This is Part III of a four-part review (see also Part I, Part II, Part IV) of Stephen Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism.
I have many objections to Wolfe’s arguments, but I’ll focus on four major concerns: first, his definition of “nation”; second, his understanding of ethnicity; third, his assumption of an essential continuity before and after the fall; and fourth, the role of prudential considerations in his arguments.
However, before I begin, I’ll need to make a few introductory comments.
First, I’m not a theologian or a political theorist. Consequentially, I will assume that Wolfe accurately represents the Protestant political tradition and will not offer any criticism of his work on that front.
Second, I will not criticize the book’s limited use of Scripture, which Wolfe himself acknowledges. He writes: “I assume the Reformed theological tradition, and so I make little effort to exegete biblical text… I’ve chosen to assume this system and work from it” (p. 16). For example, by my admittedly rough count, the first 100 pages include 125 footnotes but only one direct Bible citation (a few more are referenced in secondary sources). Evangelicals will likely be disturbed or even scandalized by this omission, but it is not necessarily illegitimate. Wolfe is drawing out the implications of his underlying theology. We are free to argue that his theological tradition is itself unbiblical, or that Wolfe’s reasoning is invalid, or that Wolfe has made other assumptions that are incorrect. But the fact that he doesn’t often invoke the Bible does not by itself prove that his claims are false.
However, his methodology does put evangelicals at a disadvantage, and they need to recognize this fact. Most evangelicals are fairly familiar with the Bible, but are much less familiar with the writing of Althusius and Turretin. Hence, they should remind themselves that while the Bible is infallible, these men were not. We can respect their contributions while still testing them against Scripture.
Third, I’d like to offer a word to evangelicals who are drawn to Christian nationalism. When I began reading Wolfe’s book, I did my best to set aside my prejudices. At many points, my instincts were screaming “This is wrong! This is unbiblical! This is un-American!” But I genuinely tried to suspend my intuitions and to focus solely on arguments. Moreover, I did not read the book merely to find ways around Wolfe’s arguments. I tried to remain open to persuasion, ready to change my mind if Wolfe’s arguments were convincing. I’d encourage pro-“Christian nationalism” readers to do the same in this section. Don’t read my criticisms merely to find ways around them. Consider them fairly and carefully. Don’t follow your heart; follow the arguments.
Defining a nation
One major, and perhaps insurmountable, problem with Wolfe’s book is his failure to provide a clear definition of the concept of “nation.” Recall that Wolfe defines “Christian nationalism” to be a subset of “nationalism” and then defines “nationalism” to mean: “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).
Consider for a moment the repercussions for his thesis if the meaning of the word “nation” were left ambiguous. For example, let’s replace it with a nonsense word like “shmation” so that “shmationalism” means “a totality of shmational action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a shmation as a shmation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good.” Your first question would be “what’s a ‘shmation’? I gather that it must refer to some group of people that can create laws and customs and can act for itself. But what groups qualify? For example, is a family a ‘shmation’? What about a neighborhood? Or a local church? Or a tribe? Or a city? Or a county? Or a country? Or a diplomatic alliance like NATO or the UN?”
Of course, I could claim that only entities which have the authority to create civil law and social customs can qualify as ‘schmations.’ But this definition becomes circular. How do we know that the rules created and enforced by families or neighborhood civic associations or churches shouldn’t qualify as “civil laws”?
Consequently, it is absolutely crucial for Wolfe to provide a precise definition of “nation.” Unfortunately, Wolfe doesn’t offer such a definition.
Instead, in his section entitled “Nation” (p. 134-149), he admits that: “The idea of nation is notoriously difficult to define, and identifying true nations is equally challenging…My interest, however, is not to discuss and identify nations and nationhood…My goal is to provide reflections on lived experience such that one’s own people-group is brought into conscious articulation” (p. 134). In this section and those immediately surrounding it, he offers a variety of factors that contribute to our experience of nationality such as blood relations, a sense of place, history, memory, familiarity, similarity, and language. The closest he comes to defining a “nation” is on p. 165 where he writes that a “nation, properly understood, is a particular people with ties of affection that bind them to each other and their place of dwelling” (p. 165). But this definition would encompass everything from a single nuclear family to a global empire, provided its citizens have a strong enough sense of mutual affection and imperial identity.
