The conservative Protestant interwebs have been abuzz over the last week in response to the release of Stephen Wolfe’s book, The Case for Christian Nationalism. As one might expect on platforms like Twitter, a lot of the discourse surrounding the book and its claims falls short when it comes to nuance, sophistication, and reasoned arguments.
Because the subject matter of Wolfe’s book concerns issues that I care deeply about as both a Christian and a scholar, I pre-ordered the book on Amazon, and it was delivered just one day after its release date. I finished reading the book over the weekend, and although I am still digesting and thinking through some of his arguments, I am prepared to offer some initial reactions to Wolfe’s arguments and assertions.
My basic, initial assessment is that Wolfe’s overall argument fails because his foundational proposition is false. That foundational proposition is that civil government is a natural institution that derives from Man’s necessary attributes of being as a human created in the image of God. In other words, Wolfe asserts that, even had Adam never sinned, it would be necessary, proper, and good for human beings to form civil governments. This is the case, he claims, because civil government would have been necessary for the coordination and direction of humanity’s other duties and activities related to the command to exercise dominion over the earth and its other creatures. The most important analogy for Wolfe’s argument, in this respect, is the Christian family.
The family is a natural institution that precedes other institutional arrangements. Just as it is necessary, proper, and good for the Christian to order his family according to Christian principles, so too must the Christian order all other natural institutions to Christian principles. Therefore, because the civil government, like the family, is a natural institution derived from pre-Fall, natural-law conditions, Christians are duty bound to organize and order it according to Christian principles.
This is the core, foundational proposition of Christian Nationalism as I understand it. Thus, if this proposition can be demonstrated to be false, Wolfe’s overarching argument fails because all of his other claims rest, either directly or indirectly, on this proposition being true.
In this post, I will attempt to advance the argument that civil government is not natural, as Wolfe employs the term, in the sense that it is not a necessary institution of the pre-Fall world. I will make my argument using Scripture, theology, and political philosophy.
I realize, of course, that Wolfe explicitly states that his work in Christian Nationalism is that of political theory, not political theology. However, that it is explicitly Christian political theory means that it is subject to the truth revealed in Scripture and the theological conclusions derived from that truth. While Christian Nationalism is full of political theory, that theory, like all political theory, rests upon theological claims. Claims about distinctions between pre- and postlapsarian humanity are theological. If fault can be found in this theological claim, then the theoretical structures built on top of that theology are also faulty.
With all of that being said by way of introduction, I’ll state my case.
My case begins with Romans 13:1-7, “the most important text in scripture for Christian reflection on the nature and legitimacy of political authority” (Vandrunen 2016, 4). Although Paul, here, “speaks quite clearly and leaves little room to wonder about his general view of civil government [. . .], [i]mportant questions remain” (ibid., 4-5). Perhaps the most important of these questions is “[h]ow does the church interpret Romans 13 when it finds itself in disagreement with the policies and actions of the government of the day?” (Lategan 2012, 260). Before trying to answer this question, it’s useful to review the passage.
Everyone must submit to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are instituted by God. So then, the one who resists the authority is opposing God’s command, and those who oppose it will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have its approval. For government is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, because it does not carry the sword for no reason. For government is God’s servant, an avenger that brings wrath on the one who does wrong. Therefore, you must submit, not only because of wrath, but also because of your conscience. And for this reason you pay taxes, since the authorities are God’s public servants, continually attending to these tasks. Pay your obligations to everyone: taxes to those you owe taxes, tolls to those you owe tolls, respect to those you owe respect, and honor to those you owe honor.Romans 13:1-7 HCSB
To analyze what Paul is saying here, we can break the passage into three sections: 13:1-2; 13:3-5; and 13:6-7, which communicate (a) “the basic proposition of the passage: Authorities should be obeyed because they receive their authority from God”; (b) “two possible attitudes to” proposition a: “doing right and living without fear of the authorities, or doing wrong and facing the consequences”; and (c) “the practical implications of the passage.” Each piece of Paul’s argument here “rest on the assumption that authorities reward what is right and punish what is wrong” (Lategan 2012, 261-262).
Because we’re discussing the inspired, inscripturated teaching of an apostle, we can take at face value Paul’s assertion that the authority of civil government is granted and ordained by God. The next rational question ought to be: “Authority to do what?” The answer, of course, is the rewarding of good conduct and the punishment of wrong conduct. Paul then goes on to justify taxes, tolls, respect, and honor on the basis that governments earn them by “continually attending to these tasks” of suppressing bad conduct and rewarding good conduct (Rom 13:6). This justification for civil government by Paul is different from and opposed to that offered by Wolfe in Christian Nationalism.
