A Response to John Ehrett’s critique of The Case for Christian Nationalism
Several reviews of my book The Case for Christian Nationalism focused on chapter 3, “Loving your Nation.” Most reviewers, choosing the boring crowd-pleasing route, suggested that I am a fascist, racist, or Nazi. One exception was John Ehrett’s piece, “Was Nietzsche Right?” published at American Reformer. Unlike others, he does not assume some normal and then refute the book by showing that my conclusions are outside the norm. His review contains the sort of intelligent criticism that I hoped to see.
Ehrett focuses on my claim that Western ethnicities should be more “ethnic-focused” and on my critique of the “universalizing tendency” in the modern West, viz., the tendency to frame everything in terms of “common humanity” or a universal frame. I argue that Western universality is a modern ideology that conceals from Western ethnicities their own cultural particularities—unique ways of life that enable peoples to live well. This ideology, in effect, displaces Westerners from their homelands (first in the mind and heart, then physically) and has set them on the path to civilizational suicide. Hoping that we can avoid this fate, I stress the importance of strong intergenerational attachments of a particular people in a particular land.
Ehrett has two related points in response. First, he insists that Christianity explains the universalizing tendency in the West—a conclusion he thinks is “blindingly obvious.” Thus, Christianity is responsible for the very universality I am critiquing. Second, Christianity’s universality not only undermines my account of people and place; it eliminated, in history, the very thing that would best support people and place, namely, paganism. Ehrett writes,
It would seem that antique paganism does a better job of underpinning his political theory than does Christianity itself. Considered abstractly, what belief system could better reinforce one’s natural love of home and family and kin than a religion grounded in that natural love, a religion forming overlapping chains of unbroken continuity back through the generations of one’s particular family and polis, a religion with father-rule at its very core? In view of Wolfe’s claim that the Western mind has a “universalizing tendency” which it ought to reject, coupled with the fairly clear historical datum that this ‘universalizing tendency’ has its roots in Christianity, paganism seems to have some crucial advantages here.
National particularity says Ehrett, “would be more perfectly realized if Christianity were false.” Or, to put his claim positively, pagan religion, not Christianity, best supports my view of the nation. Citing Nietzsche, he specifically points to the pre-Christian, pagan notions of “pride in [familial] descent and forefathers” and localized deities tied with ancestral land and family.
Christianity and the Universalizing Tendency
Ehrett has made at least two errors here. First, he offers almost no evidence for his claim that the West’s universalizing tendency has “its roots in Christianity.” He relies heavily on Nietzsche’s critique of Christianity. To be sure, I think we should take Nietzsche seriously, but Ehrett fails to consider that Nietzsche’s arguments might strike at the abuse of Christianity, not Christianity itself. Perhaps, Nietzsche is best understood as attacking a certain pietistic and moralistic Christianity. I am indeed sympathetic to this critique. But Ehrett provides no reason to believe that Nietzsche is describing the Christian religion itself.
Furthermore, I present evidence throughout the book (left unmentioned by Ehrett) that bears precisely on this question, namely, whether we ought to blame the Christian tradition for the modern West’s rejection of particularity. In Chapter 3, for example, I cite Johannes Althusius (1563–1638):
As the customs of regions often express diverse interests and discernments, so persons born in these regions hold diverse patterns in their customs. Accordingly, they are unable to come together at the same time without some antipathy toward each other, which when once aroused tends to stir up sedition, subversion, and damage to the life of the commonwealth.1
Thomas Aquinas suggests that a Christianized, non-idolatrous form of ancestral worship is proper:
The principles of our being and government are our parents and our country, that have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.2
These two quotes do not prove anything about millennia-old tradition, but it does make one wonder what tradition Ehrett has in mind. Surprisingly, he states that my book is “an effort to correct the past trajectory of that tradition.” But we are given no evidence of what specifically I am trying to correct, and I never claimed to be correcting the tradition. Indeed, I deliberately seek to ground and support my arguments with that tradition. My intent, in this regard, was only to correct the modern-day sentiments of the post-World War II era—which (in my estimation) are hardly Christian. Or, if they are Christian in some sense, they constitute an abuse that ought to be corrected.
People, Place, and Paganism
The second error is Ehrett’s claim that paganism better supports my position on the relationship of people and place. Whether paganism would “more perfectly” realize the sort of national particularity that I have in mind is the wrong question. It is like asking whether grand larceny is preferable because it might provide wealth for your family. One can acquire one good at the expense of other goods. Superstitious ancestral worship will direct one’s affections and devotions to a particular place, and some good might be procured. It will, however, cost the good of your soul. I do not claim that attachment to people and place is the only good, nor even the highest good. The question is, whether the totality of goods in the Christian life excludes the attachment to people and place. I deny this. The attachment to people and place is a necessary but constituent good of man’s complete good.
