The cameras were pointed at the mob that was descending on the capitol, as images of men and women rushing capitol police donned in riot gear were broadcast on every major news channel. Between clips from the rally that preceded the riot, which were interspersed with images of American flags on display right next to Christian flags and other religious regalia, voices in the media began forming a narrative concerning the ideology that was to blame for the “insurrection” of January 6th: Christian Nationalism.
Like many Pastors and Christians at the time, I assumed that what was being referred to as “Christian Nationalism,” was the Moral Majority of decades past, which had evolved in the early aughts into the Evangelical voting bloc that put George W Bush in power (twice)—albeit now on MAGA infused steroids. American Evangelicalism had long been criticized for not having much of a mind (à la the title of Mark Noll’s acclaimed book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind), so the prospect of Evangelicalism now being wedded to rioters wearing buffalo hats and red, white, and blue face paint was an image that many of us wanted to quickly disavow. However, as the years have gone by, it has become clear that Christian Nationalism was never anything but the media’s trope for any orthodox Christian who makes their beliefs public, making the label about as ambiguous as the events of January 6th itself.
Since the beginning of 2021 the “Christian Nationalist” label has been appropriated by many on social media, not only because the “right people” are triggered by it, but because it also happens to accurately describe their political philosophy. Prior to the events of 2020 and 2021 books like The Case for Nationalism by Rich Lowry, and the Virtue of Nationalism by Yoram Hazony were being read and promoted by many Christian thinkers on the political right. And so like the early Christians and Puritans who took terms of cultural derision and proudly appropriated them as self-identifiers, Christians on the political right who identified with nationalism appropriated the term Christian Nationalist for themselves. And one Christian with postgraduate credentials in the area of political science, who has written for publications like Mere Orthodoxy, First Things, and History of Political Thought has written a book on political theology that has generated much debate and discussion which has changed the nature of the conversation surrounding Christian Nationalism, both inside and outside the church.
Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism was released in November of 2022, and has received acclaim and derision from thinkers on both the political left and political right. The book has reached the top 100 books on Amazon and is even endorsed by Yoram Hazony, the author of the aforementioned book, The Virtue of Nationalism. Wolfe, a Presbyterian, argues for a distinctly Presbyterian and Reformed form of Christian Nationalism, though his ideas have been endorsed by those from outside of the tradition.
In the fall of 2023 I decided to finally see what all the fuss was about and purchased myself a copy of Wolfe’s political tome so that I could decide for myself. And like with the term “Christian Nationalist,” I found myself surprised that the substance of Wolfe’s argument didn’t seem to square with the hype surrounding what some of his critics and knee-jerk reactionaries were saying. In fact, I found myself agreeing with him more than I thought I would—though I do have serious reservations and disagreements with a lot of what he says. In reviewing The Case for Christian Nationalism I will try my best to summarize what I found to be commendable and concerning in the book, while doing so from a self-conscious, Reformed Presbyterian perspective. To be clear, this is not a review of the larger Christian Nationalist movement, nor is it a review of Stephen Wolfe’s public persona or engagement on Twitter/X—it is simply a review of the argument set forth in his book which is worthy of our consideration.
The Definition of "Christian Nationalism"
Before I present what I found to be commendable and concerning in the book, it’s important that readers first understand what Wolfe means by Christian Nationalism. If Christian Nationalism is not the flag waving political evangelicalism of the late 20th and early 21st century, then what is it? Thankfully, Wolfe provides a concise definition that he consistently uses throughout the book:
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. (9)
In other words, Christian Nationalism is the result of a Nation that has found a unifying “will” (i.e. the “totality of national action”), and that will has been found to be Christian in its aims and motives—Christian laws and social customs being the end result. Wolfe presents this as an extension of nationalism in general, which he defines as “a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a nation as a nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good” (11). So the word “Christian” is simply a qualifier that has been added to a more general, “secular” definition of nationalism, which is a reflection of Wolfe’s anthropology and understanding of sin that we will get to in a moment.
A cursory review of Wolfe’s definition (as given above) does seem to broadly place him in line with the general thrust of the Reformed Presbyterian Testimony and Covenanter tradition. For example, RP Testimony 23.3 and 23.6 say:
God has assigned to people, both individually and collectively, the responsibility for establishing and maintaining civil government, and the people are accountable to Jesus Christ for the proper exercise of this responsibility.
It is the duty of every Christian citizen to labor and pray for his nation’s official and explicit recognition of the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Preserver and Ruler of nations, and for the conduct of all governmental affairs in harmony with the written Word of God.
In other words, God holds people responsible to come together and establish civil government within its God-given boundaries, and believers are responsible to labor and pray for civil government to become Christian in confession and in action. As an aside, I do believe that Wolfe’s definition is too anthropocentric, or “man-centered,” in comparison to the RP Testimony and the aims of the Covenanters, which I believe is also evidenced by Wolfe’s ethnocentric definition of what constitutes a nation (again, two issues that I will address towards the end). However, before I elaborate on what I found to be problematic in The Case for Christian Nationalism, first let’s consider what I found to be commendable, and even helpful.
What is Commendable?
The first thing that struck me about The Case for Christian Nationalism was the unexpected absence of any overt focus on "transformationalism." For those unfamiliar, transformationalism stems from neo-Calvinist and Kuyperian theology, highlighting Christianity's transformative influence on various facets of human culture and society. It is manifested in the popular sentiment that Christianity is not just about “me and Jesus,” but that it should also influence and shape every area of life, including the social, political, economic, and cultural dimensions of human society. Those on both the left and the right, who assert that the Gospel is “bigger than personal salvation,” by framing it as encompassing "social justice," cultural revitalization, and the infusion of Christian principles into the arts and media, are articulating transformational perspectives. And while all Christian should be concerned about societal justice, cultural well-being, and even wholesome expressions of art and beauty, transformationalism posits these outcomes as being pivotal to the Gospel's inherent purpose and ultimate goal, often rooted them in a physicalist interpretation of the eternal state (i.e. God will redeem common life in eternity, therefore we should also “redeem” common life in history).
So it must be noted that Wolfe’s book is not only outside of the transformationalist camp, but that he is also opposed to transformationalism in key areas (which is ironic because his publisher, Canon Press, lies firmly within that camp). In critiquing David VanDrunen, Wolfe asserts:
David VanDrunen’s main target is neo-Calvinist transformationalism. I reject transformationalism too, since I reject the idea that human work can—whether by Adam or restored humanity—bring the “new creation” to earth [...] Adam’s task—as to the content of his task—was not to immanentize ultimate rest on earth, or to build the heavenly kingdom of God on earth, or to transform earth into heaven. The world-to-come was always a divine gift, not a work of man. (97)
Such an approach to Adam’s place in creation is an accurate representation of the dominion mandate in light of the covenant of works. Just as Adam’s obedience to the moral law could not have merited eternal life in-and-of itself apart from the covenant of works, so man’s dominion over the earth could not bring in the eschatological kingdom apart from that covenantal arrangement. It is heartening to encounter a popular piece of Christian political theology that avoids delving into the inherent reliance on human "kingdom building," as is prevalent in many Kuyperian, Reconstructionist, and Federal Vision schools of thought. (It should also be noted that Wolfe is amillennial, rather than postmillennial in his eschatology.)
On a related note, another commendable aspect is Wolfe's reliance on the Reformed Scholastics in shaping his political theology, as opposed to drawing predominantly from modern authors within the Dutch neo-Calvinist tradition—although he does express appreciation and cite Herman Bavinck on several occasions (I also enjoy Bavinck). The last few decades have seen a resurgence of interest in the Reformed Scholastics, largely due to the work of Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics and the large corpus of literature that has been translated by Reformation Heritage Books and other publishers. While much of this literature has been read for the purpose of theological retrieval in the area of dogmatics and systematic theology, it is encouraging to see these resources being used to retrieve classic Reformed political theology. Even if readers do not agree with Wolfe’s thesis, I hope that his approach will encourage others to take an “Ad Fontes” approach to developing Christian political theory.
