Baptists and Christian Nationalism

Commentary on Smothers, Walker, and Wilsey

The new Kenwood Institute, directed by Colin Smothers, and the Commonwealth Policy Center recently put on a symposium on Christian nationalism. Such “events” are, at this point, a dime a dozen it seems. But this one is noteworthy because, to put it bluntly, it featured people I like—respect might be a better word. (Stephen Wolfe likes them too.) For good reason, I think. Smothers, along with John Wilsey and Andrew Walker are the non-hysterical sort of Baptist commentators on Christian nationalism. I mean that they are smart and operate in good faith in their engagement. And so, I made an exception to my new moratorium on watching these things. Had I been in the area, I certainly would have attended this one. I can’t say the same for the G3 or Sovereign Nations events, that’s for sure.

What follows is brief—a term I always loosely employ—live commentary on the conversation as I watched it live. Enjoy—another term I use loosely and indifferently. I continue to hold out hope for my Baptist brethren, that they will come around, so to speak, not on labels, not on paedobaptism, but on the decidedly traditional formulations housed under the Christian nationalism umbrella. I maintain that their sacramentology and ecclesiology do not preclude such movement. Neither does eschatology, for that matter.

Without further ado… Nota bene, the minute markers featured below will be approximate at best. The Forum section, under which this post is housed, is intended to feature more rapid-fire, even blog-like posts engaging live debates like this one. We cannot, therefore, be delayed by the painstaking research that marks most American Reformer long-form articles. Here goes.

As I said, Wilsey, Smother, and Walker are good men and good faith interlocutors; I am acquainted or have corresponded with all three. That said, much disagreement will follow below, I suspect. Richard Nelson, I’m told by people who would know, is doing great work in Kentucky and is a staunch conservative. That’s the personnel roundup here.

After a brief introduction by Smothers, Nelson offered his own brief comments. The latter focuses on the Statement on Christian Nationalism which was the sort of the 1689 to Stephen Wolfe’s 1646, if you will. Because the Statement was drafted by Baptists it has naturally received a lot of attention from Baptists, especially the G3 types. They did a whole podcast breakdown of the Statement some time back. I didn’t listen to it but I did listen to Jon Harris, William Wolfe, Dusty Deevers, Joel Webbon, and A.D. Robles respond. Seemed pretty cordial. (There was also some kind of juvenile dispute over the font used in the Statement at one point. Not sure what came of that.) Josh Buice and Scott Aniol have written incessantly about the alleged incompatibility of Baptist doctrine with Christian nationalism.

Back to the event at hand, Nelson seems more measured in tone but basically follows the G3 guys substantively.

Minute 3:30: Nelson rightly, in my view, identifies the theological vacuum in Protestant circles vis-a-vis political thought. He sees this defect as causal for the rise of Christian nationalism. Also, we’re less than 4 minutes in and Stephen Wolfe’s book is already mentioned. We should stop for a moment to appreciate that he has certainly made his mark. Nearly a year post-publication and everyone is still talking about it—he lives rent-free in the heads of man. Quite the accomplishment, if you ask me!

Nelson acknowledges the popularity of Stephen’s book but says there are “problems” with it. First, “one is that it undermines constitutional principles of religious freedom and inalienable rights.” Second, the “unity” of church and state. Third, religious tests for office. Fourth, the state can suppress heresy and protect Christian doctrine. Five, all this makes non-Christian dissenters effectively second-class citizens, subject to something like “dhimmitude in Islamic societies.”

Nelson doesn’t go on here. This is all preliminary, and the points raised are very, very tired at this point, but we will engage them briefly nonetheless. One thing we should notice immediately is that the “constitutional principles” objection to Christian nationalism has become increasingly commonplace. I say we should notice it because the objection itself is not predicated on any kind of scriptural or theological argument, but purely on what the objector (usually wrongly) understands to be the received or traditional national governing structural arrangement. You may recall that Stephen was raked over the coals when his book first came out for underusing Scripture and scriptural arguments. A year later and the loudest objection, in my view, is something like what Nelson raised. Curious that. I’m sure the speakers here are about to lodge several biblical complaints; I’m just noting an interesting recent development.