Furthermore, the fact that pagans honored people and place actually tells us something about the good of man. It reveals not a false principle, only a corrupt and false application of it. Pagan superstition is a false means to fulfill the principle, and grace corrects it. Recognizing such principles in this way is consistent with classical Protestant theology, specifically the ubiquitous Protestant use of “consent of the nations” arguments. Here’s Richard Hooker, for example:
The most certain mark of goodness is the general conviction of all humanity….The universal agreement of men is the best of these kinds of proofs [against errors] that we can offer….The general and perpetual voice of mankind is as the judgment of God Himself, since what all men at all times have come to believe must have been taught to them by Nature, and since God is Nature’s author, her voice is merely His instrument.3
And Calvin wrote,
But as some principles of equity and justice remain in the hearts of men, the consent of all nations is as it were the voice of nature, or the testimony of that equity which is engraven on the hearts of men, and which they can never obliterate.4
The underlying principles of false religious practices reveal something true about human nature, namely, that an intergenerational connection of people and place based in particulars is a universal, natural good of man. Chapter 3 of the book provides the proper means, and in no way is my argument consistent with pagan superstition.
Ehrett gives the reader an impression that I dwell only on particularity to the exclusion of the universals. But I explicitly argue that particulars fulfill the universal. Gendered clothing standards, though they differ widely in different cultures, fulfill the same, universal principle—that men and women are different and ought to express gender differently. This is true for innumerable features of life: from basic manners to juridical procedures. The universals are principles, and as such must be applied in particular ways. Distinct cultures arise because many particulars, though morally indifferent in themselves, are still moral in consequence or effect. For example, gendered clothing expectations are morally good—both because they provide direction on something nature does not immediately dictate and because they solidify a sense of us. In themselves, however, they are adiaphora. In sum, the ends of moral universals are fulfilled by moral particulars. I submit that this universal/particular relation explains most features of our lives.
Several reviewers (none from American Reformer) claim that I failed to consider the multiethnic nature of the church. The “church” is the true nation, the true ethne—so they claim (citing 1 Peter 2:9). The Gospel has homogenizing effects, they suggest, such that cultural differences are rendered irrelevant to forming and sustaining civil society. In other words, our spiritual relation, or unity in Christ, is sufficient ground for civil fellowship.
This sounds very pious, but the idea that spiritual identity can ground civil fellowship is practically absurd. Imagine that we must form a political society from scratch, and the people must come from either a random selection of Christians from around the world or a random selection of Christians from Idaho. It follows from the church-as-nation position that, between the two options, there would be no difference at all in either outcomes or troubles in forming and sustaining the civil society. Each person, after all, has a Christian identity. But, of course, the maximally diverse group would be unable even to talk with each other, let alone agree on many fundamental points of politics and social organization. The other group, though they certainly would have their troubles, have a common language, culture, political and constitutional tradition, and many other similarities from which to form and sustain a civil society.
That the Idahoan Christians would have an easier time is obvious, but Christian political thought in our time does not concern itself with the obvious, with commonsense, or with basic experience. Christian political theology is a race to piety—to the loftiest, most pious-sounding politics, no matter how absurd or ideological. Can any group constitute a civil society—which requires a constitutional order, civil laws, and social manners—without a shared language or cultural tradition? Of course not. Despite the claims of some theologians, grace does not supply a common language or a universal civic culture, and thus the state of grace alone is insufficient as a ground of civil fellowship. Whatever the “nation” of 1 Peter 2:9 refers to, it cannot be the sort of entity that grounds civil life. No amount of piety or holy sentiment will overcome the basic, earthy requirements for civil life.
Christianity is a universal religion, but it does not universalize language, social customs, and political arrangements. Why? Because the Gospel does not introduce new fundamental principles of socio-political life; it mainly concerns eternal life. Thus, the principles that lead to cultural distinctness in earthly life remain operative and remain necessary for man’s complete good in this world. A Christian people has a Christian culture, and so all Christian cultures share a common form. But these cultures will vary significantly materially, or as to their content. The Gospel homogenizes everyone into a common end. But the civil and social means ordered to that end will look different among different Christian peoples.
Ehrett was right to focus on my claims about the West’s universalizing tendency. My book is meant, in large part, to be a theological and ethical correction to it. I am not, however, trying to correct the Christian tradition. I want to retrieve it. I want us to return to the old ways articulated well by men such as Bishop Lancelot Andrewes: “We should rather do good to those of our own country than to strangers…And among such, to our kindred and alliance before others.” My book confronts the strongly entrenched sentiment of our postwar era, which has for too long served as a lens through which to read the great Western tradition. Absent this lens, we will see a tradition that affirms a strong relationship of people and place and that reconciles the universal and particular without destroying either.
*Image Credit: Rothermel, Peter. The Landing of the Pilgrims on Plymouth Rock, 1620. 1869. https://www.wbur.org/news/2020/11/11/400th-anniversary-mayflower-landing-native-american-history. Accessed 14 Mar. 2023.