Knowles Knows

Michael Knowles is Right. Nationalism is Protestant

Michael Knowles is right. Nationalism is Protestant. I would add, in this sense, America and, perhaps, the whole world at this juncture is functionally Protestant.

The very brave journalists over at Media Matters have once again performed a commendable public service. They have uncovered more extremism! This time, a notorious offender of post-war liberal pieties, Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire.

“Christian nationalism is a fundamentally Protestant movement. Now, in practice, I support Christian nationalism. And, in practice, I guess David French and those — those evangelicals in this movie oppose Christian nationalism. The reason that I support Christian nationalism, practically, is because we have a nation. I respect our nation. I’m a patriot, love my country. It’s an extension of filial piety. And the soul of our nation is Christian. It was founded explicitly as a Christian nation in 1620 by the pilgrims at Plymouth Rock who sailed here on the Mayflower, which is the name of an excellent brand of cigars. And the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony called this a model of Christian charity, a shining city on a hill. Our Founding Fathers spoke in broadly Christian terms. John Adams said that our morality in America would have to be a Christian morality. John Jay said exactly the same thing. George Washington gave thanks to God. Abraham Lincoln never wrote or spoke without, in some way, channeling the King James Bible. We’ve got “In God We Trust” on our money. It’s a Christian country. Most people are Christian. It’s just a Christian country. There’s no other way to put it.


Now, the reason I say Christian nationalism is fundamentally Protestant is because nationalism is fundamentally Protestant. Nationalism is a product of the Westphalian system, the Treaty of Augsburg and the Peace of Westphalia, which put an end to the religious wars, which came about as a result of the cracking up of the unity of Christendom.”

I am literally shaking! The only thing is, Knowles is right—unlike Alexandira Ocasio-Cortez, both morally and factually right. Amplification of the above by Media Matters is most appreciated, signed, Christian nationalists everywhere. Thanks for getting the message out! Watch Knowles’ entire monologue. He gets it. Sohrab Ahmari made a similar if less passionate point awhile ago on Twitter. Nationalism is Protestant because the nation as the ceiling on political scope is a Protestant development. What’s great about Knowles is that he’s not freaked out about this like some kind of cage-stage trad-Cath. He doesn’t need alternative founding mythology about Our Lady of Guadalupe or the “first thanksgiving” in St. Augustine, Florida. He knows what time it is and what country he’s in.

Let me briefly bolster Knowles’ claim, piggybacking off my contribution to the Christian nationalism symposium at American Mind from last week. There I showed how American history is distinctly Protestant. We can add too that nationalism is fundamentally Protestant not only because of Augsburg and Westphalia, which could be categorized as prudential concessions at the time. Nationalism, in the sense we are employing it, is at the center the center of Protestant ecclesiology.

Nationalism is Protestant… Christian Nationalism is Most Protestant

In is Institutes of Elenctic Theology, Francis Turretin recounts a familiar story, at least, a story familiar to his era of Reformed theologians. The primacy of Rome and its concomitant claim to universal jurisdiction was something that developed “slowly and imperceptibly” between the fourth and end of the sixth centuries and then reached its zenith by the tenth century.

The result was not just universal spiritual jurisdiction, to the subjugation of the other patriarchal sees, viz., Antioch, Constantinople, and Alexandria. Assertion of Roman primacy also subjugated temporal authorities which, to linguistically accommodate the situation to ourselves, can be called national. (Yes, I am aware that the distinct sense of national boundaries under which we now operate did not develop until much later.)

Turretin contests Roman dominance through myriad appeals to early church history drawn from Eusebius and Socrates Scholasticus among others. The counter claim is that sixth canon of the Nicene Council is misappropriated by Rome and that, originally, the bishops of early Christendom conceived of themselves as regional or city-based patriarchs: “Hence after many provinces in the same prefectureship were converted to the faith, the churches thought the plan of the civil polity (politeias) in many places should be so far imitated by them that the provinces in the same prefectureship should be in some measure subjected to the bishop of the city, which was the seat of the Praetorian prefect.”

In other words, the church organized itself in episcopal fashion according to preexisting political structure. (Recall that the Westminster Confession says that things common to all human societies should be governed by the light of nature and Christian wisdom.)

Turretin is not ignorant to the fact that the conflict between Rome and Constantinople afforded equal blame to both sides that eventually resulted in the East-West split. But his focus is on the Roman claim. Boniface III was the first to obtain ecclesiastical primacy “or spiritual monarchy.” In the eleventh century especially, Gregory VII compounded this acquisition. The full import of which was that deference to Rome was expected of the other metropolitan bishops but also from “kings, emperors and all Christian princes.” In other words, the bishop of Rome assumed spiritual and temporal monarchy. By the fourteenth century, Boniface VIII had fully theorized this assumption of authority and expectation of universal deference. Temporal authority was merely refracted light, as the moon receives its illumination from the sun, so too the state from the church.

