Canon Press published Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism at an opportune time. After two and half years of COVID, people are ready to resist the state’s imposition on their freedoms. Yet the book has undergone its fair share of controversy. Accusations of racism and kinism or at least an association with it have arisen. I do not fully understand the details of these accusations, and it may be that by the time my review comes out such matters will come to light.
My goal in this article is to review the book Christian Nationalism because it represents a conclusion that many people have intuited over the last decade. As Christians struggle to resist societal pressures and reassert the faith, they have developed an under-defined notion of Christian Nationalism, one likely borne out of the realization that Christians now live in a society that no longer privileges Christian moral norms.
Put more simply, a lot of people feel that the Canada or the USA of their youth no longer exists. The moral structure of their country, the Christian baseline for discourse, and more besides has been replaced with something else. Should we then find ways to survive these transitions as pilgrims or attempt to re-establish a Christian national consensus?
Stephen Wolfe affirms the latter, arguing that Christian Nationalism “is the ideal arrangement for Christians, and something worth pursuing with determination and resolve” (9). By Christian Nationalism, Wolfe means “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).
Pursuing this arrangement “with determination and resolve” may even lead to a violent takeover. In his chapter on the right to revolution, Wolfe writes:
“Many want me to end with a word of caution, perhaps to reassure everyone that these are academic conclusions, that they are not serious. Instead, I’ll say this: It is to our shame that we sheepishly tolerate assaults against our Christian heritage, merely sighing or tweeting performative outrage over public blasphemy, impiety, irreverence, and perversity. We are dead inside, lacking the spirit to drive away the open mockery of God and to claim what is ours in Christ. We are gripped by a slavish devotion to our secularist captors. But we do not have to be like this. We have the power and right to act. Let us train the will and cultivate the resolve.”(351)
With “the power and right to act,” Wolfe may at least allow for the prudential possibility of open revolution (again) in the USA. He is careful not to say that part out loud. But the quote above is how he ends his chapter on the right to revolution.
In this Christian Commonwealth, Wolfe would warrant the prudential application of civil punishments against blasphemy. Such a view might strike readers as a contradiction in terms of what it means to have freedom of conscience. Wolfe does not think so because civil governments do not punish private beliefs but only outward acts of heresy or blasphemy which harm the civil establishment.
At one level, readers will wonder if Wolfe seriously believes something like Christian Nationalism can happen in the USA. He does. And his activist political theory would lead others, I suspect, to attempt to enact such an arrangement.
I have deep disagreements with Wolfe’s thesis and argument. And I believe they are worth stating because some people are reading this book, others assume similar conclusions, and because, I suspect, his views will influence Christians in Canada. If so, it’s worth getting ahead of the argument to understand it.
1. Christian Nationalism Needs More Bible
Wolfe argues his case on the basis of natural principles, which partially explains why he rarely cites Scripture. As he himself notes, “I am neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar” (15). Instead, Wolfe assumes a consensus understanding of the reformed tradition and argues from it.
In light of this method, Chapters 1–2 of Christian Nationalism restate reformed thinking on anthropology. The next seven chapters reason from these principles to make a case for Christian Nationalism. Chapter 10 highlights the particularity of the American experience. An epilogue provides a list of aphorisms.
I grant that Wolfe tells us he will assume conclusions from the Bible. I understand that he assumes the Reformed Tradition. And yet after reading Christian Nationalism, I am obligated to ask: does the book correspond to the teachings of Jesus or the Apostles? I struggle to see how it does.
Let me give one example. The Gospel, argues Wolfe, does not change the inequality of love. Among other things, this means for Wolfe that one should love “his kin over other kin” (101). Elsewhere, Wolfe distinguishes family, kin, and countrymen (118). These categories of people, he believes, we should love more than others: “The instinct to love the familiar more than the foreign is good and remains operative in all spiritual states of man” (118).
Grace does not destroy nature. And I grant that my next-door neighbour by circumstance will generally be a closer friend than someone who lives across the city whom I have only met once. But Wolfe is saying more than this. He is saying we should love some kin over other kin; we should love what is close to us more than others.
