Earlier this 12 months, simply months aside, two books on Christian nationalism hit cabinets. Each have been written by veterans of the US Military with PhDs in political science. Each books outline nationalism as an effort to make use of the federal government to protect a individuals’s cultural particularity, based on a felt sense of affinity and similarity with each other. The primary distinction is that one e-book argued that these are good concepts and the opposite that they’re dangerous.
The primary e-book was Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism. The second was my very own, The Faith of American Greatness: What’s Unsuitable with Christian Nationalism. Our books don’t cite one another, but it’s exceptional the diploma to which they converse to the identical points from reverse views.
Wolfe argues that we now have a pure affinity for related individuals and that, since God is the writer of nature, this pure affinity is nice. He believes, due to this fact, that we must always affirm our want to be with related individuals, working to protect what makes us culturally distinct and utilizing authorities energy as a part of that effort. Wolfe’s argument is refreshingly clear, sincere, and forthright concerning the foundations and implications of nationalism.
That we now have pure affinities is obvious. As I argue in my very own e-book, we’re tribal creatures, naturally drawn “to the individuals and locations that really feel acquainted and by which we see ourselves mirrored.” That’s a easy remark of human actuality. However that doesn’t imply such loyalties are reliably good. Which ends up in my first main distinction with Wolfe: We can not merely take human expertise as an infallible information, as a result of human expertise is corrupted by sin. As theologians within the pure legislation custom may put it, that one thing is doesn’t indicate that one thing must be. Wolfe leaps over this dilemma by a doubtful sleight of hand, studying our group loyalties backwards into humanity’s unfallen state and so sanctifying them, unrevised and unchecked. “Your intuition to conduct on a regular basis life amongst related individuals is pure,” he argues, “and being pure, it’s on your good.”
Equating “pure” with “good” just isn’t how one sometimes appeals to pure legislation. Intercourse, to take one instance, is pure—however solely good inside sure bounds. Whether or not or not our want to be with related individuals dates again to the Backyard of Eden is much less related than how our fallen state corrupts our tribalism and magnifies its harmful tendencies. However for Wolfe, the Fall is not more than a pace bump on his option to sacralizing tribalism with little consideration for the boundaries essential to maintain it good. Nationalism pretends we are able to embrace the natural simplicity of tribal life with out worrying about its darkish aspect.
For that matter, Wolfe additionally may contemplate that not everybody experiences the pull towards similarity in the identical manner. A few of us, at the very least, are additionally drawn to distinction, discovering it equally vital to our flourishing. Wolfe’s “phenomenological” technique appears to be little greater than a license for projecting his personal sentiments onto humanity as a complete and thus cloaking them with the authority of what’s “pure.” However nature, together with human nature, is broader and extra multifaceted than Wolfe imagines.
Imposing cultural particularity
By this path, Wolfe develops a theology of id politics, although he doesn’t name it that. If our group loyalties are good, he contends, we must always advocate for them: “Every people-group has the correct to be for itself. You and your individuals are entitled by nature to a proper of distinction.” And if we must always advocate for our teams, we must always attempt to use the federal government to guard them. “Nations should have and must combat to safe law-making authority … to order and safe themselves in accordance with their particularities.”
That teams ought to use political energy to maintain and uphold their cultural particularity is my second main disagreement with Wolfe. As I discover at size in my e-book, cultural borders are fuzzy, overlapping, and altering, which makes them a poor match for clear, exhausting, everlasting political boundaries. Utilizing authorities to implement tradition is blunt and inevitably results in repression towards cultural minorities and dissidents. Utilizing authorities to implement tradition finally ends up violating primary concepts of the open society, like free speech and free faith.
