The Case Against Christian Nationalism

Christian Nationalism is getting a lot of attention at present, and Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism is held forth by some as the most persuasive argument. There is simply too much in the book to comment on everything, but I will appraise the main arguments of the book. I want to begin by listing what I think Wolfe gets right. His assessment of the current state of things in the United States is often accurate. The political left has silenced dissent through intimidation and “canceling” of opinions they disagree with. We are not on a level ideological playing field. Secondly, I don’t doubt Wolfe’s desire (repeatedly stated) for the common good of the nation. Just as often, he recognizes how radical his proposals may sound, and tries to show how it is only recent history that has made them so.

However, I think there are several flaws to his program that mean it cannot (and should not) prevail. Wolfe’s book might be better titled Christian Influenced Nationalism, or more accurate still, Nationalism from a Reformed Orthodox Perspective. This is a work of political philosophy, with the history of Protestant orthodoxy held up as the norm we should aspire to. He appeals to Scripture only secondarily. “I rely heavily on the classical Protestant tradition. Despite some Protestant distinctives, however, my account is largely catholic: I rely on a broad Christian theological and political tradition. Admittedly, I assume much from this tradition, as a complex argument involving theology, philosophy, and politics must start somewhere.”[1] This history, along with his understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, are the foundational arguments of his thesis.

The Prelapsarian World as Normative

The first two chapters are those where Wolfe sets out the theological basis for his program of Christian Nationalism. Here one finds many things that are standard in Reformed theology: a prelapsarian covenant of works made with Adam, and even after the Fall, the obligation of the moral law remaining. Wolfe cites the Puritan Samuel Willard to define the moral law as “‘a divine unchangeable rule given to man, and accommodated to his nature, as he was created by God, obliging him to serve to God’s glory as his last end.’ God gave to Adam this “law of nature” immediately at this creation in order to ‘regulate life and action.’”[2]

I mention this because so much of Wolfe’s argument rests on these assumptions. But, a covenant of works is not something where there is broad Christian agreement. Moreover, how believers relate to the law of Moses under later covenants is also not commonly agreed upon. Wolfe (and his sources) would make this binding on Christians now, but that is by no means certain. However, one should note that there are many Reformed believers who hold to a covenant of works, and the abiding nature of the law, but do not draw the same implications from them as Wolfe does. In other words, his brand of Christian Nationalism is not attributable to Reformed theology, but a particular spin on it.

Wolfe also makes vast assumptions about the pre-Fall world, and what it would have been like. Because so much of his argument relies on this, it is not a minor detail. “I contend that providing an account of human society in the state of integrity is essential to Christian political theory. Only then can we determine continuity and discontinuity between the four states of man. For example, if the formation of distinct nations is natural to prelapsarian man and grace affirms and restores nature, then the nation in principle is not a consequence of the fall and grace does not undermine it.”[3]

But this is predicated on no evidence. How would we know whether distinct nations are natural to prelapsarian man? Or, as he affirms, “The ordering agent of civil society, even in a prelapsarian world, is civil government. Its original function is not to restrain sin, since it orders an unfallen people. Its purpose is positive: it reconciles the diverse interests of families and vocations in order to establish and maintain civil peace.”[4] In a sinless world, would there be anything other than civil peace? There is more, however. “The duty to conduct violence…is a duty for man in all possible states, except the state of glory. Since the ability to repel violence with violence requires martial virtues, martial virtue and training in martial excellence would have been a feature of life in the state of integrity.”[5] This is one more claim about the condition of mankind before the Fall that has no evidence. What Wolfe claims as natural is very often only natural to fallen man.

Grace and Nature

One of Wolfe’s foundational principles is around the effect of grace on nature. He views grace as restoring believers to what Adam was and had, and thus the mandates given to Adam for dominion belong to Christians as well. “A Christian nation is a nation whose particular earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ, having been perfected by Christian revelation as grace perfects nature, without undermining that particularity but rather strengthening it so that the people might achieve the complete good. The people of God on earth are a renewed people—definitively sanctified and restored to integrity—and now possess all the native gifts once given to Adam.”[6]

But he does not adequately reckon on the effects of sin, even in the believer. While we have a new nature as a result of the new birth, we also still possess our old one from Adam. (If we do not, what is the source of our sin?) To say that a Christian is definitively sanctified is to speak of our position in Christ, but not our condition. Position is fixed and immovable, but our condition is changeable, and too often motivated by our still-present sinful nature. In other words, grace does not perfect or restore us to what Adam was prior to the Fall. He was innocent (not righteous) and sinless. We have an imputed righteousness, and we are not yet free of sin.

Wolfe’s understanding of grace shares a good bit with Roman Catholic dogma. In itself, this does not make it wrong, but the particulars of it are not evangelical. In his book Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment, Gregg Allison notes the profound importance of the “nature-grace continuum” in Roman Catholic theology. “Though marred by sin, tainted nature still possesses a capacity to receive, transmit, and cooperate with grace. The Catholic theological system thus has two poles, nature and grace, and it fits sin, which it takes seriously, in the sphere of nature, thereby relativizing the negative effects of sin on nature. Nature and grace are two constitutive elements of the Catholic system, with sin as a serious yet not devastating secondary element. Nature, while wounded by sin, retains a capacity for grace and grace elevates and perfects nature.”[7] Wolfe is in line with this: “Grace does not destroy what is natural but restores it. Grace also perfects nature, and thus nations can be Christian nations and commonwealths can be Christian commonwealths.”[8] He elsewhere says “the fall did not change the good or fundamental nature of man.”[9] In short, Wolfe places too much weight on an Adamic state that we cannot get back to.

Much of the material in the chapters following, where Wolfe lays out his program for Christian Nationalism, depends on one accepting these assumptions about the prelapsarian world, nature and grace, but also a normative role for 17C Protestant history. “Throughout this book I’ve suggested that we must return to the old Protestant principles of our spiritual forefathers and that we must apply them, with prudence and resolve, according to our own particularity and circumstances.”[10] His affirmations about life before the Fall are unsupportable, and a major gap in the book is that he does not return to apostolic history, only that of the more recent past.

How then shall we live?

Wolfe acknowledges that the gospel is a unifying force, applying to all equally, and that as far as the inheritance of eternal life, it makes no distinction. But the effect of being joined to Christ with fellow believers takes second place to what is natural. Thus, ordering ourselves into distinct communities according to ethnicity, language, nationality, are all good and proper, because natural. They provide the needed social cohesion to accomplish the common good. If it means excluding fellow believers who do not hold the same customs or speak the same language, there is nothing wrong with this, in Wolfe’s understanding. It is in keeping with his view of grace perfecting nature that sees the earthly, local good as even better than the spiritual good. Many of the offensive aspects of his program flow from this inversion of the spiritual and earthly, (or natural) and since there are too many to name, I will say that this inversion is a root cause of the harmful effects in his program. He affirms the importance of the spiritual in principle, but in practice this is repeatedly set aside in favor of earthly things.

Wolfe is forthright enough to say that Christian Nationalism is a political movement, but I doubt there are enough people who share his assumptions for it have legislative force. However, there are many who will seize upon the effects of his program as the chief good, and herein lies a great danger of this ideology. Separating from other believers of different ethnicities because it is “natural,” refusing entry to war refugees because it would upset the local culture, or other such things are indeed natural: they trace back to the sin nature we inherited from Adam. Many will latch on to these in service to a putative “common good.” Indeed, Wolfe affirms “the principle of exclusion, which is necessary for a people’s complete good, morally permits a Christian nation to deny immigration to Christian foreigners. Christian nations are not required to exclude them, but they can in principle.”[11] It’s difficult to assess this because a “Christian nation” such as Wolfe envisions is a hypothetical only. While he has guidelines for how such a thing might work, he also shies away from being prescriptive on the details of implementation.

In the New Testament, though, we do find guidance for Christian behavior, including our place in society at large. The assumption of the NT writers is not that we will bend that society to be more Christian, but that we will bear witness to God and his faithfulness in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation. Paul tells Timothy: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” 2 Tim 2:24-25. It is prayer and patience, not force that’s prescribed.

Peter tells us to “set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Our hope is the prospect of the Lord’s return, not societal improvement. And “even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed.” 1 Pet 3:14. Or, consider Paul’s admonitions to the Romans: “Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” Rom 12:17-19. In keeping with this, it is notable that Wolfe does not mention the sovereignty of God at all in the book.

There are many other passages one could cite for the distinctive calling of believers. All of these apostolic exhortations are predicated on the fact that believers are told to expect tribulation and persecution in this world, not dominion and rule. This world is not our home, we are citizens of heaven. If the outworking of that does not have implications in our lives while we are strangers here, it is a misunderstanding of a major message of the New Testament. Wolfe would have us be sovereign citizens of our native lands, while the New Testament proclaims us ambassadors of another land that is our true home.

Christian Nationalism has the potential to divide and despoil, but Wolfe is far too optimistic about the prospects for it to bring about good—again, failing to reckon with the pervasiveness of sin. Nor does it comport with the calling and hope of the Christian, for it subjugates the spiritual union believers in Christ have to ethnic, national, and linguistic distinctions. Saying our “earthly way of life has been ordered to heavenly life in Christ”—yet dismissing the NT commands around doing good to all men, to avoid divisions and factions (Gal 5:20) and instead affirming such things promote the common good—is no ordering a Christian should endorse.


[1] Wolfe, Stephen. The Case for Christian Nationalism, 42. Canon Press. Kindle Edition.
[2] Wolfe, 50.
[3] Wolfe, 56-57.
[4] Wolfe, 72.
[5] Wolfe, 75.
[6] Wolfe, 174.
[7] Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology & Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, Crossway, 2014), 47.
[8] Wolfe,116.
[9] Wolfe, 189.
[10] Wolfe, 397-398.
[11] Wolfe, 199.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *