Despite my serious disagreements with some of Wolfe’s arguments, he makes a number of good points, which even his strongest critics should acknowledge.
Wolfe’s Christian nationalism vs. Pop Christian nationalism
It’s crucial to recognize that Wolfe’s Christian nationalism diverges significantly from popular expressions of Christian nationalism. Images of churches draped in the star-spangled banner or declarations that the United States is God’s covenant nation run against the grain of Wolfe’s theology. For example, he writes: “I’m ambivalent about national flags located inside or outside churches, but national flags should not be displayed in a sanctuary and especially not within sight during worship” (p. 240). Elsewhere, he says: “A Christian nation is not a holy nation in the sense that Israel was holy when under the Mosaic Covenant. No nation today is God’s nation by some special divine command or by exclusive divine favor” (p. 176).
In fact, Wolfe repeatedly affirms the important distinction between the institutional church and the civil government. He writes: “[The Christian prince] must not conflate his earthly kingdom with the kingdom of God [because of] the doctrine of the two kingdoms, a standard doctrine of the Reformed theological tradition…The two-kingdoms doctrine refers to the two ways that Christ exercises kingship over men. The two are often distinguished with language such as civil/spiritual, natural/gracious, earthly/heavenly, power/grace, or outward/inward” (p. 299-300)” This distinction means that the worship service must not be focused on political concerns: “Christian spirituality and worship are, properly speaking, about eternal life, not political struggle… Thus, pastors should not in their official capacities at least, be social activists or political coordinators, especially from the pulpit” (p. 104).
Historic Protestant Political Theory
We should also acknowledge that Wolfe’s argument draws heavily on traditional Christian and Reformed political thought. Modern Western liberal political thought is an outlier in terms of how Christians have historically understood the role of government. That doesn’t mean that our beliefs as 21st century Americans are necessarily wrong. But it does suggest we ought to carry ourselves with a bit of humility and self-reflection. In particular, it seems odd for progressives who insist that “privilege” and “whiteness” and “Eurocentrism” have warped our thinking to off-handedly reject the possibility that 21st-century American liberalism may have also warped our thinking.
For that reason, I especially appreciated Wolfe’s chapter on religious liberty in early America. Contrary to the dour, fanatical image of the Puritans that we’ve likely imbibed from modern portrayals, Wolfe documents how they struck a balance between the integrity of their religious communities and their genuine acceptance of various Christian dissenters as brothers in Christ. Likewise, the Reformers, although they were radically intolerant by modern standards, were moderate for their time, seeking to hold their religious convictions alongside their commitment to Christian charity and forbearance. As Joe Rigney has commented, it seems undesirable to come to a place where we denounce all pre-20th-century Christian political thought as fundamentally wicked, benighted, and unjust.
Wolfe’s challenge to liberal thought is hardly unique, but is desperately needed, even for those of us who still identify as classical liberals. Foundational to the modern view held by most evangelicals (and most Americans) is the idea that the government should remain neutral on religious questions. A corollary to that claim is the idea that the government must protect freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and a host of other individual rights that are necessary to upholding religious freedom.
Wolfe challenges this view in numerous ways, but rather than summarizing his arguments, let me offer a few of my own, which are totally independent of any allegiance to “Christian nationalism.”
First, absolute religious freedom is an impossibility. Any commitment to religious freedom will come with provisions that limit which religious practices can be expressed. For example, many ancient religions practiced human, and specifically child, sacrifice. Yet we have no qualms about outlawing these religious practices. Indeed, Supreme Court cases have repeatedly probed the limits of religious freedom with respect to animal sacrifice, drug use, refusal of service, public accommodation, prayer, taxation, military service, and religious holidays. Restrictions on drug use for religious purposes (and drug laws in general) are particularly interesting because they are often justified by an appeal to the general welfare over and against individual liberty. Consequently, the question is not whether we will limit religious liberty, but only on what grounds we will limit religious liberty.
Second, Christians often argue that laws should be limited to prohibiting physical harm and are therefore inapplicable to practices which only conduce to spiritual harm. However, even current laws are not limited to policing physical harms. Libel laws recognize the possibility of reputational damage. Public nuisance laws recognize harms to the civil peace. And obscenity laws, which prohibit nudity or the performance of sex acts, are crucial to protecting people –especially children– from psychological and developmental harm. Given that U.S. law already recognizes so many categories of non-physical harm, what is the in-principle objection to legislating against spiritual harm?
Of course, it’s possible to argue that we can’t prohibit spiritual harms in the U.S. because 1) there is no consensus as to what constitutes “spiritual harm” and 2) prohibiting “spiritual harm” would violate the First Amendment. However, these are both in-practice objections. Wolfe is asking about in-principle objections. Hypothetically, if a group of Christians formed a new nation, would it be just for them to legislate against not only physical, reputational, and psychological harms, but spiritual harms as well? If not, why not?
Third, critics can lodge a pragmatic objection: if we give the government enough power to legislate against “spiritual harm” and to limit the free exercise of religion, then it’s only a matter of time before prevailing sentiment shifts and the government decides that Christianity is also harmful. Moreover, the history of Europe shows that state intervention in religion can produce nominalism, the abuse of power, and brutal persecution. Thus, we should advocate for extensive religious liberty to avoid these outcomes.
I’m sympathetic to this third objection (as is Wolfe, to some extent), but it is entirely pragmatic. It offers no in-principle reason why a government could not, in theory, restrict religion. Pragmatic arguments like this one must consider costs on both sides, which leads to a final strength of Wolfe’s book, his defense of “cultural Christianity.”
Defense of Cultural Christianity
Many Christians have celebrated the decline or demise of “cultural Christianity,” which can be defined as cultural norms which encourage Christian identification, church attendance, and outward Christian moral behavior. The argument against cultural Christianity is usually that its decline will purify the church, because merely nominal Christians will leave and only genuine, committed followers of Jesus will remain. The purity of the church will then make the church’s witness more compelling and will lead to more genuine conversions. Wolfe rejects this argument.
While Wolfe fully agrees that civil laws by themselves can only produce cultural Christians and that “cultural Christianity by itself cannot produce anything but hypocrites” (p. 29), he denies that we should celebrate its demise for severeal reasons.
First, he asks why we think conversion is easier in a non-Christian culture than in a Christian culture. Even Pastor Tim Keller, who is by no means a Christian nationalist, frequently points out that in our post-Christian cultural context, we must often spend a great deal of time “plowing the ground” for the gospel. In a Christian culture, commands like “repent of your sin” and “believe the gospel” are meaningful. Non-Christians still share a basic Christian framework when it comes to concepts like morality, God, sin, salvation, and eternal life. But in a post-Christian culture, these concepts are increasingly incomprehensible. How meaningful is it to tell someone to “repent of your sin and believe the gospel” when they no longer believe in sin, or in God, or in any life beyond this one?
So why should we think that conversion is facilitated by erasing a cultural framework that at least makes the categories of “God” and “sin” and “salvation” comprehensible, even if that framework itself saves no one? Is it really plausible to think that cultural neutrality or even cultural hostility will lead to more conversions? Do we really believe that there are more genuine Christians per capita in Japan or in North Korea or in India than there are in Tennessee?
Second, Wolfe points out that even if it were true that genuine conversion were not facilitated by cultural Christianity (which is doubtful), Christians should still desire that they and their neighbors should live in a Christian culture precisely because Christianity promotes human flourishing. If social pressure alone keeps a non-Christian husband from having an affair, his wife and children will nonetheless benefit from his fidelity. If a man feeds the hungry solely out of pride and self-righteousness, the hungry will still be fed. Our neighbors will benefit from externally good deeds, even if those deeds flow out of an unregenerate heart.
These considerations dovetail well with pragmatic objections to “Christian nationalism.” Wolfe concedes that prudential questions and the lessons of history are important. But he insists that we need to “learn from all our experience” (p. 36). In other words, we have to set the hazards of “Christian nationalism” as expressed in religious wars, sectarian conflict, and nominalism against the hazards of secularism as expressed in skyrocketing divorce, the sexual revolution, and 50 million aborted babies. If we’re going to lay all the ills of the 17th century at the feet of “Christian nationalism,” then we have to at least ask whether some of the ills of the 20th and 21st centuries can be laid at the feet of our society’s ever-increasing secularism.
While we can and should appreciate these positive elements of Wolfe’s book, there is also much to criticize, as I’ll discuss in the next section.