Grounded in the scholastic tradition and being firmly against transformationalism, Wolfe also aligns himself with the two-kingdoms approach to the relationship between church and state. David VanDrunen, in his work Natural Law and the Two Kingdoms, has thoroughly demonstrated that this perspective is deeply rooted in the Reformed tradition. It is important to note, however, that the Reformers, and the Reformed Scholastics, held to an understanding of the two-kingdoms approach that is distinct from the contemporary R2K perspective that has been popularized out of Westminster West. Wolfe’s articulation seems to be much closer to the Reformers than many of the modern two-kingdoms theorists. This same approach is summarized in RP Testimony 23.19, which says:
The governments of the church and state differ in sphere of authority in that due submission to the government of the visible church is the obligation of the members thereof, while due submission to civil government is the obligation of all men. The government of church and state also have different functions and prerogatives in the advancement of the Kingdom of God. The means of enforcement of the civil government are physical, while those of church government are not. Neither government has the right to invade or assume the authority of the other. They should cooperate to the honor and glory of God, while maintaining their separate jurisdiction.
Wolfe upholds this distinction throughout most of his book, by recognizing that nations cannot “bring in the Kingdom.” Instead, according to him civil government has the responsibility to structure earthly life in a manner that upholds the moral law. Simultaneously, it must also safeguard and foster the well-being of the visible church, recognizing that the spiritual welfare of its citizens is also within its scope (although the State cannot supplant or absorb the Church and its ministry). As Wolfe writes:
Thus, given this supernatural truth that Christianity is the true religion, it follows from the above principle that civil government ought to direct people to the Christian religion. So civil government fulfills a natural principle when it directs its people to revealed religion, and thus the secular and sacred are not confounded but properly ordered—the lower serving the higher. (27)
This understanding of the two-kingdoms and church-state relations can also be found in William Symington’s Messiah the Prince:
A worldly kingdom has to do with the lives and property of men, that of Christ with their hearts and consciences. The one has a respect to their interests in the world that now is, the other to those in the world that is to come. The one aims at making men good subjects, the other at making them true saints. The ends contemplated by the kingdoms of this world terminate in time, but those contemplated by the dominion of the Mediator point forward to, and can be consummated only in, an eternal state. Not but that earthly dominion may be so conducted as to subserve the interests of the soul and of eternity, just as the dominion of the Mediator cannot but produce the temporal interests and social advantages of mankind… (38-39)
In line with this two-kingdoms approach, Wolfe also maintains a healthy understanding of the unique calling of the ministry. A few times in the book, Wolfe reminds readers that too much is expected of Pastors in the way of “culture building” and cultural transformation, and that a minister’s calling is to administer the Word and Sacrament which delivers heavenly life into the souls of believers. Once more, this aligns with his persistent argument that nations are tasked with justly organizing temporal affairs for earthly life, while simultaneously directing society toward heavenly life—yet it is the Church that holds the keys to the Kingdom concerning heavenly life itself.
Commensurate with his understanding of church-state relations in the Christian Nation, Wolfe also presents a cogent approach to how the state is to enforce both tables of the moral law, as summarized in the 10 commandments. This is also in line with RP Testimony 23.2 which states that God’s “will concerning the purpose of civil government and the principles regarding its functions and operation are revealed in the written Word of God.” As Symington writes in Messiah the Prince, these principles include taking “his law as their rule” (158). In rejecting Theonomy (as popularly defined), Wolfe upholds the doctrine of the Westminster Confession that it is not the judicial laws, but the moral law which the state is to uphold in administering justice. He writes:
I affirm a form of theonomy: civil law ought to be in accordance with God’s law, and civil law ought to order man to both earthly and heavenly ends. I deny, however, that the civil laws in the Mosaic law are immutable and universally applicable. Also, in their emphasis on law, theonomists seem to have neglected social power, social cohesion, and culture particularity. Indeed, in my experience, sometimes they are downright hostile to nationalism, the principle of similarity, and cultural preservation. (270-71)
As we will examine a bit further on in this review, those latter statements are tied to what Wolfe calls “particularism,” or the idea that nations are defined by their particular circumstances—especially their cultural and ethnic circumstances—and not by their adherence to creeds and laws that reflect some form of universal order. And though I disagree with the implications of some of those statements, his understanding of how nations are to apply the enforcement of the moral law to their particular circumstances is in line with the Reformed tradition. In fleshing this out he elaborates:
A Christian people may want to censure atheism and blasphemy through civil law, but another people may find social power sufficient to that end. No doubt all would have Sabbath laws, but these will vary in degree and type. Church establishment will certainly look different in different places, and perhaps official church establishment is unnecessary.
