America’s Founding in Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism
Historical memory, as Wilfred McClay argued, functions for a nation like individual memory does for a person’s identity. The creation of historical consciousness connects a people to a shared heritage and tradition. Without historical memory, a nation will forget who they are, and, as McClay contended, perish.
Thus, how we remember the past is, at times, as important as the historical events themselves.
Our present context redounds with no shortage of attempts to create an American historical consciousness. In many cases, underlying political aspirations undergird these recreations, culminating in presentist narratives—reconstructions of strategically curated primary sources that support the author’s overall agenda. Examples of these works include coordinated efforts like the 1619 Project, or Andrew Seidel’s The Founding Myth, a botched “historical” recounting of America’s founding, which suggested that Christianity had no influence on America’s founding and that Christianity was, in fact, incompatible with the American Constitution.
Works that attempt to create a historical consciousness, therefore, merit strict scrutiny on the veracity of the historical and chronological claims made by the author. False, misleading, or unnuanced stories nourish faulty memories of our national tradition and, in turn, weaponize the historical record for contemporary political concerns.
In his book, The Case for Christian Nationalism, Stephen Wolfe dedicates his final chapter, “The Foundation of American Freedom: Anglo-Protestant Experience,” to serve as a resource for Christian nationalism,” to “claim and assert what is ours and utilize it to renew our land” (431). Wolfe, to his credit, does not position his historical treatment as an attempt to relive the glory days or a “return-to-the-founding project” (431). His historical argument is that the political tradition of the American founding—which encompassed the colonial period through the early republic—is a distinctly Anglo-Protestant experience that bequeathed a particular “cultural inheritance that must be reclaimed and serve as an animating element of American Christian nationalism and resource for American renewal” (431). As the American republic took form, its principles on religious establishment, Christian nationalism, and especially religious liberty, Wolfe suggests, “shared the same principles as the 17th century New England Puritans.” What changed over time was not shifting principles—principles that supported religious establishment, as well as banishment or execution of heretics—but prudential applications of those principles (400).
Wolfe sets out to prove the verity of Christian nationalism and to persuade Christians to pursue it with conviction and an unyielding will. He defines Christian nationalism as “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). From there, Wolfe uses the next two chapters to distill a Reformed anthropology, especially of prelapsarian Adam, in order to prove the natural, God-ordained virtue of distinct nations. Chapters three through nine turn to the practical outworking of Christian nationalism and what a self-conscious Christian nationalist state would pursue. Making principled arguments rooted in his interpretation of the Reformed theological tradition, Wolfe argues that Christian nations would, among other things, cultivate a cultural Christianity, which normalized “Christian cultural practices” in the broader society (208). He suggests that Christian nations would select godly, Christian rulers to lead them—leaders who worshiped God and lived as “the best of the people” (288). Christian nations would, moreover, enact specific laws that attuned people towards both earthly and heavenly good—this latter category, furthermore, necessitated some form of a religious establishment, which invested in the magistrate the authority to “punish . . . false teachers, heretics, blasphemers, and idolaters for their external expressions of such things” (359).
From these theoretical arguments, Wolfe turns in his last chapter (if you do not count the epilogue) to the American historical tradition, believing that the story of American religious liberty and the formation of the republic extended from the same principles that Wolfe argues for throughout his book—principles that flourished in Reformed political theology, and that were later planted in colonial New England.
My aim is to subject his historical treatment to careful scrutiny. Wolfe’s final chapter succumbs to many of the pitfalls and shortcomings of historical claims burdened by presentist purposes. While this may seem narrow, especially given the book’s size and multifaceted methodology, I want to restrict my comments to this historical material for three reasons. First, I am not a theologian, nor a political scientist; I am a historian. While I have significant disagreements with the theology and many of the arguments Wolfe presents throughout this work, I am not equipped to offer the kind of substantive, thorough critique that Wolfe’s book certainly deserves. Wolfe, despite some of the clamor from online critiques, offers a detailed, provocative argument that deserves attention, especially amongst Christians. As such, I leave the theology and political theory to those much more read in the sources and attentive to the present debates within those fields. Kevin DeYoung and Wyatt Graham have offered helpful reviews on the theology and theological interpretation in Wolfe’s book. As a historian, I wanted to deal with those sections of the book from which I could hopefully offer a contribution to the discussion surrounding Wolfe’s argument.
