The Case for Patriarchal Christian Localism
According to the sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, American Christian nationalism “idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” and “includes assumptions of nativism, white supremacy, patriarchy and heteronormativity, along with divine sanction for authoritarian control and militarism.” Using questionable measures, they conclude that 51.9% of Americans fully or partially embrace the phenomenon. Almost everyone writing on American Christian nationalism has offered similar definitions, so it is not surprising that virtually no one actually claimed to be a Christian nationalist—until 2022.
In the summer of 2022, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene declared herself to be a Christian nationalist. Shortly thereafter, Douglas Wilson, the provocative pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho, argued that the concept is “salvageable.” The fall of 2022 saw the publication of an extended pamphlet advocating Christian nationalism, Andrew Torba and Andrew Isker’s Christian Nationalism: A Biblical Guide for Taking Dominion and Discipling Nations (endorsed by Wilson), and, for the first time, a book arguing for the same: Stephen Wolfe’s The Case of Christian Nationalism (published by Canon Press, a press closely associated with Wilson, who also endorsed it).
It is difficult to imagine better gifts to the critics of Christian nationalism. Here, finally, is evidence of theocratic movement bent on taking over America for Christ. That the above-mentioned pamphlet and book were portrayed as bestsellers only helped the critics’ case. Unfortunately for them, if one bothers to read these works it becomes evident that they will be of interest only to a handful of idiosyncratic, patriarchal Calvinists who are not particularly interested in the United States. I review only Wolfe’s book here.
An Intellectually Serious Work
Readers desiring an accessible call-to-action will be disappointed by Wolfe’s intellectually serious book. Wolfe is a committed Calvinist who earned a Ph.D. in political science. The book’s first nine chapters contain a detailed discussion of Reformed political philosophy, mostly based on 16th and 17th century authors (17). Wolfe proceeds on the assumption that the Reformed theological tradition is true, and so makes “little effort” to make biblical or more broadly theological arguments to support it (16). Instead, he engages in depth with the works of giants of the Reformed tradition including John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Johannes Althusius, Franciscus Junius, and English and American Puritans (he has no interest in neo-Calvinists, except for Herman Bavinck, whose star is clearly on the ascendency for all Reformed academics).
Literally minutes before I started writing this review I checked my Twitter feed and found Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, observing that a “Methodist friend said he read 20 pages [of Wolfe’s book] & stopped when realizing the book is aimed only at Reformed [Christians].” This is a perceptive observation. Unless one assumes the truth of Reformed theology, there is little reason to read this work. Wolfe’s understanding of Reformed theology permits him to reason from nature to some conclusions, but it is fair to say that his project will be of interest only to Calvinists (or those interested in what they believed 400-500 years ago).
I am sympathetic to Reformed theology, so I read past page 20. It seems to me that Wolfe offers a reasonable account of basic Reformed doctrines such as Creation, Fall, and Redemption. But Calvinists are a persnickety lot, and some Reformed academics have already taken him to task for misunderstanding the tradition regarding these important doctrines. Rather than wade into this debate, I’ll focus on some of Wolfe’s more practical conclusions that may be of interest to Americans curious or concerned about Christian nationalism.
Wolfe’s Christian “Nationalism,” “Ethnicity,” and Gender
The title of Wolfe’s book and the image on the front cover strongly suggests that his project involves bringing Christian nationalism to the United States of America, but the interior of his 478-page book tells a very different story. Indeed, America hardly comes up in the first nine chapters, and much of what he writes could be applied to any Christian “nation.” (When Wolfe writes “Christian” he always means “Protestant,” which makes one wonder how carefully R.R. Reno, the Roman Catholic editor of First Things, read it before endorsing it.)
By “nation,” Wolfe means a small people-group whose members have a great deal in common including language, shared values, and a sense place (135-145). Moreover, he explains that
I use the terms ethnicity and nation almost synonymously, though I use the former to emphasize the particular features that distinguish one people-group from another. Since every people-group has internal differences (e.g., class-based differences), nation is used to emphasize the unity of the whole, though no nation (properly speaking) is composed of two or more ethnicities (135) [all emphases in quotations are in the original].
Wolfe’s idiosyncratic use of “ethnicity,” along with his references to “blood relations,” “the volk,” “community in blood,” “the principle of similarity,” and the like have, predictably, raised eyebrows (138, 139, 140, 141). His qualification that “I am not saying that ethnic majorities today should work to rescind citizenship from ethnic minorities, though perhaps in some cases amicable ethnic separation along political lines is mutually desired” doesn’t help matters (149).