This problem is particularly acute because Wolfe seems to believe that the United States itself is more like an empire composed of multiple nations than a single nation, properly speaking (c.f. his comment on page 399 that “there is at least one Christian nation in America”). Knowing what a nation is and exactly how many nations currently reside within the United States seems like a bare minimum for practically pursing a project of “Christian nationalism” in this country. Wolfe doesn’t meet this threshold. However, an even more serious problem arises when we turn to Wolfe’s understanding of ethnicity.
Two of Wolfe’s recent Tweets caused a great deal of backlash on Twitter. First, in a thread about whether women should be permitted to vote, Wolfe was asked if he “affirm[ed] franchise [i.e. the right do vote] for all adult men & women?” He responded succinctly “No.” Second, in a discussion of inter-group marriage he said: “There is a difference between something being sinful absolutely and something being sinful relatively. Interethnic marriage can be sinful relatively but not absolutely.”
Since he provides only a very brief discussion of women’s suffrage in his book, I won’t comment on it in this review. However, he does devote a large portion of his book to ethnicity, which I’ll discuss in this section.
When Wolfe uses the term “ethnicity,” he is not using it in its colloquial sense to refer to categories like French, Hispanic, Chinese, Irish, etc. Instead, he explicitly writes: “I use the terms ethnicity and nation almost synonymously, though I use the former to emphasize the particular features that distinguish one people-group from another [while] nation is used to emphasized the unity of the whole, though no nation (properly speaking) is composed of two or more ethnicities” (p. 135)
One of the more common phrases Wolfe uses to characterize “ethnicity” is “your own people,” that is, the people you recognize as “your own people.” One consequence of this definition is that ethnicity can cross racial lines. For example, on page p. 119 he writes: “Given my friendships and associations with people of different ancestry, I can say that being ‘white’ is unnecessary both to recognize themselves in what I describe and to cooperate with someone like me in a common nationalist project. This is not a ‘white nationalist’ argument, for in my view the designation ‘white,’ as it is used today, hinders and distracts people from recognizing and acting for their people-groups, many of which (to be sure) are majority ‘white’ but are so not on the basis of a modern racialist principle” (p. 119). This passage explicitly states that on Wolfe’s view “nations” (or “ethnicities” in Wolfe’s usage) can be multi-racial. However, just to be sure, I also asked him directly whether -say- a Japanese-American person whose parents immigrated here 80 years ago could still be part of his “nation.” He affirmed that they could and said “People of different ancestral origins can be a part of the same ethnicity” (quoted with permission).
Wolfe’s unusual definition of “ethnicity” is certainly injudicious and confusing. However, it means that we have to be careful in charging him with opposition to what we would call “inter-racial” marriage. In a later interview, he offered a “bit of a retraction” for his Tweet and said that he had been “thinking out loud” about whether or not every group has a duty to preserve its culture and, if so, whether inter-group marriages (perhaps what we might refer to as inter-cultural marriages) would then somehow violate that duty.
However, even setting this issue to one side, we should still challenge his thinking about “ethnicity,” which is deeply flawed, especially in relation to the church.
For example, he writes: “People of different ethnic groups can exercise respect for difference, conduct some routine business with each other, join in inter-ethnic alliances for mutual good, and exercise common humanity (e.g., the good Samaritan), but they cannot have a life together that goes beyond mutual alliance” (p. 148).
Imagine that Christians of different “ethnicities” actually came to believe that they could not share a “life together that goes beyond mutual alliance.” What would this idea do to the unity of the church? Would Bible studies have to segregate along lines of “ethnicity”? Would mentorship and discipleship relationships dissolve and reform to guarantee an “ethnic” match? Would Christians visiting a new city have to seek fellowship primarily among “their own [ethnic] people?”