Second, as I’ve already mentioned, how we remember the past is as important as the events themselves, because historical memory creates historical consciousness. Thus, the stories we tell must extend from what actually happened, treating sources with all the complexity and nuance they deserve. Without a proper historiography, storytellers can veer into either hagiography or a critical-theory approach to history. To be fair to Wolfe, his historical content covered a lot of ground in a relatively short space—perhaps too much ground in order to deal with the source material as carefully as is necessary. There is only so much attention he, or anyone can give to all the complexities of historical reconstruction. That said, I do perceive significant errors in what he presents that merit discussion. The following comments, therefore, try to correct what I view as a problematic narrative, filled with numerous errors and faults in historical thinking. In doing so, I hope to leave the reader with a fuller accounting of the American political and religious tradition.
Finally, I admit that my critique does not directly disprove Wolfe’s overall thesis. Yet, at the end of my critique, I believe the historical record indirectly refutes Wolfe’s claims about the need for his vision of Christian nationalism. In other words, the story of early American Christianity belied the positive vision of religious establishment and the civil mechanisms that encompasses Wolfe’s Christian nationalist state.
Assessing Wolfe’s Broader Claims
A major theme of Wolfe’s historical reconstruction highlights the distinctly Christian roots of the American political tradition, especially on issues like religious liberty and the relationship between church and state. These concepts, moreover, were rooted in principles established in colonial Massachusetts. Thus, during the period of the early republic, Massachusetts’s vision became the American conception of how the church and state related to one another, not the Enlightenment (399).
On the one hand, Wolfe deserves commendation for tracing the distinct Christian and theological categories that undoubtedly laid the foundation for American religious liberty. Indeed, Nicholas Miller’s The Religious Roots of the First Amendment, Philip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State, Robert Wilken’s Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom, and Mark David Hall’s Did America Have a Christian Founding?, all contended for Christianity’s central importance for the intellectual history of religious liberty. Several problems, however, surface in Wolfe’s account: First, it is a mistake to downplay the role of the Enlightenment, especially manifestations of the Enlightenment that were much more compatible with Christianity. Common-sense realism and republicanism coalesced with the theological and religious beliefs of even the orthodox Christians during the time of the American founding. Mark Noll, Gordon Wood, and Bradley Thompson have shown the importance of Enlightenment authors and thinkers during the early republic. In other words, Wolfe stressed far too much continuity between the colonial period and the American founding as he did when he argued that John Witherspoon’s “view on the role of government in religion is no different than Cotton Mather’s” (417). Some of the most pietistic dissenters like Isaac Backus leaned into Enlightenment thinkers as wellsprings for their conceptions of liberty. To suggest otherwise would require a significant foray into the primary sources and a serious conversation with much of the historical scholarship, something Wolfe neglected.
The second problem with Wolfe’s thesis, moreover, is his contention that American religious liberty constituted “a unique and principled Anglo-Protestant development of classical Protestant principles. . . . and it permits an American version of Christian nationalism” (399). He argues that the principles of establishmentarianism in colonial Massachusetts, with its hostility towards dissenters, served as the stable and binding principles for the early American republic.
Numerous issues wrinkle Wolfe’s second claim. First, Wolfe assumes that the principles of colonial Massachusetts on church-state relations somehow became “the same principles” of the founders during the American republic. Second, he minimizes the role of dissenters in their push for religious liberty, insisting that the principles of John Cotton and John Winthrop carried on into the American political tradition, and that these principles merely shifted over time due to the demands of prudence. Both assertions, however, cannot stand up to the primary sources, nor the most recent scholarly work. As Jonathan Den Hartog and Carl Esbeck have recently argued, every state in the early republic had its own unique story with regard to religious liberty and disestablishment. To argue that the principles of colonial Massachusetts governed the political development during the early republic would necessitate a state-by-state analysis, drawing distinct and irrefutable lines of connection and causality between colonial figures and those who led in the early republic. Wolfe never made that case, did not draw those lines, and merely assumes the veracity of his claims. On the matter of dissenters, moreover, while scholars like Miller, Hamburger, and Wilken argued for the role of Christianity in the rise of American religious liberty, they nevertheless stressed the importance of dissenters in its development. In fact, as Den Hartog and Esbeck revealed, while each state had a different story to tell with regard to its story of religious liberty, they all shared something in common: the activity of religious dissenters in securing religious liberty and disestablishment.