The careful reader will recall that in a footnote on page 119, Wolfe assures us that his is “not a ‘white nationalist’ argument,” a claim he affirmed in a private conversation with me. Wolfe clearly enjoys being provocative, but in light of sixteen years of polemical works describing American Christian nationalism as a racist movement, he should have been more prudent when discussing such matters. There should be no ambiguity when it comes to racism.
Wolfe is not ambiguous when it comes to sex. He contends that “the most basic unit [of a nation] is not individuals but teams of husband and wife” (57). Within these teams, the “man governs the household, orienting it to the divine mission he received from God, which he is responsible to see fulfilled” (58). As such, “the public signaling of political interests (whether through voting or other mechanisms) would be conducted by men, for they represent their households and everyone in it” (73). (One wonders what Marjorie Taylor Greene thinks of these claims.)
Such a political order is vastly different from America’s current political arrangements, a reality recognized by Wolfe. Indeed, he observes that:
We live under a gynocracy—a rule of women. This may not be apparent on the surface, since men still run many things. But the governing virtues of America are feminine vices, associated with certain feminine virtues, such as empathy, fairness, and equality. . . . The rise of Christian nationalism necessitates the fall of gynocracy (448, 454).
Not only is the United States governed by women, the country has been captured by global elites and is better understood as the “‘globalist American Empire’ [which is] centered in Washington, DC” and “wields US diplomatic, military, and economic power to advance modern liberal ideology across the globe” (440).
Wolfe offers no hope that American Christian nationalists can take over the United States of America, but localities are another matter. He observes that “there is at least one Christian nation in America” (399). This Christian “nation,” existing within the boundaries of the United States, could “will” itself into existence (176, 181). One practical step in this direction would be for state governors to “resist and nullify unjust and tyrannical laws imposed on the people by the federal government” (473). One need not be Jefferson Davis to discern how such an approach might go astray.
The Christian Prince and the Freedom of Conscience (or Lack Thereof)
Wolfe repeatedly reminds his readers that he has written a theoretical work, not an “action-plan” (433). If we ignore the practical problems involved in willing a Christian nation into existence and assume that one somehow manifests itself, what would it look like? Wolfe contends that political regimes in Christian nations would differ for prudential reasons, but he clearly favors rule by a Christian “prince”: a title that:
denotes both an executive power (viz., one who administers the laws) and personal eminence in relation to the people. The prince is the first of his people—one whom the people can look upon as father or protector of the country” (279).
All civil power ultimately comes from God, but the proximate origins of the prince’s authority is the consent of the community.
Like almost all Christian political thinkers, Wolfe understands that the church and state are separate institutions, but the prince is responsible for ordering the people toward godliness and supporting/overseeing the church. The latter means, among other things, that he must fund churches and seminaries, call synods, confirm or deny the theological judgements of these synods, and “correct the lazy and errant pastor” (312-13).
The church and its ministers, on the other hand, focus on the things of God. Ministers may not hold civic office, and they should focus on preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments (300-323). In what may come as a surprise to many Americans, Wolfe contends that
The instituted church was not instituted to organize patriotic song-singing or national flag-waving or to host campaign speeches. It administers Word and Sacraments to a sacred assembly for heavenly life; its main orientation is to heaven. I’m ambivalent about national flags located inside or outside churches, but national flags should not be displayed in a sanctuary and especially not within sight during worship. The worshipper should see pulpit, table, and font (240).
In other words, there will be no flag-waving patriotic Fourth of July church services in Wolfe’s Christian nation.
With respect to religious liberty, Wolfe contends that the prince should not attempt to compel belief, but he certainly has the authority to punish public heresy. What will be punished and how varies as a matter of prudence, but he leaves little doubt that public heretics will be treated harshly. Notably, “arch heretics” may be put to death, although “banishment or long term imprisonment may suffice as well” (391). Non-Christians who “actively proselytize their non-Christian religion or belief system” will be treated similarly (a reality surprisingly not problematic to R.R. Reno or the Jewish scholar Yoram Harzony, who also endorsed the book). If they keep their beliefs to themselves they may be tolerated, but their political status “is a matter of prudence” (392).
Dissenting Christians “are true Christians who dissent from the established church.” They should generally be tolerated, although “active suppression at times may be appropriate” (393). Conforming Christians will be encouraged and supported by the state, but the prince may appropriately punish them for “flagrant violation[s] of Christian duty,” such as not attending church services or violating the Sabbath (395, 320-22).
Wolfe is correct that many 16th and 17th century Reformed authors supported the approach to church-state relations he describes. Indeed, most Christian civil and ecclesiastical leaders embraced variations of these views. As Harvard’s David D. Hall puts it, “[o]n both sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide, theologians and civic leaders agreed that true religion could be readily defined. . . . [and that] God empowered godly kings or, as was also said, the ‘Christian prince’ to use the powers of the civil state in behalf of true religion.”
The Reformed Tradition and America’s Founders
A professor in graduate school once suggested to me that if one accepts Hobbes’s premises in the Leviathan, you are compelled to accept his conclusions. Something similar may be said about Wolfe’s book. If you accept his interpretation of 16th and 17th century Reformed authors as embodied truths, you may well have to accept his conclusions. Wolfe recognizes that the Reformed tradition has evolved since that period, but he rejects many of these changes—including innovations by neo-Calvinists and “[m]odern theonomist movements that arose in the late 20th century” (269).
I have argued elsewhere, e.g., here and here, that the Reformed political tradition evolved significantly and in laudable ways after the 17th century. This is especially true with respect to political institutions and practices, and regarding what many founders called “the sacred rights of conscience.” Well over a majority of America’s founders are reasonably classified as Calvinists, and those not in the tradition were sometimes influenced by it (e.g., James Madison was educated by John Witherspoon, a leading Reformed theologian of his age, at the Presbyterian College of New Jersey). Patriot resistance to British tyranny is best understood in light of Reformed political thought (an observation with which I presume Wolfe agrees), as is the creation of America’s constitutional order.
Wolfe includes a chapter on the American founding, and he cites books and articles I have written to support his arguments on multiple occasions. We agree on some points, such as the reality that Jefferson’s and Madison’s influence on religious liberty and church-state debates in the era has been vastly overstated. And there is no doubt that the founders differed among themselves on some issues. But, as I argue in Did America Have a Christian Founding?, they agreed on a number of important points that cut against Wolfe’s conclusions.
Given the Calvinist view of human nature, it should come as no surprise that America’s founders anticipated Lord Acton’s observation that “power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” They favored republican forms of government characterized by constitutional limitations, separation of powers, and checks and balances. It never would have occurred to them to vest all civic power in a single individual, Christian or not.
America’s founders also embraced a robust understanding of religious liberty and religious equality. For instance, the U.S. Constitution includes an accommodation that permits Quakers and others with objections to swearing oaths to affirm them, and Article VI bans religious tests for federal offices. Wolfe simply ignores these inconvenient provisions, as he does President Washington’s inspirational 1790 letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island and similar documents.
America’s Calvinist (and other) founders were coming to recognize that the Christian faith flourishes when governments do not try to control it. In the words of evangelicals (mostly Presbyterians and Baptists) opposed to Patrick Henry’s General Assessment Bill, after “Constantine first established Christianity by human laws,” it was “soon overrun with error, superstition, and immorality,” and its ministers became corrupt. The Virginia General Assembly refused to enact Henry’s bill and in 1786 passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom instead. Indeed, many states disestablished their state churches, and the few that did not moved in the direction of multiple establishments.
In 1784, the Virginia General Assembly passed a law dictating how the Anglican Church in the state would be governed. It repealed this statute in 1787. The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646) stipulated that “magistrates may lawfully call a synod of ministers,” but when American Presbyterians revised the Confession in 1788, they made it clear that magistrates had no business calling synods or approving/disapproving their theological judgements.
It is certainly the case that some states retained religious establishments and religious tests for office, but the trend was towards removing them. And, as I have argued elsewhere, America’s founders often took these steps for biblical and theological reasons. These reasons are, in my mind, compelling.
To say that America’s founders improved upon their predecessors is not to suggest that they arrived at a point of perfection that we should assume to be true. Too many of them did not think through and act upon the logical implications of the Bible’s teachings regarding racial and gender equality (although many did, as I argue in Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land). Nor do I mean to suggest that Calvinist thought has always developed in a positive direction. I am merely claiming that the political institutions America’s founders created and the practices they adopted were superior to those favored or erected by 16th and 17th century Reformed thinkers and leaders.
Wolfe has every right to premise his study upon the assumption that his interpretation of major 16th and 17th century Reformed authors is correct. But such an approach limits his audience to Calvinists who agree with his interpretation of these authors. This audience includes Douglas Wilson and some of his followers, but I’m not sure it extends much beyond this quirky collection of patriarchal Calvinists.
Let me close by returning to the critics of Christian nationalism. If they are honest, they must admit that Wolfe is not actually an advocate of nationalism, at least as the term is usually understood. In no way does he conflate God with America; indeed, he believes “the United States, as a whole, is lost” (474). Whatever else it does, Wolfe’s book offers no evidence that American Christian nationalism is a popular movement that poses “an existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States.”
Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in a four-part symposium on The Case for Christian Nationalism. See the introduction to the series here and part one here.