A large portion of Turretin’s rejection of Roman supremacy is rooted in his recollection of the formation of ecumenical counsels, since it is ecumenical authority that the medieval popes claimed. From the first Nicene Council to Constantinople IV—that is, the first eight councils—all were summoned by Christian emperors, from Constantine to Basil. A key, if not the key, aspect of universal, ecumenical jurisdiction is found in this prerogative, viz., the ability to summon ecumenical synods. He who summons such gatherings must be the one above whom no appeal can be made; he presides over the council. All attendants are, in a sense, subjected to his authority. Never in the first eight councils did Rome enjoy this privilege, but Christian emperors did.

Moreover, Turretin notes that the same emperors exercised disciplinary authority over bishops. “Constantius sent Liberius into exile; Justinian sent Silverius into exile; King Theodoric cast John I (the Cappadocian) into prison; Otto I deposed John XII; Henry III (of Germany) deposed Gregory VI. The Roman pontiffs acknowledged them as their lords.”  

The point in Turretin’s polemic was to deny the preeminence of Rome over other bishoprics and to assert the authority of Christian emperors over all bishoprics, according to their office. This point is further pressed by the general denial of clerical immunity from civil jurisdiction, a constant theme in sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed writing.

All of this culminates in Turretin’s formulation of the “political government of the church.” Here, against the universal jurisdiction of Rome (or of any bishopric), Turretin asserts the Protestant corrective which, like other doctrines championed by the Reformers, was a return to earlier expressions standing behind innovations of the errant schoolmen. The Christian prince has a duty to care for religious and sacred things, “the piety and worship of God.” They must not only procure temporal goods for the church “but what is far more necessary, spiritual and heavenly goods.” Hence, Isaiah 49:23. Kings and queens are to be as nursing fathers and mothers to the true church. Magistrate are gods on the earth; Turretin calls them “vicars of God,” and, in a sense, both “pastors” and “fathers” to their people. The “approved examples” include Old Testament kings and Christian emperors. Good rulers are to care for the church, promote true doctrine, and, when occasion demands, call forth the church to address internal issues in council for the sake of unity and peace. This was all very much standard fare for Protestant theologians, from Calvin to Turretin.

The Essential Reformation

But it was, perhaps, most acutely expressed in England, if not initially by indigenous theologians. Peter Martyr Vermgili, Martin Bucer, and Heinrich Bullinger laid out similar imperatives that shaped the English Reformation. Here the expression of the Christian prince became perhaps most obviously nationalist.

As Torrance Kirby notes, Vermigli wrote more about political thought than any of his contemporaries and his Common Places went through multiple Latin editions in England and was very early translated into English for mass consumption. Bullinger’s Decades were, for a time, mandatory reading in Oxbridge. And Bucer’s early advice to Edward VI in De Regno Christi was uniquely formative for the development of English Protestant church-state relations. For the young king, Bucer sketched the Constantinian ideal. Thomas Dandelet says Bucer’s reference to Constantine as a “saint” and his use of Eusebius and Chrysostom signals an appeal to Byzantine conceptions of authority over and against Roman ones. The bottom line for Bucer is the same as Turretin’s, viz., magistrates possess a religious duty, one usurped by later popes, and one reasserted by Protestants over and against counter-reformation opponents. The Reformation, in large part, depended on reformist magistrates rising to the occasion. Royal supremacy in a national church was the antidote to universal, foreign jurisdiction. A national consciousness was required. In a legitimate sense, circa sacra, the king was supreme head of the church. “Let every soul be subject to the powers that are above them.” No distinction between temporal and spiritual authority was made by the apostle. A good ruler would govern all professions in his realm, from physicians of the body to physicians of the soul. He did not thereby usurp their authority or expertise. But he could ensure their proper operation and ensure no malpractice.  

None of this was mere expedience or window dressing. As Turretin’s organization indicates, it is a fundamental of Protestant ecclesiology, i.e., the political governance of the church. If popes could not exercise transnational jurisdiction, what would replace them? The Protestant answer: Christian kings according to the testament of Scripture and church history. Richard Baxter argued that it was essential to the Papist-Protestant divide, the distinguishing factor more than transubstantiation or justification. (See also his Against the Revolt to Foreign Jurisdiction.) Universal versus national sovereignty was the question. Turretin partially agreed. Even if doctrinal disputes had first given rise to the Reformation, the question of authority was always central, and post-Reformation, most debates centered on the same: “in the progress of time they have become the principal matter in which our opponents seem to place the strength of their cause.”  

Protestant Nationalism Today

Christian nationalism, at this stage in history and in America, can be properly ecumenical. It can comprehend the array of Christians. Contingencies of history cannot well be reversed. But insofar as it is American, it is Protestant, and insofar as it is nationalist, it is Protestant. That’s just the way it is. For my part, I bid all American Catholics, as well as our disestablishmentarian Protestant friends, a warm welcome in our fight against literally demonic forces.

Along the way, some friendly, light-hearted sectarian violence like what you’ve seen above, should be expected and welcome. Plus, given the absolute state, as they say, of the current occupant of Peter’s chair, more and more Catholics I know sound functionally Protestant to me. Success might look like us getting back to a place where we can fight about things that actually matter… in several hundred years, I guess. As an olive branch, and to paraphrase several G. K. Chesterton quotes, the most sensible thing to fight about is religion. Under liberalism not only is everyone expected to fight about everything but religion, we are barely allowed to talk about religion at all.  

Until then, until we can get back to duking it out over true doctrine and true authority, a Christian unity party is needed, like Ezra Stiles Ely called for in 1827 (Duty of Christian Freemen to Elect Christian Rulers). Insofar as something like that is emerging, Knowles is a founding member. I can in principle stomach a Catholic Franco if he can stomach the prospect of a Protestant one! He is right about America, Protestantism, and nationalism. Eventually, I pray, his Pilgrim roots will lead him to backstroke across the Tiber. In any case, its nice to see our Catholic brothers in arms notice the things they aren’t supposed to and, per usual, to do it better than most Protestants.

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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.

One thought on “Knowles Knows

  1. It seems that Cline wants to make a compelling case that all Protestants should support and promote Christian Nationalism. And so he constantly appeals to the past, as if it contained legal precedents, to make his case. And part of his case is that, in the past, Protestantism and Christian Nationalism have gone together like ‘love and marriage.’ And thus Christians today should renew that relationship.

    One problem with his case is that neither in the past, nor especially more recently, are Protestants for Christian Nationalism. Anabaptists provide both past and present examples of Christians who oppose Christian Nationalism. Today’s Anabaptist congregations include the Mennonites, the Brethren, the Apostolic Church, and Hutterites. Of course some Protestants don’t recognize Anabaptists from the past or present as being Protestants because of some of their doctrines and practices. But they are still considered to be a radical part of Protestantism when it emerged.

    But other examples of conservative Protestants today who oppose Christian Nationalism come from individual Christians who belong to Protestant denominations. And they have been influenced by beliefs that their nation was partially based on the separation of Church and state. So cultural reasons can seem to play a role in determining whether Christian Nationalism is appropriate. And if cultural reasons can play a role in determining whether some Christians today reject Christian Nationalism, isn’t it logical to believe that cultural reasons may have played a role in Protestants from the past embracing Christian Nationalism? After all, Protestantism emerged during Christendom when there was already a domination of the state by the Church. And back then, the Church that so dominated the political scene was the Roman Church. In fact, the Roman Church’s domination over the Western European nations was so widespread, one could think of the Roman Church’s span of control as an empire. And that would make Christian Nationalism just a smaller version of the imperialism practiced by the Roman Church.

    If one says that Protestant history supports Christian Nationalism, its fruits such as the religious wars, along with the persecution of Christians by Christians which occurred even during the founding of the U.S., and the violent domination of unbelievers by “Christian” governments both at home and abroad seem to argue against Christian control of the state and society.

    Also, there is really no argument for Christian Nationalism anywhere in the New Testament. Not using the examples of religious control of the government in the Old Testament does not imply that we are leaving out influence the Old Testament. That is because we now live in a different context than what existed in the Old Testament. That different context consisted of the identity of God’s covenant people. His covenant people in the Old Testament was the nation of Israel. His covenant people in the New Testament consists of the Church which is to exist in all of the nations. In addition, what we learn about the Christian way of life from the New Testament is that it is comparable in many ways to when the Old Testament Jews lived in exile. And so how is it that we should seek to use the government to control society and the culture to the extent that Christian Nationalism would require while living in exile?

    And so what seems to be here is that Cline’s case for Christian Nationalism is based on a highly selective use of evidence. That selectivity includes leaving out Protestants, both past and present, who do not support Christian Nationalism. That selectivity includes neglecting to mention how Christendom and Roman Church imperialism could have influenced early Protestants beliefs about Christian Nationalism. That selectivity includes neglecting to consider the bad fruits of Christian Nationalism in arguing for it. And that selectivity includes not accounting for what the New Testament says our way of life should be especially in how we relate to unbelievers.

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