Wolfe’s broader claims, regrettably, rest on an unstable configuration of historical claims. His sweeping statements, and how they apply to his campaign for Christian nationalism, do not pass muster.
Life in Colonial Massachusetts
To sustain his thesis, Wolfe chronicles events of colonial Massachusetts, and then attempts to draw connections between the colonial period to the American founding. Both sections—the colonial period and that of the early republic—fumble much of the primary source materials, failing to give due attention to historical nuance needed in his narrative. In short, Wolfe presents a truncated chronicle of cherry-picked quotes to support his hopes for the chapter.
In his section on colonial Massachusetts, Wolfe suggests that “church ministers, armed with the Word, were always first to attempt the reformation of erring minds and hearts, and civil authorities would step in only if they remained publicly obstinate and a disruption to the ordinary life of the community” (401). Wolfe uses this framework throughout his chapter as a historical manifestation of what he calls for throughout his book, namely, establishmentarian principles that invest the magistrate with punitive authority in religious affairs. Specifically, Wolfe points to the Antinomian Controversy as an example of Massachusetts’s presumably virtuous political structure. The Antinomians, in Wolfe’s narrative account, were first dealt with through the ministry of the Word. The pastors and ministers tried to reason, from the Scriptures, with the wayward Antinomians until, finally, the civil sword was needed to quell their obstinacy that began to erupt in sedition. This kind of reconstruction amounted to a vast misreading of the contest. The Antinomian Controversy was not a clear-cut dispute between the establishment and a small band of turbulent dissenters. Indeed, the Governor and several magistrates were part of one party, with other magistrates on the other end of the controversy. John Cotton, the minister of the Boston Congregation, was in opposition to John Winthrop at multiple times as well as other colonial ministers, and John Winthrop met near unanimous opposition from the congregation at Boston, which was where he was a member. This was an enormously contentious struggle—as one fisherman recounted, “The churches were on fire.” It divided much of the colony, and the connection between the churches and the state’s civil mechanisms complicated the entire situation.
The unnuanced approach continues into Wolfe’s treatment of the contest between Baptists and the Massachusetts civil authorities. His analysis relies almost exclusively on two sources, giving no attention to court records, letters, debate manuscripts, or any secondary scholarship on the century-long debate between Baptists and the Congregationalist establishment. Why does this point matter? Because Wolfe contends that the eventual toleration of Protestant dissenters in Massachusetts—and in the entire early republic, for that matter—was not because of dissenting theology or dissenting advocacy, but because “the capacious principles of classical Protestantism . . . led to the widespread acceptance of toleration and religious liberty” (404). Wolfe then imposes this largely inaccurate account of disputes between Baptists and Congregationalists to the broader idea of American religious liberty in the early republic.
Indeed, Wolfe’s analysis of Baptists in Massachusetts primarily relies on Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana. From this work, Wolfe makes the following arguments:
The conflict between paedobaptists and credobaptists in 17th-century New England was less about credobaptist belief itself than about the sort of ecclesiology entailed in credobaptism. While the paedobaptist churches could acknowledge the baptism of the credobaptist . . . the credobaptist could not reciprocate. (404)
Credobaptists were, therefore, not only unable to admit into their churches those baptized as infants; they were unable to reciprocate ecclesiastical communion, even informally. They would not recognize the established churches as true churches. (405)
Wolfe provides no examples of Baptists who asserted these beliefs, nor does he investigate the historical record any further than Mather’s work to see if this was the true nature of the conflict. As it turned out—as with much of Wolfe’s historical claims—the truth of the matter was far more complicated. The Baptist Debate of 1668, for example, confounds nearly all of Wolfe’s primary claims about the argument between Baptists and Congregationalists. For the latter, they were incredibly concerned about “credobaptist belief itself.” As one of the Congregationalists stated, “Consider how this opinion [credobaptism] undermines all the protestant churches and ordinances of God for if infant baptism be nulled: where shall we find visible churches?” Another Congregationalists stated that credobaptism “doth make at once, all our churches, and our religious, civil state and polity, and all the officers and members thereof to be unbaptized.” He went on to suggest that without infant baptism, there would be no freemen, and without freemen, no political community or any body of electors to select who would serve as the governor, deputy governor, or magistrates. He concluded that credobaptism tore down the “very fundaments of civil and sacred order.” The text of the debate, as well as numerous other court records and polemical works since the 1640s, evinced, contrary to Wolfe’s claim, the fundamental concern Congregationalists had with the belief of credobaptism itself.
