed: “Consent is the mechanism by which divine civil power is bestowed upon the prince” (p. 285). Indeed: “We should never forget that although the power of civil leaders is rooted in God, they possess this power mediately and conditionally—by an act of the people and in trust for their good” (p. 286). Though Wolfe can usher Calvin to his side with some poignant quotes, it is striking to read Wolfe write: “Having the highest office on earth, the good prince resembles God to the people. Indeed, he is the closest image of God on earth” (p. 287). Or: “The prince is a sort of national god, not in the sense of being divine himself, or in materially transcending common humanity, or as an object of prayer or spiritual worship, or as a means of salvific grace, but as the mediator of divine rule for this nation and as one with the divinely granted power to direct them in their national completeness” (p. 288). Wolfe defines the title “Christian prince”:
The Christian prince is a civil ruler (as divinely ordained in nature) who possesses and uses powers (both civil and interpersonal) to order his people to commodious temporal life and to eternal life in Christ (p. 292).
This prince would (or could) “enact laws that both correct ungodly and unrighteous features of national culture and support good features of national culture” (p. 293), punish blasphemy (p. 293), to (through his personality) “persuade, admonish, and encourage righteousness and piety” (p. 293), “use civil power to ensure that the culture of his people reflects true religion” (p. 295), “can Christianize civil life . . . by adorning and perfecting it with true religion,” “can erect monuments that recall deeds of civic virtue but that point the people heavenward” (p. 296), “can adorn himself and his residence with Christian symbols” (p. 296). In short: “the Christian prince should exercise his power to secure and supplement Christian civil and material culture and do everything in this power to make his peoples’ culture, as a whole, Christian” (p. 297).
In a fairly lengthy section on the “two kingdoms,” Wolfe argues that there are “two kingdoms”—one essentially external (the “civil kingdom”) and one essentially internal (the “spiritual kingdom”). Christ does indeed rule over the “civil kingdom”. With the civil kingdom, “Christ’s civil rule is mediated through earthly civil rule, . . . and civil leaders exercise civil power only” (p. 300). The spiritual kingdom, on the other hand, “extends over the church and directly concerns the inward man and eternal good” (pp. 300–01). How do the two kingdoms connect, if they do? Wolfe writes: “The civil kingdom, by its nature, is obligated to order the people to the things of eternal life, and the things of eternal life are found only in Christ’s spiritual kingdom” (p. 306).
The prince reforms the church if necessary (p. 312), settles doctrine when called for (p. 313), would—in principle—eliminate error in the church (p. 313), “protects the church as a servant of Christ, not as a servant of pastors” (p. 315), orders “the civil realm according to the fullness of revealed religion (p. 315), orders “the civil realm to the divine precepts of Christ, “who is “king of the church” (p. 315), will “suppress false religion” (p. 315), and is responsible “to establish true religion according to divine precepts of ceremonial worship” (p. 315). Indeed: “The prince ‘kisses the son’ (Ps 2:12) by establishing and maintaining these laws of Christ in order to advance Christ’s spiritual kingdom” (p. 315).
In Chapter 8 (“The Right to Revolution”) Wolfe lays out his case—in principle—for the right to revolution. In making this case, it should be pointed out that Wolfe is in a significant line of Christian thinkers who have argued that—when the conditions are right—revolution can be justified (e.g., Thomas Aquinas, Junius Brutus, Johannes Althusius). Revolution is defined as follows:
Revolution is the forcible reclamation of civil power by the people in order to transfer that power on just and more suitable political arrangements (p. 326).
Wolfe is clear: “The purpose or end of revolution is not violence, nor is it to vanquish enemies of God or humanity, but to establish just and suitable arrangements for a peaceful and godly life” (p. 327). The ruler who could conceivably be removed forcibly would need to be a tyrant, and Wolfe defines “tyrant” as follows:
A tyrant is any civil ruler whose actions significantly undermine the conditions in which man achieves his true humanity or, as I’ve called it, the complete good (p. 333).
Upon my initial reading of this chapter, I was struck that Wolfe’s bar for revolution was quite low, and I still think that. One might summarize the chapter as making the following two points: (1) We are currently—at least in U.S.—living in a kind of tyrannical situation; (2) revolution is justified when tyranny exists. Indeed, the first sentence of the chapter seems to point in the direction of revolution: “The dire situation of Christianity in the West calls for action” (p. 325).
