And other thoughts on Christian Nationalism
Reposted with permission of the author. This originally appeared at https://shawnbrace.substack.com/
For whatever reason, it feels like the topic of “Christian Nationalism” suddenly became the topic du jour overnight. It seems like everyone is talking about it these days.
But what exactly is Christian Nationalism? And should I, as a Christian, jump on board with it? Or is it the big, bad wolf that many have made it out to be?
One thing that has been a little unclear to me is whether there are people who self-identify as “Christian Nationalists,” and, if so, how they would define the concept. It seems like the term is most often used pejoratively by opponents–and, as sociologist George Yancey explains, the term, as with “critical race theory,” suffers from a bit of “concept creep,” where a person accuses their opponent of promoting Christian Nationalism whenever their opponent expresses a view they disagree with.
So, again, what is Christian Nationalism? Is it something to be feared? Something to be embraced?
I’ve read books and listened to podcasts by people who oppose Christian Nationalism. But they left me wondering if those who allegedly promote Christian Nationalism would agree with the way it’s being described and rebutted.
Alas, I finally came across a bona fide Christian Nationalist–someone who openly embraces the label and promotes his own version of it. In fact, just last week he came out with a book that is called The Case for Christian Nationalism.
I have not yet read the book, since it just came out, but I did listen to two interviews with the author (here and here). And so I wanted to both describe what I heard him saying in the interviews and then evaluate his claims.
What is Christian Nationalism?
One week ago today, Stephen Wolfe, who belongs to the Presbyterian Church in America, released his book The Case for Christian Nationalism. In interviews, Wolfe indicates he made a conscious decision to embrace the term “Christian Nationalism,” despite it often being used in a pejorative sense. He wants to redeem the term, in many ways, feeling it provides a very forceful call to action, inviting American Christians–and particularly Protestants–to recognize the Christian foundations of America, and how re-establishing that foundation will only come through deliberate and intentional effort.
In Wolfe’s telling, Christian Nationalism is essentially the idea that a nation–America, in this case–should consciously pursue and promote “earthly goods” that align with Christian values via civil laws and social customs. Institutions, such as public schools, should participate in the discipleship of children in orthodox Protestant doctrine. Thus, prayer in public schools is in–as are reciting catechisms and the Apostles’ Creed.
While allowing for a certain level of religious tolerance and plurality (for example, he has no problem with there being Muslim mosques or Jewish synagogues), Wolfe maintains that values–secular, non-Christian, or otherwise–which contradict Protestantism should not be promoted within the public sphere.
In this regard, he is not opposed to the private practice of non-Protestant religious values. He simply doesn’t want them promoted to any significant degree in the public square. And, to that end, he seemingly favors the rekindling of “blasphemy laws,” which, he claims, were operative in America throughout its history, even after the ratification of the Constitution (he, along with one of his interviewers, Doug Wilson, also claims that America already does have blasphemy laws–they are simply being carried out by secular elites via so-called “cancel culture”).
This does not mean Wolfe believes one should ever be forced to convert to Christianity–which, he maintains, violates the principles of Christianity. Blasphemy laws, therefore, would not be for the purpose of trying to compel certain beliefs. They would be for the purpose of “suppressing outwardly what could harm people inwardly,” protecting potential hearers from heresy rather than primarily seeking to punish heretics for punishment’s sake or to compel behavior from them.
Foundational to this vision is Wolfe’s belief that America started as a Christian nation–or, at the very least, it had Christian roots. In his telling, while America had Christian roots, the secular project became increasingly hostile toward Christianity, going from a posture of neutrality to outright negative hostility toward it now. Thus, we’ve come to a point in time when Christians must reclaim the Christian–and particularly Protestant–foundation of America. This can only be done with intentional and deliberate effort.
Theologically, Wolfe believes that maintaining and preserving unique culture and nationhood is the result of creation and not simply the fall. He insists that, had humanity never fallen, human beings would have still created distinct peoples, nations, cultures, and civilizations. Redemption, therefore, does not negate these divisions but redeems them (which is probably why Wolfe apparently doesn’t think women should have the right to vote).
While we all have equal value in Christ, it was always God’s design to have order, hierarchy, and specific roles. Salvation thus doesn’t do away with distinctions between genders, peoples, or hierarchies. In fact, these things actually display the glory of God.
