A governor of a highly populous Western state has erected billboards adorned with a verse from the Bible in other states advocating for specific policy positions. A U.S. senator running for reelection equates voting to “a kind of prayer for the world we desire” and defines democracy as “the political enactment of the spiritual idea that each of us was created, as the scriptures tell us, in the ‘Imago Dei’ the image of God.”
Is this the sinister emergence of Christian nationalism — the right-wing, fascist, “Handmaid’s Tale” hellscape that’s supposedly lurking just around the corner? No, in fact, that’s far from the case.
The first vignette actually speaks to a recent push by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who had pro-abortion billboards installed in multiple red states, with ones in Mississippi and Oklahoma featuring Jesus’ words from Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no greater commandment than these.” And in the second example, these words were spoken on the campaign trail by Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock.
The usual takeaway is to point out the hypocrisy behind the adulation that’s typically showered only on the left’s public use of Christianity. But the deeper point is that Newsom and Warnock both show that using Christian arguments and verses from Scripture for the purpose of securing political victories is unexceptional — and even good. As Stephen Wolfe argues in his pathbreaking and provocative book “The Case for Christian Nationalism,” Christians should follow suit, though certainly not in enacting those particular policies.
Rigorously and relentlessly argued, Wolfe uses the freighted term “Christian nationalism,” a phrase often deployed as a cudgel against evangelicals, to rally Christians behind a positive conception of public life that is grounded on the rich doctrines of 16th and 17th-century Reformed theology and the American political tradition. He builds on the important work of ad fontes, or a return to the source, that Protestant scholars and institutions have undertaken in recent decades.
Above all, Wolfe aims to cultivate “a collective will for Christian dominion in the world” — a will that has been crushed by a combination of elite evangelical rhetoric that buttresses 21st-century pieties, a bicoastal ruling class that is hostile to orthodox Christians, a conservative movement that has mostly failed to preserve American institutions, and a suffocating psychological malaise that has gripped the West. He gives Christians the intellectual tools to break through the nearly impregnable wall created by a combination of “third way” politics, neo-Anabaptism, and unprincipled pluralism and reestablish a way of life that is conducive to Christian flourishing.
Christian Nationalism Explained
Wolfe’s simplest definition of the controversial term “Christian nationalism” is a “Christian people acting for their own good in light of their Christian nationhood.” It encompasses the myriad ways Christians should be working to establish Christian conditions not only in their homes and churches — but also in their villages, towns, cities, states, and, yes, nations. Key to this project is recovering the solid ground of what the Reformers and their heirs frequently called the book of nature, which they saw containing truths that were consistent with the book of Revelation. They understood that God gave us minds to act within the confines of the created order — that Christians do not need a positive command from the Bible for every action they take.
Wolfe teaches that the concept of the nation flows from man’s very anthropology. Standing with Thomas Aquinas and the New England Puritan Samuel Willard, he contends that even if Adam and Eve didn’t follow the serpent’s wiles, mankind would still have “formed distinct civil communities — each being culturally particular.” This is because weaved into man’s nature are social and political faculties that irresistibly “lead him to the fundamental things of earthly life, such as family formation and civil society,” writes Wolfe. “The nation, therefore, is natural to man as man, and the matured earth would be a multiplicity of nations.”
Implicit in this argument is the Reformed teaching that while Adam’s fall infused man’s entire nature with sin, it “did not eliminate the natural gifts,” as Wolfe notes. This doctrine is popularly known as total depravity, the often misunderstood first point in the TULIP acronym (an anachronistic 19th-century pedagogical device). As Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote, though “numerous institutions and relations in life of society such as marriage, family, child rearing” and “man’s dominion over the earth through science and art” have “undoubtedly been modified by sin … they nevertheless have their active principle and foundation in creation, the ordinances of God.”
The cornerstone of Wolfe’s project is the well-known theological doctrine that grace does not destroy nature but instead perfects it. In other words, Christianity does not overthrow civil order, the non-sinful traditions of the people, and general decorum — the natural sinews that preserve society for posterity.
As John Calvin taught in a sermon on 1 Corinthians:
Regarding our eternal salvation, it is true that one must not distinguish between man and woman, or between king and a shepherd, or between a German and a Frenchman. Regarding policy, however, we have what St. Paul declares here; for our Lord Jesus Christ did not come to mix up nature or to abolish what belongs to the preservation of decency and peace among us.
Grace elevates the natural gifts, completing them because they are now aimed at both earthly and heavenly goods. For example, once a husband puts his faith in Christ, he and his family receive baptism and his work is directed to his home and then outward to the temporal world, what the Reformers called the civil kingdom. Grace does not make him into an androgynous being or cause him to leave his family behind to live in a church with other autonomous Christians.
One of the many controversial aspects of Wolfe’s project for modern readers involves his teachings on civil laws and magistrates. Laws should reflect the natural law, protect natural rights, and, as legal historian Timon Cline has taught, direct “men to virtue,” pointing him to “higher truths.” Though the civil magistrate “cannot legislate or coerce people into belief,” Wolfe argues that he can “punish external religion — e.g., heretical teaching, false rites, blasphemy, sabbath-breaking, etc. — because such actions can cause public harm.” In fact, he proposes that the magistrate can even point citizens toward Christianity as the true religion.
For dissenting Christians, Wolfe counsels that “wide toleration is desirable.” While non-Christians should be “guaranteed a basic right to life and property,” he contends that they should not be allowed to undertake activities that could harm Christianity.
Though these were standard features of Christendom throughout Christian history, modern Christian statesmen would need to exhibit careful judgment in applying them today.
Christendom and America
Wolfe’s project is not a theocratic endeavor, with the church lording its power over the civil realm. Instead, he writes that the “classical Protestant position is that civil authorities” should “establish and maintain the best possible outward conditions for people to acquire spiritual goods.” And these goods are acquired through the church, whose ministers preach the Word and administer the sacraments. This doesn’t imply that Christianity is naturally weak absent state support. Rather, it means Christianity should infuse all of life, causing the magistrates of all nations to guide their citizens toward the highest ends.
In fact, as Joe Rigney has noted, civil government favoring and promoting Christianity “has been the dominant position in the history of the church for the last 1500 years.” Key confessions and catechisms of the Reformed tradition, including the original Westminster Confession and the Second Helvetic Confession, teach the good of religious establishments and charge those in political authority to uphold both tables of the Ten Commandments.
Early Americans were influenced by this understanding of Christian political order. According to Davenant Institute President Brad Littlejohn, the Founding Fathers “were certainly ‘Christian nationalists’ by the contemporary definition — that is, people who believed it important that America should publicly describe and conduct itself as a nation within a Christian framework.” Most state constitutions privileged Christianity — in most cases specifically a Protestant kind — and featured mentions of God, religious tests for public office, taxpayer funding of clergy and churches, Sabbath laws and laws against blasphemy, and Christian prayer and instruction in public schools well into the mid-20th century.
Christianity in a Negative World
What about the place of “cultural Christianity,” an important pillar of Christian nationalism that has been heavily criticized by public theologians such as Russell Moore and Ray Ortlund? Wolfe contends that the critics commit a category error because it was never intended “to bring about anyone’s salvation.” Having a robust culture infused with Christian themes and imagery instead prepares citizens “for the reception of the Gospel.” It is a social power that internalizes the normal patterns of life that revolve around regular participation in Christian practices.
As Wolfe rightly asks, would these critics look to subject families to “relentless hostile social forces” such as drag queen story hours, transgender ideology being taught in public schools, rampant porn use, and worse? Are active hostility and open persecution — that is, the circumstances first-century Christians faced — the only cultural conditions suited for the spread of Christianity? The history of Christendom renders a rather clear verdict on these questions.
Christians are not called to conserve mid-20th century Supreme Court rulings. Begging for the table scraps of religious liberty carve-outs will not suffice, and “prudence” that is actually capitulation to the regnant cultural ethos will only hasten our nation’s slide into anarchy. To appropriate a famous G.K. Chesterton quote, the business of Christians “shouldn’t be to prevent mistakes from being corrected.”
In a “negative world,” to use Aaron Renn’s useful taxonomy, in which our magistrates oversee an establishment complete with a “regime-enforced moral ideology” that is hostile to Christianity, Wolfe gives Christians a coherent intellectual foundation that can withstand the gale force winds of our age. But political theory cannot enact itself. Christians must have the courage, manliness, fortitude, and strength to lay the groundwork in the decades ahead for what will assuredly be a multi-generational effort.
Mike Sabo is the editor of RealClear’s American Civics portal. He is a graduate of the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. He and his wife live in Cincinnati, Ohio.