And does this statement remotely cohere with the experience of anyone who has actually been a part of multiethnic churches? For example, my men’s Bible study in New Haven included a Romanian math graduate student, a medical student from Ghana, a White hedge fund manager, and a part-Native-American/part-Black carpenter. Under no possible definition of “ethnicity” did we share a common ethnicity. Yet we did life together. We ate together. We wept for each other and prayed for each other. If Wolfe is serious about describing our experience of ethnicity in terms of who we identify as “my people,” then these were “my people.” They were “my people” precisely because they were “Christ’s people.”
Finally, the Bible teaches by both precept and example that our identity and our solidarity need to be primarily oriented toward God’s people within the church and not around either “ethnicity” or even family. For example, when Jesus is told that his mother and brothers want to speak to him, he replies “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35). Here Jesus himself is saying that his relationship to his disciples was closer than even his relationship to his own biological family. This same familial language is repeated throughout the New Testament, where Christians are consistently referred to using familial language like “brothers” (over 100 references) or “the household of God” (Eph. 2:19, 1 Tim. 3:15, 1 Pet. 4:17).
Peter tells the recipients of his letter: “you are a chosen race [Gk. genos], a royal priesthood, a holy nation [ethnos], a people for his own possession…Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” (1 Pet. 2:9-10). Whether this letter was written to Gentiles (as most scholars believe) or to Jews, the implication is still that the call of God in Christ, not heritage or ethnicity, was what constituted these people as an “ethnos.”
The most serious reminder of the way in which the gospel should unite people across lines of ethnicity comes in Galatians 2, when Paul has to “oppose [Peter] to his face, because he stood condemned” (Gal. 2:11) for withdrawing from fellowship with Gentile Christians. Paul rebukes Peter’s hypocrisy and condemns him for “not [being] in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14) which teaches that Jesus has “torn down the dividing wall of hostility” (Eph.2:14) and that in Christ there “is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, [or] free” (Col. 3:11).
For all these reasons, we should flatly reject the idea that Christians who belong to different ethnic groups “cannot have a life together that goes beyond mutual alliance.” One of the reasons I so strongly oppose critical theory is that it will divide (and is dividing) the church along lines of race, class, and gender, fracturing the people of God into separate camps. Brothers, such things should not be. Christians who rail against the divisive ideas of critical theory must not soft-pedal divisive ideas smuggled in under the guise of “Christian nationalism.”
The fundamental continuity between prelapsarian (i.e. pre-Fall) and postlapsarian (i.e. post-Fall) anthropology (i.e. the nature of man) is absolutely crucial to Wolfe’s argument. His argument that “nationalism” is good rests entirely on the idea that nations would have come about even if the Fall had never happened and that “The instinct to live within one’s ‘tribe’ or one’s own people is neither a product of the fall nor extinguished by grace; rather, it is natural and good.” Thus, Wolfe concludes that nationalism is also natural and good.
This argument is questionable for several reasons.
First, it is pure speculation that humanity would have formed distinct nations even if the Fall had never happened. The best reason to doubt this claim is the recognition that death came to man as the result of the Fall (Rom. 5:12) and that Adam and Eve were never forbidden to eat from the tree of life. Moreover, humanity spoke only a single language (Gen. 11:1) until God confused men’s speech and scattered the nations at the Tower of Babel. If we are forced to speculate about what “would have happened” if man had never sinned, why think that Adam’s immortal descendants would have begun speaking different languages and adopting distinct cultures as they spread out over the earth? It seems at least as plausible to argue that Adam himself, as the human race’s covenant head, would have served as a normative cultural, linguistic, and familial anchor for all humanity across the globe. In this case, we might just as well argue that globalism is natural and good, a conclusion which Wolfe surely wants to avoid.
Second, even if our desire to live within our own “tribe” is natural and good, it doesn’t follow that there exist no other incommensurate goods. For example, it is also natural and good to desire a spouse who shares one’s interests, preferences, and callings. It is natural and good to desire to explore and innovate. Both of these natural and good desires can compete with the desire to “live within one’s own tribe.” Yet it is dangerous to absolutize any of these goods and see them as universally higher than the others. Is a musician wrong to incorporate Latin rhythms into hip-hop? Is an American Christian man wrong to pursue a loving, godly Sudanese Christian woman as a spouse?
Finally, the forced continuity between prelapsarian and postlapsarian conditions leads to several corollaries, which may trouble some evangelicals. For example, because Wolfe needs to argue that our tribal inclinations are natural and good, he states that “man still has his original instincts and still knows the principles of right action, which incline him to what is good” (p. 22). This language stands in apparent contrast to the Westminster Confession of Faith’s language:
From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil, do proceed all actual transgressions. (Chapter 6.iv)
Or the Heidelberg Catechism’s language:
5A. I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.
8Q. But are we so corrupt that we are totally unable to do any good and inclined to all evil? A. Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.
After some discussion on social media, the consensus seemed to be that Wolfe’s thought is consistent with standard Reformed theology, because he is referring to an inclination only toward outward good, not inward, spiritual good. In other words, human beings are naturally inclined to eat food rather than poison or to care for their children rather than murdering them, which are both outward goods.
However, Wolfe’s language highlights a crucial distinction. What was natural (i.e. creational) to us prior to the Fall is not necessarily “natural” (i.e. characteristic) to us now. Consider our desires for food or sex. In one sense these desires are “natural and therefore good” because God created us with these desires. But in another sense, gluttony and lust are also “natural” to us, precisely because we are fallen. To put it another way, Wolfe wants us to look at our desires to live “among our own people” and extrapolate back to our prelapsarian nature. But would he perform this same exercise with our sexual desires? Presumably not, because he would recognize that our sexual desires (like all our desires) have been corrupted by the Fall. This is exactly why we need Scripture, not our experience or inclinations alone, to inform our vision of what is truly good and natural.
Another unexpected example of Wolfe’s emphasis on pre- and post-Fall continuity is his claim that Adam and his descendants would have needed “martial [i.e. military] virtue and training in martial excellence” (p. 75) even in a sinless world in order to subdue “untamed beasts in the wilderness” (p. 75-75). He continues “It might surprise people but, as Bavinck states, ‘most Reformed theologians were of the opinion that eating meat was permitted to humans even before the flood and the fall'” (p. 76). This position seems unavoidable if we emphasize the continuity of human (and animal) nature before and after the Fall.
Finally, Wolfe holds that Adam would have felt like a stranger on earth, even without the Fall. He writes: “Even Adam in the state of integrity [i.e. prior to the Fall], as he grew in maturity, would have felt as if he were a stranger in this world, not because of any defect in creation, but because his ultimate end was always in heaven — where he could find his true rest. Thus, we can imagine Adam and his progeny feeling out of place on earth, ready and eager for heavenly life, though without sin and apart from any fallenness. Adam before the fall was a sort of pilgrim, passing through to a higher life” (p. 197). Wolfe didn’t elaborate, but I found these comments odd given that Christians are destined for eternal resurrected life on earth. However, these comments again fit naturally into Wolfe’s overarching framework. If it is natural for Christians to feel like strangers in the world today, then Adam would have also felt like a stranger in the world.
The Role of Prudence
By far, the biggest attraction of Wolfe’s book is the suggestion that it offers a single, coherent, unifying framework for Christian political engagement. To put it bluntly, when it comes to politics, most evangelicals (myself included) simply embrace a patchwork collection of contemporary liberal thought, biblical principles, and pragmatic compromises. Wolfe forthrightly rejects this posture and aims to recover a historic Protestant approach to politics, based on first principles and careful, systematic reasoning.
However, Wolfe also states repeatedly that “prudential considerations” are important and that there is no “one size fits all” approach to governance, which distinguishes his political theory from theonomy (which seeks to port the Mosaic law directly into the American context).
