A new book signals that a growing movement of Protestant resourcement has achieved a critical mass.
As evangelicals go, so goes the country. Evangelicals certainly think so, left and right. Since the 2016 election, the culture war within American evangelicalism has been broadcast to the wider world. Being a liberal evangelical explainer—a tattle tale of your conservative brethren—has become a path to mild celebrity and pats on the head from elite institutions. In the aftermath of the electoral justice protests on January 6, 2021, figures such as Jemar Tisby, Russell Moore, and David French quickly associated the attendees with something called “Christian nationalism.” The label had been popularized amongst the teachers’ pets by sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry the year before. What it denotes varies with the user, but its connotation is clear: Christian nationalists are the bad sort of evangelical.
If they are going to call you something anyway, perhaps you should make it your own. That at least was the thinking of Stephen Wolfe, a Louisiana State University Ph.D. and self-described country scholar, and Canon Press, of Moscow, Idaho, notoriety. Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism, which partly comes out of his work as a postdoctoral fellow at Princeton’s James Madison Program, has made the most of a moment and sold very well. Set to break into mainstream controversy at any time as of this writing in December 2022, it has already caused quite a stir in evangelical circles. Wolfe has stepped into the arena with a remarkable work of Christian political theory well worth reading, and he is set to have a grueling year.
The Case for Christian Nationalism is not quite sui generis; it is only that you have to go back a couple hundred years to find it a companion. Evangelical books on politics don’t usually do political theory at all. They tend, instead, to assume the existing American regime and then advise about living well within it. They put a Bible gloss—sometimes serious, sometimes superficial—on political problems as American culture and American politics present them. (The theonomists, whose own project of throwing The Book at it Wolfe briefly addresses and distinguishes himself from, are in this sense the exception that proves my rule.) At heart, what makes Wolfe’s book controversial is that it is thinking about regimes in a way that is intellectually free of our own. He defines “Christian nationalism” thusly:
Christian nationalism is a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ.
“The purpose of this book,” he writes, “is to show that Christian nationalism (as defined) is just, the ideal arrangement for Christians, and something worth pursuing with determination and resolve.” Those are fighting words, refounding words.
Wolfe insists his work is not one of political theology, but political theology presents the backdrop before which Christian nationalism will be situated. Academic political theology today tends to explore three broad themes, all of which make appropriate appearances in Wolfe’s book: the concept of the secular and secularity; recoveries of theological concepts for political theorizing; and considerations of theological forms as they show up in political practices, whether acknowledged or not.
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The core of political theology is the observation that our political concepts find their origins in our theological conceptual imaginary, both in terms of the analogical structure of human thought and these concepts’ historical development. The other side of political theological discourse today is concerned with revelation as such, the classic theologico-political problem, the relationship of grace and nature. It counterposes theology and philosophy, and declares that the question of the truth of revelation is always already answered by the theologian or philosopher, that this indeed is what divides them.
The Case for Christian Nationalism assumes the Reformed theological tradition, working especially with 16th- and 17th-century Protestant scholastic figures and their sources. This means Wolfe is grasping the bull presented above by the horns, for grace perfects rather than destroys or alters nature. Tertullian’s trouble about Athens and Jerusalem has been resolved in the natural law tradition of Christian political thought, for revelation confirms that we are the creatures nature reveals us to be. Part of a good creation, our natural ends are in continuity with our final supernatural end, even after the fall. We sin, are dangerous, live in scarcity, but remain the human beings God made us. There is thus not a theologico-political problem, for the truth of revelation is the completion rather than source of human political life.
Those who have followed closely the development of a “postliberal” American political discourse in recent years will find a lot of this familiar, though much of that discussion has been dominated by Catholics. Wolfe’s book signals that a growing movement of Protestant resourcement has achieved a critical mass; he has thrown a glove down and others are sure to join him. Indeed, some of the controversy within conservative evangelicalism about his book appears to be proprietary or territorial. But Wolfe’s emphases on family and ethnos (it is not race, or DNA) and nation, as well as great men, does highlight a persistent ambiguity in the term “postliberal” and potential division in the broad postliberal camp. While the regime of today is transparently hostile to historical Christianity, what does it mean to think after the Christian liberalism of Europe before the First World War, or after the American founding?