This is Part IV of a four-part review (see also Part I, Part II, Part III) of Stephen Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism.
Having offered a brief critique of Wolfe’s book, two questions remain: 1) should evangelicals embrace the label of “Christian nationalism” and 2) should evangelicals embrace Wolfe’s book as definitive of Christian nationalism?
First, I think evangelicals should reject the label of “Christian nationalism” because it has no agreed-upon meaning and simultaneously has extremely negative connotations. Although Twitter is hardly a representative sample, I’ve asked my largely evangelical audience about “Christian nationalism” numerous times and have received answers from self-identified Christian nationalists that were all over the map. Many seemed to define Christian nationalism to mean nothing more than “robust Christian political engagement within a classically liberal framework that includes near-absolute religious liberty.” Others seemed to adopt definitions more in keeping with the pan-Protestant social order envisioned by Wolfe. And at least a few expressed concerns about inter-racial marriage and women’s suffrage.
Immediately, we have to ask whether a term that is so broadly construed can possibly be useful. I take precisely the same stance regarding the term “social justice.” Even if you define this phrase to be synonymous with “biblical justice,” it means so many things to so many people that it is not useful as a label.
But more importantly, whether you like it or not, the term “Christian nationalism” has incredibly negative connotations. It conjures up images of the QAnon Shaman, Ku Klux Klan marches, and the Handsmaid’s Tale. As Christians, we can bemoan these negative associations, but it’s difficult to change them. I understand that some evangelicals are trying to “reclaim” this phrase but I think this effort is imprudent. When you’re playing with language you’re playing on the postmodernists’ home turf. Not only that, but it’s always easier to expand the meaning of a morally-charged term like “racism” or “white supremacy” than to change its connotation (has anyone managed to put a positive spin on “racism”?). The former requires sustained intellectual reflection whereas the latter relies on our immediate, emotional reflexes. For all these reasons, trying to reclaim the phrase “Christian nationalism” seems as foolish as trying to reclaim the word “Neo-Nazi” or “fascist.” Don’t be so wedded to this particular phrase that you play directly into the hands of your political opponents.
The ambiguity of the term also means that even if you miraculously succeed in restoring to it a neutral connotation, it will still be used differently by different people, and therein lies another problem. On the one hand, you may be using the term to mean nothing more than “Christian political engagement.” But it’s only a matter of time before a reporter sticks a microphone in front of white supremacist who is throwing up Nazi salutes while pledging himself to “Christian nationalism.” Of course, no one can perfectly police the usage of any term. But it is undeniably true that some very vile groups identify themselves as “Christian nationalists” (if you’re skeptical, I suggest simply Googling “Christian nationalist”). If you insist on using this particular term, you will constantly have to distance yourself from these groups if you want to garner widespread support. So my advice would be to find a different term altogether that will give you more freedom to control its connotation and its usage (“Protestant integralism”? “Pan-Protestantism”? “Christian Federalism”?)
(The idea that we can ignore the connotations or ambiguity of the phrase “Christian nationalism” because it appropriately describes a “Christian” who is also a “nationalist” is similarly mistaken. The meaning of a phrase is more than the sum of its component words, as a reflection on phrases like “social justice” or “critical theory” or “grape nuts” demonstrates.)
Second, entirely apart from whether some evangelicals adopt the label “Christian nationalism,” I think they should not make Wolfe’s book the center of their movement. As it currently stands, “Christian nationalism” is a big tent and it will probably have to remain a big tent in order to have a significant political impact. If you accept that premise, then Wolfe’s book can certainly be part of the “Christian nationalism” conversation, but cannot be central to it.
For example, Wolfe questions whether his version of “Christian nationalism” is compatible with Baptist theology. On page 217-218, he writes:
“paedobaptism (.e., infant baptism) is the position most natural to Christian nationalism, for baptizing infants brings them outwardly (at least) into the poeple of God. When the body politic is baptized, all are people of God… credobaptism likely creates problems for Christian nationalism. It is no accident that Baptists tend to be advocates for near absolute religious liberty, and this is not only due to their tradition of dissent… It is difficult to see how cultural Christianity, as I’ve described it, could operate effectively with that theology.”
Notice that he isn’t saying “Baptists won’t accept my conception of Christian nationalism because they are historically committed to religious liberty.” Instead, he is saying “I don’t think Baptist theology is compatible with my conception of Christian nationalism.” I agree. Elsewhere, he writes:
“the visible church and the people of God are co-extensive–both are predicated of the same people–but ‘people of God’ refers to Christians as they are redeemed and sanctified for a complete life, and the ‘visible church’ refers to the same people as under Christ the mediator pursuing the highest good of that complete life” (p. 307)
This understanding of the relationship between the “people of God” and the visible church is deeply antithetical to Baptist theology. On the Baptist view, only actual believers who have actually trusted in Christ and have been regenerated are rightly called the “people of God.” To assert that masses of unregenerate people are the people of God merely because they are citizens of a “Christian nation” is utterly irreconcilable with Baptist belief. And basing your movement on a book which explicitly excludes the largest Protestant denomination in the US is unwise.
That said, these are both pragmatic concerns. I am not a Christian nationalist so I will not tell Christian nationalists how to run their movement. But I will offer them some theological suggestions as a brother in Christ.
First, openly and emphatically distance yourself from actual racists. Yes, I know that you’re tired of constantly being accused of racism. Yes, some of these claims are disingenuous. Yes, some people won’t be satisfied no matter how often you repeat your position. But we should never become so jaded and cynical that we refuse to affirm what is good and right.
Second, don’t put your hope in princes. Yes, we should work for just laws. Yes, we should elect just officials. Yes, we should pray for a just government. But your salvation does not come from the president. Guard your heart jealously. If a political rally or an election delights you more than the hope you have in Christ, retrace your steps.
Third, don’t throw your non-CN brothers under the bus. I can’t speak for other non-CNs, but I will not be denouncing fellow believers simply because they identify with the label “Christian nationalism” or because they subscribe to historic Protestant political theology. When I disagree with their ideas, I will say so. But I will keep the main thing (the Gospel) the main thing. I hope you can return the favor.
Fourth, preach the gospel. The best and surest way to achieve a Christian nation is by the turning the hearts of its citizens to Christ. On this point, Wolfe and I are in complete agreement: the best civil government in the world will not save a single soul from hell. Therefore, do not let Christian nationalism or classical liberalism or libertarianism or theonomy distract you from the message of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, which is the only message that will bring dead people to life and will call people from every tribe, nation, and tongue into God’s kingdom.
He makes wars cease to the end of the earth;
he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;
he burns the chariots with fire.
“Be still, and know that I am God.
I will be exalted among the nations,
I will be exalted in the earth!”
The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our fortress. – Psalm 46:9-11
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