Wolfe addressed this argument of mine—not in his e-book however on his podcast, Ars Politica, throughout which he devoted three hours to reviewing my e-book in September. I’m grateful for the eye, however was I disenchanted that, when he and his three dialog companions raised this portion of my argument, they mischaracterized or misunderstood it. In response to them, my argument concerning the blurriness of cultural boundaries implies that I deny the goodness and even the truth of cultural particularity, and that I deal with cultural id as trivial and simply changeable. The truth is, I affirmed each the truth and the goodness of cultural particularity. And my instance of fixing tradition was studying to talk a brand new language or changing to a distinct faith, neither of which is fast or simple. I don’t object to cultural particularity—solely to its enforcement on the level of legislation. Wolfe and his dialog companions appeared to overlook the purpose.
Additionally they uncared for my argument that nationalism is intolerant. Certainly, as an alternative of responding to my objection, Wolfe made my argument for me: To him, illiberalism is a function of nationalism, not a bug; an commercial, not a cautionary warning. Wolfe and I agree that nationalism is intolerant; we solely disagree on whether or not that may be a good factor or a foul factor. Wolfe (or one in every of his podcast interlocutors—it’s exhausting to tell apart voices amid a few of the cross-talk on the recording) famous that I’m “actually uncomfortable with the truth that some individuals is perhaps handled as a second-class citizen” in a nationalist regime. Sure, I’m, as a result of the Golden Rule tells me to do to others what I would like executed to me.
Against this, Wolfe brazenly argues for legal guidelines criminalizing blasphemy, heresy, and public impiety. “That isn’t to say that capital punishment is the required, sole, or desired punishment” for heresy, Wolfe reassures us. “Banishment and long-term imprisonment could suffice as properly.” How magnanimous.
A Christian Caesar
Sustaining such a world, after all requires greater than the church; it requires a Christian tradition and a Christian prince. Wolfe needs to enlist the facility of the state and the stress of social conformity to bolster Christian nationhood. He requires a “measured and theocratic Caesarism,” overseen by a “prince as a world-shaker for our time, who brings a Christian individuals to self-consciousness,” a person of “dignity and greatness of soul.” In a footnote he frankly states that “fashionable democracy is commonly extra oppressive than its options. I want Caesarism in our time.” Such claims vindicate my warning that nationalism has authoritarian tendencies. One suspects the Uyghurs of China, the ladies of Afghanistan, and the besieged residents of Ukraine could differ with Wolfe on the relative deserves of democracy in comparison with its options.
Wolfe’s Christian prince has a much more expansive mandate than our liberal democracies do. “Civil authorities must direct its individuals to the true faith,” he argues. He roots this assertion not in Scripture (which doesn’t say any such factor), however as “a precept of nature.” That is the cornerstone of all that follows, for the premise can justify something executed for the sake of no matter the federal government deems “true faith.” Once more, Wolfe pays scant consideration to how the Fall corrupts governments or to how we ought to protect towards their inclination towards abuse and oppression.
Armed thus, the Christian prince is empowered to guard the church from heretics, fund non secular schooling, convene and reasonable synods “to resolve doctrinal conflicts,” and “verify or deny their theological judgments.” Wolfe pays lip service to a model of the separation of church and state—nevertheless it’s unclear why he bothers. If the prince can resolve whose theological college to fund, tips on how to outline heresy, and which theological judgments to endorse, no matter vestigial independence the church has is strictly professional forma.
(Wolfe, to his credit score, acknowledges that at the very least one neighborhood of Christians suits poorly together with his Christian nationalist imaginative and prescient: Baptists. As he writes, “Baptizing infants brings them outwardly (at the very least) into the individuals of God. When the physique politic is baptized, all are individuals of God,” which furthers the objective of Christianizing the state and society. As a Baptist, all I can say is that Wolfe has inadvertently made a powerful argument for the deserves of Baptist political theology.)
The good-souled Christian prince will likely be aided in his efforts by the social pressures of cultural Christianity, the protection of which takes up its personal chapter. Wolfe believes that cultural Christianity “warms the individuals’s coronary heart to Christianity, making them receptive to Christian perception and observe,” and it “internalizes the felt obligation to carry out Christian practices.” These are odd claims. Wolfe had earlier used a “phenomenological” strategy to reveal the lived expertise of ethnicity and nationhood. Wolfe must have thought of the identical strategy right here. The “lived actuality” of cultural Christianity just isn’t one in every of heat hearts joyfully performing Christian duties, however a Christian model of political correctness: a legalistic faith enforced by social stress and group conformity.
