Christian Nationalism

Two recent books on Christian nationalism became surprise Amazon bestsellers: Christian Nationalism by Gab founder Andrew Torba and pastor Andrew Isker, and The Case for Christian Nationalism by Stephen Wolfe. The first is a brief biblical defense of Christian nationalism; the latter is a quasi-Thomistic, two-kingdoms argument for Christian nationalism. The Torba-Isker book is flawed but generally sound; the strengths of Wolfe’s book are subverted by errors at the foundation. (Note: All three authors reserve their more extreme statements to social media. My review is confined to the content of the books.)

Torba and Isker issue many welcome cautions. Christian nationalists, in their view, don’t believe America is the chosen nation or a promised land. “Christian Nationalism is not a marriage of the gospel with patriotism.” It’s not about racial or national supremacy. Positively, Christian nationalists insist the “Revealed Truth of God’s Word [be] lived out in action through the discipling of the nations – all nations” (22-23). Jesus Christ already possesses all authority in heaven and on earth; “it’s time for Christians to start acting like it” (24). Chapter 8 is a brief history of dispensationalism, accompanied by a summary of postmillennialism. Torba and Isker insist Christians must fight with spiritual weapons: Proclaiming God’s truth, “prayer, communal worship, fasting, and reading God’s Word” (50). There’s a lot here that’s right on target.

Torba has been accused of antisemitism, and chapter 4 tackles that issue. Much of what the authors say is true and accurate. “Our opposition to Judaism is purely theological and spiritual,” they say, “and is not in any way born out of ethnic or racial animus” (53; their emphasis). They rightly object the sloppy phrase “Judeo-Christian” and sketch a preterist interpretation of Romans 9-11 (59-64). They’re right that the Pharisaical Judaism Jesus attacked morphed into the Talmud-centered faith of modern Jews, and cite the Talmud’s shocking claim that Jesus is in hell (see Jesus in the Talmud, ch 8).

Still, it’s not true that “Christianity and Judaism are totally distinct” religions (52). “Incompatible and irreconcilable,” yes, but not “completely separate religions” (56). We share part of our Bible with Jews, and that means our communal memories overlap, even if they don’t match in every respect. When conservative Jewish biblical commentators talk about the “God of Abraham” and the “God of the Exodus,” they’re talking about the same Abraham and the same Exodus we are. They don’t know the Father of Jesus as God, and so don’t know the living God. Neither, however, are they wholly ignorant of the living God, whom they honor as Creator, Redeemer of Israel, Judge of nations, the God who elected Abraham and exalted David. There’s an ineradicable complexity to the church’s relation to Judaism that doesn’t pertain to, say, the church’s relation to Buddhism.

Torba and Isker offer a “biblical guide” for discipling nations, and there’s a lot of Scripture in their little volume. Wolfe, by contrast, includes very little Bible in his much longer book, and constructs his argument in theoretical, semi-scholastic terms. Wolfe gets a number of important, and controversial, topics right. Yes, nations should be Christian. Yes, civil authority comes from God, and isn’t mediated through the church. Yes, civil authorities should direct citizens to the true religion (182-93; page numbers refer to prepublication edition) and discourage heresy and false religion; yes, leaders need prudence to know exactly what form this support and this discouragement should take (369-82).

On other questions, his conclusions are less satisfying. He treats Old Testament law cursorily, and, like much of the Christian tradition, ignores the relevance of Jesus’ teaching to the life of nations. His moderate natural-law form of theonomy acknowledges a role for the Mosaic law to inform law and public policy, but it’s a minor role (258-69). His defense of cultural Christianity is provocative, though not wholly compelling (205-21). To his credit, Wolfe doesn’t dodge tough questions, offering extended, nuanced (though unpersuasive) arguments in favor of civil sanctions against heretics (383-92), and, following post-Reformation Reformed tradition, in favor of armed resistance to tyranny (321-48).

Unfortunately, the book’s strengths are undermined by foundational errors regarding the relation of nature and grace. Even when I more or less agree with Wolfe’s conclusions, I dispute the path that got him there. Wolfe’s main error is his understanding of nature and grace, but that topic is subtle and would require a more extended treatment than I give here. To make the problems visible, I focus on the ecclesiological consequences of Wolfe’s scheme, which are also political consequences. (For those interested in the question of nature and grace, you can start with de Lubac, with correctives from Milbank, and Jim Jordan’s “Merit or Maturity” essay in The Federal Vision.)

The ground-motif of Wolfe’s book is a sharp dualism between nature and grace, between the “two ends” of man, earthly and heavenly (21). Adam was created to fulfill the natural end of dominion, bringing earth to maturity and to achieve “a complete life according to the standards of the state of integrity – a sort of lower perfection” (43). While Adam wasn’t supposed to bring heaven to earth, his work “was the divinely prescribed condition for God to bestow eternal life on him and his progeny” (21). If Adam had fulfilled his natural vocation of dominion, he would have been granted the gracious gift of eternal life: “the maturing of earthly life is the condition for the divine bestowing of heavenly life, which requires a divine act” (43).

Wolfe speculates at length on the shape of social and political order in an unfallen world. Like Aquinas, he believes political order would have existed even without sin; beyond Aquinas, he argues distinct nations would have developed, with diverse linguistic and cultural expressions. Even without the fall, the distinction of nature and grace, civil and spiritual, would have been shaped common life. Civil fellowship, including “place-making, aesthetic judgment, conversations on contemplative things, expressions of wonder, and ordered liberty” would have existed alongside “sacred fellowship,” which is “an other-worldly, heaven-oriented fellowship for worship and the good of the soul” (63).

The fall “removed man’s highest gifts,” the ones that “drew him to heavenly life,” but man “retains his earthly gifts, those that lead him to the fundamental things of earthly life, such as family formation and civil society.” Even after Adam’s sin, “man still has his original instincts and still knows the principles of right action, which incline him to what is good” (22). Thus, “post-lapsarian social organization . . . reflects true and good principles,” though in practice these principles are abused (22). Grace, further, doesn’t destroy but rather perfects nature. Natural inclinations and principles retain their full force in the realm of grace. Wolfe treats these inclinations and principles as if they were virtually unaffected by the fall. Wolfe’s theory resembles neo-Scholastic Catholic treatments of nature and grace, which have been a target for many Reformed theologians. Wolfe is able to find plenty of Reformed witnesses who seem to support his dualism (though not as many as he thinks; see Mattson). But that’s precisely where the Reformed tradition needs to be further reformed. The Federal Vision aimed to overcome the residual dualism and extrinsicism of Reformed theology, but Wolfe’s book and especially its reception make it clear Reformed theology still stands in need of its de Lubac and its nouvelle theologie.

This opening set-up shapes the way Wolfe thinks about nations. Before and after the fall, we have an instinct to associate with people like us: “The instinct to live within one’s ‘tribe’ or one’s own people is neither a product of the fall, nor extinguished by grace; rather, it is natural and good’ (23). Again: “the natural inclination to dwell among similar people is good and necessary. Grace does not destroy, nor ‘critique’ it” (23). Wolfe agrees “Christianity is a universal religion – a religion for all nations,” but that doesn’t eliminate nations, “nor create one global alternative nation, nor provide a universal ‘gospel culture’” (26).

“What about the church?” you may be asking. Isn’t the church a global catholic ethnos (1 Peter 2:9)? Isn’t the breaking of the dividing wall between ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles a central theme of the New Testament? Isn’t the church precisely the overcoming of ethnic separatism? Doesn’t Paul denounce those who retain Jew/Gentile differences as enemies of the gospel? Doesn’t the New Testament reveal how the grace of Jesus enables people to live in harmony when they are not alike? Doesn’t the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost form the church as the locus of Babel’s reversal, the people in whom divided nations are knit together into the one body of Christ?

Wolfe’s dualism neutralizes all that. The church’s concern is with heaven, spiritual things, grace, and the soul. Since the “visible church, in my use of the term, refers only to the spiritual, heavenward aspect of those who profess Christ,” it “does not replace, undermine, or create necessary tension with the civil order. It does not form an alternative polis or civil community. It complements civil administration by ministering to the soul” (110-1). There is an outward dimension to the church, “an ecclesiastical order, the ministry of the Word, and sacred ceremonies” (301), but this is oriented to the “heavenly, internal and spiritual” essence of the kingdom (300). Spiritual power isn’t, however, sufficient to “order outward life,” nor is it intended to, for “it orders our souls for the next life” (304). The church, it appears, has no this-worldly mission, or much concern with bodies.

Wolfe acknowledges that Christians share “a spiritual relation . . . regardless of nationality,” but distinguishes that from “civil relation,” which is what’s needed as “the ground for a flourishing civil society” (27). Christians share the “highest good,” but not “the complete good,” which includes cultural particulars like language, place, and shared blood or ancestry (199). In fact, civil or ethnic similarity is necessary for strong church fellowship: “civil fellowship is what makes strong church fellowship possible, because people do not lose their particularity when they pass through the doors of a church build. Spiritual unity is inadequate for formal ecclesial unity” (200).

In short, the multi-ethnic church is a spiritual/heavenly reality and therefore holds no implications for civil order, which is a sphere of nature. The harmony of nationalities within the church poses no challenge to tribal divisions outside the church. For Wolfe, the Volksgeist (139) is a more powerful unifying force than the Heilige Geist, in the church as much as in the state. Even in the sacred realm, blood is, at the end of the day, thicker than water. Wolfe does Christian political theory as if Pentecost never happened, as if the church didn’t exist.

At times, Wolfe’s arguments are carried along by his dualism, rather than by attention to Scripture or other theological sources. He knows the church doesn’t form a “gospel culture” or an alternative polis because of his a priori assumption the church is a spiritual reality concerned with the soul. If it were not for his presumed dualism, he would be able to recognize the church meets his own criteria for an ethnos: Ethnicity, he says, is “familiarity with others based in common language, manners, customs, stories, taboos, rituals, calendars, social expectations, duties, loves and religion” (135). We’re at ease with people with whom we share these things, experiencing “mutual trust” rooted in “a shared sense of we” (136). Why doesn’t that describe the church?

Dualism drastically limits the work of the church. Does Wolfe want spiritual authorities to address matters of civil, common life? Does he want preachers to apply Scripture to political, social, economic life? I can’t tell. Paul certainly addresses matters of common, “natural” life. He instructs husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. He warns about love of money and encourages generosity. Paul isn’t concerned merely with the way social institutions and relations “materially conduce to a supernatural end” (301); he gives instruction so these institutions flourish as earthly institutions. Surely (?) Wolfe would endorse Paul’s exhortations, but his argument should lead him to rebuke Paul for breaching the boundary between the spiritual and the civil.

Along similar lines, Wolfe acknowledges that the visible church has authority to discipline Christian princes, but limits that discipline to “matters concerning [the prince’s] soul” (312). What if the prince is, say, a Catholic who aggressively promotes abortion and transgenderism? Do those actions come under the heading of “soul”? Would Wolfe approve Ambrose rebuking Theodosius for the brutal slaughter of the people of Thessaloniki? Or does Theodosius get a pass from the instituted church, which should focus its attention entirely on heavenly and spiritual ministry? Wolfe would doubtless agree that Christians should pray for their rulers, even at church. But isn’t prayer a form of political action – the most potent form? Why doesn’t prayer violate the separation of spiritual and civil? Can we sing Psalms that call on God to judge in favor of the oppressed? I once asked a leading two-kingdom theologian about the Psalms, and he told me, consistently, he refuses to sing Psalms that violate his two-kingdom scheme. Is Wolfe as (manically) consistent? I hope not.

Wolfe’s dualism truncates and so distorts the gospel. What’s new in the gospel, Wolfe says, is the promise of eternal life, the forgiveness of sins, deliverance from the power of sin. Yes. True. But the gospel is fundamentally the announcement of the coming kingdom, the proclamation that the Father has set His Son at His right hand. Jesus is world-ruler, the Heir of ancient empire, the son of David and new Solomon, the greater Cyrus, the fifth Monarch, Lord, Son of God, Savior (all imperial titles). Whether classic Reformed theology recognized it or not, the gospel is inherently political. Wolfe’s dualism again neutralizes all this, this time by opposing Christ’s reign as “Son of God” to His churchly reign as “mediator” (307-8), allowing him to make this breathtaking claim: “Christ as mediator, as he relates to his mediatorial office, lacks civil power” (308). Whoever this Christ is, He’s not the Christ of the Scriptures.

Even on his own terms, Wolfe’s book works only by side-stepping clarification. For all its apparent rigor, it’s often a sloppy book that appears persuasive only because it remains at a high level of abstraction. Consider, for instance, Wolfe’s discussion of ethnicity, similarity, and dissimilarity. People who are similar forge strong national bonds, but “dissimilar people have trouble forming and sustaining a political community” (145). People of different ethnic groups “can exercise respect for difference, conduct some routine business with each other, join in the inter-ethnic alliances for the common good, and exercise common humanity . . . but they cannot have a life together that goes beyond mutual alliance” (148).

One problem is: Is this true? What about friendships and universities? As Susannah Black asks, Is Wolfe dealing with the real world? Another problem is, How do we apply this? How similar must two people or groups be to have a shared sense of “we”? What if they have a set of shared customs and a shared polity, yet have divergent histories and languages (as in Great Britain)? The population of the U.S., or even of Alabama, is too vast for me to have any strong sense of “we.” Who is my “we”? Are all ethnic groups nations, or only the ones with enough firepower to defend their claims to nationhood (as Yoram Hazony argues in The Virtue of Nationalism)? Ethnicity isn’t the same as race, Wolfe assures us, but blood does have something to do with ethnicity (138-9). So it’s fair to ask: Is a multi-racial nation possible? Wolfe says the church is a multi-ethnic spiritual communion, but Christians of different backgrounds, classes, ethnicities, and races don’t just get together during worship. They share life together. Should they, or is that a breach of the spiritual/civil, sacred/secular divide? And if Christians of different ethnicities begin to fraternize in civil society, what happens to civil society? Does it become impure and unnatural?

Two final thoughts. First: Wolfe wants to revitalize Western civilization by reasserting natural principles of ethnic unity. That’s not how the West came to be in the first place. Western civilization is a product of the evangelical transfiguration of Greco-Roman culture. It came to be through the proclamation and work of the church, and it came to be as a multi-ethnic civilization unified by the multi-ethnic Catholic Church. A plan for revitalizing Western civilization that so completely sidelines the church won’t succeed.

Second, reinforcing the last point: Marginalizing the church in Christian thought and practice will have disastrous consequences. As I wrote in Against Christianity,

In contrast to the animal sacrifices of the Old Covenant and of Greco-Roman festivals, the Christian feast is a feast of bread and wine, both cultivated foods, products of culture. The stuff of the meal thus signals that the community is a “construct,” not a “natural” community, a “fictive” kin group rather than a kin group bound by flesh and blood. . . . Bread and wine thus signal that this table fellowship is one where there is neither Jew nor Greek, Scythian nor Cretan, slave nor free.

The Supper made fascism discernible, and exposed the injustice of the ideology of blood and soil. Prior to the Supper and before the church, fascism was simple common sense. 

The church attacked this kind of common sense.

Because we are what we eat.

An attempt to revitalize Western civilization based on “natural” principles will do worse than fail. It will provide an opening for revitalized, lightly Christianized, forms of paganism.

To download Theopolis Lectures, please enter your email.