The Baptist Debate of 1668 also refutes Wolfe’s claim that Baptists refused to view the Congregationalist churches as true churches. Radical separatists, like Roger Williams, certainly believed that—but many Baptists, including those under scrutiny in Boston in 1668 believed that the Congregationalist churches were, in fact, true churches. As William McLoughlin argued, the Baptists “considered the Puritan churches to be true churches . . . they offered no revolutionary alteration in the Bible Commonwealth such as a policy of complete religious liberty would entail.”
Wolfe seems convinced, based off his limited reading of the sources, that magistrates in Massachusetts did not persecute Baptists for their religious beliefs. Certainly, the General Court provided civil grounds for whipping and banishing Baptists, but the “civil” grounds were inherently tethered to theological beliefs. Indeed, at the Baptist Debate, the establishmentarians argued that credobaptism was contrary to the gospel itself; they also chided any proliferation of theological beliefs contrary to the Congregationalist polity, even from Baptists who viewed Congregationalist churches as true churches and insisted that their only disagreement was in matters of who could be presented for Baptism. For Wolfe, however, there was nothing improper, unbiblical, or un-Christian about the approach of Massachusetts towards Baptists and other peaceable dissenters.
The errors in Wolfe’s narrative, taken together, seriously diminish Wolfe’s primary reason for including the chapter in his book to begin with, especially if his aim was to point to colonial Massachusetts as this idyllic picture of the principles Wolfe laid out in his case for Christian nationalism. The facts on the ground in colonial Massachusetts presented a much more turbulent society than Wolfe’s narrative let on. It was not a peaceful place to live, even for those within the “establishment.” Division and dissension regularly marked the colony. Court records included multiple examples of petitions signed by dozens of leading colonists pleading with the General Court to stop enacting policies against dissenters. Colonists regularly paid the fines of imprisoned dissenters. Even in cases involving Quakers–who were much more radical than Baptists in their obstinacy–local constables refused to enforce establishment laws because they viewed them as ineffective and unprincipled. In other words, the establishment of Massachusetts was often at odds with itself, not merely with dissenters.
Wolfe, furthermore, provides no treatment of what became known as the Half-Way Covenant, which was officially adopted at the Synod of 1662. In essence, the Half-Way Covenant attempted to provide a solution to the spiritual decline of the Bay Colony. According to the theology, only regenerate church members could present their infants for baptism, which, as Wolfe noted, was an essential part not only of the ecclesial body, but for the entire political structure of Massachusetts. Problems began to emerge, even in the 1630s, when children were born to unregenerate parents. What was to happen with these infants? The problem multiplied over the decades, culminating in the Synod of 1662, which permitted the grandchildren of regenerate believers to be eligible for Baptism. The unregenerate parents were still viewed as members of the church, though they were not permitted to take the Lord’s Supper. Solomon Stoddard’s innovation to the Half-Way Covenant in 1700, which permitted giving the Lord’s Supper even to non-regenerate members, exacerbated the spiritual downgrade in Massachusetts. According to Douglas Winiarski’s research, from 1717 to 1740, “fewer than one in five” of those initially presented for baptism “progressed to full church membership.” James Jones, Robert Wall, and E. Brooks Holifield all discussed how these developments broke the Puritan synthesis between church and state, as it replaced the Puritan’s original vision of a godly society with mere outward morality. The theological and moral decay of this period set the stage for the First Great Awakening, which asserted voluntarism and conversionism.
Why would a discussion of the Half-Way Covenant be necessary for Wolfe’s thesis? A common critique of Christian nationalists is to point to other historical examples of establishmentarian regimes and how those established churches have capitulated on Christian orthodoxy (i.e., the Church of England). Christian nationalists will retort that these modern examples do not negate the principle of religious establishment, and that these examples all arose after a liberal notion of religious liberty and secularization had become firmly entrenched in society. While none of my historical critiques necessarily refute the principles laid out by Wolfe, the example of the Half-Way Covenant and the spiritual decay of the Bay Colony certainly merits discussion, and it may, in a way, undermine the principles of Wolfe’s establishmentarian nationalist scheme. The Half-Way Covenant happened under the “conditions conducive to right belief.” It happened before religious liberty and disestablishment. It happened before the Enlightenment. It certainly happened before secularization. In the context of a small, incredibly homogenous body politic, not even the Bay Colony, with the idealized rules that Wolfe championed as right principles, could prevent the moral and spiritual decline of its people; this necessitated the seriously problematic practice of administering the sacraments to unregenerate men in order to preserve the political order.
Religion and the Early Republic
Wolfe’s treatment of the early republic does not fare better, with historical interpretations that abound with inattention to complexity, change over time, and context. Again, Wolfe contends that the “founders assumed distinctively Protestant principles—the same principles as their Puritan forefathers” (411). In fact, the contours of American Christianity in the early republic refuted much of the Christian nationalist project Wolfe presents throughout the book.
First, Wolfe rightly argues that many of the founding generation linked a vibrant Christianity with the health and perpetuity of the republic. Christianity, it was believed, nourished the needed virtues required for self-governance and liberty. That, however, was a different vision than many of the principles developed by Wolfe in his Case for Christian Nationalism. Believing that Christianity was needed to restrain licentious manifestations of liberty and to promote the right kind of citizenry was altogether different than investing the magistrate with the sword in matters of doctrine. The early republic rejected many of Wolfe’s central premises and principles of what a self-consciously Christian nationalist state does.
In his treatment of Massachusetts’ 1780 Constitution, Wolfe indicates that its sections on establishmentarian principles are completely synonymous with the Puritans of the 1640s, 50s, and 60s. The Constitution provided a measured religious toleration but declared that worship was a duty. It also required religious taxes “for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality.” While Wolfe points to these developments as proof positive of continuity between the colonial period and the early republic, the story was far more complex and evinced how dissenting arguments for disestablishment and voluntaristic religion had punctured the prevailing axioms even of Massachusetts.
Those who helped draft and debate the initial text of the Constitution agreed on the need of Christianity for a healthy society; yet, enormous disagreement was levied against the public support and preference of religion, especially through religious taxes. When the Constitution was published for approval by Massachusetts’s townships, the public support of religion and establishmentarian principles failed to garner the necessary votes for ratification. Responses from the various towns included familiar arguments found, not within the principled magisterial Protestant tradition, as Wolfe claims, but from dissenters. The town of Dartmouth argued that the Constitution provided insufficient protection of the rights of conscience. The legislature, furthermore, did not possess the proper authority for an establishment because religion “solely relates to and stands between God and the Soul before whose Tribunal all must account each one for himself.” The town of Petersham, moreover, rejected the establishment provisions because, by their estimation, “Piety, Religion, and Morality,” though necessary for a proper civil government, was preserved through voluntarism and disestablishment, not an enforced religious orthodoxy. It refuted a Christian nationalist paradigm wherein civil authorities instituted Sabbath laws, enforced penalties against blasphemy, or exacted fines and taxes to support the established religion. Such policies, as the town argued, would stifle true religion and piety, and tend towards tyranny. These were common arguments used by dissenters against establishmentarian politics since the sixteenth century.
Voluntarism and American Christianity
Wolfe’s historical treatment begins with a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, the nineteenth century French statesman who toured America in 1831. Tocqueville published his reflections of the new American republic in his famed Democracy in America, which included his musings on American religious life as well. The passage Wolfe cites reads as follows:
In the United States, the influence of religion is not confined to the manners, but it extends to the intelligence of the people . . . Christianity, therefore, reigns without any obstacle, by universal consent.