Wolfe defends Christian tradition by contrasting it to modern tradition. In fashionable society, he complains, mother and father should keep vigilant to lift youngsters in a hostile tradition. As I can attest, that’s definitely true. However ought to mother and father let their guard down in a “Christian” tradition? One of many chief risks of cultural Christianity is that it lulls us to sleep with guarantees of religious security whereas lowering the gospel to nothing greater than what sociologist Christian Smith famously dubbed “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
‘Amicable ethnic separation’
And cultural Christianity’s harms can run a lot deeper. At its worst, it has equipped a sort of non secular buttress for whoever occurred to be in cost—which, in American historical past, meant white males. Traditionally, Christian nationalism was the masks that white supremacy wore.
However Wolfe refuses to debate that historical past. The monitor file of nationalism around the globe, and the particular historical past of American nationalism, is irrelevant to him. He’s not arguing for the dangerous sort of nationalism, he assures us, so he has no accountability to denounce it and even discover it. “The reader,” he writes, “mustn’t assume that I’m attempting to justify or clarify away any historic instance of nationalism.” Certainly, he tries to wave away any effort to rebut his arguments with empirical proof. “If the social scientists want to critique my e-book, they need to step out of social science, droop their perception in social dogma, and enter rational inquiry.”
That is nonsense, after all; Wolfe doesn’t get to set parameters on how his critics are allowed to disagree with him. Social science is a mode of rational inquiry, and Wolfe himself invokes historical past: In an prolonged argument about the correct of countries to exclude outsiders, he recounts the historical past of how refugees disrupted native communities and destroyed native cultures in the course of the Wars of Faith in pre-Enlightenment Europe. And he makes related factors in a closing chapter on the function of faith in the course of the American founding. Historical past, it appears, is related in any case. As Jesus reminds us, “By their fruit you’ll acknowledge them” (Matt. 7:16). Observing the historic fruit of a given ideology is truthful sport for discerning its true nature.
And so we must always ask about race and Christian nationalism. This query brings us to essentially the most controversial a part of Wolfe’s e-book. In my e-book, I argued that the cultural particularity of white American evangelicalism comes with sure epistemic blinders that may obscure the realities of intergenerational racial inequality, which might make white evangelicals passively complicit in its perpetuation. In observe and in historical past, then, Christian nationalism appears to associate with white supremacy.
Given Wolfe’s protection of group id and the correct of teams to advocate for themselves, a reader could moderately surprise if Wolfe’s argument leads much more on to white nationalism. He denies this in a footnote, however it’s unclear how one avoids the conclusion that white individuals ought to advocate for themselves, together with by way of authorized energy, given passages like this:
Blood relations stay related to nations, when referring to 1’s ancestral connection to a individuals and place again to time immemorial. … Christian thinker Johann Herder was appropriate in saying that the volk is a “household writ massive.” That is an apt description not as a result of everyone seems to be a cousin by blood however as a result of one’s kin lived right here with the prolonged households of others for generations, forsaking a hint of themselves and their cooperation and their nice works and sacrifices. Blood relations matter on your ethnicity, as a result of your kin have belonged to this individuals on this land—to this nation on this place—and they also bind you to that individuals and place, creating a standard volksgeist [national spirit].
That is, actually, blood and soil nationalism. A reader could possibly be forgiven for considering that Wolfe is arguing that individuals who share white ancestry and kinship represent a nation that needs to be “for itself.” In his (type of) protection, Wolfe constantly speaks of “ethnicity” somewhat than “race.” And he clarified on his podcast that “I don’t assume individuals determine as ‘white’ individuals,” suggesting he doesn’t assume “white” denotes a coherent individuals group for the aim of his argument. (He doesn’t provide that clarification within the e-book).
