Sub-Christian Nationalism? (Part 3)

So far we have considered what nationalism is and the end of the last vestiges of Christendom in America, which prompted the rise of so-called Christian Nationalism. Just as the end of blue laws provoked the Moral Majority movement, so too has the end of sodomy laws and the Supreme Court’s incoherent justification for same-sex marriage (which will likely take as long to overturn as did Roe and Doe) provoked a turn to Christian Nationalism.

We have some idea of what classical nationalism is and what Nazi “blood and soil” nationalism was, but what is “Christian Nationalism”? 2021 was a turning point for this discussion. In February 2021, Christianity Today published “What Is Christian Nationalism?” by Paul Miller. He defined it this way:

Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way. Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a “Christian nation”—not merely as an observation about American history, but as a prescriptive program for what America must continue to be in the future. Scholars like Samuel Huntington have made a similar argument: that America is defined by its “Anglo-Protestant” past and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we do not preserve our cultural inheritance.

He concluded that “Christian nationalists do not reject the First Amendment and do not advocate for theocracy, but they do believe that Christianity should enjoy a privileged position in the public square.” In light of Stephen Wolfe’s new book, The Case for Christian Nationalism (published by a theonomic publishing house headquartered in Moscow, Idaho), the contours of the discussion have changed. Paul Miller also published a volume on Christian Nationalism in 2022 (Inter-Varsity Press), but it has received far less attention.

The reception of Wolfe’s argument has been mixed. In his review of Wolfe’s book, Kevin DeYoung encapsulates evangelical ambivalence about Wolfe’s project:

I understand and sympathize with the desire for something like Christian Nationalism, but if this book represents the best of that ism, then Christian Nationalism isn’t the answer the church or our nation needs. For all the fine retrieval work Wolfe does in parts of the book, the overall project must be rejected.

The grounds for that ambivalence are obvious. De Young writes:

The message—that ethnicities shouldn’t mix, that heretics can be killed, that violent revolution is already justified, and that what our nation needs is a charismatic Caesar-like leader to raise our consciousness and galvanize the will of the people—may bear resemblance to certain blood-and-soil nationalisms of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it’s not a nationalism that honors and represents the name of Christ.

Segregationism (known among theonomists as “kinism“) and the lust for a “charismatic Caesar-like leader” should cause any decent American’s blood to run cold. These two features were also essential to the very “blood and soil” nationalism of the Nazis. We fought and won a war against these very things. The idea that religious heretics should be put to death is a repudiation of the first amendment of the Constitution and constitutes an anti-American revolution. Miller has seriously understated the nature and intent of the most popular form of Christian Nationalism.

Yet, that De Young is comfortable saying that he wants some form of Christian Nationalism, is striking. This gets us back to our first question: what does it mean to modify “nationalism” with “Christian”? I have been asking versions of this question for many years. What does it mean to speak of “Christian” plumbing or “Christian” math? So far, I have seen no coherent response.

DeYoung laments,

. . . I share Wolfe’s bewilderment over the Christian leaders who seem to prefer a society hostile to Christianity. I’ve seen pastors in my own denomination look wistfully at Christians losing power and becoming a minority in the country, as if Constantine ruined everything and our influence would be so much greater if we only we could lose power and become more marginalized.

I do not know whom De Young has in mind here. There are likely Anabaptists and others who might long for a return to persecution—but for my part I want to uphold the American project, restore the idea of a secular (not secularist) government, and re-assert and re-argue the classical Reformed distinction between nature and grace.

Plumbing and government are functions of nature, not grace. The administration of Word and sacrament are functions of grace, not nature. Making this distinction is hardly a call for a return to persecution. For my part, I am merely raising the very same questions that Abraham Kuyper raised in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The state church complex did not serve the church or her gospel well. As Kuyper observed, the magistrate was more likely to persecute orthodox Christianity than to uphold it. It is much easier to find examples of the magistrate abusing and corrupting Christianity than it is to find examples of the magistrate upholding Christian orthodoxy—especially Reformed orthodoxy. As a historian, I am endlessly puzzled by the desire, expressed by Wolfe and others, for a return to a state-church. What do they imagine the outcome will be? They claim that they will get it right this time, though virtually all other attempts before them have failed. This reminds me very much of the Marxist claim that we should give that another run because the right people have not tried it yet.

De Young speaks positively of “cultural Christianity,” but it is not clear to me that what De Young wants is actually Christian. What he wants is for Christian leaders to “fight” the cultural decay of the West:

But people want to see that their Christian leaders—pastors, thinkers, writers, institutional heads—are willing to fight for the truth. You may think your people spend too much time watching Tucker Carlson, or retweeting Ben Shapiro, or looking for Jordan Peterson videos on YouTube, or reading the latest stuff from Doug Wilson—and I have theological disagreements with all of them (after all, some of them aren’t even Christians)—but people are drawn to them because they offer a confident assertion of truth. Our people can see the world being overrun by moral chaos, and they want help in mounting a courageous resistance; instead, they are getting a respectable retreat.

Here, the classical distinction between nature and grace would really help us. Nothing De Young desires here needs to be Christianized, as it were. The cultural resistance for which he is calling can be done under the rubric of nature. In the culture wars, Christians have the same concerns as non-Christians. This is because these are issues about the creational (or natural) order. This is what our founders understood but we have forgotten.

Christians have a corner on theological truth, on saving religious truth—Jesus alone is the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through him (John 14:6). There is no other name given under heaven by which we must be saved (Acts 4:12) but we need neither “Christian Nationalism” nor “cultural Christianity” to get what we want. The LGBTQ agenda can and should be resisted on the basis of nature, reason, and natural law. Homosexuality is patently unnatural. The case for a genetic/biological cause for it has collapsed. It is the result of the corruption of nature, and most often the result of some sort of abuse or neglect.

What Christians ought to do is to join with other citizens (e.g., Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.) in defending the Bill of Rights and the natural, God-given right to free speech, a free press, free association, and the freedom of religion protected therein.

As De Young notes, most Christians were theocrats in the pre-modern and early modern periods, but there were exceptions that influenced the American founders. He calls attention to Samuel Pufendorf (1632–94), who argued for a form of toleration of religious heretics. Late in his career, John Owen argued for a very limited form of toleration. His fellow Oxford student, John Locke (1632–1704), whose Second Treatise was very influential on the American founders, also argued for toleration. Both argued that it was not the nature or vocation of the state to punish religious heretics. The founders agree. This is why I say that the Christian Nationalism project of Wolfe et al is un-American. I do not mean that they do not have a right to make their case, but I mean that their case is contrary to the ideology under which this nation was founded.

We should agree with De Young’s rejection of Wolfe’s truly dangerous “theocratic Caesarism.” He is correct that Wolfe has quite misunderstood, misconstrued, and misreported the nature and intent of the American founders and he does a good job of showing how that is.

Still, even in De Young’s critical appreciation we see, at least rhetorically, a desire for some form of Christian Nationalism, though it is still not at all clear what this might be. Next time we consider the recent statement of Christian Nationalism.

You can find this whole series here.


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  1. Great article Dr. Clark! However, there are two typos. In paragraph 16 I believe, it seems the word “we” is missing: “…but we need neither “Christian Nationalism” nor “cultural Christianity” to get what want.”

    In the final paragraph, which begins: “Still, even in De Young’s critical appreciation of we see, at least rhetorically…” It appears something is missing (perhaps Christian Nationalism) or maybe the word “of” needs to be deleted.

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Dr. Clark,

    I’m confused, isn’t Pastor DeYoung a NAPARC chap? I thought he was a Pastor in a PCA church. I thought all reformed Presbyterians within the NAPARC community were on the same page when it comes to cultural engagement, Christian “Nationalism”, etc? If y’all aren’t on the same page, then what is the “Reformed” consensus?

    • John: Go to this year’s PCA General Assembly next week and see if you can find a consensus on any subject which will be discussed. I almost had to look up “consensus” in the dictionary after reading your post.

    • John,

      He is a pastor in a NAPARC denomination (PCA) but there is a diversity of thought on a number of issues within NAPARC and cultural engagement would be one of them.

      The Reformed consensus is defined by the Reformed confessions and they speak to Christ and culture indirectly and by inference they don’t necessarily speak to every Christ and culture issue directly. Hence the disagreement.

      That disagreement doesn’t call into question the consensus as represented by the confessions.

  3. Great article! To force Christianity on anyone through the state is unchristian, because it is only God’s spirit that can regenerate a heart. I always thought that America was a Christian nation because of our form of government not because the the citizens or founders were necessarily Christian. The freedom or liberty that we have had is a reflection of Christianity.

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