On alternatives to “Christian Nationalism”
The Massachusetts Anti-Federalist, “Agrippa,” channeled the apprehension that animated his party of overbearing national government under the new federal constitution. It is widely speculated that “Agrippa” was the pseudonym of James Winthrop (1752-1821), a veteran of the Continental Army, librarian-jurist, and the great-great-great-grandson of Massachusetts Bay founder and long-time governor, John Winthrop (1587-1649).
In the case of Agrippa’s January 11, 1788 letter (Agrippa XII), the context was the debate over whether Federalist proposals would impose a national established religion on the several states. As Vincent Philip Muñoz rightly intuits in his recent study of the First Amendment ratification process, Anti-Federalists did not object to religious establishment—i.e., established Christian, Protestant denominations—as such. How could they, when the preexistent colonial charter and state constitutions championed establishment? Rather, their concern was that of a national, federal establishment that would be applied to all 13 states uniformly:
The Anti-Federalist fear of a national establishment, to repeat, was connected to the size of the nation, the nation’s regional religious diversity, and the distance between federal power and local interests. Anti-Federalists, especially those in New England, only feared a national religious establishment.
In other words, Anti-Federalists were not chiefly concerned with that prospect in the abstract, viz., that an overarching, national establishment would constitute a violation of some perennial, universal value never to be run afoul. Instead, their hesitancy was wrapped up in apprehension of unmitigated power in the new federal government. This was the same concern that animated all Anti-Federalist enthusiasm for the Bill of Rights and not unique to the religion question.
Indeed, Muñoz points out that the ratification debate over the First Amendment pales in comparison to other proposals and never centered on the substance of religion itself. In other words, the Anti-Federalist position was simply that a national establishment would overly empower a national government to the detriment of the unique, centuries-long state traditions and ways of being. Ratification might lead to federal-level tyranny. That was the Anti-Federalist message across the board, not so much that any particular provision or implication of the proposed constitution was in itself and in principle wrong.
Agrippa captured this sentiment well:
Attention to religion and good morals is a distinguishing trait in our [i.e., Massachusetts Bay] character. It is plain, therefore, that we require for our regulation laws, which will not suit the circumstances of our southern brethren, and the laws made for them would not apply to us. Unhappiness would be the uniform produce of such laws; for no state can be happy, when the laws contradict the general habits of the people, nor can any state retain its freedom, while there is a power to make and enforce such laws. We may go further, and say, that it is impossible for any single legislature so fully to comprehend the circumstances of the different parts of a very extensive dominion, as to make laws adapted to those circumstances.
This is an argument, inter alia, against the eventual incorporation of the First Amendment to the states, especially the incorporation of the Establishment Clause; not to mention a general objection to incorporation of the rest of the constitutional amendments. We will table that for now.
More broadly, what Agrippa provides us with is a foundational principle of law: that laws must be fitted to, and suited for, a particular people, their history, customs, and traditions. Laws are not arbitrary, abstract things. Their impetus is care for a particular community, and not all communities are the same. Hence, not all legal regimes are the same even as all legal regimes should conform to the general principles of the natural law; it is secondary conclusions and applications we are considering here.
In any case, laws not immoral or arbitrary to which a particular people were “habituated,” as Agrippa put it, should not be subverted, lest the purpose of law, viz., the common good and care of the community, be negated. In other words, law is meant to make men happy, in the classical sense. Hence,
it is necessary that there should be local laws and institutions; for a people inhabiting various climates will unavoidably have local habits and different modes of life, and these must be consulted in making the laws. It is much easier to adapt the laws to the manners of the people, than to make manners conform to laws.
This is the nature and tenor of the common law tradition. Within the new federated “empire,” this could only be perpetuated via a certain underlying localism. “Hence, among other reasons, is derived the necessity of local governments, who may enact, repeal, or alter regulations as the circumstances of each part of the empire may require,” said Agrippa. Only locales—the states in conjunction with the townships—could be cognizant of the granular needs of the country in microcosm. Even as this was the case distinguishing between the New England states, it was all the more so regionally. The north and the south represented distinct characters and cultural climates conditioned by separate folkways. In the case of laws incongruent with a particular people of the kind Agrippa feared a national legislature would wantonly enact only federal-national force in the form of a standing army could “cure the defect of the laws.”
This was the root terror animating the Anti-Federalist: the erosion of the historical diversity of the colonies turned states of the kind especially experienced in New England a century prior under the royal “Dominion” conglomerate led by Edmund Andros that ran from New York to Massachusetts. It doesn’t take an expert in anthropology or seventeenth century history to know that the Dutch (New York) and the English (New England) are very different and that a unified government of, say, the Netherlands and America would even today ruffle feathers. Rightly so, we might add.
But what is the point of this historical excursus? Of course, the Anti-Federalists were prescient in many regards, Agrippa included. It is ironic, however, that the Bill of Rights, the product of Anti-Federalist angst, has served as the chief weapon in post-war jurisprudence for eroding state-level autonomy via later amendments, the scope of the police powers originally lodged in the same, and the subversion of our national morals. Mechanistically, the Anti-Federalists dug their own grave even as their constitutional sentiments have proven correct.
Anyway, the tragedy of the Anti-Federalists is not the point presently. Rather, harkening back to Agrippa’s long quote featured earlier, the principle that laws—and we might say, regime structure—must conform to the particular people to which they are applied is one that must be embraced by advocates of Christian Nationalism. More accurately, I mean that critics of Christian Nationalism should not assume incongruence between the American political structure and Christian Nationalism on this particular point.
Shortly after the publication of Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism, alternative labels perceived as less provocative were offered by friendly observers. One such offering was made by my friend, Josh Daws. His proposal, designed to sidestep post-World War II allergies to “nationalism,” is “Christian Federalism.”
As I explained on a recent podcast with Daws and Neil Shenvi, this label is superfluous insofar as any Christian Nationalism applied to the American context—the focus of Chapter 10 of Wolfe’s book— assumes its federalist arrangement. “Christian Federalism,” then, is not really saying anything that American Christian Nationalism is not already implying. The “Christian Federalism” alternative label, therefore, serves no purpose other than to appease the squeamish skeptics. And, as I further argued to Daws and Shenvi, when it comes to political labels and, dare we say, movements, these things have a way of taking on a life of their own. The extent to which a particular phrase (e.g., “Make America Great Again”) or moniker will galvanize people is a phenomenon largely outside the control of any mere mortal. It’s all hit-or-miss experimentation, and Christian Nationalism, for better or worse, has struck a chord with many in ways other proposed alternatives have not (and likely cannot) if only because as “reactionary to the reactionary” said alternatives lack appropriate provocation.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Wolfe’s book includes a scandalous chapter on the “Christian Prince.” Maybe that model comports with the Reformed tradition before the eighteenth-century, but surely this aspect of Wolfian Christian Nationalism is anti-American, right?
True enough, the Anti-Federalists were generally of the parliamentarian persuasion when it came to theories of constitutional representation, which went hand-in-hand with their pessimism regarding the proposed federal constitution. Concessions were made, obviously, to appease the Anti-Federalists even as the theory of representation embedded within the constitution was a royalist one, as Eric Nelson argues. That is, a theory of representation wherein a small body of magistrates is authorized to represent the people, and parity or one-to-one representation is not required. At bare minimum, it must be admitted that the aristocratic elements of the republic are stronger than the truly democratic ones.
Further, the question here vis-à-vis the compatibility Christian Prince of Christian Nationalism with Americanism is not concerned with Anti-Federalist proclivities but with the end constitutional result. None other than John Adams, upon reading the 1787 constitution, designated the political structure provided therein a “monarchical Republick, or if you will a limited Monarchy.” The constitution was “partly national and partly federal,” but this did not imply that it was a “Confederation of independent Republicks,”
Though Names are of Importance, they cannot alter the nature of Things. The Name of President, does not alter the Nature of his office nor diminish the Regal Authorities and Powers which appear clearly in the Writing. The Prince of Orange Said to me “Monseiur, Vous allez avoir un Roi, Sous le titre de President [Sir, you are going to have a king, under the title of president].
Just as they were not averse to religious establishment per se, eighteenth-century Americans, across the board, were not wholly allergic to de facto monarchical arrangements, though they were strongly opposed to the principle of hereditary succession. Indeed, their theory of secession from England required a circumvention of parliament to the monarch, the authority of which was the basis of colonial charters, as Adams demonstrated in his Novanglus Essays (1775).
The monarchical element of this form of Christian Nationalism, then, is not so foreign as it may seem to twenty-first century readers. From Washington to Lincoln to FDR it has been a staple of American politics regardless of the title under which it proceeds and, per Adams, was baked into the constitutional cake. “Christian Federalism” does not mitigate against this fact, historically speaking. Nor does it uniquely preserve the political makeup of state-federal relations in this monarchical republic.
Stephen Wolfe himself is self-professedly ambivalent about the Christian Nationalism label. It is the ideas behind and within it that matter. A label is needed, however; one both actionable and descriptive. Thus far, available alternatives have not satisfied and nothing actually implied by Christian Nationalism—if you can forget, for a moment, widespread fear mongering—contradicts the American constitutional order.
*Image Credit: Pexels