Speaker One:

First up on the roster is John Wilsey. He’s probably offered the best critical engagement with Stephen’s book of any Baptist… maybe of any evangelical of any stripe. Of course, the competition for that accolade is not steep but there it is, and it reflects well on Wilsey. (Stephen has repeatedly said that Wilsey’s review in the London Lyceum was the best; a recent one from the Kirk Center was also good. I have not read the review Nelson references by Wilsey at 9Marks. On the other hand, Wilsey’s book on John Foster Dulles has been on my reading list for a while.)

Minute 10: Jumping ahead, Wilsey has just given a great mini-lecture on the nature, purpose, and aim of history. At bottom, history tells us where we came from and, therefore, who we are, or should be. “Christian nationalism can be and often is a frame of reference” for answering this question (i.e., national identity). But Wilsey says Christian nationalism substitutes nostalgia for real history, nostalgia being a distortion of the past, he says. Nostalgia is either ideology or idolatry or both. It is fundamentally irresponsible, as is cynicism, but I think Christian nationalists are being accused of the former. “Nostalgia leads us to idolize our nation… and seeking to restore that which was lost without thought of the cost, and by authoritarian means if necessary.”

“To think about American identity is to think about history.” I agree. I think this entire debate is very much wrapped up in historical consciousness and proper interpretation of the data, which, in turn, is dependent on proper curation. This, however, is where we, Wilsey and I, are going to have some disagreement. Or at least I think that is where some of the disagreement is rooted. This would not be the case for all discussants. That it is, in this case, is why I appreciate Wilsey—albeit this showing from here is a little underwhelming.

Wilsey classifies Christian nationalism as a brand of post-liberalism. I am fine with this categorization, though I’m not sure Stephen Wolfe would be. What I take issue with is Wilsey’s assumption that “THE FOUNDING” is rightly called “classical liberal,” as if the founders themselves were running around identifying themselves as such. Liberalism has, indeed, failed, but this does not mean that the founding has failed. I insist, violently, that the founders themselves were more classical than “liberal” in their thought, and, on the matters at hand, especially so—in many ways they could rightly be called illiberal. A certain liberality may be acceptable within a context of intense homogeneity. That is no longer the case, obviously, but it does not imply that because the founding generation settled on a liberality amongst their decidedly Protestant selves that they were, in fact, liberal in an ideological sense—here, in my view, Wilsey is guilty of the reification he shuns. (For some source material, see e.g., Shain’s The Myth of American Individualism, or Zuckerman’s Peaceable Kingdoms, or Wertenbaker’s Puritan Oligarchy, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about.

Wilsey goes on to talk about the “evolutionary” right versus the counter-revolutionary right. Burke and De Maistre are his poster children. I am not really sure what this portion of his speech is meant to demonstrate. Maybe this is because I think De Maistre hit the nail on the head more often than not. Perhaps, I’m playing right into Wilsey’s hands as a reactionary. So be it. What does that have to do with Christian nationalism, its merits and demerits? I would love for just one critic to engage the political thought of the magisterial Reformers—it was carried on by their seventeenth-century progeny—and tell us why, intellectually and not sentimentally, they were wrong in principle. I have yet to hear it. Certainly, a preference for Burke over De Maistre accomplishes no such thing.

Minute 23:56: I also want someone to define clearly—again, not sentimentally—what is “authoritarian” in the proposal under review. Still waiting. At this point, Wilsey is talking about Calhoun and the Confederacy. Again, engage with the sources and arguments in play, not fearmongering. It is not or, at least should not, be persuasive to cite examples—and then fit them into a convenient paradigm—that shock the sufficiently conditioned conscience. I do not understand why, at this point (min. 24:55), Engels and Marx are now being trotted out. Why?