However, Wolfe additionally criticized (on the podcast) the double commonplace inherent in left-wing id politics: Everybody else will get to have fun their id besides white individuals, who’re denied an ethnic identifier regardless of being saddled with accountability for historic oppression dedicated by whites. Wolfe just isn’t incorrect concerning the double commonplace. However as an alternative of choosing the plain answer—rejecting id politics altogether—he lays a theological basis for embracing our ethnic identities, arguing that we ought to like our personal individuals greater than others and, generally, search “amicable ethnic separation alongside political traces.”
Once more, Wolfe explicitly denies that he’s arguing for white nationalism—however for those who write the recipe, denouncing the cake rings hole. Wolfe’s denial doesn’t cease others from utilizing the identical recipe, cloaked in Christian language—which is exactly what generations of American racists did.
Regardless of how alarming all this will likely sound, it solely scratches the floor of what’s troubling in Wolfe’s e-book. He presents it as a piece of Christian political idea but disavows any have to seek the advice of and faithfully interpret Scripture, which seems virtually nowhere over the course of almost 500 pages. He rests his argument on a dense thicket of appeals to Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-century Reformed theologians, together with scattered references to Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and, oddly, German thinker Johann Herder, not normally acknowledged as a “Christian” thinker.
At factors, Wolfe manufacturers his work a product of early-modern Reformed considering, but he appeals typically to the authority of “the Christian custom,” as if it have been a singular factor. Wolfe needs his work to be seen as an natural outgrowth of a protracted custom of steady Christian political considering. In actuality, it’s an idiosyncratic textual content with little connection to the Bible, resting on a bunch of cherry-picked quotations from favored philosophers.
Wolfe’s strategy to his sources is vital to his agenda. “My objective is to reinvigorate Christendom within the West—that’s my chief intention,” he says. However that is hardly the chief precedence of the Bible, the church, or Jesus Christ, which is why Wolfe can not enchantment to them. “The Christian nation is the whole picture of everlasting life on earth,” he claims. “My kingdom just isn’t of this world,” Jesus affirmed (John 18:36). The resurrection of Christendom just isn’t the purpose of Christianity.
Wolfe’s agenda turns into clear in his epilogue, by which he drops the scholarly tone. He affords “a sequence of loosely organized aphorisms,” denouncing progressives, the “New America,” transgenderism, sexual deviancy, the “globalist American empire,” and “gynocracy.” He goes on and on (and on) concerning the virtues of masculinity and risks of female management. Wolfe compares progressive governance to army occupation and calls “the ruling class” the “enemies of the human race,” whereas extolling the virtues of a “sturdy and austere aesthetic,” and calling on his Christian prince to nullify unjust federal legal guidelines. Wolfe is neither exaggerating for shock worth nor writing satirically to reveal absurdity. In a chapter on the correct of revolution, Wolfe concludes that we live underneath tyranny and that violent revolution towards america authorities is “morally permissible,” as a result of the “universalizing and totalizing non-Christian regime” assaults true faith. “How is that this not tyranny?” he asks.
Because it occurs, earlier than writing a e-book on Christian nationalism, I wrote one on simply battle idea and paid particular consideration to the correct of revolution. Wolfe is incorrect on a number of counts. He acknowledges that different, peaceable avenues are nonetheless accessible to contest the federal government’s unjust insurance policies. If such avenues exist, how is that this tyranny? And the way would battle be the final resort (a normal criterion within the simply battle custom)? It’s trendy amongst far-right commentators to accuse the American “regime” of tyranny, and their freedom to take action is one of the best proof that they don’t know what actual tyranny is. Wolfe’s theology of civil battle is incorrect on the deserves—and deeply irresponsible in our polarized instances. His use of Christian language to defend political violence towards a freely elected authorities needs to be larger scandal than it’s: It quantities to a name for holy battle towards democracy.
Sedition apart, his epilogue isn’t wholly with out perception. Drawing from Friedrich Nietzsche and Francis Fukuyama, he condemns the “Marvelization” of actuality—our passive consumption of digital battles by way of social media to distract us from the boredom of life on the finish of historical past. He’s not incorrect. However Wolfe affords Christian nationalism as the reply, entailing a “pursuit of upper life” that requires actual will, effort, and sacrifice. That is no reply: What’s Christian nationalism however one other imagined epic contest, a fantasy of Nice Renewal? Wolfe doesn’t hate Marvelization—he simply thinks he has a greater script.
Nietzsche hovers within the background somewhere else. Wolfe muses concerning the significance of mustering adequate will to realize the Christian nationalist state. “I emphasised the will all through this e-book,” he says, as a result of “we now have to retrain the thoughts by the self-discipline.” Elsewhere Wolfe asserts that “we should overcome ourselves.” It’s an odd phrase; biblically, a greater idea can be self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit, not of our personal (sinful) will. The thought of “self-overcoming” by way of self-discipline is a Nietzschean idea, and an in depth cousin to a different of Nietzsche’s best-known concepts: the need to energy, and its triumph.
The place Christian nationalism leads
The story of our two books has a wierd coda, one which unfolded like a parable illustrating the risks I warned towards. On the conclusion of his three-hour podcast, Wolfe dismissed my work as an “anti-white e-book,” an odd declare contemplating I had written admiringly of Anglo-Protestants’ “awe-inspiring historic file of ethical and political crusading,” and argued that we must always honor the American Founders and their heritage.
I questioned why Wolfe and his interlocutors appeared so taken with my remedy of race, a comparatively small a part of my e-book. They complained that I “spent a lot time attacking white individuals.” Weeks later, I obtained at the very least one reply: Wolfe’s co-host, Thomas Achord, was outed because the individual behind a virulently racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, white nationalist nameless Twitter account.
To be clear, this revelation just isn’t, by itself, an argument towards Wolfe’s e-book. Wolfe denounced Achord’s tweets, claimed he was unaware of Achord’s views, and isn’t answerable for them. (Inside days, the Ars Politica podcast was taken down and has disappeared from virtually each distribution app.) However, Wolfe did promote Achord’s e-book concerning the virtues of segregation. Regardless, Wolfe can be understandably longing for his e-book to face by itself and never be judged responsible by affiliation together with his podcast accomplice. That may be a truthful expectation and the explanation why I’ve solely talked about Achord after assessing Wolfe’s e-book itself.
Nonetheless, the entire episode does counsel one thing concerning the relationship between Christian nationalism and America’s racial historical past. Why did Achord, who believes within the superiority of white individuals, see frequent trigger with Wolfe, the writer of a e-book defending Christian nationalism? It’s simple for Wolfe to disavow the connection, however why did Achord consider the connection was there? Why do white nationalists consider that Christian nationalists are their allies?
As a result of historical past issues—the historical past Wolfe resolutely refuses to speak about, whilst Achord and his ilk understand it properly. And that historical past constantly exhibits that Christian nationalism just isn’t a guardrail towards authoritarian white nationalism, however the gateway to it.
Or to one thing even worse. Recall that Wolfe spent the scholarly portion of his e-book calling for “theocratic Caesarism” helmed by a great-souled, world-shaking prince who’s “a type of nationwide god”; musing on the significance of blood and land; affirming our tribal intuition to stay near related individuals; calling for state management of church buildings and the banishment of heretics; exhorting us to indicate self-discipline; craving for the “totality of nationwide motion”; dismissing liberal democracy as worse than its options; and justifying violent revolution towards the godless regime. With even a cursory data of historical past, we all know what that is.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the observe of worldwide affairs at Georgetown College, a analysis fellow with the Ethics & Spiritual Liberty Fee, and a veteran of the battle in Afghanistan. His most up-to-date e-book is The Faith of American Greatness: What’s Unsuitable with Christian Nationalism.