It seems that Wolfe places this quote at the beginning of his historical chapter as if to make a statement about the centrality of Christianity in America in the early republic that, by Wolfe’s estimation, provides a historical example of the thesis and aspects of Christian nationalism that he argued for throughout his book.
As I have demonstrated throughout this review, Wolfe’s historical narrative creates a problematic, and in some cases, false memory of the colonial period and the early republic. Aside from the numerous problems weighing down his account, the historical period he surveys actually belies his central claims regarding Christian nationalism, especially a Christian nationalism enacted via the mechanisms of the civil state.
Indeed, the quote by Tocqueville is interesting, given everything else the Frenchman stated about American Christianity. Tocqueville noticed that Christianity held a stature and influence in America that eclipsed every other nation in the world. “They hold [Christianity],” Tocqueville argued, “to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” He marveled at this because in religiously established European nations, “religion and the spirit of freedom” marched in opposite directions.
How could a nation as enlightened as America and as free as the United States possess such a vibrant Christianity? Tocqueville answered: “the separation of church and state.” The power of American Christianity, as he noted, existed precisely because its churches and institutions had dislodged themselves from the tentacles of religious establishment.
In short, the vitality, political importance, and persuasive hold of Christianity on Americans were connected to the principles of disestablishment. It was the voluntaristic and democratic spirit, coupled with policies of separation between church and state, that enabled a vibrant expression of Christianity. Tocqueville lamented the decline of European Christianity, laying its demise upon the close and politically instituted bonds between the magistrate and the church. This was not, however, the case in America.
Indeed, in 1794, Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason hit the presses in Europe and in America. It was a heretical work, filled with blasphemy. Paine called for his countrymen to reject Christian orthodoxy—to sever themselves from the shackles of an oppressive, superstitious, unenlightened regime. Had the principles of Wolfe’s Christian nationalist paradigm been in place, there would have been nothing to prevent the censorship of the book and the use of civil power to prevent it from being disseminated to the public. As it happened, publishers across the United States sold thousands of copies.
What impact did this have on American Christianity? It generated enormous theological reflection and apologetics. Paine’s argument received near universal condemnation from every denomination, as well as from other religious groups, including Jews. Theologians, politicians, and even the unlearned ministers who served smaller, frontier congregations, wrote hundreds of responses, some hundreds of pages long, some in multiple volumes. These works pushed Christians to consider their historic commitment to Scripture, and their belief in inerrancy. The controversy had the effect of inculcating renewed zeal and commitment to Christian orthodoxy.
Thus, the history Wolfe believes supports his summons for Christian nationalism actually told a different story—one that dissenters heralded for centuries.
I sympathize with many elements of Wolfe’s work. Christians have, in many ways, neglected a faithful presence in the public square—look no further than the situation in American public education. As a Christian parent, I can no longer, in good conscience, send my children to public school. By God’s grace, I can provide alternative means for my children’s education—a luxury that many Christian parents do not have.
Harmful, indeed, wicked ideologies and policies permeate our public square. Wolfe is right to draw attention to them. Something must be done, and Christians have an inescapable responsibility to stand for the good, the beautiful, and the true. Our laws should be leavened by the natural law and God’s created order on issues like marriage, abortion, and economics.
This is altogether different from what Wolfe calls for in his Case for Christian Nationalism. As our history revealed, I do not think Christians need to look for an established religious order to punish blasphemers, enforce Sabbath laws, or deport atheists. I do not think the advancement of Christ’s kingdom, as Wolfe argues, can be “indirectly and outwardly” secured through political violence (339).
But our historical memory as a nation ought to cause us to reflect on the vitality of American Christianity in the early republic—a vibrancy not secured through establishmentarian politics, or the kind of Christian nationalism envisioned by Wolfe.
Instead, Christians must certainly be involved in the public square. We need discernment, wisdom, and the clarity of conviction. We need to share the gospel, hold fast to the deposit entrusted to us, and develop within our churches the kind of spiritual health and godwardness we long to see in our society.
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in a four-part symposium on The Case for Christian Nationalism. For the series, see the introduction here, part one here, part two here, and part three here.