Minute 25:08: Now we are, predictably, bringing in Tocqueville. Fine. As I often say, I am generally averse to a foreigner being disproportionately relied upon to tell me what my country is all about, except when it suits me, of course. But engage the sources in play, please! No talk so far—not holding my breath—of Junius, Musculus, Vermigli, Rutherford, Gillespie, or Baxter, to name a few. No mention of Mather, Cotton, Ward, Willard, or Norton. No reference to the original state constitutions or Story’s Commentaries or Wilson’s and Kent’s Lectures, blasphemy and Sabbath laws, and the like. Sigh.

To Wilsey’s credit, he rejects modernity’s penchant for eradication of the past and its castigation of any anachronistic (i.e., insufficiently progressive) opinions—the “festival of reason,” more or less. Wilsey, like myself, dislikes Rousseau, Paine, and Marx, though he’s probably enthralled with Burke a little more than I am. No issue there. Wilsey doesn’t want to whitewash or erase history because it’s offensive. He doesn’t want cynical denunciation of the past. Nor does he want ideologue nostalgia. We agree. What we disagree on is whether Christian nationalists fit the bill for the latter.

I find this rather shallow and maybe even disingenuous insofar as people like myself and Stephen are interested in recovering old political paradigms. It’s not nostalgia. I’m not sure how many times we have to clarify that historical models cannot be wantonly and mechanically plopped down in any given scenario. Prudence must guide. The same goes for the normative arguments presented by Christian nationalists. To say something is permissible or even desirable in principle is not the same as saying it is prudentially viable at present. This seems to be (willfully?) lost on our critics. Most of Stephen’s book is taken up with the principle. Many readers—I’m not so sure they actually do the reading—are hell-bent on misunderstanding this.

Wilsey talks more about the theory of history; this topic, in fact, occupies most of his initial volley. It’s all interesting and good, but not that relevant to the matter at hand, in my opinion. Moving on.

Speaker Two:

Colin Smothers starts around Minute 27:06. Smothers adopts an exegetical approach throughout, whereas Wilsey’s focus was historical. Contrary to popular belief, Christian nationalists aren’t averse to the Bible. I’m something of a Biblicist myself. It’s just that traditional exegesis found in our theological forebears generally controls unless proven demonstrably false on its own terms. No critic, as far as I’m concerned, has yet performed such a feat.

There’s not much to disagree with in most of Smothers’ take. Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s et cetera. He relies on a bit of the Noahic covenant work of VanDrunen et al., it seems. This leads him to an extra-textual limitation of Romans 13. What properly belongs to the authority of government?

With no clear textual referent, Smothers claims the good to be promoted—conversely, evil to be subdued—by civil power is confined to “natural” things, things discerned only by natural or general revelation.

The good ruler is also to be a servant to the people for their good, that is, the common good. Smothers agrees with this too. The source of this power is God. Again, we agree thus far.

How is the good of people determined? Smothers insists that said good should be determined apart from scripture or special revelation. I would take issue with so easy and clean a bifurcation of the source or mode of revelation for these purposes, but that’s another topic that won’t detain us now. A parallel question is whether it is incumbent on the civil power to recognize the source of its power and also whether it must remain willfully ignorant of the doctrine and teaching of the church, the basis of which is scripture. We must also add that scripture commands the good magistrate to consult the oracles of God.

But of course, many Reformed commentators of the past would have affirmed a sort of natural basis for the civil power’s rule and yet also affirmed the religious duty of the civil power contra Smothers.

The good of true religion is a truth discernable from nature. Everyone from Plato to Aristotle to Cicero acknowledged this civil function. And it can, accordingly, be justified on a civil basis, true religion being a civil good.

Moreover, the Decalogue being a summary republication of the natural law, it is properly enforceable by the civil power as the basis of law.

