In 1898, influential naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton published a collection of stories describing the animals he had encountered in his travels under the fitting title Wild Animals I Have Known. Or, perhaps the title wasn’t fitting—as fellow naturalist John Burroughs argued in The Atlantic a handful of years afterwards, the collection was so subjective and sentimental that it may better have been called Wild Animals I Alone Have Known.
Burroughs’ accusation against Seton—that he had taken his personal experience and construed it as an objective point of reference—could similarly be lodged against Stephen Wolfe’s recent book The Case for Christian Nationalism, which has quickly become one of the primary texts on the modern concept of Christian nationalism. If, however, Wolfe’s work is demonstrative of the broader Christian nationalism movement, then it reveals that the movement is already in crisis over what truths constitute Christian truth—over what, exactly, distinguishes the case for Christian nationalism from a person’s individual case for Christian nationalism.
Wolfe, for his part, falls squarely into the latter camp—his book may better be called My Case (and Mine Alone) for Christian Nationalism, as Wolfe takes so much for granted that his case could only be accepted by a reader who already mostly agreed with him. This aspect of his work is immediately apparent from the book’s introduction, in which Wolfe asserts a conservative Reformed background and dismisses any need to justify that background or explain its authority. This foundation leads him to ground almost every argument in his work in a handful of Reformed theologians who only have authority in the Reformed tradition (and not even in the entire Reformed tradition). If a reader does not find Francis Turretin or Johannes Althusius authoritative in any meaningful way, then most of Wolfe’s arguments devolve into dribble.
This, perhaps, would not be an issue for Wolfe if his use of other sources of Christian tradition wasn’t so sloppy or devoid of substance. He makes it plain from the beginning that he does not plan to cite Scripture to support his arguments, instead offloading that responsibility onto the Reformed theologians already mentioned. He does cite figures like Augustine of Hippo and Martin Luther, an appreciated gesture outside of the Reformed tradition, but only in piecemeal fashion, and often in contradictory ways.
Wolfe is happy to cite Augustine on the nation in general, but not in specifics. A particularly telling instance is when, in the fourth chapter, Wolfe ponders how some critics of his may argue that Christians are exiles in the world, and thus are called to participate in civil government without dominating it. Since the argument is not sourced or cited, some readers may well miss the fact that this argument is made by none other than Augustine himself in Book XIX of the City of God.
Similarly, Wolfe is happy to use Luther’s ideas on civil government to encourage Christian participation in government, but he ultimately rejects the crux of Luther’s theology by happily asserting that his beliefs constitute a “theology of glory.” Why Augustine and Luther are authoritative in some instances and not in others is left ambiguous by the author. One can only presume that such figures are authoritative to the degree to which they agree with the Reformed tradition (and, more particularly, with Wolfe); but, in terms of argument, this seems to be loading the dice.
Perhaps Wolfe believes he does not need to rely on sources and tradition because he can reason his way to what must be obvious Christian truths, as is revealed by his early endorsement of systematic theology as self-justifying. But, even here, the reader cannot escape the role Wolfe’s preconceptions play in defining his idea of truth. His methodology is broadly defined by his appeal to prelapsarian counterfactuals. His argument, in many cases, is that humans feel certain truths, which must then be part of their assigned nature, and, because this nature is assigned, it must be justified to indulge those truths.
It quickly becomes apparent that Wolfe’s prelapsarian appeal only serves to obfuscate the inherent circularity in his argument: what he is saying, plainly put, is that what humans feel to be true must be good because it is felt. Wolfe, in short, does nothing more than systematize his own sentiment. It is ironic that Wolfe cites C. S. Lewis (incorrectly) on the topic of nationalism. Had his reading of Lewis taken him through The Abolition of Man, he would have realized that this sort of reasoning-from-instinct is unstable and destructive.
And, of course, this attempt to reconstruct meaning in the void extends beyond Wolfe’s theology. In one of the more puzzling parts of the introduction, Wolfe claims that his definition of nationalism is so different from what critics think of the term that no prima facie assumptions can be made against him. Suffice it to say, his definition—that nationalism is “a totality of action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a nation as a nation”—is not all that different at all, even with his added clarification that this action must be directed to “Christian” ends; and, beyond that, the idea that words can be used with no reference to their real, historical usage is astonishing. The word “nationalism” has a real meaning and a real history, and, if one decides to invoke it, it is not absurd to assume they mean to establish some connection to that meaning and history.
Perhaps it is true that Wolfe’s “nationalism” does carry an entirely new and unique meaning. But if this is the case, as John Locke once retorted to Robert Filmer’s own argument for divine government, “’tis the first time I ever yet knew it to do so, and by such an use of Words, one may say any thing.” Wolfe’s understandings of Christianity and nationalism ultimately reveal the same thing: truth is to be determined by the felt reality of the present, with no effort made to reconcile it with the objective realities of history and traditional authority.
If Stephen Wolfe believes, in his private and interpersonal life, that his favorite Reformed theologians are authoritative and do not need to be justified, then one can hardly object, for everybody takes certain things in their lives for granted. But the conversation changes dramatically when the political is invoked. As Reinhold Niebuhr recognized, the political is always intertwined with the violent; every law, no matter how democratic or moral, is ultimately enforced at the end of a gun barrel, and even democracy, the freest and most peaceable of polities, is just a mask for the communal transfer of the right to violence. And, when one discusses the right to violence, justification is mandatory—that a reality is felt to be true simply does not matter. Wolfe, for his part, is hardly alone in modeling his Christian nationalism on such a system of argument. In fact, to the degree in which The Case for Christian Nationalism is seen as a definitive exposition of the system, it reveals that this epistemic crisis cuts through the heart of the entire ideology.
The simple question which Christian nationalism fails to answer is “whose Christianity?” The idea that Christianity is a simple, recognized body of ideas is astonishingly ignorant, and that ignorance only becomes more insulting when one realizes that advocates like Wolfe have taken the extra step of assuming their particular Christianity to be definitive. If Christians can hardly agree on what constitutes basic truths, how could they ever assent to the conservative Reformed tradition in all of its particularities—and why should they? Phrased another way, how are disputes to be resolved in the Christian state? Who will have the authority to make laws?
Many of Wolfe’s ideas are based on the notion that most humans inherently feel certain things to be true, which gives those feelings legitimacy. If this is true, then we have no prima facie reason to prioritize some feelings over others, naturally implying a democratic means of legal development. It is strange, then, that Wolfe specifically rejects voting as an inherent good, limiting it first to the heads of households—are the sentiments of women, equally made in the image of God, not counted among the human race generally?—and then claiming that voting will become less necessary the more righteous a society becomes. Of course, whose righteousness Wolfe has in mind (and how much righteousness delimits the vote) is left ambiguous, which allows Wolfe to conveniently escape the problems that may emerge if the people vote against Christianity or the Reformed tradition.
But this once again introduces the original question: who has the authority to make laws? Must it be some priestly, aristocratic class? On what grounds will they assume authority, and by whose will? By the same votes that have already been so limited as to be entirely bound by the power of the hypothetical prince? The only feasible answer is that some powerful group of people—Wolfe himself included, no doubt—will assert their righteousness and power upon their neighbors like the Athenians at Melos, and Scripture will be made to cower in the shadow of these men, anxiously awaiting the day the next group of radicals comes along to assert their own righteousness in a cycle of violence in perpetua.
For all of its problems, liberal democracy has better recognized the problem of sin than Wolfe and his cohort. Indeed, sin—so long held to be the bastion of conservative theology and the entire justification of such an exercise of force—is broadly abandoned as a category in The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe’s goal everywhere is to promote the idea of continuity between Adam and ourselves; all the Fall really did was corrupt the exercise of those things. Liberal democracy, on the other hand, recognizes the deep nature of sin, and how it has clouded and distorted human efforts to be moral. It recognizes that even the pursuit of good can become destructive, and thus institutes limits to prevent any individual’s moral endeavor from destroying the right of his neighbor.
Unlike Wolfe, who promotes the common feeling of man only to ultimately make an idol of himself, liberal democracy protects the individual by giving a political voice to the community of citizens. Empiricism and natural reason may be imperfect measures of truth; but they are measures nonetheless, and measures that are accessible to every person, meaning that real discussions can be had which are impossible in the deeply subjective systems taken for granted in most articulations of Christian nationalism.
It is difficult to read The Case for Christian Nationalism without being struck by the realization that the book appears to have been written by Stephen Wolfe for nobody but himself, and those who happen to have the same outlook and experiences he’s had. The average reader will find that he takes so much for granted, and is so willing to grant authority without justification, that the argument can hardly be followed by anyone who has not implicitly taken those same steps. One can only imagine that this is true for Christian nationalism in general, as well.
Rather than appealing to the real, historical meanings of words like Christianity and nationalism, the ideology extrapolates from subjective experience. It is “Christian” to the degree that a person understands their life experience as definitively Christian; it is “nationalist” to the degree that a person understands their life experience to be representative of the character of their nation. In other words, Christian nationalism means little more than the experience of one’s life enforced on one’s neighbor by force. When terms are treated like this, communication—and, therefore, politics itself—becomes impossible. A reliable and accessible epistemic method is necessary for a community to function, and Christian nationalism, as Wolfe presents it, simply doesn’t have one. He can tell us nothing of Christianity or nationalism; all he can communicate is the Christian nationalism of himself—and himself alone.