The Case for Christian Nationalism

Written by Stephen Wolfe Reviewed By Bradford Littlejohn

Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism presents a paradox for any reviewer, defying the genre boundaries that usually quarantine works of academic history or theory from the hurly-burly of popular politics. As a scholar of Reformation political theology who has spent more than a decade trying to convince contemporary Protestants to attend to their own tradition, I should be thrilled at the prospect of a book parsing distinctions between the Christian magistrate’s authority in sacris versus circa sacra appearing high on Amazon’s bestseller list. And yet, I guarantee you that it was not passages such as these that attracted the enthusiastic attention of tens of thousands of readers.

This volume, as a number of reviewers have observed, is really three books in one. “Book 1” (which comprises the majority of chapters 1, 2, 4, and 6–9) is a generally sober exposition of most of the central principles of magisterial Protestant political thought, full of primary source quotations and answering questions such as: “Would there have been government before the fall?”; “How does government’s essentially earthly responsibility relate to the work of the church?”; and “How do we reconcile freedom of conscience with the authority of law?” “Book 2” (sprinkled throughout but see especially chapters 3 and 5) represents Wolfe’s distinctive twist on the recent revival of “nationalism” as a political phenomenon, attacking the modern trend toward a borderless world and defending the idea that politics is ordered to the protection of a particular people and its way of life. “Book 3” is something else altogether: a harsh and sometimes angry attack on modern politics (and modern churches) as weak and effeminate, and a stern call to action (and to revolution?) to protect our “homeland” and restore the conditions for a Christian politics. This book-within-a-book appears in many of the chapter conclusions, and at length in a no-holds-barred Epilogue, “Now What?” (For “Book 3,” see especially pp. 5, 38, 169–71, 239–41, 276, 278–9, 290–92, 322–23, 325–26, 340–48, 351–52, 380–84, and 433–75.)

More sober readers, alarmed by the appeals for a “great man” who will bring about a “great renewal” of the “national will” in “Book 3” and what may look to many like racist dog-whistles in “Book 2,” might understandably be tempted to write the entire book off as crypto-fascism wrapped in a thin Christian cloak.

This would be a mistake. Many of the themes the book seeks to recover were once commonplaces of Protestant political theology. But, sadly, they are now casually neglected, dismissed as irrelevant to modern society, or openly opposed as representing an illiberal theocracy. Given the current crisis of liberalism, in which we are witnessing the rapid emptying of churches, the breakdown of public morality, and a growing alienation between the governing and the governed, these principles at the very least deserve a fresh hearing. Our Protestant forebears were well aware that human law cannot bring about saving faith, but they also understood that society could not well flourish without a religious backbone. To be sure, their prudential formulas for how to foster a “Christian nation” in the seventeenth century will need a lot of rethinking in the twenty-first, and Wolfe acknowledges as much—though sometimes rather grudgingly.

The book is perhaps at its strongest in its forceful defense of much-maligned “cultural Christianity” (see, especially, ch. 5). Rather than seeing public support for religion as a recipe for hypocrisy that will stifle saving faith, Wolfe argues persuasively for the older consensus that stressed the pedagogical function of even human law and social custom as a schoolmaster unto Christ. Chapter 1’s treatment of “Nations Before the Fall” also offers an uncommonly clear, thoughtful, and (at points) groundbreaking survey of historic Christian reflection on the prelapsarian foundations of political order.

That said, those interested in the retrieval and renewal of the great legacy of magisterial Protestant political thought, a tradition which helped birth the American nation, may be dismayed by the company these venerable principles are found keeping in The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe’s retrieval, as “Book 2” shows, is pursued in service of an idiosyncratic project that at best leaves key questions unanswered, and at worst, may lend energy to some of the worst impulses of disgruntled right-wing radicalism in America today.

To be sure, polarizing though the arguments of “Book 2” may be, it marks an important contribution to the recent revival of nationalism among American conservatives, arguing that there is nothing wrong with prioritizing loyalty to one’s own people, place, and polity over others. Given that such nationalist rhetoric has provoked fierce opposition from many Christian leaders in recent years, Wolfe expends considerable effort to persuade his fellow Christians that there is no contradiction between the universal scope of the Christian gospel and having particular obligations to one’s own nation. The basic argument here is not difficult to make; a lot of it is just common sense. It is also not hard to find testimonies from classical literature as well as the Christian tradition in defense of it, as Wolfe does, to make the point 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” (p. 23).

If the point is to rein in cosmopolitan globalism or question unrestrained immigration and a borderless world, then these points are well-taken. However, Wolfe often takes his argument rather further than this, in ways that might seem to make the critics of nationalism feel that they were right to sound alarms, stressing that a national people or ethnos can and often must act to exclude foreigners and foreign influences and preserve its distinctive way of life.

In response, we must stress that the love of the familiar is only prima facie; not ultima facie. Wolfe says almost nothing about the capacity of our shared human nature to overcome the minor barriers of cultural and linguistic difference—never mind the implications of the gospel. The foreigner may be harder to love than the neighbor, but it need not take long for him to become a neighbor. Wolfe is right that grace does not destroy nature, to be sure; but grace seems almost an unwanted intrusion into a political imaginary containing many basic premises that are more at home in paganism, with its reflexive privileging of kinship bonds over the duties of universal humanity, and its drive to self-assertion rather than self-denial. For example, what Wolfe calls “natural aspirations for national greatness” (p. 171) looks suspiciously like what St. Augustine called libido dominandi.

Moreover, we might reasonably ask what the practical upshot of these ruminations on nationhood and cultural particularity is in modern America. For better or for worse, America has been a melting pot for centuries, largely dissolving many ethnic traditions into a diverse national blend. Although Wolfe denies that he uses the word ethnos to mean “race,” the only real ethnic faultlines in modern America are racial in character. Accordingly, his arguments for re-erecting ethnic barriers will certainly sound racist to many readers, and have indeed been embraced as such by white nationalist organizations like VDARE.

These worries about practical import become particularly urgent when we turn our attention to “Book 3,” with its fierce denunciations of contemporary American political institutions and implicit (or explicit?) calls for revolutionary action to overthrow these institutions. Here Wolfe does not merely leave behind his earlier sober retrieval of historic Protestant political principles, but at certain points contradicts them. Our forebears counseled extreme caution before undertaking active political resistance, even to openly tyrannical authority, and distinguished between the legitimate attempt to maintain a Christian commonwealth by law and the foolhardy attempt to create one by force. Wolfe, however, explicitly argues that a Christian minority can revolt against a surrounding society that hates them and “after successfully revolting, establish over all of the population a Christian commonwealth” (pp. 345–46, emphasis original).

As his Epilogue makes clear, this is no mere hypothetical thought experiment but a genuine proposal for how American Christians should frame their political action in the next generation. Such a proposal is sure to tickle the ears of an increasingly marginalized and angry swath of middle America, convinced that politics as usual is doomed to fail us. And let us make no mistake: they are right to be angry at political and religious leaders who have sold the Christian birthright of their nation and conspired to replace public morality with public immorality. But the true path toward retrieval and rebuilding will be a much longer, slower, and harder one than the revolution of the saints to which Wolfe invites us.

Bradford Littlejohn

Bradford Littlejohn
Davenant Institute
Landrum, South Carolina, USA

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