George Gillespie, from his 111 Propositions:

“[God] hath appointed the civil Magistrate, and hath delivered to him the sword to the protection and praise of good men, but for punishment and revenge on the evil, that by this bridle, men’s vices and faults may be restrained, whether committed against the first or against the second Table.”

Per Gillespie, the Reformed consensus, following from the Romans 13 premise, was that, 

“The orthodox Churches believe also, and doe willingly acknowledge, that every lawful Magistrate, being by God himself constituted the keeper and defender of both Tables of the Law, may and ought first and chiefly to take care of God’s glory, and (according to his place, or in his manner and way) to preserve Religion when pure, and to restore it when decayed and corrupted; And also to provide a learned and Godly Ministry, Schools also and Synods, as likewise to restrain and punish as well Atheists, Blasphemers, Heretics and Schismatics, as the violators of Justice and Civil Peace.”

Gillespie called the denial of the magistrate’s religious duty a sectarian position.

This was not to deny the distinction between the temporal/civil and ecclesiastical/spiritual powers.

“For the political or civil power is grounded upon the Law of nature it self, and for that cause it is common to Infidels with Christians: The power Ecclesiastical depends immediately upon the positive Law of Christ alone.”

Smothers would likely affirm this last statement, but for Gillespie, it did not imply a denial of the religious interest for the temporal power. For he is charged with the good of man and the good of the commonwealth. The preservation of true religion is for the good of each, therefore, the magistrate, as God’s vicegerent on earth, is interested in the state of religion in his domain. This does not mean he is competent to alter doctrine, direct the teaching of the church, administer the sacraments, and so on.

The civil is occupied only with the externals and the spiritual with the internals, so to speak. The civil magistrates “do not reach unto the soul, but only to the external state and condition of the Ministers and Members of the Church.” (In other words, the circa sacra distinction.) This includes the suppression of heresy and blasphemy, viz., those things that spread false religion which is bad for the polity, and also trouble the church, as Gillespie puts it, which is the source of true teaching of religion in the polity. True religion’s prominence correlates with the church’s health. Preservation of one is preservation of the other, and the happiness of the nation depends on both.

This duty to help and provide for the church applies also to “heathen magistrates.” The extent to which such magistrates perform this duty is neither here nor there. The point is that it is a duty inherent in the office and that derived from the natural revelation of the Decalogue. (No one has yet provided a good reason why the two tables should be bifurcated.)

A relevant aside: quoting Gillespie reminds me of the hysteria surrounding Stephen Wolfe’s description of the Christian prince. Consider Gillespie’s laudatory language when distinguishing between the two powers (emphasis added):

Emperors, Kings, and other Magistrates are indeed appointed fathers of the Country, but they are withal Lords of their People and Subjects; Not as if it were permitted to them to bear rule and command at their own will and as they list (for they are the Ministers of God for the good and profit of the Subjects) yet it belongs to their power truly and properly to exercise dominion, to hold principality, to proceed imperiously. It is indeed the duty of Ministers and Rulers of the Church to oversee, to feed as shepherds, to correct and rectify, to bear the keys, to bee Stewards in the house of Christ, but in no wise to bee Lords over the house, or to govern as Lords, or Lordlike to rule; yea in brief, this is the difference between the civil Magistrate and the Ecclesiastical Ministry, in respect of those which are committed to their trust, that the lot of the former is to bee served or ministered unto, the lot of the latter to minister or serve.”


“[T]he power of the Magistrate worketh only politically or civilly, according to the nature of the Scepter or Sword, maketh and guards civil Lawes, which sometimes also he changes or repeals, and other things of that kind he effects with a secular power: But the Ecclesiastical power deals spiritually, and only in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by authority entrusted or received from him alone: neither is it exercised without Prayer or calling on the Name of God; nor lastly doth it use any other then spiritual weapons.”

