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Treatise or Tweet? A Review of Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism (Part 1)

Stephen Wolfe’s dedication to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest two centuries of sources for a popular audience is impressive. However, if scholarly recovery alone were the aim of the book, it is doubtful that Wolfe would have written it, Canon would have published it, or American Protestants would buy it. Why not? Wolfe wants his admittedly idiosyncratic vision to improve the future, not simply engage academic specialists. That turns out to be a mixed blessing.

What role will the Christian tradition play in our future? As political discourse becomes increasingly divisive and despairing, particularly on social media, those equipped to make a difference face a dilemma: give pastors, professors, politicians, or parents who can shape the future a reason to recover Christianity’s rich past? Or mimic the manic meme-and-tweet industrial complex? There is no better illustration of this dilemma than Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism.

The Good News and the Bad News

First, the good news. 1) Wolfe’s book in many places expertly recovers the political prescriptions of the magisterial reformers (c. 1520–1780) and their inheritors. If you are interested in this period (the most fecund for Protestant political thinking) and what it might mean for the present, you should read it. 2) When Wolfe sticks to his sources, carefully elucidates and builds on them, he does outstanding work. This assessment comes from working with much of the same literature and writing about it myself. Critics may cite later Protestant authors to contend with Wolfe, but they will have difficulty refuting many of his arguments from his own sources.

Here’s the bad news: Wolfe published his study not with an academic press, but with the more plucky and popular Canon Press. It has sold thousands of copies, and if buyers actually read the book they will learn quite a bit. Unfortunately, they will also find arguments for which “sloppy” or “intemperate” would be a compliment. The success of Wolfe’s book, a book focused on arguments that began almost half a millennium ago, is lightning in a bottle; unfortunately, editorial oversight and authorial self-indulgence collude in an arson.

Publishing in the Age of Twitter

Despite Wolfe’s impressive academic credentials, his book is not intended to be a traditional monograph. He is not interested in contending with existing academic literature on Christian nationalism (insofar as it has been cast as a movement) which is fine. Most of it, even according to critics of Christian nationalism like Mark Hall, is terrible. Wolfe singles out a few critics of Christian nationalism, but dismisses their criticisms as “social dogma” and calls on them to “enter into rational inquiry.” That, I think, means meeting Wolfe on his own theological or historical grounds. I agree, but I wish Wolfe had taken his own advice. There is dogma in his own book, attributable to our current rhetorical climate.

Wolfe’s better content relies heavily on early Protestant thinkers in Europe and America. Some, like John Calvin, were theologians with legal training; others, like Johannes Althusius, were statesmen with theological training. To call either a nationalist tempts anachronism. International networks of Protestant scholars existed, and international law eventually took shape, but there was no “globalism” against which “nationalism” contended (excepting, perhaps, Rome’s assertion of international sovereignty: Pius V trying to depose Elizabeth I, for example). Protestant polities without exception considered themselves modern iterations of biblical Israel, implicitly or explicitly covenanted before God, and read national events through the lens of Providence.

 

Wolfe’s dedication to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest two centuries of sources for a popular audience is impressive. However, if scholarly recovery alone were the aim of the book, it is doubtful that Wolfe would have written it, Canon would have published it, or American Protestants would buy it. Why not? Wolfe wants his admittedly idiosyncratic vision to improve the future, not simply engage academic specialists. That turns out to be a mixed blessing.

To reach a broader audience, Wolfe deploys simple and direct propositions, thought experiments, and engages real or idealized interlocutors. He distills debates about the conscience (Chapter 9) or the interplay of ecclesiastical and civil authority (Chapters 4, 6, 7), for example, which were subjects flogged over centuries by thousands (millions?) of pages of polemics. Given the sheer volume of work to digest, much of it muddled by tropes and accidental and willful obfuscations, Wolfe’s work is often superlative. That said, his legacy sources are intended to enable his vision rather than enter an academic conversation, or interrogate the tradition as such, so readers may not know where the tradition ends and Wolfe begins.

Because Wolfe’s book is not vetted by a traditional press, however, his superlative distillations are accompanied by his own idiosyncratic or dogmatic opinions. Along with Wolfe’s recovery of now-forgotten seventeenth-century Protestant heavyweight theologians like Francis Turretin or Franciscus Junius, for which I am very thankful, we also encounter some threats to the Christian nation that undermine the quality of the book: vegetable oil, a source of the “dadbod”; “the GAE” (say it phonetically, wink, wink), or Global American Empire (an online shibboleth like “Globohomo” that suggests that every point of American foreign policy is liberal progressivism); the “gynocracy,” or rule by women everywhere; and “the regime,” an amorphous and ubiquitous legion of enemies among the social elite. I am not grateful for those parts of the book, though glad to be spared commentary about corn sweetener, the Deep State, or the superiority of the manual transmission, for example.

In short, in the same book we get both Wolfe the transgressive edgelord—a term used to describe someone on social media who deliberately provokes by being maximally contrarian and minimally nuanced, also called “red-pilling”—and Wolfe the scholar. The jarring contrast between the two is not simply rhetorical. Wolfe’s own faith and vocational gifts are reflected in Wolfe the scholar, and his recovery of the past demonstrates the Christian virtue of hope; temptations to bleaker vices, however, are reflected in Wolfe the edgelord who too often appears hopeless.

