Decline and Retreat
Let me start by acknowledging the understandable desire for something like Christian Nationalism. The best part of the book is Wolfe’s chapter on “The Good of Cultural Christianity” and, in particular, the section on “Celebrating Decline.” Wolfe is right to maintain that while cultural Christianity cannot save sinners (i.e., the message of the gospel is entrusted to the church, not to the civil order), a Christian culture can be both preparative and persuasive in direction of the gospel (213). Just because hypocrisy and nominalism are dangers—dangers that ministers should and do warn against—that doesn’t mean we should welcome the collapse of social assumptions and stigmas that pushed people in the direction of biblical truth and basic morality.
Too many Christians are quick to wish away cultural Christianity without considering the alternatives. “But wouldn’t you prefer to live in a community,” Wolfe asks, “where you can trust your neighbors, having mutual expectations of conduct, speech, and beliefs according to Christian standards? Wouldn’t you prefer to have neighbors with Christian standards of decency, respect, and admonishment, even if it is merely cultural?” (223).
These are good questions. I share Wolfe’s bewilderment over the Christian leaders who seem to prefer a society hostile to Christianity. I’ve seen pastors in my own denomination look wistfully at Christians losing power and becoming a minority in the country, as if Constantine ruined everything and our influence would be so much greater if we only we could lose power and become more marginalized.
It’s one thing to acknowledge cultural Christianity comes with tradeoffs or to recognize cultural Christianity allowed for certain sins to flourish; it’s another thing to say “good riddance” to Bible Belt near-Christianity, as Russell Moore did in a 2015 article that Wolfe quotes at length (224–25). Wolfe notes how Moore rejoices that “we don’t have Mayberry anymore, if we ever did” (226). Traditional family values may have kept some children in intact families. “But,” Moore concludes, “that’s hardly revival” (225). True, not revival, but something worth preserving, if we can?
I’ve given a mini-speech in private settings probably a dozen times in the past five years. I’ve said something like this to my friends and colleagues:
We have to realize that people are scared and discouraged. They see America rapidly becoming less and less Christian. They see traditional morality—especially in areas of sex and gender—not only being tossed overboard but resolutely and legally opposed. Of course, we should not give way to ungodly fear and panic. We should not make an idol out of politics. We should not fight like jerks because that’s the way the world fights. But people want to see that their Christian leaders—pastors, thinkers, writers, institutional heads—are willing to fight for the truth. You may think your people spend too much time watching Tucker Carlson, or retweeting Ben Shapiro, or looking for Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube, or reading the latest stuff from Doug Wilson—and I have theological disagreements with all of them (after all, some of them aren’t even Christians)—but people are drawn to them because they offer a confident assertion of truth. Our people can see the world being overrun by moral chaos, and they want help in mounting a courageous resistance; instead, they are getting a respectable retreat.
The online “winsomeness” debate of 2022 was a reprise of the “empathy” debate of 2021. In both instances, someone raises the point, “Hey, that word should not represent the sum total of our Christian witness. In fact, by itself, that word may smuggle in some bad ideas and assumptions.” A number of voices chime in in agreement.
In response, other Christians say, “Woah, wait a minute. Jesus was full of compassion. We should be kind to one another and love our neighbors. Why are you anti-Jesus?” Which prompts the first group to say, “That’s not really what we were talking about.” Meanwhile, another group runs with the idea that “winsomeness” and “empathy” are bad and concludes that if you don’t assert yourself with maximum obnoxiousness and offensiveness, then you’re a Big Eva Squish. Lather, rinse, repeat. The conversation devolves into the usual taking of sides.
As frustrating as those discussions can be, they highlight an important difference in evangelical sensibilities. I’ve used the word “winsome” for years. It’s a good word. One of the unofficial slogans of Reformed Theological Seminary, where I gladly serve, is “winsomely Reformed.” If “winsome” means we engage in the battle of ideas with respect and civility, looking to build bridges where we can, then it’s certainly a worthwhile goal. The problem is when “winsomeness” and “empathy” get to be defined not by our words and deeds but by how our words and deeds make people feel. “I will be kind” is Christianity. “I will not do anything to jeopardize your good opinion of me” is capitulation.
The other problem is that winsomeness almost always runs in one direction. The “winsome” folks are careful to speak respectfully and humbly to an LGBT+ audience, while they’re eager to speak “prophetically” to the MAGA crowd. Many conservative Christians are tired of always being on the defensive and always having to communicate their convictions in ways that left-leaning secularists approve of. They want more than a tiny island of religious freedom where we promise not to bother anyone; they want a vigorous defense of what’s true.
The appeal of something like Christian Nationalism is that it presents a muscular alternative to surrender and defeat. Few conservative Christians have anything like a sophisticated political philosophy. But they know gay so-called marriage is wrong and drag queen story hour is bad. So if the two choices in political philosophy are (1) supporting gay “marriage” because that’s what pluralism demands and defending drag queen story hour as a blessing of liberty or (2) Christian Nationalism, millions of Christians in this country are going to choose the latter. I imagine the same basic equation explains the newfound interest in Catholic integralism as well.
I sympathize with the reasons many Christians want something like Christian Nationalism. They aren’t necessarily looking for culture warriors. They just don’t want to be told that the increasing hostility toward Christian ethics is all a figment of their imagination or really their own fault. These Christians are looking for leadership. They’re looking for confidence. They’re looking for a way to assert not only that Christian ideas have the right to exist but that Christian ideas are right. When a 475-page book with hundreds of footnotes from people like Althusius and Turretin reaches the top 100 on Amazon, you know something deeper is going on than a passion for political theory. Many Christians want an alternative to decline and retreat. So do I. But Christian Nationalism is not the answer.
I’m going to get to my critique, but first let me make some preliminary remarks about what makes this book difficult to review.
For starters, it’s a long book, covering a lot of ground—from philosophy to history to theology to political theory. Wolfe has a lot to say, and there’s a lot that can be said in response. But a book review is not a book, so the reviewer has to practice restraint. If you want a fuller summary and more comprehensive evaluation of the book, I recommend Neil Shenvi’s four-part review.
Second, this is a personal book. Although there are plenty of footnotes and evidence of academic research, this volume is not meant to be a dispassionate scholarly reflection on the nature of civil society. As Wolfe says in the last paragraph on the last page, “This book is not an intellectual exercise, nor intended simply to ‘contribute to the field’ of Christian political theory. It is personal. It is a vision of the future, and my family is a part of that future” (478).
With that aim, it’s hard to know whether the book should be reviewed as a work of political theorizing, as a work of historical retrieval, or as a personal manifesto. Wolfe isn’t just arguing for the establishment principle or for legislating both tables of the Mosaic law, he’s justifying violent revolution (324) and calling for “the Great Renewal” (435). It would be a mistake to think Wolfe’s interest is in settling antiquarian debates.
Third, reviewing The Case for Christian Nationalism is difficult because Wolfe stacks the rhetorical deck against critical engagement with his claims and his ideas. At the beginning of the book, Wolfe emphasizes his commitment to use “an older style” of writing that relies on actual arguments, logical coherence, and scholarly demonstration. He laments the fact that so many Christians “resort to rhetorical devices, tweetable shibboleths, and credibility development to assert disparate principles and applications” (19–20). He decries those who “personally attack those who would disagree” and “appeal to common prejudice or sentiment” (20).
And yet, Wolfe doesn’t abide by these same ideals in dealing with those who would disagree with his ideas. He speaks of his opponents as “regime evangelicals” (341) and describes them as “rhetorically enslaved to the sentiments of a coastal elite” (456). Likewise, he anticipates that “the most vociferous critics [of his pro-Russian views] will be [Globalist American Empire]–affirming Christians” (445).
Just as the left has predetermined that any opposition to its ideology must be attributable to racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia, so some voices on the right have predetermined that anyone unwilling to go all the way in the direction of Christian Nationalism must be sellouts eager to please a nefarious cabal of secular elites. This posture hardly encourages an open and honest exchange of ideas.
These difficulties notwithstanding, I want to offer a substantive critique of The Case for Christian Nationalism. I’ll group my concerns under four headings: nations and ethnicity, the nature of the church, Protestant political thought, and the way forward.
1. Nations and Ethnicity
By Wolfe’s own admission, his definitions are often idiosyncratic, and by my estimation, they’re not entirely consistent. For example, the all-important concept of “nation” sometimes operates in Wolfe’s thinking more organically like an ethnicity, sometimes more loosely like a culture, sometimes more locally like a love of people and place, and sometimes more traditionally like a nation-state with a recognizable set of laws, a governing magistrate, and the power of the sword. The front cover contains a picture of America with a cross in the middle, so the book would seem to be about the nation-state we know as the United States of America. But at other times, it’s clear Wolfe doesn’t like that idea of “nation” and is animated by a different understanding of nation—one that defines “nationalism” as the natural good of becoming conscious of your own “people-group,” being for your own people-group, and keeping your people-group distinct from other people-groups (135).
There are many problems with Wolfe’s defense of this “similarity principle.” It’s built upon a weak and speculative foundation about how people would have formed distinct nations even without the fall, it gives too much credence to our own fallen inclinations, and it gives too little consideration for how our desire for “similarity” has been tainted by sin. Grace may perfect nature, but it often does so in ways that feel unnatural to us.
Likewise, Wolfe’s argument doesn’t reckon with the way the Bible relativizes our sense of family (Mark 3:31–35), tears down dividing walls between people groups (Eph. 2:11–22), and presents a multitribal and multilingual reality (and hoped-for future) as a heavenly good (Rev. 5:9–10).
I also fail to see how Wolfe’s rejection of the West’s universalizing tendency squares with Wolfe’s use of natural theology and natural law (which are, by definition, universally accessible, leading to truths than can be universally affirmed). Shenvi’s review is particularly good on the issue of ethnicity, so I won’t repeat all the same arguments here.
But before moving on from this point, it’s worth mentioning how Wolfe leaves a number of serious questions unanswered. Wolfe often decries the mental habit, forced upon us by secular elites, that makes Christian nationalists feel the need to prove they’re not racists or kinists or xenophobes. Wolfe refuses to play by those rules (456–57). I understand the frustration. But surely in a 500-page book, it wouldn’t have been misplaced, or kowtowing to the spirit of the age, for Wolfe to make clear exactly what he is and isn’t arguing for (especially when he quotes approvingly from Samuel Francis on VDARE.com).
Wolfe says a mark of nationalism is that “each people group has a right to be for itself” (118), and that “no nation (properly conceived) is composed of two or more ethnicities” (135), and that our “instinct to conduct everyday life among similar people is natural, and being natural, it is for your good” (142), and that “to exclude an out-group is to recognize a universal good for man” (145), and that “spiritual unity is inadequate for formal ecclesial unity” (200), and that “the most suitable condition for a group of people to successfully pursue the complete good is one of cultural similarity” (201).
What are we to do with these statements? Is Wolfe’s main concern about immigration policy for a nation-state? That’s part of what animates his warning against self-immolation and national suicide (171). Is he making the argument that we need not be ashamed to love our family, our country, and our place more than other families, countries, and places? That’s also part of his concern; fair enough.
But you don’t have to be a left-wing watchdog to wonder how these “similarity” arguments work out in practice. In a footnote, Wolfe rejects modern racialist principles and denies that he’s making a “white nationalist” argument (119), but if we cannot accept the creedal nation concept, and if ethnicities are grouped by cultural similarity, it’s an open question how much cooperation and togetherness blacks and whites (not to mention Asians and Hispanics and Native Americans) will ever share—or if they should even try to live and worship together.
Is this really the direction we’re to be pushed by the gospel? Are we really to pursue a social ordering on earth so different from that which is present in heaven? Are we really so sure that our love for people like us and our ostracism of people unlike us are God-given inclinations and not fallen ones?
If there were no other problems with the book, Wolfe’s vigorous defense of becoming “more exclusive and ethnic-focused” (459) should stop in their tracks all who are ready to follow Wolfe’s vision for national renewal. The fact that the left thinks racism is everywhere doesn’t mean racism is nowhere. Wolfe may eschew contemporary racialist categories, but he doesn’t make clear how his ideas on kinship are different from racist ideas of the past that have been used to forbid interracial marriage and to enforce the legal injustice of “separate but equal.”
By God’s grace, America has made great strides in overcoming racism in the past 60 years. I fail to see how Wolfe’s vision isn’t a giant step in the wrong direction.
2. Nature of the Church
Key to Wolfe’s political theory is the contention that “a Christian nation is a nation whose particular earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ” (174). I will say more about Protestant political thought in the next section. My criticism at present isn’t about moral philosophy as much as it’s about systematic theology.
To his credit, Wolfe clearly distinguishes between the civil realm and the ecclesial realm. He holds to a (kind of) two-kingdom theology. Wolfe’s project doesn’t entail theocracy; neither is it theonomy: “The Christian nation is not the spiritual kingdom of Christ or the immanentized eschaton; it is not founded in principles of grace or the Gospel” (186). Nevertheless, civil government ought to direct people to the Christian religion because “an earthly kingdom is a Christian kingdom when it orders the people to the kingdom of heaven” (195).
Wolfe doesn’t conflate the church and the world, but he argues that “the Christian nation is the complete image of eternal life on earth.” Wolfe rejects the idea of the church as a “colony” or “outpost” of heaven (222). The church may give us the “principal image” of heavenly life (public worship), but only a Christian nation can give us the “complete image” of heavenly life. “For in addition to being a worshipping people, the Christian nation has submitted to magistrates and constitutes a people whose cultural practices and self-conception provide a foretaste of heaven” (223). In short, Wolfe maintains that a Christian nation should be ordered “to make the earthly city an analog of the heavenly city” (209).
I disagree with this conclusion. It’s one thing to suggest civil society may bear resemblance to heavenly realities or that in the life to come we’ll more deeply enjoy whatever is excellent in this life. It’s another to suggest the analog of the heavenly city is to be found in the earthly city. Contrary to Wolfe, I maintain the church is an “outpost” or “embassy” or “colony” of the heavenly city.
This comports with the sweep of redemptive history: the reality of heavenly paradise is first found in Eden; then a reflection of Edenic bliss is to be found in the nation of Israel (the land in which God dwells, described with Edenic language and marked by Edenic boundaries); at present God’s dwelling is with his people in the church (where the judicial punishments in Israel are recalibrated as ecclesiastical disfellowshipping and the picture of Edenic plenty is manifested by giving generously to our brothers and sisters); and finally at the consummation will the kingdom of this world become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ (Rev. 11:15).