Wolfe sees historical precedent for all this as well. He proposes that much of Christian history, from Augustine, to Luther and Calvin, to the Puritans of New England, worked out a similar political theory. They knew nothing of a separation between church and state but believed it was the government’s job to promote and enact a biblical agenda. He even points to how John Locke himself, who was, in many ways, the architect of America’s democratic impulse, maintained that atheism should be suppressed.
Perhaps most interestingly, especially to those who have any familiarity with Seventh-day Adventist concerns, Wolfe firmly believes America should enact “Sabbath [Sunday] laws” as a way to instill Christian values–which actually surprised me a bit. But such an idea is extremely foundational to his perspective–not because he has a particular interest in punishing people who don’t adhere to proper “Sabbath” behavior, but because he wants to remove all distractions for people so they can be properly discipled in the worship of God.
We can thus say goodbye to the NFL on Sundays!
Lastly, I think it’s safe to say that, for Wolfe, much of his zeal upon this subject especially stems from what he perceives to be a growing secularism that is openly hostile to his understanding of Protestant values. This is especially true, as it is for many Christians, when it comes to questions about sexuality and gender. Over the last few years, many Christians in America have been particularly disturbed by the increased acceptance of what they understand to be aberrant and immoral views of sexuality–and especially transgenderism.
For them, it seems to have gotten to a boiling point. And, in many ways, it’s a battle over what their kids are taught in public schools and what they see on TV. They want to feel at ease with sending their kids to public school and not have to worry that they’ll be taught that a child can be whatever gender–or non-gender–they choose.
Sure, private Christian schools are always an option–but not for everyone (partly because of affordability). Wolfe thus thinks that the average person in America, who may just go along with wherever the tide moves them, should be able to send their child to a public school and be formed and discipled in Protestant values, including what he understands to be the Protestant view of sexuality and gender.
Though he doesn’t necessarily say it explicitly, the same is no doubt true about media and the entertainment industry. He wants to know that any American can turn on a TV and they will not be exposed to something that contradicts Protestant values.
So having laid out Wolfe’s basic argument, what are we to make of it?
Let me share a few reflections.
Evaluating (Wolfe’s) Christian Nationalism
I’m sure whatever I might write here would not at all come across as profound or challenging to someone like Wolfe. He has, likely, faced these types of arguments many times before and has answers that fully satisfy him.
However, here are a few reflections on Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism for everyone else.
1. While I firmly reject Christian Nationalism, I think it’s helpful to remember that separation of church and state, as America has traditionally promoted, is a very, very new phenomenon in world history. I say this because the temptation for me, as a red-blooded American who has been formed within a paradigm that assumes and highly values the separation of church and state, is to immediately label anyone who might promote Christian Nationalism a quack–or perhaps even extremely dangerous.
But someone who promotes such a perspective is in the extreme majority throughout human history–and certainly throughout Christian history. If one grants that America has always promoted a separation of church and state (which, of course, someone like Wolfe would dispute), one must still recognize that this is a very recent experiment–not even 250 years old.
As Wolfe correctly points out, Augustine knew nothing of a separation of church and state; Luther wouldn’t have been able to imagine it; Calvin wouldn’t recognize how America relates to Christianity today. The same is true of Knox, Wesley, the Pilgrim fathers, and probably Jonathan Edwards. And the same is true for many western civilizations still in existence today. Remember, England still has a state church–with the King serving as its head!
This is to say nothing of nations that are majority Muslim–many of which, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, that strictly police their populations using religious criteria.
This is not at all to imply I agree with such a perspective. I firmly believe that the American experiment was correct–that there should be a strict separation between church and state. It’s simply to say that when someone like Wolfe comes along and wants the government to enforce a particular religious agenda, he has the weight of history on his side and he’s working from a belief that most Protestants have affirmed throughout Protestant history (though, again, I believe such an approach is inconsistent with true Protestantism).
2. The dubiousness of America’s Christian foundations. To be clear, I’m not an expert in early American history. My area of expertise–if I even have one–is not the colonial or Constitutional era. I have read enough to know, however, that the question as to whether America started out as a “Christian nation” is, at the very least, a contested one.
I know there are scholars who have a vested interest in proving that America’s Founding Fathers were all essentially evangelical Christians. I know there are also scholars who have a vested interest in proving that America’s Founding Fathers were effectively godless atheists.
I know enough to feel confident, however, that the truth is largely somewhere in between–though probably a little more skewed toward the latter claim (if one is using the standards of twenty-first century evangelicalism). While there were certainly some of the Founding Fathers, mostly in the “second tier,” who maintained a sort of evangelical faith, the most notable Founding Fathers, like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, George Washington, and Ben Franklin, didn’t even affirm the divinity of Christ.