The reason for all this Gillespie quoting is to show that the distinctions between the two powers made by Smothers do not necessitate the conclusions he wants them to. Gillespie, as a representative here of the Reformed consensus—at least generally; his synodical commentary is another matter—confirms the source of magisterial authority as God, and the basis of the institution as natural, that is, coming from God not the mediatorial work of Christ. And yet, he also confirms the inescapable fact that civil powers have and do exercise a religious duty for the sake of the civil peace, order, and happiness of their people. This duty applies to all rulers for all time. And it cannot be that false religion is conducive to the ends just listed.

Simply identifying the distinctions above does not at all demand the restrictions introduced by Smothers.

True enough, the natural law (i.e., both tables) standard outlined by Paul in Romans 1-2 is the basis of human law and, therefore, human governance. (It is also a sufficient standard for human condemnation, for that matter, which includes the suppression of the knowledge not just of a natural law ethic but of God himself.) But as we have already alluded to, the best of pagan philosophers affirmed the religious duty of civil rulers on this basis.

Smothers limits the “natural” to the exclusion of religion, as if the duty to worship the true God is not supplied both by Romans 1-2 and the Decalogue. And what does agathos in Romans 13 mean exactly? It’s admittedly a very general word, but at bare minimum, it reflects a good that is intrinsically good, not relatively so. Righteous, honorable, and upright things (See Romans 2:10, 9:11, and 12:2.)

Luke 8:15 speaks of the agathe cardia, the good and worthy heart or soul; that which is inclined to the good and bears fruit and perseverance. “Good soil,” is the metaphor used there. An agathon ergon is begun and completed by God for our final or eternal good (Philippians 1:6; c.f. Romans 8:28). Ephesians 4:29 speaks of a good in a sense of suitability; an instrumental good is so called because it is suited to the production of a higher good (See e.g., Hebrews 9:11). It is serviceable (Romans 13:4: diakonos eis to agathon). And ultimately, none is good but God (Mark 10:18).

Again, “good” (agathos) is a flexible word. But inside the scriptural canon, it carries with it a higher aim. All I am saying is that when Paul instructs magistrates to punish evil and reward good it is not a bland good; nor does the text indicate a mere physical harm principle. A more informed reading would harken back to Luke’s metaphor of good soil (kale ge), a heart receptive to the law of God and the Gospel.

It is from this idea that I’ve drawn my idea of coercive conditions conducive to conversion as summing up the role of the good magistrate. He cannot force true conversion or genuine faith, but he can till the soil, so to speak, making his domain a hospitable place of true churches preaching true doctrine and thereby conducive to true faith. Promoting “the good” does not stop at prevention of bodily harm or protection of procreation. There is no textual reason to assume otherwise, but there is good textual reason to understand “the good” spoken of in Romans 13 as more expansive than Smothers would have it.

Minute 40: The last thing I’ll say here is that Smothers does, in the latter half of his speech, seem to be using a theonomic position as his foil. That’s fine to do, of course. I’m something of a theonomy critic myself. The problem is that most self-professed Christian nationalists, including Stephen Wolfe, are not theonomists. They are not advocating the reintroduction of the Mosaic civil-judicial code as fit for all societies. So, when Smothers asks the “by what standard?” question and insinuates that Christian nationalists are demanding a purely scriptural basis for temporal government he’s dragging in that old boogey man. I don’t think this is underhanded so much as boring. As I’ve already said, the presence of Christian leaders is not, in principle, relevant to the purpose and role of government vis-a-vis religion. Accepting arguendo Smothers’ contention that civil authorities can only enforce “common notions” of morality does not defeat any of the counter-theses outlined above. But it must be said before we depart that in one sense we can say that the two powers possess separate origins if we distinguish between God and the incarnate, resurrected Christ, as Gillespie does. But we must still then say that both receive authority from God in a general sense—just as some Reformed would talk about the “blood of God” when discussing the atonement when, at the same time, it was the incarnate second person of the Trinity who died on the cross; both things are true and proper to say.

Therefore, the two powers cannot be opposed, must be, indeed, diaconal and complimentary in their relationship, and, ultimately, share the same end, viz., the glory of the source of authority. The Caesar v. God quip brought back in at the end of Smothers’ speech is not quite a slam dunk in this regard. The church does not “reach for the sword” when the magistrate punishes heresy and all the rest, for that is a duty proper to his office. Nor does the church “reach for the sword” when she, through her prophetic power, instructs the magistrate per his proper function and even informs his rule by true preaching of the word. This model has been offered throughout scripture: Josiah, Hezekiah, etc.

No one is denying that real Christians can only be made by a work of the spirit ordinarily through the right preaching of the word. It is a strawman presented by Smothers when he insinuates otherwise. Forced conversions are false. But it is not wrong for the magistrate to promote what is “good,” and punish the privation of the good (i.e., evil). This whole debate is all about the scope of these things. Our Baptist interlocutors today suffer from an arbitrary and improper reduction of said scope. Now, that is actually the last thing I’ll say here.

Speaker Three:

Minute 46:45: My friend, Andrew Walker is up. I’ve responded to many of his arguments before and he is aware of our differences, so I will likely not need to spend much time replying here, but let’s see.

I agree with Walker that some kind of establishment is necessary for a Christian nation. What I reject is the assumption that in America this would necessarily need to be a national establishment. On the contrary, any such arrangement would need to respect the history, customs, and traditions of the people including the constitutional (i.e., structural) arrangement. An American Christian nationalism should embrace our federalist structure wherein, as Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address reminds us, the states and their inherent police powers constitute the proper place for religious establishment—incorporation of the First Amendment is both tragic and nonsensical. This allows—or did allow—for a diversity of arrangements according to denominational history and preference within a sort of general pan-Protestant consensus and, in turn, a workable, national religious homogeneity. I would add that American establishments should be limited, according to our history, to Christian denominations. That’s the ideal, anyway, and this whole program is occupied with that level of analysis. Anyway…

Minute 50: The argument, now being presented by Walker, that nations can’t be Christian because they cannot salvifically profess Christ either as the compound moral person or on behalf of the individuals, and are therefore basically a lie, is irrelevant. (Politics is a matter of justice and duty, to man and God, not salvation.) No one is claiming citizenship can become tantamount to salvation. We’ve been through all this several times, it seems to me, in the Christian nationalist debate. No one is claiming that the kingdom of God is reducible to or simply identifiable with America or whatever, nor that nations qua nations can be regenerate—I’m not sure what that would mean. It’s tiresome to keep engaging all this, so I won’t. But I will, apropos of nothing, smarmily cite the Great Commissions to my Baptist brothers.

Minute 52: From all this Walker derives his distinction between a Christian-influenced nation and a Christian nation. This is a comforting formulation for most of our Baptist interlocutors but, given the aforementioned, irrelevant. It performs only sentimental work; the real point for Walker anyway is rejection of establishment.

Minute 53:50: We have arrived at the Baptist “history” case against establishment. The article linked earlier addresses all this. Suffice it to say at this juncture that the narrative spun by Baptists, viz., that establishments have always been terrible and always fail, is short-cited and, ironically, utopian, and not to mention unfalsifiable and monocausal. That is, it does not recognize appropriately that all human regimes are finite and therefore necessarily subject to decomposition. Nor does the Baptist narrative adequately appreciate that liberal pluralist polities are of recent vintage and are trending toward worse terrors, more terrible subversions of reality itself, than were even imaginable under the Carolingians or what have you. On balance, I think establishment regimes had a good run, and were eradicated not by their own internal contradictions but by outside hostile forces hateful of traditional restrictions. And that the Scandinavians or British are now thoroughly secularized is not an indictment of establishment, indeed, it is not clear to me how a causal relationship between the two would be established—pun intended—at all. It’s all very Whiggish.

