A Review of The Case for Christian Nationalism. By Stephen Wolfe.
Canon Press, 2022.
Further thoughts on this important new book:
I must point out that this is actually my third article on this volume, and I expect more will be forthcoming. Being a lengthy book with careful argumentation, one short review will not do it justice. So I urge you to read the previous pieces, especially this one where some quite important prefatory remarks are made: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/11/16/the-case-for-christian-nationalism-preliminary-considerations/
When it comes to something like Christian nationalism, it is one of those topics where simply trying to find an agreed-upon definition is near impossible. Many already use the term in a very pejorative sense. Indeed, plenty of critics (secular lefties and even many evangelicals) have already attacked this book, although most have likely not even read it! So finding out how someone actually uses the term is a first step. Wolfe defines it as follows:
“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.” (9) He also says this:
“Viewed as a whole, the Christian nation acts for itself by a three-step process: (1) It achieves a national will for itself; (2) that will is mediated through authorities that the people institute; and (3) the people act according to the dictates of that mediation.” (14)
He also discusses what this sort of Christian dominion is not. This includes “not seeking to bring heaven to earth, nor … seeking to earn heaven by works. . . . [S]ince Christ is the sole means to heavenly life, earthly life is ordered to Christ, mainly by supporting his visible church.” (23)
All that is of course explained and expanded upon in nearly 500 pages. It is not such a radical concept. Just break things down into their basic elements: Simply put, nationalism is a position somewhere between tribalism and globalism. Many have real worries about globalism, and small loosely-aligned tribes may not suffice in our modern world. So nationalism can and does have a place.
And if we reject Christian nationalism, well, what kind do we want then? Secular nationalism? Muslim nationalism? All nations have some sort of binding ethos or basic culture or common language or shared goals or agreed upon belief systems, etc. Some may be better than others. That in part is what Wolfe is arguing for here. As I said in my earlier piece, a rough outline of his position might go like this:
-There was, even before the fall, the need for some sort of social organisation and order.
-Love of family, kinship, and even liking one’s nation are not necessarily bad things (although they can become bad).
-There is no neutral public square. If it is not one informed by Christianity, it will be informed by some other competing worldview.
-There is a place for like-minded Christians having communities and nations reflecting their beliefs and values – including the use of civil rulers to help affirm and maintain this to some extent.
As for his understanding of what a nation is, he sees it to be quite similar to ethnicity. He writes:
Ethnicity, as something experienced, is familiarity with others based in common language, manners, customs, stories, taboos, rituals, calendars, social experiments, duties, loves, and religion. These permit the ease of action and communication, the efficient completion of common projects, clarity of mutual understanding, and the ability to achieve the highest ideals and works of civil life. (136)
These and other descriptions emphasise a sort of homogenisation, but not one devoid of diversity. The point is a nation succeeds when there is a fair degree of shared values and beliefs. Societies tend to come unstuck without them. Consider America in its “melting pot” days when migrants came from so many countries, wanting to embrace the American dream and become part of what it had to offer.
Already in Genesis 10 the notion of nationhood is present, and the divine dislike of globalist ambitions is found in the next chapter with the Tower of Babel episode. Wolfe argues that even before the fall hierarchy, civil order and social life were present.
While Christianity embraces people from all cultures and languages and nations, that spiritual unity does not mean there is no longer a place for nations and ethnic groupings. That being the case, Wolfe argues that some national worldviews and belief systems are better than others.
He of course sees biblical Christianity as the true religion, and that there is nothing amiss in having like-minded people living under a form of a Christian nation. All this was how things basically were in America from the early Pilgrims to the Founding Fathers. Liberty and diversity were stressed, but not at the expense of social cohesion.
As to the early religious experience there, no one was calling for complete open slather when it came to theological views. While various types of religious freedom were being called for, not everyone was regarded as safe: the most vocal proponent of religious tolerance, Roger Williams was hounded out of Boston. And other groups, such as Antinomians and Quakers, were not given a free run. But a few more quotes:
Consistent with the Reformed tradition, the New England Puritans denied that civil government can punish anyone simply for erroneous belief, and they denied that it can coerce conscience for any reason, including to reform it. Religious belief was a matter of persuasion, not coercion, even after baptism and church membership. . . . [Yet] religious toleration depends on whether one’s external religion harms civil society. (401, 410)
And the Founding Fathers were not much different:
Among the founders, all believed that a religious people were necessary for civic morals, public happiness, and effective government, and most (if not all) thought that Christianity provided something distinctive in this regard. Most believed that government had a role in promoting, supporting, and protecting true religion, even particular denominations, though not at the expense of full toleration. Most believed that violators of natural religion could be censored and that religious expressions that “disturb the Peace, the Happiness, or Safety of Society” (as Madison wrote), could be suppressed. And most founders explicitly grounded their principles of religious liberty in Protestant principles. (430-431)
Thus there was – and is – a role for the civil authorities in all this: “Civil government cannot command people to contemplate heavenly things, but it can create the best outward conditions for such contemplation, which serve as visible reminders of the highest purpose for which man was created.” (79)
As I discussed in my first article on this book, the public square in the West today cannot really be neutral: “it will always dispose people to beliefs (whether true or false).” (386) See that piece here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2022/11/15/the-public-square-religious-neutrality-and-the-war-on-christianity/
Some Christians will object that any form of civil power or exclusion is not how we should proceed. Says Wolfe:
My response is simple: The power in question is already being used in the West to exclude religion from public life, culture, and institutions. The precedent is already set. Furthermore, the fact that power could be used for evil is trivially true. The power to restrain murderers could be used to aid murderers. At this time, power is wielded against the church. Let us wield power in support of the church. (386)
What that might look like is discussed at length in this book. But some will argue that the mission of the church is not to transform the world. Wolfe replies:
I agree. But must everything “Christian” flow from or out of the instituted church and its leadership? Should a Christian father not order his household to Christ? If he should, why shouldn’t civil ruler order the civil realm to Christ and his kingdom? The fact that the instituted church serves the soul does not preclude Christians from ordering the things of the body to the soul. (196)
Yet folks will claim that only individuals can be Christian, to which Wolfe responds:
But don’t we have Christian colleges, Christian seminaries, Christian publishers, Christian businesses, Christian charities, Christian coffee shops, and more? Yes, but these are voluntary associations, I suspect they would say. But what then about the family? Can the family be Christian? It would seem that if nations cannot be Christian, then the family cannot be Christian. After all, the family, as an entity, is not redeemed by the work of Christ, nor is it an institution of grace. (179-180)
Of course by this point the thinking Christian will be asking, ‘Yeah, but what about democracy? What about pluralism? What about religious liberty for all?’ Wolfe of course does deal with a number of these objections and questions. My best answer is to encourage you to read his entire book for yourself to see how he deals with these matters.
But as I mentioned in a previous piece, he says he is laying out general principles here, and not offering a finely-tuned blueprint. So lots of details really would need to be properly addressed in a follow-up volume. Hopefully Wolfe may well have such a project in mind.
Much more of course is being argued for in this book, and I have only scratched the surface. My main aim was to offer a few snippets and broad-brush strokes to give you a feel for the sorts of things he discusses here, and thereby encourage you to have a read of the book yourself.
As I say, one will likely find much that they disagree with. But getting us to think carefully about these vitally important issues is never amiss. This lengthy volume with its tightly-argued structure and numerous quotations and incisive ideas is a great place to begin if you are unfamiliar with these topics. However, there are other volumes one can consult as well.
For further reading
As to Christian nationalism, there are more than enough books and articles by the secular left already available warning about how the sky will fall if we even consider heading in this direction. I will not list them here, as they are easy enough to find elsewhere. But what I will offer are a few titles to be aware of.
Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism. Basic Books, 2018.
Christian Nationalism: Pro
Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker, Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide For Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations. 2022.
Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism. Canon Press, 2022.
Michael Brown, The Political Seduction of the Church: How Millions of American Christians Confused Politics with the Gospel. Vide Press, 2022.
Richard Mouw, How to Be a Patriotic Christian. IVP, 2022.
Christian Nationalism: Anti
Paul Miller, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism. IVP, 2022.
If you have time to get into all these volumes, well and good. But if you are under limitations, grab the Wolfe volume.
5 Replies to “A Review of The Case for Christian Nationalism. By Stephen Wolfe.”
“But some will argue that the mission of the church is not to transform the world. Wolfe replies:
‘I agree. But must everything “Christian” flow from or out of the instituted church and its leadership? Should a Christian father not order his household to Christ? If he should, why shouldn’t civil ruler order the civil realm to Christ and his kingdom? The fact that the instituted church serves the soul does not preclude Christians from ordering the things of the body to the soul. (196)’ ”
1. If the mission of the church does not transform the world, what then? What happens to the great promise that “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is 11:9 and Hab 2:14)? Is that knowledge of God and His purposes to have NO effect on the world?
2. Wolfe seems to agree with the challenge (that the church does not transform the world) but then disagrees. I hope it is just his wording, but I find that rather confusing.
Thanks John. It may be confusing because of my limited quotes (best to read his entire volume!). He agrees that the instituted church as such is primarily about proclaiming the gospel, discipling people, and so on. And that will include social action and salt and light sort of things. But his book as a whole is arguing for something much broader than this: that there can even be such a thing as a Christian nation, and Christians as Christians can work toward this – not just the instituted church.
Previously I would have thought that some form of nationalism would be a given because it is the only way democracy can remotely work. Without functional nations controlling laws etc. there surely is no option except despotism. A bureaucratically controlled globalism would simply be the worst possible kind of despotism.
To me the really big issue is disrespect for truth. Truth was always a defence in libel or slander cases and rightly so but now we actually have laws based on lies and that simply undermines any chance of laws ever being just and workable. Shouting “fire” in a theatre is perfectly reasonable if there is one so this delineates, pretty precisely, where the boundaries of free speech should be. Truth should always be a defence.
To say a person must be treated as a woman when they are not or that surgery is a reasonable treatment for gender dysphoria or that sexually-dysfunctional, homosexual relationships are equal to sexuality-functional, heterosexual ones; where there is some rationale for there being only two people in the legally recognised relationship, or that people should not be helped to overcome gender dysphoria or homosexuality or that a person’s imagined state should take priority over reality or that a child in the womb is not human and does not have feelings, are simply examples of where falsehood has taken precedence over truth and this falsehood has been included into unjust, immoral and unworkable laws.
This, to me, is the only real issue. One of the main reasons, if not the absolutely main reason, why Christian cultures work and others do not is simply to do with respect for truth. Christians only overcame slavery because they knew the truth was that all men are created equal and simply could not deny that truth. Christians were faced with the truth and so had to make the hard decision to fight slavery. It was only respect for truth that enabled race-based slavery to ever be overcome. Truth really does set free but deceit will definitely enslave – especially if we allow laws to be based on falsehoods as we have now repeatedly done.
As far as being a Christian nation is concerned that, clearly, is only ever going to happen if people get out there and convert others, irrespective of what the deceitful, propagandist media does. We have already seen how lack of Christianity promotes the undermining of truth and basic human rights so we now have better arguments than we have had for a very long time to get out there and convince people.
I am very grateful again for this further review.
Many thanks Timothy.