It’s true, of course, that they all had a broad commitment to the ethical program of Christianity and affirmed the idea of a divine foundation to their democratic project. But this was very vague–and they seemingly deliberately avoided identifying the “Creator,” who gave us our inalienable rights as, “Jesus,” for example, or even the Protestant God (it was more likely the God of Deism that many of them believed in).
At the same time, I do believe we have correctly interpreted the First Amendment as promoting a separation of church and state. From everything I’ve read, the Founding Fathers did set up a radical political program, unlike anything that had come before, which wanted to make sure the federal government had nothing at all to do with regulating and dictating religious affairs–and vice versa. They didn’t want to be England. And any interpretation that says otherwise seems to be a serious misreading of what was so radical about America’s founding.
To be sure, I think America, until recently, has been a nation of Christians (that is, a nation where the majority of the population is Christian), but the Founding Fathers, at least as I understand it, had no intention of it being a Christian nation.
That is, to a large degree, part of the whole radicalness of the American experiment–and part of what has made it great.
3. Whose Christianity? Even if, for the sake of argument, one could make the strong case that America was and should be, in fact, a “Christian nation,” who gets to decide what version of Christianity America enforces?
There are, of course, about as many versions of Christianity as there are Christians in America.
For Wolfe, the version of Christianity he wants to promote is apparently just basic, milquetoast, orthodox, Apostles’ Creed-type Christianity (if that even really exists). But the Apostles’ Creed, for one, says nothing about transgenderism, which Wolfe is especially anxious about (neither does the Westminster Confession of Faith, which Wolfe, being a Presbyterian, subscribes to). One could therefore fully affirm the Apostles’ Creed and still believe a person should be able to choose their own gender–with government support. No doubt there are many who do.
At the same time, for someone like me, who could, in theory, broadly affirm the Apostles’ Creed and who fully affirms the authority of Scripture, I still have major points of departure with many other “orthodox” Christians in America.
This has been the case within Protestantism ever since its inception, when so-called “Radical Reformers” dissented in significant ways from the “Magisterial Reformers,” like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, over theological matters–like questions about infant baptism and whether the church should use the state to carry out its religious agenda.
Thus, if I was to be convinced that the federal government should work in concert with Christianity to carry out its religious agenda, which version of Christianity are we talking about? Mine, hopefully–which is no doubt the same thing Wolfe would say about his theological vision.
But do I want public schools teaching my children Calvinism, for example?
There’s a reason I already don’t send them to Baptist or Catholic schools. It’s because I’m not particularly interested in having them theologically formed in ways I disagree with–and I’m assuming Wolfe wouldn’t be particularly enthusiastic about sending his children to a Seventh-day Adventist school or having the Churches of Christ creating the religious curriculum for public schools.
Similarly, if I were to be convinced that we should enforce a federal day of rest and worship, why would I want that to be Sunday–when it seems quite clear and obvious to me that Saturday is the day mandated by Scripture?
The reality is, of course, that if we want the government to enforce a Protestant agenda, then we will be outsourcing our theological decisions to the government. And do we really want politicians making religious decisions for us?
At the same time, the sort of Protestantism Wolfe seemingly wants to promote is probably adhered to by no more than about 15% of the US population (if one were to generously equate this perspective with the roughly 15% of the US population that identifies as white evangelical). Does it really align with America’s values to have 15% of the population making decisions–and religious ones, at that–for everyone else?
One of the features that makes America great, at least from my perspective, is our protections for those who are in the minority–religiously, racially, and otherwise. It’s called republicanism.
Thus, even if 95% of the population strictly adhered to orthodox Christianity as Wolfe understands it, the foundation of American government has always (at least in theory) extended liberty and protections to those who dissent from the religious and political beliefs and practices of the majority–refusing to enforce religious compliance via government sanction.
Again, it seems that when we have politicians making religious decisions for other people, no one wins. Thus, absent some type of pope who could speak ex cathedra, or absent an outright theocracy where we had a direct line of communication with God, having politicians jockeying to make religious decisions for everyone else seems like a recipe for disaster. (And this is coming from someone who is already a Protestant! Imagine being a Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, or atheist–who make up the vast majority of America’s population–and hearing such a proposal! How would civil war not be the inevitable response?)
It sounds nice in theory that we could all just peaceably agree on the religious values we want to mandate, but I don’t think it’s that simple–which is why I’d prefer to err on the side of liberty.
4. Christian Nationalism doesn’t seem to have a very strong track record. As I understand it, there are two historical realities about countries that have tried a version of Christian Nationalism: first, a hard form of Christian Nationalism very quickly turns violent. The history of Christendom has demonstrated this over and over again (from the Spanish Inquisition to the witch trials of Puritan New England–and everything in between).
Political power in the hands of Christians has not been a pretty picture–and is probably the biggest cause of secular zeal.
Secondly, a soft form of Christian Nationalism, like in present-day England, hardly delivers what advocates hoped it would: abortion, for example, is legal in England, and it doesn’t seem like the government is doing anything to curb so-called transgenderism there.
Furthermore, Christian Nationalism of either variety has historically encouraged Christian nominalism–that is, it does a pretty effective job, at least for a while, of getting people to conform outwardly, but doesn’t do a very good job of making people truly religious.
We see this with Europe–where much of the population in places like Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia have official state churches, and many people are technically Christian by virtue of being born, and yet church attendance and Bible reading is basically nil.
From my perspective, there is a direct correlation between the history of state-sanctioned religious adherence in Europe, carried out for some 1300 years, and the extreme secularism we see present there today. The latter was a zealous–and sometimes, as in the case of France, violent–reaction to the former.
On the other hand, the one western nation that has never had a state church–America–still has the highest rate of Christian adherence. This doesn’t seem to be a coincidence–as some historians have pointed out.
History thus seems to demonstrate that if we want Christianity to thrive in a nation, we should ensure it is not enforced. And the degree to which Christians in America try to push for religious legislation is the degree to which there will be secular pushback (in other words, while I would agree that secularism seems to be wielding a pretty aggressive sword these days, I think it is a reaction–like what happened in Europe–to the aggressiveness of those pushing a Christian political agenda).
Believe it or not, much more could be written on the topic–but I’ll leave it there (for now?).
But why do I bother to write on this topic?
Two reasons: first, because I do think integrity demands we pursue fair and honest evaluation of those who explicitly push Christian Nationalism. We can’t just ignore them as crazy, unsophisticated kooks (Wolfe himself has a PhD in political philosophy from Louisiana State University and did a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton).
Similarly, I think the best way to embolden Christian Nationalists, and push them into even more extreme views, is by either vilifying or completely ignoring them as though they were all theocratic, white supremacists (the latter label Wolfe explicitly rejects).
Secondly, I raise this issue for those who are especially burdened by the moral decay that seems prevalent within America today (and I would include myself here). While I believe we can work within the democratic process to promote laws that broadly align with our values, and for the betterment of society as a whole, I think we should resist adopting the language, rhetoric, and vision of people like Wolfe, whose ultimate goals don’t align with that of many Christians in America (and certainly not with the historic goals of my particular faith community).
Wolfe is not the only person pushing such a vision, of course. There are many politicians at this time who are appropriating a sort of Christian Nationalist vocabulary and agenda–and such rhetoric is becoming increasingly attractive to a growing number of Christians (including, quite surprisingly, people within my own community of faith whose eschatological views should seemingly inoculate them from such perspectives).
So buyer–and voter–beware!
 I spent a lot of time debating whether I should even mention the author’s name, since I am unsure if I should be “platforming” him. But from an academic perspective, it’s not good practice to evaluate someone’s perspective without citing the source and pointing to the material (so the reader can then evaluate whether the evaluator is accurately evaluating the evaluatee) and, secondly, even from a theological perspective, I believe the history of the universe is one in which God has “platformed” everyone, even those he disagrees with, giving them opportunity to present their case.
This actually lies at the very heart of what my faith community–Seventh-day Adventism–believes about the “great controversy” metanarrative. Thus, I have chosen to explicitly identify the author, inviting you to give his perspective a fair hearing–even while making it abundantly clear that I do not agree with his overall philosophy.
Shawn Brace is a pastor in Maine, whose life, ministry, and writing focus on incarnational expressions of faith. The author of four books and a columnist for Adventist Review, he is also a DPhil student at the University of Oxford (what they call a PhD), focusing on nineteenth-century American Christianity. You can follow him on Instagram, and listen to his podcast Mission Lab.
This article discusses whether or not the United States has ever been a “Christian nation”. It looks at the history of the nation, from its founding documents to the role of religion in politics. It ultimately concludes that while the US has had a strong religious foundation, it has never been a Christian nation in the sense that Christianity had an official role in government. The article also highlights how religious freedom and tolerance have been key components of American society since the nation’s founding.