Minute 54: Obadiah Holmes invoked. Predictable. Abusus non tollit usum. I could leave it there, which even assumes in Walker’s favor that what happened to Holmes was wrong. We must say two things further, however. First, citing unfavorable consequences of establishment does not defeat establishment in principle. Second, let’s get something straight: Holmes was not whipped for his religious beliefs. He was whipped because he refused to pay a fine for preaching without a license on the Sabbath. The law against such was well promulgated at the time. Holmes was already notorious for his views, having been banished from Plymouth years prior for fomenting schism in the church. That he traveled from Providence to Lynn to visit known Baptists there reminds us too that Baptists were generally left unmolested in Massachusetts Bay. They were welcomed into the Congregationalist churches but could not incorporate their own. Salutary neglect was the typical policy. Holmes did not violate Massachusetts law by being Baptist but by committing an external and then illegal act. By some accounts—the story is not as cut and dry as most assume—he went to Lynn for the sake of encouraging the creation of a dissenting Baptist church there. In any case, the punishment was a fine, not lashes, in the first instance. Not to mention that, in that day, the refusal of Holmes to pay the fine, as a matter of principle and conscience, was like spitting in the face of the governing authorities. It was inherently subversive, a suggestion that the magistrates had no right to dictate circa sacra (see above).  

These lawyerly distinctions won’t satisfy most. That’s fine. The point is simply that the Puritans weren’t running around horsewhipping Baptists, nor wantonly executing Quakers. You don’t have to like seventeenth-century New England, but it wasn’t exactly the hellscape people want to suggest, and the story of Holmes is not really a compelling case against establishment as if whipping for thought crimes necessarily follows therefrom.

Minute 55: That bad things happened in history during the height of Christendom is no argument against Christendom or establishment as a religious-political model. It’s poor reasoning and lazy history to suggest otherwise. I say again, this whiggish history detrimentally colors Walker’s analysis. Christian nationalists are not utopians. They are realists. They recognize that religious establishment is unavoidable whatever pluralist liberal regimes insist formally. They trust historical models, whatever their faults, over historically recent innovations. Broken record here: if you want to talk about trends, liberal regimes are trending toward a shorter half-life than any of the establishment regimes of Christendom, and this by a simple, meager standard of homogeneity, peace, and stability. And if all formal arrangements are actually a lie—the illiberal establishment and the ostensible disestablishment of liberalism—then we might as well opt for the one that at least gives lip service rather than indifference to God.

Minute 56: Walker is making some kind of claim that the state is not meant to determine matters of revealed religion. “Revealed” is a slippery qualifier here. I assume he means special, scriptural revelation. In which case, see the Gillespie commentary above. It’s wrong of Walker to insinuate that Stephen Wolfe’s adoption of an historic two kingdoms paradigm—I have generally discarded the term—is mere pretense for something more nefarious and fanciful. Again, see Gillespie above. That’s the historic Reformed consensus. (See also, if you like, Baptists like John Gill.) This portion of Walker’s speech is, in my view, uncharacteristically hostile to the ideas in play. I consider Walker a friend, and a reasonable interlocutor. But here he’s a bit fired up, as we all can be, I suppose. Strange nonetheless to suggest underhanded motives on the other side.

Minute 56:20: The aim and hope of establishment regimes is not the eradication of nominalism—that occurs under any state of affairs—nor a perfectly Christian society at a level of sincere piety, but rather justice to God according to the source of law and civil power, as well as the elevation of true Christian religion. Some religion will be elevated, favored, codified, however subtly. Men are intellectual and religious creatures. Their polities will reflect this anthropology. Why not at least aspire to the truth and to human good?

Minute 56:30: I’m not going to respond again to this rather lame assertion that formerly established countries are the most liberal and secular. This easy narrative defies good standards of evidence and avoids intervening causality, much of which can be attributed to post-war exports from, wait for it… America. It is also unfair to insist that Christian nationalist emphases must be upheld “consistently and without exceptions” in all contexts in order to receive validity. This is unfair (see comments above). Surely, Walker must admit that liberal regimes have also not preserved an optimal level of religiosity and church health. Does this mean it’s a failure to him? Apparently not since he advocates fiercely for the status quo ante and, at the same time, I have no doubt at all that he loves Christ’s Gospel and church as well as piety and justice socio-politically.

On another note, everything Walker says about the keys of the kingdom belonging to the church is, of course, true. No one denies that. Stating it emphatically as if it’s controversial is… strange.

Minute 58: Again, citing failed versions of the ideal (i.e., Finland prosecuting openly Christian politicians) is not an indictment of the ideal itself. I imagine that Walker would not accept my critiques of the prevailing pluralist-liberal order as proof positive that the ideal itself is bunk. We might both be convinced of contrary ideals but the demonstration of the validity of our preferred models must reside somewhere besides this cherry-picking. Walker spends much of the rest of his speech on “pastoral” concerns, viz., divining the motives of his opponents and which he finds obviously distasteful or disqualifying. This is not worth engaging and I refuse to entertain false equivalencies and false dichotomies. I will only say that in my experience adherents of Christian nationalism, whatever their faults, are lovers of God, country, and piety, and Christ is not a convenient tool for them to satisfy ulterior motives. In other words, America serves Christ, not the other way around. That is the ambition as I have encountered it. Clearly, something else has convinced Walker of the contrary but I have not seen it. In any case, this is sub-intellectual inquiry that proves nothing about the ideas under review.

Minute 1:00:49: The question of which denomination will supply the standard of orthodoxy is one trotted out by opponents of Christian nationalism frequently. It is supposed to be a trump card. In truth, however, the answer is simple: these things would be decided according to political prudence like anything else. As mentioned already, the history and traditions of a people must always be accounted for by the good statesman. And, to repeat myself once more, the acknowledgment of challenges of practical implementation does not defeat the ideas posed— query whether anyone will ever do so on fair, shared terms. Plus, we’ve already invoked a sort of unique, Augsburgian, pan-Protestant settlement in America. It was a pretty loose establishment and corresponded to the constitutional order. Why is this so outlandish? Why is the fact that the religious-moral referent for all policy is, at some level of abstraction, selected by those charged with the care of the community, for better or worse? I’ll also just plug my assessment, recently mentioned by Doug Wilson, of the current intellectual stage we occupy: it is the incubation stage. We are still figuring out a lot of basic things—to our Protestant chagrin, things we have lost (i.e., unforced errors). That takes time. During that time, it is generally premature to raise these “gotcha” points of practical application. Deal with the ideas first, then we’ll think about how to bring them to bear on the polity.

Disappointingly, Walker ends his talk with more typically Baptist hysteria about the restriction of heresy and blasphemy—something affirmed by Wolfe in principle but subject to prudence in implementation—and whether “regime change” is imminent or required by Christian nationalism. Like a true liberal, Walker asks what the internal mechanisms of self-correction are. I have already delineated, in part, why the original constitutional order is workable and preferable. As the Declaration says, “Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly, all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

I would love nothing more than a renewal—which is not the same as mechanical recovery—of the original American way of life. But it is strange, indeed, to hold that regime change—whatever that means—is the worst imaginable outcome. Surely, we have had several massive overhauls to the American regime over the course of our history. Alterations to its function and orientation need not imply a dissolution of the country nor a repudiation of its people, quite the contrary. In any case, the mention of “regime change” in this context is, I am sorry to say, little more than fearmongering. It is meant to immediately disqualify the opposition.

That is a good place to stop. Given the length of this piece, it would be cruel to the reader—whoever has made it this far—to enter the Q&A portion of the event. I would encourage all parties to listen to the whole thing, regardless of where they land on the Christian nationalism question. I have engaged the men under review above with what I hope will be accepted as manly firmness because I take them seriously and appreciate their engagement on the topics in play. Much more could and will be said by all of us, I am sure. I thank them all for occasioning my unsolicited commentary which I hope is instructive, or at least entertaining, for all.

Image Credit: Unsplash

Print article

Share This

Timon Cline

Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *