Christian Nationalism, Whence and Whither?

The American Reformer Symposium on The Case for Christian Nationalism

Stephen Wolfe’s new book The Case for Christian Nationalism is causing quite a stir in the world of conservative evangelicals. Some appear to believe that even reading the book will harm you; for others, Wolfe can do no wrong.1 Neither approach is helpful. In the history of important ideas it has always been the case that vigorous intellectual battle is necessary and beneficial. What remains standing when the smoke clears is usually stronger for having gone to war.

There appear to me, in fact, to be five main ways one could treat Wolfe’s book:

  1. It is so obviously and self-evidently false that it needs no refutation.
  2. It is so harmful that to even consider its arguments would be to lead others astray, since they will thereby be led to consider those ideas themselves.
  3. It is wrong in all it affirms and thus must be comprehensively refuted.
  4. It may be right in some of what it affirms, and wrong in other things it affirms, and so should be carefully interacted with.
  5. It is so obviously and self-evidently true that it needs no defense.

The best reviews I’ve encountered so far argue for position #4, and that is the position we’ve taken as well.2 However, this is a multi-author symposium, not a book review, strictly speaking. The only parameters given to the authors of this symposium were that they genuinely engaged with the content of the book. They were also told that they need not summarize the book nor interact with every aspect of it. If an author fails to address something, that should not be taken as approval or disapproval. Although you might think it didn’t need saying (though you’d be wrong), the conclusions they’ve come to are their own: they don’t necessarily represent the view of any of the other authors in the symposium and they don’t necessarily represent the views of anyone associated with American Reformer. But these four authors do take the book seriously, even if some of them find it strange and disconcerting at times.

Tomorrow we begin the symposium proper with John Ehrett’s assessment of the book, which focuses on how Christian universality interacts with natural human particularity. On Wednesday we have Mark David Hall, who examines how Wolfe’s arguments fit into the context of American political history and theory.3 On Thursday we have Timon Cline’s piece, arguing that Wolfe makes proper use of Reformed orthodoxy and its sources, thereby situating himself squarely within that tradition. And then, closing out the symposium, we have a piece by Cory Higdon, looking at Wolfe’s book from the standpoint of colonial and early post-revolutionary American history, especially focusing on the themes of religious establishment and toleration.

The Case for Christian Nationalism is a bracing book. It can make for uncomfortable reading. This may be because some of its ideas are unsound or unbiblical, but it is certain that some of this discomfort arises from the fact that the book challenges much, if not the whole, of the status quo of the contemporary American political situation. It is an attempt to apply the insights of classical Protestant political thought to contemporary American political and cultural life. Few living in America today even know what classical Protestants thought about politics. Those who begin to learn are shocked, if not traumatized, by what they encounter. It is often the case that new ideas create a large degree of discomfort when one initially encounters them. Classical Protestants believed that the State had a vested interest in the theological soundness of the church, that public expression of one’s religious beliefs could be suppressed if they posed a danger to civic well-being, that the State should enforce Sabbath laws, and many other things that seem as fitting to most Americans today as the laws of Hammurabi. But this does not mean that they are false. It doesn’t mean they are true either: one may indeed find ideas in the book to be problematic, not because one is a modern progressive, but because the ideas are actually wrong. To determine the truth or falsity of the ideas you have to engage Wolfe’s arguments and show why they stand or fall, for biblical, theological, historical, prudential, or other reasons.4

American Reformer’s symposium is not going to be the last word on whether Christian Nationalism is true (if it can even be said to have a definite meaning). Nor is Wolfe’s book. But we believe this symposium is a good contribution to that ongoing debate among American Christians. Some would prefer to scare people away from even having that debate. Others may think it is already settled. American Reformer seeks to be at the forefront of shaping it, with God’s help, for the good.

Show 4 footnotes
  1. There is also the added complexity of controversy that has been swirling round various external associations with the author. This symposium is about the book and nothing else.
  2. Wyatt Graham, Kevin DeYoung, Peter Leithart, and Neil Shenvi would also fall into this category.
  3. Hall has also written a short review of the whole book for Providence.
  4. I’ll allow myself one liberty in this introduction. I would really like to see a review (or reviews) of the book that engages the historical claims about historical Reformed theology and Reformed political theory in detail: the view of Adam’s pre-fall condition, his “probation” in the garden, the conditions under which armed resistance to tyranny is deemed lawful, and so on. Each of these themes (and many more) could easily be an entire article in itself. Due to the nature of Wolfe’s method of employing historical sources without the biblical and theological reasoning those sources themselves used to arrive at their conclusions (see pp. 16-18) it is sometimes difficult to ascertain whether those sources have been employed accurately. Given Wolfe’s own stated aim I do not say this as a criticism of what he set out to accomplish, but rather because I believe this kind of engagement with the book would be very profitable in general. It is also the case that the political focus of the book might keep systematic and historical theologians away from it. This would be a shame.
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Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.