Jesus says, “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:50; see also Matt 25:40). This is no mere rhetoric. As Jesus says in Psalm 22, as Hebrews cites it, he is not ashamed to call us his brothers (Heb 2:11; Ps 22:22). This adoption into God’s family occurs when the Spirit of Adoption (Rom 8:15), that is, the Spirit of God and Christ (Rom 8:9) unites us into the body of Christ.
The unity that we have in Christ creates a bond of love that ties every tribe, tongue, and nation together under the Lord Jesus. Yet Wolfe finds such an argument to be a category error when it comes to civil unity (198). Instead, civil fellowship, avers Wolfe, makes church fellowship work because people remain particular. Like enjoys like. And hence, Wolfe asserts, “Spiritual unity is inadequate for formal ecclesial unity” (200). In this context, Wolfe defends the good of excluding fellow Christians from immigrating to one’s nation. As he says, “it is a categorical error to make unity in Christ the sole basis of civil fellowship” (198).
Maximus the Confessor, in his justly famous Second Letter, defines love, manifest in Christ, as the means by which we unite to God and to others. Love brings what’s exterior to us and brings it together. And it takes what is peculiar and brings into oneness, simplicity. Now I offer this alternative rendering of love because Maximus—a former politician who was later exiled by a Christian regime—represents a common understanding of love amongst earlier generations of Christians, one which feels closer by love to others, even enemies (e.g., Rom 5:8–10).
Were I in Canadian political office, I probably would agree with Wolfe in that Canada should have a broad criterion for immigration. But my point is that Wolfe speaks of a distinctively Christian Nationalism, one which does not sound like the idiom and language of Jesus or the apostles. Certainly, Nations can do as they wish. I am not arguing that. I am saying that Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism has the liability of—in some cases—not sounding Scriptural.
In his work The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan writes, “Our search, then, is for true political concepts. But if the notion of a ‘political theology’ is not to be a chimera, they must be authorised, as any datum of theology must be, from Holy Scripture” (22). The question of the existence of political concepts, O’Donovan asserts, “must be put to Scripture itself” (22).
Wolfe did not put the question of the political concept of Christian Nationalism to Scripture. He assumed reformed theology, and then on this basis argued for Christian Nationalism.
2. Christian Nationalism Lacks an Explicit Ecclesiology
Wolfe speaks about the Christian family and compares the family to a nation in order to show how a nation can be called a Christian Nation. But Wolfe has no explicit ecclesiology. Beyond bare statements, the church exists in an undefined manner in Christian Nationalism.
This is a serious problem for two reasons. First, the adjective Christian properly describes those united to Christ in the Spirit as the body of Christ. This real union to Christ through—as Calvin or Novation say—the overflowing of the Spirit from Jesus who gives the Spirit without measure defines our political character.
Granted, in Christian Nationalism, Wolfe responds to the objection that only individuals and churches can be Christian. He notes that we speak of such things as Christian publishers, but mostly he goes to the family. If a nation cannot be Christian, neither can a family, he claims (179).
But here is where I think Wolfe confuses language for theology. Granted, we can speak of Christian institutions or Christian families, and I have no problem with using such language if the church has her central and defining place. Specifically, Christians are the body of Christ. What is the body of the Christ, united by the Spirit, is the temple of God, those called Christians.
But Wolfe takes for granted that Christian families can rightly be compared to Christian nations because they are Christian. I would not object so strongly here if Wolfe had an explicit ecclesiology and pneumatology which showed how Christians really spiritually unite to Christ as head does to body. But since he does not, he risks confusing what the Bible attributes to the church with what nature says of the family.
Second, beyond the definitional problem, Wolfe misconstrues how the body of Christ relates politically to the society around her. Jesus assumes that his body, the church, would create new social relations. O’Donovan writes, “Within the community of his followers the old family relations are superseded by new ones: the words ‘brother’, ‘sister’, ‘mother’ take on a new reference not given them in the family circle (Mark 3:31–5||; Matt. 23:9).” And this “may involve desertion of the family and neglect of duties towards it” (254).
The possibility of dividing families and of moving away from someone or something that is near and uniting to Christ and his body plays an important role in Jesus’ preaching. The experience of many who have been cast out or who can no longer remain close to a family member outside of Christ experientially confirms it.
Christian unity in Christ creates a deeper and more ultimate communal will than any other one, which binds together a community across space and time. Out of love, God brings us back to him; and in love, we unite as one body in Christ to believers across space and time. Even if one quibbles with my words here, one still can admit that this lacuna regarding the nature of the body of Christ contributes to Wolfe conflating the project of Christians with Christian Nationalism instead through his distinction of redemption and restoration.
3. Christian Nationalism Misconstrues Adam’s Restored Integrity
Wolfe distinguishes our salvific redemption and the restoration of Adam’s original integrity in Christ. This restoration to our original means we now must take dominion by building Christian nations. Disagreeing with David VanDrunen (who argues that we don’t finish Adam’s task since Jesus did), Wolfe explains that Adam’s task does not bring salvific rest (96-97). And thus the task of Adam still remains for us to fulfill.
Adam’s project, Wolfe explains, is “The work of dominion.” The world to come was always a gift. Adam’s dominion task differs from that gift. “The natural end of his work was not eternal life. Rather, by grace, God declared that Adam’s obedience would meet the condition for bestowing blessed life upon him” (97).
As I read Wolfe, this distinction conceptually clarifies for him how sanctification includes both our natural and gracious ends, our earthly life and heavenly life, because the one is ordered toward the other in close relation.
The New Testament does not assume a Christian majority in the Roman Empire within its letters. Even so, one might expect some clarity regarding the restoration of Adam’s purpose and the building of a Christian Nation. Do we really restore Adam’s dominion purpose by creating Christian nations?
The author of the Letter of Diognetus (early 100s) did not think so. He describes the normative way Christians viewed their relation to the world around them. Christians are like a soul to a body, and yet, “Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens” (§6). This pilgrim (or sojourner) character of Christianity helped early Christians understand how to relate to both Greek and Barbarian cities:
“But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners” (§5).
“For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity” (§5)
The unknown author, often called Mathetes, describes Christianity in ways already anticipated in the letters of Peter. Christians live as sojourners among the nations; they do not have distinctive national customs. Likewise, Jesus told his disciples to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19), not to create national identities.
I grant that the success of the church’s mission has often resulted in Christians becoming emperors or rulers. In this sense, Christian commonwealths have been formed. But as O’Donovan explains, “The church’s one project is to witness to the kingdom of God. Christendom is response to mission, and as such a sign that God has blessed it” (Desire, 195).
This response of the church’s mission, the effect of the proclamation that Jesus is Lord can and often does mean that rulers submit to King Jesus. And this means that Christians can rule nations. After gaining their independence from Spain, the Dutch asked Franciscus Junius to help them to understand how the Mosaic Law should shape their society.
Yet the church’s project is proclamation; and the church—as a society among nations—presages by shadow and proclamation the coming city, the City of God. “The church never was, in its true character, merely the temple of the city; it was the promise of the city itself” (Desire, 285).
A Christians political engagement thus centers on the church. O’Donovan explains, “If the Christian community has as its eternal goal, the goal of its pilgrimage, the disclosure of the church as city, it has as its intermediate goal, the goal of its mission, the discovery of the city’s secret destiny through the prism of the church” (Desire, 186).
What O’Donovan means is that Christians, the body of Christ or church, live as pilgrims until Christ comes to fulfill the promise of the city, the city of God. This language of city and pilgrim harkens back to Augustine’s City of God. In this work, Augustine affirms, “Most glorious is the City of God: whether in this passing age, where she dwells by faith as a pilgrim among the ungodly, or in the security of that eternal home which she now patiently awaits” (City of God, 1.1).
Augustine’s two cities mark two ways of life with two ends, and he maps these cities explicitly onto the biblical story of two seeds—the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. By tying his political theory directly to the biblical storyline, Augustine necessarily sees the church’s project as being accomplished in and through the church, not through her grasp of political power on earth. Augustine says that the City of God “dwells in the other, the city of this world, as far as the race of men is concerned, but as a pilgrim” (18.1).
Pilgrims have their citizenship in heaven (Phil 3:20) and seek the city above, while they live as good citizens here below. Neither Augustine nor O’Donovan sees our restored integrity in Christ’s redemption of our souls as our restored adamic mission. And we are nothing else if not the body of Christ, the church. We do not become the church in one discrete category; we do not separate our ecclesial role from our familial role. We are the body, the church.
Had Adam not sinned, perhaps the pilgrim character of the church would have instead been a princely character. Yet Adam did sin. And while we wait for Christ’s return, we live as pilgrims in this world. That is the character of the church, despite its hidden political character which means as a society it images that coming city. In this present time, that character remains an image or shadow anticipating the city to come.
4. Christian Nationalism Presents a Partial Picture of Nature and Grace
Wolfe uses mixed syllogisms from nature and revelation (or grace) to show how, for example, worshiping God (nature) means worshiping the triune God (grace). He also affirms that natural goods in society should be ordered toward heaven. Insofar he makes these bare claims, few should disagree with him.
But what he lacks is a certain depth in grasping the correlation of nature and grace, or at least has a gap in his argument when it comes to Christian reflection on the natural and gracious virtues. While a nation certainly must have some sense of the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, courage, and temperance (see, for example, Plato’s Republic or Cicero’s De Officiis), the Spirit infuses into the body of Christ the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
God gives faith in Christ as a gift, Paul tells us (Eph 2:8). And it is this sort of gift or blessing that we have in the heavenly places: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (Eph 1:3). We stand between heaven and earth with both natural and gracious gifts.
God also grants us hope, apart from which we could not live in faith. For hope looks to what faith believes in. Finally, the Spirit of God infuses (pours out) love into our hearts by faith (Rom 5:5). Of the theological virtues, love is supreme (1 Cor 13:13).
Love is supreme; it stands above all other virtues, because it rebaptizes prudence, as Josef Pieper argues (The Four Cardinal Virtues, 10–11). This love-infused-prudence looks like folly, foolishness, and a stumbling block to natural people (1 Cor 1:18, 23). Only those indwelled with the Spirit of God, spiritual people, can discern the mysteries of God (1 Cor 2:6–16).
Thus, the love poured into our hearts not only unites us to God and others, as Maximus has argued, but it also leads us to use infused prudential reasoning to do what seems foolish to those who are merely natural. It means we might lay down our lives for others, even our enemies (Rom 5:8–10). This love and laying down of life in the Christian form of courage (i.e., martyrdom) looks like nonsense to natural prudential reasoning. The cross is folly to the Greeks.
This correlation of nature and grace in the virtues or gifts of God plays little to no role in Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism. And the book is impoverished for that reason, since Wolfe’s vision of a Christian Nation prevents other Christians from even immigrating to that nation if they differ too much from that Christian nation. Dionysius says love is “a unitive and concretive virtue” (Divine Names §15.180). Wolfe says Christian nations should exclude the other if they differ too much.
How can the body politic so conflict with the love of God in the body of Christ? This question bears special reflection since I am not here denying a nation’s ability to control immigration by its own criteria.
But I am attempting to show how Wolfe has not well articulated the correlation of nature and grace when it comes to the virtues and especially their application to the body of Christ and to the Christian Nation.
The hidden character of the church’s political society, which Christ realizes in us at his return, becomes in Wolfe’s book realized in the Christian Nation. And in that realization, it becomes impoverished, since the restored task of Adam in the Christian Nation does not presage the city of God of the New Adam. That the church alone does.
I am not a Christian Nationalist because Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism lacks biblical support, has no ecclesiology, attributes to the family what belongs to the church, and does not account for the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.