In other words, circumstances and cultural climate may call for various forms of enforcement and laxity concerning the application of the moral law—which is why wisdom is a qualification for those who hold civil office—though the moral law remains the absolute standard. This is different from Theonomy which requires strict enforcement of the judicial laws of the Old Testament as universal prescriptions.
In his defense of the stance that civil government is mandated to enforce the first table of the law, particularly concerning idolatry and blasphemy, Wolfe makes it clear that such enforcement does not equate to "conversion by the sword" or the coercion of citizens into piety. Rather, enforcement involves the organization of society for both earthly and heavenly good, according to outward actions. For example, the spread of blasphemy harms society in regards to earthly and heavenly good, because blasphemy not only assaults the foundation of a Christian Nation (i.e. God Himself), but it also desensitizes the population to a sin in which the partakers will not be held guiltless before the Lord. In other words, blasphemy laws are aimed at public offenses—not the internal consciences of men—in light of the Nation’s commitment to secure earthly and heavenly good for its citizens. This is fitting with the classical concept that the state has authority in matters of religion circa sacra, or “surrounding” the sacred aspects of religion, not “in” the sacred matters of religion.
Much more could be said about what is commendable in The Case for Christian Nationalism. He presents helpful chapters on Christian liberty, along with what is commonly dubbed “Reformed Resistance Theory.” His chapter defending cultural Christianity as a beneficial social predisposition toward the Gospel, instead of being dismissed as an incubator of religious hypocrisy, as many tend to argue, was compelling and altered my perspective in that specific area. Especially his realistic take on the nature of society where there is no cultural Christianity, cuts right to the heart of the pressure that many young families face in a secular society:
Perhaps you, being a strong, independent adult, can withstand the moral degeneracy of our time. But try raising kids in today’s social environment. Or perhaps you are exceptional at protecting your children; you can afford to send them to Christian school, effectively paying an ideological security service. But most people are not exceptional; most people are average; and most cannot pay to secure their kids from society’s ideology. Oh, if only they bought your parenting book or sat through your church seminar or sermon series or listened to all your ideas. If only they put their kids in your church programs… (223)
And as Wolfe goes on to argue, this is what has led to the pressure being placed on churches to become cultural centers, where everything that used to be present in our society as a Christian nation can still exist within the church as a sub-culture. But, of course, mere sub-cultures are usually subsumed by the larger culture in the end, making this an ineffective strategy. Wolfe also points out that it doesn’t necessarily require revival and a vast majority of the population to become Christian in order to achieve Christian Nationalism; after all, look at what one extreme minority has done to pressure and earn the consent of the larger culture to remake itself in their image, even instituting their own blasphemy laws in the name of “hate crimes” (i.e. the LGBTQ lobby). Again, much more can be said about the insightful observations that are made throughout the book, which is why I’m tempted to recommend the book to discerning readers just for the food for thought that is present throughout its pages.
What is Concerning?
Overall, I’m sympathetic to Wolfe’s project when considering the broader brush strokes of his argument; however, certain key features prevent me from endorsing his work in toto. The areas where I find myself in disagreement are in relation to Wolfe’s anthropology and hamartiology (or his theology of sin), his view of ethnicity and nationhood, and his chapter on the “Christian Prince.”
When it comes to Wolfe’s anthropology/hamartiology, I believe that the substance of my concerns have been thoroughly addressed by Brian Mattson in a post titled "A Children's Crusade." This is no small issue concerning the substance of Wolfe’s argument, as it covers the first two chapters, and comprises a quarter of the book. While I do recommend that readers review Mattson’s blog post; to summarize the issue, Wolfe appears to adopt an approach to anthropology/hamartiology that mirrors the position of Roman Catholicism.
For those who are not familiar, Roman Catholicism teaches (via Thomas Aquinas) that Adam was created as a somewhat unstable mixture of body and soul, which is complete in itself for life in this world, but is characterized by the presence of concupiscence (i.e. lust) which tends to pull the soul towards the sinful works of the flesh. In order to preserve Adam from this tendency towards sin, God gave him the “donum superadditum,” or the “superadded gift,” which is what constituted him in original righteousness. Therefore, when man fell by taking from the forbidden fruit, he lost the superadded gift, yet his nature in body and soul remained intact and complete—though it was left corrupted by its exposure to concupiscence and death.
Much more could be expounded upon regarding how this impacts Roman Catholic soteriology (and all of Roman Catholic thought). However, Wolfe articulates a viewpoint akin to this, not in the context of salvation, but in relation to common life in the formation of nations and cultures. Wolfe articulates this overall perspective in the first chapter:
The natural gifts are constitutive to man as man and include knowledge of what is good, free will with regard to natural things, the faculties of reason and understanding, and natural sociability (among other gifts) [...] Supernatural (or spiritual) gifts, which Calvin identifies as knowledge of “true righteousness and future blessedness,” pertain to “heavenly things” [...] Original righteousness is, therefore, not that which enables one to perform right outward action or to do what is good in substance. Rather, original righteousness perfects works that are good in substance with theological good [...] (47-48)
A charitable reading of his position is that he is simply articulating what modern Reformed theologians call the image of God in a broad sense (i.e. man’s faculties and dominion), and the image of God in a narrow sense (i.e. true knowledge, righteousness, and holiness). The latter was lost in the fall, while the former remains—though it is marred by sin and continues to function properly only by the grace of God. It should be noted that older scholastic theologians did refer to the broad/narrow image by using the language that was bequeathed to them by medieval Catholicism, and it can be assumed that Wolfe uses this language as he has received it from the scholastics. It does also appear that Wolfe—to whatever extent he is maintaining the medieval view—associates the “super added gift” with the work of God’s Spirit in the covenant of works, as opposed to the speculations of substance metaphysics found in medieval theologians when they wrote according to this framework. However, the concerns of Mattson and others with some of Wolfe’s formulations are not unfounded. As Richard Muller observes in his Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms:
In place of the idea of a donum superadditum, they [the Reformers] argue that the original righteousness of Adam and the posse non peccare (q.v.), or ability not to sin, was a donum concreatum (q.v.). A gift given in the original constitution of man. (99)
In other words, Reformed theology affirmed that original righteousness was integral to Adam’s constitution, not a super added gift, therefore the loss of it fundamentally deprived his nature of its natural integrity and ability to do what is good in substance (contra Wolfe’s quote given above).
The reason why this matters is because our understanding of man’s nature after the fall will impact our understanding of mankind’s abilities and epistemology within history. For example, if it’s understood that the nature of man after the fall remains intact and complete, but simply lacks a superadded gift that prepares him for heavenly life, then there will be a high amount of confidence placed in his abilities to navigate life in this world. However, if he is understood to be totally depraved, to where his mind and senses are warped and twisted by the effects of sin, then it’s only natural to conclude that he can only properly and consistently navigate this world with the corrective lenses of Scripture (though as Calvin says in his Institutes, many gifts are preserved in fallen man by the general working of God’s Spirit in the world).
However, it does seem that Wolfe is downplaying the latter perspective in favor of the former, to the extent that he considers man's present understanding and experience to be normative for life even before the fall.
For example, Wolfe argues based on human experience, that apart from the fall, nations would have grown into distinct cultures/ethnicities that would have had significant enough of differences to justify enforcing in-group/out-group distinctions between them (65). He also argues based upon the charge given to Adam to guard and keep the Garden of Eden, that martial training and martial virtues would have been central to life apart from the fall, due to the presence of the serpent, fallen angels, and the possibility of some men falling into sin under Adam’s sinless headship (which is a questionable idea). This does seem to be a projection of Wolfe’s own ideals about nationalism—and possibly Carl Schmitt’s friend/enemy distinction—back onto prelapsarian man. In general, it is ill-advised to engage in speculation surrounding what life would have been like had the fall never happened, for the very reason that we are tempted to impose our own ideals and experience onto prelapsarian reality in order to make them absolutely normative in history. Wolfe’s approach to anthropology and hamartiology affords him room to do just that.
Closely related to Wolfe’s anthropology and hamartiology are his views of nationhood and ethnicity. He argues that nations are founded upon ethnic relations, rather than creedal propositions:
The creedal nation is a nation united around a set of propositions that creedalists consider universally true [...] Creedal statements usually include egalitarian themes and rights-talk [...] However, propositions do not and cannot serve as the foundations for nations, even Christian propositions. Our sense of familiarity with a particular place and people in it [...] is rooted in a pre-reflective, pre-prositional love for one’s own, generated from intergenerational affections, daily life, and productive activity that link a society of the dead, living, and unborn. (119-120)
And as he goes on to elaborate, “I use the terms ethnicity and nation synonymously” (135), thus making it clear that he is indeed talking about ethnicity in the aforementioned quote, though he does deny that he is arguing for political action where ethnic majorities begin to rescind citizenship from minorities.
However, he does state that “no nation (properly speaking) is composed of two or more ethnicities” (135), and that he is seeking to reinvigorate a “collective will that asserts and stands up for itself” (135) through his drawing of attention to ethnicity and nationhood. He even calls it a natural right and a universal good of man to exclude ethnic out-groups for the good of particular cultural preservation. And while he tempers these views by acknowledging that ethnicities have developed over time into what they presently are by intermarriage, and that ethnicity can transcend blood ties through a shared cultural experience; yet it’s hard to not see a clear trajectory which could lead to a justification for the worst forms of ethnic nationalism that manifested in the last century (though I do not believe that Wolfe intends such a thing). And while he has disavowed Kinism, it’s also hard not to see Kinism as a logical outgrowth of his argumentation.
To be clear, I do sympathize with some of his concerns about double standards, where exclusionary cultures are protected and admired by (largely) white coastal elites, while any attempt to preserve European cultures are chalked up ipso facto to racism and white supremacy. I am also concerned about a universalist approach to geo-politics that does nothing but aid globalism, while disenfranchising everyday people in their particular context. So also, having been raised in the ethnic “melting pot” of the the metro Detroit area, which has had its own history of racial tension, I have observed first hand that ethnic groups tend to prefer one another’s company and seek their own advancement, and that there is indeed nothing wrong with this per se—I agree with Wolfe when he says that malice and abuse, rather than love for one’s own, are a result of the fall (118)—yet in this area I do not see how we can draw a firm “ought” from an “is,” especially in light of the Apostles’ approach to ethnicity in the early church (see Acts 10-15 and Gal. 1-2). However, having rooted his argument in man’s experience and behavior, which is purported to be reflective of prelapsarian man’s nature, Wolfe appears to have laid the groundwork for moral oughts to be drawn from these sociological observations.
The final area of concern that I have with The Case for Christian Nationalism is the chapter on the Christian Prince. Wolfe presents the Christian Prince, not merely as a godly man who rules in submission to Christ, but as a savior of sorts, who appears to be a protestant Caesar. Wolfe describes him as a “mediator [...] who translates the national general will into specific commands of action that lead the nation to its good” (277). He is a “sort of national god, not in the sense of being divine himself, or in materially transcending common humanity [...] but as the mediator of divine rule for this nation and as one with divinely granted power to direct them in their national completeness” (287-88). And some of his descriptions of the charisma and bravado of the would-be-Christian-Prince are a bit over the top compared the the tone of the rest of the book:
The prince as a world-shaker for our time, who brings a Christian people to self-consciousness and who, in his rise, restores their will for their good. “Prince” is a fitting title for a man of dignity and greatness of soul who will lead a people to liberty, virtue, and godliness—to greatness [...] He recognizes national sins but swiftly resolves them [...] He encourages and channels the boldness and spirit of youth, while elevating the old and venerating the dead. He silences the social mammies and countenances the spartan bootstrapper. He loves and enacts justice. He worships God and calls his people to do the same. (279, 288)
And while much of what he writes in this chapter reflects the qualifications for civil officers according to our standards and the light of nature, the extravagant description of the Christian Prince seems to indicate that he is central to Wolfe’s project being manifested. This is reflected in his reference to the Prince as a cultural mediator of sorts (whereas Scripture and our theologians refer to magistrates as “ministers”), Wolfe even says that the Prince has the authority to correct “lazy and erring pastors,” and that he has the final say in synods that are called to settle doctrinal disputes (312-313), which seems to move in an Erastian direction. (For a helpful discussion on what the Westminster Confession means in granting the magistrate authority to call for Synod’s see James Bannerman, The Church of Christ, I.8.7).
The reason why I am apprehensive about this is that it not only seems to contradict the modesty and humility that the Reformed required of office bears in both the church and state, while also going beyond the purview of their vision for the magistrates role in society, but that it seems to place a trust in Princes that would compromise allegiance to Messiah, the true Prince. It appears that instead of depending on the church to be the fountain of cultural renewal (as previously mentioned), Wolfe is now depending upon the gravitas and charisma of the Christian Prince to serve as its source. Wolfe even says that we should pray that God would bring about “great renewal” through a Christian Prince (322). Rather than being a cultural figurehead and mediator, John Calvin and the Reformers viewed the magistrates' calling as one of simply upholding justice in dependence upon the Lord, while also safeguarding and promoting the Church. As Calvin says in his Institutes, “[F]or what great zeal for uprightness, for prudence, gentleness, self-control, and for innocence ought to be required of themselves by those who know that they have been ordained ministers of divine justice?” (4.20.6). In other words, magistrates are not to be quasi-messianic leaders, but humble ministers of God.
This touches on a larger issue that seems to lie under the surface of The Case for Christian Nationalism, namely, an apparent reliance upon stoking the fires of human self-exertion in order to manifest Christian Nationalism. This is arguably rooted in the anthropology/hamartiology of the book, where fallen human nature is conceived of as being relatively self-sufficient to achieve earthly ends. It is also arguably manifested in the reliance upon ethnicity to motivate a concept of national will, as guided and directed by a captivating human Prince.
Wolfe actually begins his book by critiquing the results of the French Revolution in the modern world, but then goes on to favorably quote Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s critique of the Christian faith for being “a coping mechanism for inaction” (4). In his epilogue, Wolfe also references Neitzche saying “Modern life deadens the will; we seek, as Nietzche said, warmth and comfort. There is little exertion of will” (447). Several pages later he laments “mental weakness and last-man psychology” that results from modern culture (455), a concept that comes from Friedrich Nietzche. It’s hard not to read Wolfe’s use of the word “will” and “national will” throughout the book—being sandwiched between Rousseau at the beginning and reference to Nietzsche at the end—through the lens of the humanistic philosophies of this age. Especially when he says things like “A people must have spirit, self-affirmation, self-regard, and confidence in themselves” (241). Does it become difficult to not envision this actually manifesting as something akin to Oswald Spengler’s “Faustian culture,” with Christianity merely being sprinkled on top? In the conclusion of his book, he acknowledges the anthropocentric motive behind would-be Christian Nationalism:
Thus, the precursor to any Christian nationalism is a people intentionally seeking their natural good according to man’s nature. We neither seek a Christian commonwealth for its own sake nor wait on providence for it to spontaneously appear. Rather we seek our good, and when possible, we arrange ourselves politically for that good. (469)
And while Antinomian inaction is certainly unacceptable to the Christian, and while Christ does indeed heal the human will rather than eliminate it, the Christian life is to be one of death and resurrection, of dying to self-will and being made alive in submission to the will of God (Phil. 2:1-11). While I’m sure Stephen Wolfe would agree with this, yet the ontology that he establishes and consistently operates out of in his book seems to lend itself to an attitude of man-centered, national self-aggrandizement.
Even though I said I would not critique the larger Christian Nationalist movement in this review, my concern is that unchecked by robust Christian piety, “Christian Nationalism” will collapse back into man-centered kingdom building, which may devolve into what Eastern Orthodox writer Seraphim Rose referred to as "Vitalism"—a romantic and religiously inspired endeavor meant to halt the tide of cultural nihilism, which ironically ends up being another firm step in the nihilistic direction (just examine the compulsive use of AI art on Twitter/X by Christian Nationalists to get a sense of what I’m talking about).
Christian Nationalism or National Confessionalism
So even though I find myself agreeing with the broad contours of Stephen Wolfe’s brand of Christian Nationalism, my narrow disagreements with key portions of his thesis causes me to fall short of “endorsing” his book, or identifying as a “Christian Nationalist.” Instead, I find myself having closer affinities with another group of Christians who espoused political convictions that led them to dissent from another “post-war consensus.” The conflict in question wasn't World War II or the neo-liberal new world order that followed from it—it was the Revolutionary War and the Constitutional Convention that adopted a secular national “covenant.” This period prompted a group of believers to construct a self-conscious political theology, shaped in resistance to the ‘novus ordo seclorum’ that was unfolding in their era, while also constructively testifying for a God-honoring alternative that could replace it.