My concern here is three-fold: 1) Wolfe relies too heavily on prudence in some places, 2) doesn’t rely heavily enough on prudence in other places, and 3) is inconsistent in his vision of an idealized Christian nation.
First, if people are drawn to Wolfe’s book because they believe it provides a comprehensive practical agenda for legislation, they will be disappointed. He certainly emphasizes and front-loads the book with a defense of Christian nationalist principles. But he also states repeatedly that the prudential application of these principles will depend greatly on context. For example, Wolfe sides with the Reformers, who believed that “arch-heretics [who] are publicly persistent in their damnable error and actively seek to convince others of this error, to subvert the established church, to denounce its ministers, or to instigate rebellion against magistrates…can be justly put to death” (p. 391, emph. added). But “this is not to say that capital punishment is the necessary, sole, or desired punishment. Banishment and long-term imprisonment may suffice as well” (p. 391). And elsewhere, given the religious diversity already present in the U.S., he seems to favor a Christian nationalism that resembles the nation’s founding and early period, in which blasphemy and Sabbath laws did exist, but which were also relatively tolerant of religious dissent.
Wolfe’s lack of specificity also extends to a path forward, because his book is “not an action-plan” (p. 433). His final chapter includes an assortment of “loosely organized aphorisms” (p. 434) aimed at galvanizing Christian nationalists. They range from homesteading, to personal fitness, to recovering masculine virtues, to the development of independence. But they certainly don’t outline a voting strategy. Given that he repeatedly states that he’s mainly interesting in articulating and defending the principles of Christian nationalism, this omission isn’t a problem for his book, but it may be a problem for the book’s readers. Readers asking questions like “What would a Christian nationalist America actually look like?” or “How can we take even one step in that direction?” will likely be frustrated.
Second, though, Wolfe’s book suffers from a serious under-utilization of prudence in many other cases. It is so focused on the idealized in-principle Christian nation that it fails to sufficiently account for the inevitable fallenness of our world. For example, one obvious objection to the notion of a “Christian prince” is that no one man can be trusted with so much power. Wolfe writes “The Christian prince…has the power to call synods in order to resolve doctrinal conflicts and to moderate the proceedings [and] can confirm or deny their theological judgments; and in confirming them, they become the settled doctrine of the land. But he considers the pastors’ doctrinal articulations as a father might look to his medically trained son for medical advice. He still retains his superiority.” Only in a footnote does he add: “Experience over centuries might make the Christian students of history wary of this civil power. I share that concern. But I state here not to insist that all civil rulers everywhere exercise it but to simply affirm that civil rulers have this power and, at appropriate times, can exercise it” (p. 313). Yet I would argue that in a fallen world, this caveat is so serious that it’s effectively an in-principle objection to a figure with as much power as the “Christian prince.”
Finally, Wolfe often expresses “stopping points” for his theorizing that seem arbitrary. For example, he repeatedly states that heresy and blasphemy can be justly punished by the government because they are outward actions. But he insists that inward, private beliefs must not be punished because “only God is lord of the conscience.” However, he never justifies this latter claim. Why exactly is the state not given the power to punish thought-crime in principle? For example, we can actually control lustful thoughts to some extent: we can avoid situations that will inflame lust and can refuse to allow certain trains of thought to play out. So why not make lust illegal and punishable by death?
From Wolfe’s perspective, there seem to be good reasons to outlaw certain sinful mental states. For instance, thought-crime laws would serve as constant outward reminders of the inward, spiritual character of God’s law and would therefore have a positive effect on genuine piety. Thought-crime law might also be conducive to conversion, since it would point non-Christians to their need for inward cleansing, not just outward moral behavior. Objecting that such laws would be unenforceable is 1) an in-practice objection, not an in-principle objection and 2) displays a lack of imagination. We could easily imagine thought-police who dutifully monitor everyone’s facial expressions and search for private diaries confessing to lustful thoughts. Moreover, it’s possible that technology will allow us to someday detect mental states like lust; even now, scientists can measure sexual arousal to some extent. So, if we accept Wolfe’s assumptions, why not outlaw certain thought-crimes?
Similarly, Wolfe routinely points to “consent” as the basis for the civil government’s power. For instance, he writes: “theorists have long argued that a people’s collective will is the means of consent to be under a civil government, and I agree” (p. 280). Elsewhere, he positively cites Suarez, who writes “‘[civil] power is (so to speak) a natural attribute of a perfect human community, viewed as such…may be taken from that community–by its own consent or through some other means–and transferred to another.'” (p. 284) This recognition should make some of Wolfe’s reasoning more palatable, even to liberals. If a group of Christians freely consent to live under Christian laws, this hardly seems unjust.
However, towards the end of the book, Wolfe has to deal with real-world applications of this reasoning and asks whether a Christian minority can impose its will on the non-Christian majority. In other words, can a Christian minority “establish a political state over the whole without the positive consent of the whole. I affirm that they can. The reason is that although civil administration is fundamentally natural, human, and universal, it was always for the people of God. Civil administration was created to serve Adam’s race in a state of integrity… Thus, civil order and administration is for [those who are restored in Christ]… But what about consent? Would not Christians have to disregard the non-Christian withholding of consent? They likely would” (p. 346).
My main question is whether this reasoning, applied consistently, makes the notion of consent completely irrelevant, since he never specifies the size of the Christian minority. In principle, why can’t a tiny number of Christians, or even a single Christian, simply impose Christian government on a nation? The response that non-Christians would revolt is true, but is only an in-practice objection. Thus, Wolfe would have to agree that -in principle- it would be just for a single, powerful Christian leader to take control of the government and impose Christian nationalism on everyone else.
I have similar questions about how Wolfe would handle international religious wars. In Chapter 8 “The Right to Revolution,” he writes “Open blasphemy in our public square is shrugged off as ‘to be expected’ or part of the world’s ‘brokenness.’ We have settled into a posture of passive defense, bunkered behind the artificial walls of churches and the porous borders separating the family from society. A hostile and secularist ruling class roams free, and few Christians are willing to take the struggle to a higher level. But we do not have to live like this… Here I will justify violent revolution.” (p. 326) He then employs standard just-war-theory arguments to defend revolution in principle and concludes: “Many want me to end with a word of caution, perhaps to reassure everyone that these are academic conclusions, that they are not serous. Instead, I’ll say this: It is to our shame that we sheepishly tolerate assaults against our Christian heritage, merely sighing or tweeting performative outrage over public blasphemy, impiety, irreverence, and perversity…We do not have to be like this” (p. 352).
But why don’t these same arguments justify a Christian nation making war against a non-Christian nation? As Wolfe himself argues, a tyrant should be viewed as an aggressor who is making war against his own people and can therefore justly be met with violent revolutionary resistance. If this condition applies to an aggressively secular government, how much more would it apply to -say- the aggressively Muslim government of an overwhelmingly Muslim nation which limited the religious expression of a tiny Christian minority. In principle, couldn’t a Christian nation wage war on the Muslim nation on the grounds that all laws limiting Christianity are unjust and that it can disregard Muslim denial of consent?
In all these cases, enthusiastic Christian nationalists might simply bite the bullet. They might simply agree, in principle, that thought-crime should be illegal, that a single charismatic and powerful Christian prince could justly impose Christian nationalism on an unwilling, non-Christian populace, and that a Christian nation could wage just wars to depose the government of any nation (Christian or non-Christian) that was consistently acting in opposition to Christianity. However, if what we’re describing sounds increasingly like a dystopia, it’s worth asking whether we’ve taken a wrong turn at some point.
Of course, this reasoning applies to Western liberalism as well. If we’ve reached a point where our conception of “individual rights” requires us to endorse abortion, euthanasia, same-sex marriage, polygamy, and the castration of gender-dysphoric minors, maybe we should pump the brakes.
Given these a serious criticisms, how should we understand Wolfe’s project and its part in the larger conversation about “Christian nationalism”? I’ll offer some closing thoughts in the final section.
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Next: Part IV – Conclusions