Since the events of Jan. 6th, 2021, when protestors stormed the Capitol, “Christian nationalism” has been touted by progressives as a serious threat to American democracy. In both popular parlance and scholarship, “Christian nationalism” has strongly negative connotations, being defined by Whitehead and Perry as “Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation” (Whitehead and Perry, p. 145). Yet in the last few years, a handful of evangelical Christians have decided to embrace the term rather than distancing themselves from it. Stephen Wolfe’s new book The Case for Christian Nationalism typifies and epitomizes this approach. It has an endorsement from Jewish philosopher Yoram Harzony and from Catholic editor R.R. Reno, was featured prominently at the NatCon 2022 conference, and was a top-100 best-seller on Amazon when it was first released. Pastor Doug Wilson went so far as to say “If you want to attack Christian Nationalism from now on, and do so seriously, you’re going to have to contend with Stephen Wolfe’s book.”
In this review, I’ll take Wilson up on his offer. I’ll argue that Christians should not embrace the “Christian nationalism” label (which is simultaneously nebulous and pejorative) and should not embrace this book as its standard-bearer. Before I begin, though, I need to caution Christians on how not to approach this book.
When I first saw quotes from Wolfe’s work appearing on Twitter, they were often accompanied by wailing and gnashing of teeth. This is known as “a normal day on Twitter.” However, screaming that the book is “racist,” or “fascist,” or “white supremacist,” is an unwise approach. First, many conservatives are so jaded by the careless use of these terms that they either ignore them or assume that they merely denote a book that has transgressed one of progressivism’s ever-evolving social norms. Second, Wolfe himself believes that we’re living in an “effeminate” “gynocracy” which valorizes emotion over reason in the public square. To respond to his book with nothing more than expressions of offense will tend to validate this thesis, not undermine it.
On the other side, I’m worried by an increasing trend among conservatives (and even conservative Christians) to simply embrace anything edgy and transgressive, anything that “owns the libs,” anything that is “based.” This tendency must also be rejected. Frankly, the willingness to overlook heterodoxy and even outright heresy on the basis of a shared political enemy is exactly the pit into which many “woke” evangelicals have fallen. Our concern must always be first and foremost to honor God. Is constantly sneering and mocking and sticking your finger in the eye of your political opponents a fruit of the Spirit? Is it in keeping with Eph. 4:29? Are you sure you’re Elijah in 1 Kings 18, and not just the adulteress in Proverbs in 30:20 who “eats and wipes her mouth and says, ‘I’ve done nothing wrong“? There is biblical precedent for harsh words and even ridicule, but it can’t be our habitual posture, and it is certainly no substitute for discernment.
My review will be structured as follows. First, I’ll outline several of the book’s key arguments. Next, I’ll enumerate the book’s positive points, and yes, it does have many positive points, arguments that evangelicals would do well to heed. Third, I’ll offer several objections to the book’s core claims. Finally, I’ll make some suggestions to Christians engaged in discussions over “Christian nationalism.”
I. Book Summary
Wolfe’s central thesis is that “Christian nationalism” is an appropriate term to describe the correct Christian stance toward civil government. Wolfe defines “nationalism” as “a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a nation as a nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good” (p. 11). In other words, nationalism occurs whenever a group of people who are united by shared language, culture, history, memory, and place 1) identify as a nation and 2) pursue their earthly and heavenly good together as a nation.
“Christian nationalism” is then simply a subset of “nationalism” and is defined by Wolfe as “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, emph. added).
A helpful extended analogy would be to a concept like “familyism” (see p. 14, or Wolfe’s CrossPolitic interview). “Familyism” would describe a family that 1) identifies as a family and 2) acts together to procure its good as a family. Although a family, unlike a nation, is primarily defined by biology it can also be extended through legal adoption and even through de facto adoption. The phrase “like family to me” is evocative for that very reason. “Christian familyism” would then refer to a Christian family that sees itself as a Christian family acting together to procure its good as a family in Christ. Frankly, this outlook is both healthy and relatively uncontroversial, even amongst Baptists who recognize that not all members of a “Christian family” may be Christians. Family events, family gatherings, family vacations, family devotionals, family worship, family Bible reading, and family prayer all constitute “Christian familyism” under Wolfe’s definition.
Below, I’ll describe three ideas that are foundational to Wolfe’s project of Christian nationalism.
The nature of man
A crucial component of Wolfe’s argument is his claim that “nationalism” is natural and therefore good. Wolfe reasons as follows. In Gen. 1:26-28, God creates man and directs him to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” This command to fill the earth and exercise dominion over it was given prior to the Fall. Thus, if man had never fallen, Adam and Eve’s children would still have fulfilled this mandate: “They would have formed communities [that were] distinct, or separate nations, because even unfallen man would have… been bounded by geography, arability, and other factors… each community would have been culturally distinct, since they would have been at least somewhat separated from others and would have developed their own way of life and culture, though without any sin” (21-22). “Adam’s progeny would have formed many nations on earth, and thus the formation of nations is part of God’s design and intention for man” (p. 22).