 

Christian Nationalism Defined

Since the existence of Christian nationalism is contested, I’ll quote Wolfe’s own definition. Wolfe defines Christian nationalism as “a Christian nation acting as such and for itself in the interest of the nation’s complete good.” “The totality of national action” uses both “civil laws and social customs” for its own “earthly and heavenly good in Christ.”  The greatest omission as Wolfe unpacks these ideas concerns the law: how an elusive “national will” is “mediated through authorities that the people constitute.” He dismisses neither democracy nor revolution, but pays no attention to the constitutionalism that preoccupied his magisterial Protestant sources.

While there cannot be the presumption of one constitutional arrangement for every nation, Wolfe’s inattention to institutions of law results in particularly unpersuasive chapters on revolution and the “Christian Prince” (Chapters 7 and 8) that are, like his definition of the nation, reactionary and/or romantic. Especially disappointing is his inattention to Anglo-American constitutionalism, and more specifically, federalism in the American case. Federalism is, after all, the inheritor (literally its etymology) of the covenanting project of Reformed Protestantism. And Anglo-American constitutionalism was often forged in the fires of religious conflict.

Nature and Grace

Wolfe’s Christian nationalism is founded on some sophisticated theological speculations about nature and grace. Wolfe knows that he must address the popular assertion that politics is somehow “transformed” by the redemptive work of Christ. According to variants of later Neo-Calvinism, grace triumphs over nature. Wolfe asserts a cooperative rather than competitive relationship between them. He argues that in politics or social life generally, grace (i.e., redemption, sanctification, divine revelation, divine law, restoration of man’s supernatural gifts, the Church) does not replace or supplant nature (i.e., creation, moral law, natural law, man’s natural gifts, the arts and sciences, human society). This will surprise many readers who want to “Christianize” politics through Christian qua Christian enterprises. The church in Wolfe’s vision is actually far less political than his allies or critics might expect.

Wolfe’s foundational claims for his argument are: 1) government is a prelapsarian (pre-Fall) institution; 2) Adam’s natural gifts (e.g., arts and sciences, including politics) were not substantially corrupted by the Fall, though his supernatural (spiritual) gifts were; 3) even if Adam had not fallen, he would have eventually been glorified (inherited a state better than the Garden) as a free gift not conditional on his obedience. These points together enable the conclusion that government and natural law are prelapsarian institutions, and they are not substantially changed by Christ’s work or the believer’s faith.

Wolfe defies his contemporaries by making neither too much of politics (for example, he rejects theocratic theonomy) nor too little of politics (he rejects liberalism’s ambivalence toward spiritual things). The Church confines itself to Word and Sacrament while other institutions advance the dominion mandate (Genesis 1 and 9) by maintaining their natural (prelapsarian) duties under the moral law. Politically pontificating pastors will not like the limits Wolfe prescribes for them, and laymen unfamiliar with natural law will wonder why Wolfe isn’t deriving all arguments from scripture. But Wolfe’s classical Protestant sources not only contended about scripture endlessly already, but deployed both revelation and reason (exemplified in Anglican theologian Richard Hooker or Presbyterian theologian Samuel Rutherford, for example) to make their case.

Building on his three points, Wolfe speculates that prelapsarian populations would rely on government to help coordinate their contrary (but not sinfully contrary) interests and vocations. Growing Edenic populations would settle apart from one another and organically form separate nations. These nations would facilitate spiritual fellowship, bodily security, aesthetics, and other elements of rational creatureliness for their citizens. The Fall into sin, Wolfe argues, required “augmenting” government with force (Genesis 9), while at the same time tempering its ambitions.

Redemption introduces the possibility of a Christian nation, but does not redefine nationhood. A Christian nation resembles any other nation except that it also deliberately directs its citizens toward their heavenly end. It is worth noting that governments throughout history took an interest in religious matters, so this attribute of Wolfe’s Christian nation isn’t even uniquely Christian. The magistrate in Wolfe’s Christian polity, however, neither governs nor intrudes on direct spiritual work (Word or sacrament). It instead uses legal prescriptions (e.g., supporting religious education) and proscriptions (e.g., outlawing obstreperous public blasphemy or atheism) to encourage the pursuit of heaven.

 

Making Institutions Christian

Wolfe provides persuasive examples to defend his model of the Christian nation: the “Christian college” and “Christian family.” Neither of these is essentially dissimilar from regular colleges or families. The Christian college’s or family’s operations don’t differ substantially from those of their non-Christian counterparts. What Christians mean, rather, is that their college or family is enhanced, or made complete, insofar as it also directs members to glory, thanks to its more robust teleology and anthropology. With Christian universities and families, their purpose is enlarged; their understanding of human potential is both earthly and heavenly.

Wolfe argues that this same principle should also apply to governments, and he rightly asks why the Christian nation should not resemble the Christian family or college. Christian colleges enable what encourages faithfulness: they provide chapel and Bible study groups while restricting opportunities for sin, like unmonitored dorm life. Neither the Christian college nor the Christian nation presumes to administer sacraments or ecclesiastical discipline, for example. Relationships with the Church are cooperative: the Christian nation protects and defends the Church while the Christian college requires regular attendance and membership in a local church.

Elaborating on this, what Wolfe calls “adornment or infusion of Christianity into the national way of life” is the subject of Chapters 4–9, and Wolfe has in his corner every Protestant confession written or modified before the late eighteenth century. Protestants from Luther to Witherspoon, for example, had a very high view of civil authority and most called it a “nursing father” for the churches (Isaiah 49:23). When Wolfe draws from streams connected to those confessions, he is persuasive.

In Part 2, I will take up Wolfe’s idea of “adornment and infusion” in more detail, but also emphasize where I think Wolfe is less persuasive or less instructive for a Christian audience because he succumbs to the reactionary and despairing character of contemporary political discourse.

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