Wolfe proposes that civil rulers are due honor and respect because their office as civil rulers is a natural derivative of the created order. But that is not what Paul says in Romans 13. Instead, Paul says that honor and respect for rulers is in some sense contingent upon their rewarding good and punishing wickedness. One might even say that the civil government fulfills its divine mandate only when it rewards good and punishes wickedness. If that is the case, and it certainly seems to be–it is important that Paul tells his readers to “do what is good” not “do what you are told” (Cassidy 2010, 388-389)–then the civil government cannot be a natural institution that derives from the created order since the necessity to restrain wickedness only comes into play after the Fall.
In a postlapsarian view of the state’s necessity, the purpose of the government is to preserve a safe social order that is conducive to the spreading of the gospel (ibid., 388). This task of spreading the gospel is accomplished exclusively within the organic or creational institutions of society, such as the family, school, church, and economy (Un 2020). Unfortunately, in Wolfe’s ideal theory, the role of these institutions are (with the exception of the family) downplayed or ignored.
I refer to Wolfe’s Christian Nationalism as an ideal theory because it meets the definition “to formulate ideal principles and concepts, and to assume that these must be expressed in political action” (Femia 2013, 134). I am not opposed to political theory, nor explicitly Christian political theory. My post-graduate academic career is dedicated to thinking through why and how a Christian worldview affects public policy and what those policies ought to be. I am skeptical, however, of ideal theory generally–even Christian ideal theory–because its assumptions lead to what amounts to an outsized and, contra Wolfe, an unnatural role for government.
What’s clear from Paul’s implicit assumptions in Romans 13 is that government’s legitimate authority is expressed primarily and most effectively in its ability to coerce using violence or the threat of violence. And coercion and violence are two things we do not see in Genesis 1-3. The restraint of wickedness through violence is necessitated by what transpires in those chapters, but it was not nor cannot be considered natural to them. If the authority and power of government is derived from the need to suppress wickedness, then to affirm that civil government is natural requires that one also then affirm, as a necessary correlate, that wickedness, too, is natural. Obviously, one cannot do this and claim to be orthodox. To do so would effectively be to affirm a form of Gnosticism. I’m certain that this is not Wolfe’s intent.
When I say that ideal political theory–to include Christian Nationalism–leads to an outsized role for government, I mean that too often it leads to the assumption that government is the primary vehicle for achieving ethical ends. In this sense, Christian Nationalism suffers from the same weaknesses and dangers as other ideal theories–like Marx and Rawls–“in their search for a ‘final solution’ to problems of political and social organisation [sic], one that would render further speculation otiose” (Femia 2013, 134). The danger comes in the totalizing nature of these theories and the real-world harm they cause. When government is identified as the primary vehicle for ethical ends, then it tends to become both the only vehicle for those ethical ends and the sole agent eligible to identify those ends. This, perhaps, is Wolfe’s greatest error, in a historical sense, in that he glosses over much of the history of the Magisterial Reformation.
Yes, Luther, Calvin, et al. positively made use of political powers to advance the Reformation agenda. But they were forced to do so by circumstance. Had the magisterial reformers been more like the radical reformers, the history of Protestantism would be much different. I won’t speculate now on how it would’ve or could’ve been different, but I think it’s clear that the geopolitics of Catholic Europe in the 16th century made the magisterial part of the Reformation necessary, to some degree. It also made much of their own political theory historically contingent. When issues of religion are intricately and inseparably interwoven with the geopolitics of the time, one needs geopolitical allies with geopolitical authority to make religious claims that have geopolitical consequences.
I admit without argument that the political theorizing of the magisterial reformers was a faithful attempt to apply the general equity of Scripture. But that application’s fairness and faithfulness is contingent on the specific social, cultural, and political circumstances. The same applies to the Puritans and their heirs. It is irrational and nonsensical to recognize this and yet refuse to apply a similar lens of general equity to our own contingent moment in history. Like the Hebrews whose wars of conquest were necessary to secure territory for the construction of a geopolitical entity, a necessity derivative of ancient Near Eastern society at the time, we do not assume that wars of territorial conquest are legitimate means for accomplishing religious ends. Yes, those wars of conquest were also acts of divine judgment on wicked nations. But that was a function of God’s sovereign ordering of historical contingencies. To assume that we’re capable epistemically or ethically of the same is, at the very least, hubris. And more to my main point, the violence of war and its–at times–providential function in judgment points back to the postlapsarian character of politics.
Before ending this post, I want to mention a few other Old Testament examples that I think reinforce my point. First, there is the example of Joseph and his service to the government of Egypt. Nowhere in this story is there any indication that political authority ought to be used to bring about such things as correct worship, doctrinal uniformity, or even a common religious outlook. That Joseph’s faithfulness was an outlier within pagan Egypt is a large part of the story. And in the end, Joseph was not an instrument of judgment. God judged Egypt in his own time and in his own way. Similarly, Jonah’s prophetic warning to Nineveh was directed at public wickedness, not things like improper worship or, as Wolfe puts it, ordered conditions conducive to belief. Of course, there was an element of worship in Nineveh’s collective repentance, but it was a result of, not the cause of, the public restraint of wickedness. This is in line with Paul’s perspective in Romans 13.
Finally, and similar to Joseph, there is the example of Daniel in Babylon. It always strikes me as odd that Christians engaged in public discourse about political theory and philosophy do not make use of Daniel more. It’s odd because most of the book is consumed with the rise and fall of empires, none of which are believing empires. Let that sink in for a moment. In Daniel 2, the entire history of human civilization from the Babylonian empire to the advent of the Messiah is foretold through the rise and fall of pagan nations. Those pagan nations end when “the God of heaven [sets] up a kingdom that will never be destroyed, and this kingdom will not be left to another people. It will crush all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, but will itself endure forever” (Daniel 2:44 HCSB). The kingdom that God sets up replaces and destroys earthly empires. Significantly, it “will not be left to another people,” not a Christian nation, or a group of Christian nations. It subsists in and of itself. In his telling of the story, Daniel, a faithful Jew if there ever was one, doesn’t even mention Israel.
That being the case, and given that “the dream is true, and its interpretation certain” (Dan 2:45), I’m at a loss as to how to understand how Wolfe can claim, in Christian Nationalism, that human political governments are natural and will, therefore, be present after the eschatological culmination of the gospel is complete. Human political institutions are not natural, they are contingent. While they’re on earth, they serve the sovereign purposes of God by restraining evil and wickedness (Rom 13:1-7), but they are superseded and ultimately destroyed by the kingdom of Christ. In other words, with my apologies to Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and even Stephen Wolfe, there’s really only one kingdom and its Prince already sits on its throne. And he already rules over the kings of the earth, whether they know it or not (Rev 1:5).
In this post, I’ve tentatively advanced an argument that the foundational proposition of Stephen Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism fails on scriptural and theological grounds. Civil government is not natural. It is a necessary and contingent result of the Fall. To affirm that civil government is natural (or prelapsarian) is to implicitly affirm the heretical assertion that wickedness, too, is natural. Thus, the basis for Wolfe’s argument calls into question his entire argument.
With that being said, there’s much more to this book. Some of it I agree with. Some of it I disagree with. Those will be topics for future posts.
For now, I’ll close with this:
No orthodox Protestant can look at the state of our culture in America or the West and not conclude that we live with “[a]n evil and adulterous generation” (Matt 12:39). After calling his own people an “evil and adulterous generation,” Jesus told a short parable about a demon-possessed man:
When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it roams through waterless places looking for rest but doesn’t find any. Then it says, “I’ll go back to my house that I came from.” And returning, it finds the house vacant, swept, and put in order. Then off it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and settle down there. As a result, that man’s last condition is worse than the first. That’s how it will also be with this evil generation.Matthew 12:43-45 HCSB
Our culture knows that its past attempts to bring order to its own house have failed. We are now confronted with overwhelming evidence that evil forces more powerful and pervasive than we’ve ever confronted in our society have taken up residence in what once were free Christian republics.
What Stephen Wolfe and I, and every orthodox Protestant, agree on is that the order that only comes through Christ is the only solution to this chaos. What we disagree on is the means and methods by which Christ’s ordered kingdom is to be brought to bear in our chaotic civilization. Rather than engaging in meme wars on Twitter or publicly shaming fellow believers, perhaps what we ought to do is engage in civil, scholarly, and scripturally based discourse and debate that models Christian charity.
Pwning our fellow Protestants will not advance the gospel. Our neighbors see and know that our society is sick. We know the Great Physician. Our discourse is a reflection of Christ.
Although I disagree with his premises and some of his conclusions, Stephen Wolfe has done what too many ostensible Christians don’t: confront head-on the wickedness in our society. He started a conversation–a necessary conversion. We should continue it in civility and in the interests of Christ’s kingdom.
Cassidy, Ron. 2010. “The Politicization of Paul: Romans 13:1-7 in Recent Discussion.” Expository Times 128, no. 8 (May): 383-389. https://doi.org/10.1177/0014524610364453.
Femia, Joseph V. 2013. “Pareto, Machiavelli, and the Critique of Ideal Political Theory.” Revue Européenne des Sciences Sociales 51 (2): 133-148. https://www.jstor.org/stable/43694271.
Lategan, Bernard. 2012. “Romans 13:1-7: A Review of Post-1989 Readings.” Scriptura 110, no. 1 (January): 259-272. https://doi.org/10.7833/110-0-115.
Un, Antonius Steven. 2020. “Sphere Sovereignty According to Kuyper.” Unio Cum Christo 6, no. 2 (October): 97-114. https://doi.org/10.35285/ucc6.2.2020.art5.
Vandrunen, David. 2016. “Power to the People: Revisiting Civil Resistance in Romans 13:1-7 in Light of the Noahic Covenant.” Journal of Law and Religion 31, no. 1 (March): 4-18. https://doi.org/10.1017/jlr.2015.41.
Wolfe, Stephen. 2022. The Case for Christian Nationalism. Moscow, ID: Canon Press.