Another component to Wolfe’s argument is his claim that the Fall did not mar human nature to such an extent that we should distrust our “original instincts” or natural social arrangements. “The fall of man placed man in a state of sin. The state of sin, or total depravity, is misunderstood, even in Reformed circles. 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). 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). And “It is also evident, from both instinct and reason, that we ought to prefer our own nation and countrymen over others. This instinct is not from the fall or due to sin; it is natural and, therefore, good” (p. 150-151).
A final component of Wolfe’s argument is his claim that “grace perfects nature, but does not destroy it.” Grace restores to us what Adam would have had before the fall rather than erasing what he had before the fall. “The people of God are like what Adam’s race would have been, only they are under the Final Adam–Jesus Christ” (p. 110). In the same way, because pre-Fall civil government was intended to order (i.e. to orient) earthly life to heavenly life, post-Fall civil government has the same end: “The Gospel did not inaugurate a social program that rejects the basic structure of pre-Gospel social life. But the gospel did inaugurate a new means to eternal life; and thus all social structures, which were originally designed to support man in his pursuit of eternal life, should point to and be formed to support this new means to it” (p. 103-104).
The nature of civil government
From this understanding of human nature and the social order, Wolfe argues that nations have an obligation both to preserve their national identity, which is a natural good, and to enforce both Tables of the Ten Commandments (meaning laws about our duties toward God in Commandments 1-4 and laws about our duties toward our fellow man in Commandments 6-10).
Wolfe uses the words “ethnicity” and “nation” “roughly synonymously” (p. 135) to refer to groups of people bound together based on “common language, manners, customs, stories, taboos, rituals, calendars, social expectations, duties, loves, and religion” (p. 136). Because the formation of nations is natural to man as man, it is therefore good: “Your instinct to conduct everyday life among similar people is natural, and being natural, it is good for you” (p. 142). Thus, he states that although he does not “call for ethno-states in he modern sense” he does “affirm that each nation ought to seek and have sufficient political and social autonomy to order and secure themselves according to their particularities” (p. 164).
If the basic end of civil government –to order (i.e. to orient) earthly life to heavenly life– has not changed, then laws in every nation should still order earthly life to heavenly life: “ordering people to heavenly life is a natural end for even the generic nation” (p. 15). In other words, if the Fall hadn’t happened, civil governments would still have existed and would have instructed citizens to keep all Ten Commandments. Therefore, civil governments today should instruct their citizens to keep all Ten Commandments. Of course, “the sole, post-fall means of obtaining heavenly good [is] in Christ” (p. 11). However, natural revelation still demonstrates that God exists so non-Christian or secular nations are also obligated to recognize, implement, and obey God’s law, even if they fail to do so. But more importantly, the civil government of a Christian nation should fulfill its purpose of seeking the temporal and eternal good of its people by supporting Christianity.
Wolfe summarizes this point clearly: “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 expression 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. Modern religious liberty advocates deny this and I affirm it.” (p. 359) Or elsewhere: “A Christian society that is for itself will distrust atheists, decry blasphemy, correct any dishonoring of Christ, orient life around the Sabbath, frown on and suppress moral deviancy, and repudiate neo-Anabaptist attempts to subvert a durable Christian social order” (p. 214).
The Christian Prince
Finally, Wolfe sees the need for a Christian nation to be led by a civil magistrate whom he calls the “Christian prince.” The prince is not merely a good leader or a capable administrator or even a pious Christian. He serves as a source of national pride and inspiration. Wolfe describes him in these terms:
“Having the highest office on earth, the good prince resembles God to the people. Indeed, he is the closest image of God on earth. This divine presence in the prince speaks to his role beyond civil administration. Through him, as the mediator of divine rule, the prince brings God near to the people. 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 divinely granted power to direct them in their national completeness.” (p. 287-288)
“The [Christian] prince can adorn himself and his residence with Christian symbols…as crosses were once painted on royal armor. His military or militia, which defends a Christian people and their church, can be designated ‘soldiers of Christ‘” (p. 296-297)
“Earlier, I identified the prince as the mediator of civil rule, and I described him in god-like terms, following Scripture…The prince is an image of Christ to his people” (p. 309)
“we should pray that God would raise up [a Christian prince] from among us: one who would suppress the enemies of God and elevate his people; recover a worshipping people; restore masculine prominence in the land and a spirit for dominion; affirm and conserve his people and place, not permitting their dissolution or capture; and inspire a love of one’s Christian country.” (p. 323)
Having sketched three key components of the Wofle’s main argument, I’ll next discuss some of his book’s positive elements.