I wonder if I am reading Wolfe correctly, but I believe I am. The argument of the volume is that the civil government “ought to direct its people to the Christian religion” (p. 183, back in Chapter 4). And in Chapter 8 Wolfe contends: “Are Christians permitted to conduct revolution against a tyrant whose actions are significantly detrimental to true religion? I affirm this” (p. 338). A key question to put to Wolfe would be: if the civil magistrate is not “directing” “its people to the Christian religion” is that civil magistrate’s action “detrimental to true religion”? If so, and this is what Wolfe seems to be arguing, then revolution would be justified now. The chapter ends with these words: “We have the power and right to act. Let us train the will and cultivate our resolve” (p. 352).
Chapter 9 (“Liberty of Conscience”) raises a perennial and classic question for believers: what about issues like liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and religious toleration? If Christian nationalism affirms some kind of official affirmation of, and privilege of, Christianity, does this imply some sort of violation of liberty of conscience, religious liberty, and religious toleration? Wolfe’s shorter answer is “no,” for he is concerned more centrally with the encouragement (and discouragement) of certain outward acts. The civil magistrate cannot, by definition, control or subjugate the conscience, so no violation of the liberty of conscience is in view. Nonetheless, Wolfe is quite candid (with some bravado?) that the civil magistrate would (or could) have quite wide powers in terms of external behavior. Summatively, he writes:
The question is whether a Christian magistrate, having civil rule over a civil society of Christians, may punish (with civil power) false teachers, heretics, blasphemers, and idolaters for their external expressions of such things in order to prevent (1) any injury to the souls of the people of God, (2) the subversion of Christian government, Christian culture, or spiritual discipline, or (3) civil disruption or unrest.
He then writes: “Modern religious liberty advocates deny this and I affirm it” (p. 359).
Returning to a form of the syllogism that drives the volume, Wolfe writes (p. 361):
- Any outward action that has the potential to cause harm to others is rightfully subject to civil restraint or punishment (in principle).
- External false religion has the potential to cause harm to others.
- Therefore, external false religion is rightfully subject to civil restraint or punishment.
Wolfe seems a tad cavalier in my view at points in this chapter. Thus, concerning “arch-heretics” Wolfe can write: “Banishment and long-term imprisonment may suffice as well” (p. 391). Concerning non-Christians who proselytize, they might be “subject to the same process and punishments” (p. 392). As far as “Dissenting Christians” (e.g., Particular Baptists), depending on the circumstances, “Active suppression at times might be appropriate (e.g., early New England), while complete toleration might be more suitable at other times (e.g., early American republic)” (p. 393). In fairness to Wolfe, he immediately writes: “Wide toleration is desirable, in my view, for it displays the beauty of Protestant theology—that differing brethren can recognize their mutual union with Christ and live together in peace” (p. 394). Fair enough—but for us dissenters this is a bit unsatisfying.
Chapter 10 (“The Foundation of American Freedom: Anglo-Protestant Experience”) is the final (main) chapter of the volume, and it essentially explores the thesis of the volume in relationship to the early history of the United States. Wolfe’s key thesis is the political arrangement forged at the founding of the United States is in fundamentally continuity and not discontinuity with classic Reformed theology (especially political theology/thought). That is, the same essential principles bequeathed by classical Reformed Protestantism are worked out in a particular way at the American founding. In short: “the founding era assumed Protestantism as the background condition for religious liberty” (p. 37). Hence: “American Christian nationalist is not a contradiction in terms but rather an appropriate label for those who identify with the old American Republic” (p. 37-38).
In short: “despite appearances, the majority view on religious liberty in the founding era shared the same principles as the 17th century New England Puritans” (p. 430). So, what differentiates the early American political settlement and experience from an older Protestantism (and an older Puritanism)? Wolfe writes: “The apparent discontinuity found in the historical record is a product of Anglo-Protestant experience, which informed the imagination of the possibilities of public order amid Protestant religious diversity” (p. 430).
The almost 40-page Epilogue offers some more free-wheeling reflections from Wolfe. I will return to this in Part Two of this review, as I offer some proposed strengths and weaknesses that engage with the summary provided above.