As heirs of the original Scottish Covenanters, the American Covenanters endeavored to establish in the United States of America what their predecessors had accomplished—a Presbyterian nation founded on an oath-bound confession to a national covenant. They also bore a heritage that taught them to beware of “Christian Princes,” after their sour affairs with the likes of Oliver Cromwell and Charles II. And even though the approach taken by the American Covenanters, and those who became their co-belligerents through the National Reform Association, would differ and evolve over time (many Reformed Presbyterians now vote with principled qualification), yet the principle of Christian Nationalism by National Confessionalism would remain.
And the historical stance of the Covenanters stands out as robust precisely where The Case for Christian Nationalism is deficient and even problematic. For example, where Wolfe argues for an ethnic basis for nations with unclear ramifications, the Covenanters, while not denying the significance of ethnicity, clearly argued for the extension of the rights of citizenship to all those living lawfully under the constitution in spite of their continued protest against the Christless nature of our nation’s constitution. In his treatise on African Slavery, RP Pastor James Renwick Willson wrote:
As the people of the United States are one nation, and the Africans are born in the land, the colored race are their fellow citizens—yes, their fellow citizens, in spite of all sinful constitutions, laws and practices to disenfranchise them. They are men, they are here, and God has made of one blood the white man and the black man. (Willson, 377)
In fact, the American Covenanters saw the development of blood and soil nationalism in the post-reformation era as being a manifestation of the emerging secularism that has come to full fruition in the 21st century. This is why they lamented in the Covenant of 1871 that the influence of atheism and infidelity resulted in the history of our nation being “largely one of oppression and injustice towards its aboriginal and colored people, and of iniquitous distinction of caste.”
While the Covenanters were not globalists, and while they certainly recognized the particularity of each nation and people group, they were indeed universalists in their approach to national reform by national confession. They also understood that magistrates are to serve as civic “ministers” under Christ’s mediatorial reign, because in submitting to mediatorial kingship, magistrates are to not only seek heavenly good for their citizens, but they are chiefly to seek the glory of God by covenanting with Christ, in order to make themselves mere vassal states under Messiah’s salvific kingdom (Ps. 2), which shall fill the earth as the waters cover the seas until he gathers in all His elect (Hab. 2:14).
National Confessionalism is not so much about the nation seeking to adopt Christianity in order to secure its own good, as it is about the nation serving Christ to the glory of God, because the government is already on His shoulders (Is. 9:6-7). And like Wolfe and other Christian Nationalists, the Covenanters did not necessarily believe that this manner of social reform required the vast majority of citizens to become Reformed Presbyterians, however they were animated by a confident hope that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven, and that national/cultural renewal will come about as Messiah the Prince pours out his Spirit in the latter days.
Even though I do have my reservations about key elements of The Case for Christian Nationalism, and though I do think the model of the Covenanter tradition is superior, yet for discerning readers who are seeking to expand their understanding of political theology I do recommend the book as a relevant treatise for consideration. Like the Covenanters of the 19th century who found co-belligerents within the bounds of the National Reform Association, I do think that many in the Christian Nationalist movement may be found as allies in our cultural moment, though I’m sure that the movement will develop in both healthy and unhealthy directions. So there is value in understanding what leaders in the movement are actually saying.
For those who are in the RPCNA, and for those who are in Christian Nationalist circles, I also thoroughly recommend reading William Symington’s Messiah the Prince, James Renwick Willson’s Political Danger, Alexander McCleod’s Redemption, Reconciliation, and Reformation, along with the many tracts and articles on Political Theology in the RP Archive. Not to be ignored are William Edgar’s two volumes on the History of the RPCNA that documents many of the successes and pitfalls in the life of the Covenanter church as she sought national reform. While the Covenanters may have been few, they packed a very effective punch at certain epochs in our nation’s history, and they learned many lessons that contemporary would-be social reformers would be foolish to ignore.
COLIN SAMUL is a Pastor in the RPCNA currently living in Almont, MI. He is married with four children and is a member of Southfield RPC, and teaches Apologetics at City Seminary of Sacramento.