A Baptist Engagement with 'The Case for Christian Nationalism'
I am not attempting to write a typical review of The Case for Christian Nationalism by Stephen Wolfe. Others have written exhaustive chapter-by-chapter reviews that faithfully represent Wolfe’s book. I am happy to recommend, for example, Kevin DeYoung, Neil Shenvi, Peter Leithart, and Wyatt Graham’s reviews.
Instead, I am interested in engaging—rather than strictly reviewing—this book from within the free-church tradition. “Free church” denotes an ecclesial tradition that insists that a church should be composed only of those who are self-consciously Christian.
1. Logic Trumps Bible
If you accept his logic, Wolfe’s book will seem very convincing. No one should dismiss the work as unserious, even if the staid prose disguises radical proposals and the rhetoric towards the end borders on the conspiratorial. But therein is the fatal flaw of this book: It is more logical than biblical. In saying that, I am not pitting the Bible against reason. I am pitting Wolfe’s application of reason against what I consider the Bible’s own exegetical and redemptive reasoning. Overlaying a logical heuristic at the expense of prima facie readings of Scripture is not a methodology that one can accept within a redemptive-historical hermeneutic. Wolfe admits toward the beginning he’s not a theologian. He’s more right than he means. He’s a logician with very clever argumentation that—as I read Scripture—results in conclusions that are attenuated and only loosely informed by the actual text.
Ironically, therefore, the book is hard to critique on its own grounds as an exercise in logic, even if one is not convinced that the logic of the book overlays as neatly on Scripture as Wolfe would intimate. Wolfe protests that no one is engaging the arguments of the book. One really cannot, though, because he has insulated the book against attack if that critique doesn’t begin and ultimately end with logic itself. To that end, the book is “rigged” from the start if one doesn’t find his claims compelling.
Wolfe’s argument goes something like this (he states something similar himself on p. 183):
- Government has a duty to promote true religion.
- Christianity is true religion.
- Therefore, government has a duty to promote Christianity.
The internal logic of this syllogism works. It’s rational. But that’s different from making an exegetical case for the argument or demonstrating that it fits with Scripture’s own covenantal developments. This, again, is what makes this book as frustrating as it is creative. As a matter of pure argumentation, it’s not hard to make logical syllogisms. For example:
- Four legged animals can run in the Kentucky Derby.
- Unicorns have four legs.
- Unicorns can run in the Kentucky Derby.
The problem is that while this argument is valid, unicorns do not exist.
To go back to the original syllogism, Wolfe may assert that “the government has the duty to promote true religion,” but he never argues that point from the Bible from any clear command. It’s just assumed. It’s far from clear to me that “duty” or “promote” are in themselves clear according to the Bible to the degree that Wolfe assumes them to be. He points to what the world must have been like in Genesis 1 and 2 had they continued without the fall. But the argument about the natural principles in Genesis 1 go beyond what the text allows. “Duty” denotes the idea of authority to command such outcomes. But, again, the most that Wolfe does is make inferences from an unfallen Adam to the role of government today. He fails entirely to give sufficient attention to the Bible’s creation-fall-redemption-restoration storyline and assumes we can simply repristinate Eden without calling attention to the developing saga of the covenants and what they require for government’s calling. Wolfe seems to think that the world of Genesis 1-2 is the world that contemporary governments are called to resurrect. This notion, however, ignores massively the fall and the calling of government within a fallen era, as detailed in the Noahic Covenant in Genesis 9.
His lack of exegesis doesn’t help to convince me that Genesis 1 and 2, rather than Genesis 8 and 9, are the conditions that set the stage for the government’s calling. The failure to deploy basic categories of biblical theology or to show awareness of a redemptive-historical analysis is one of the major shortcomings of the book.
But even if we were to grant that government can “promote” religion, Wolfe fails yet again to make an exegetical case as to what promotion entails, let alone that it justifies the exhaustive program that he later argues for. Why, for example, can government not “promote” true religion by clearing the ground for citizens to “seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him” (Acts 17:27)? There is simply no positive command in Scripture for the state to promote religion like what Wolfe envisions.
2. Wolfe’s Program Is Incompatible with a Baptist Understanding of Religious Liberty.
Let me summarize a few axioms that are worth stating on what The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 Article XVII teaches concerning church and state:
- The church does not rely on direct support from the state to accomplish its mission;
- No religion deserves formal legal favoritism over another religion;
- The state is not competent as an arbiter of doctrine or making ecclesiastical appointments;
- The church and state should not be hostile to one another, but neither should the church be formally established;
- Religious liberty is for the good of all, equally;
- Participation in society is not premised on correct theological belief;
- Citizens cannot be punished for believing and acting upon a false religion.1
On all of the above, The Case for Christian Nationalism draws the opposite conclusion:
- The church looks to the state to suppress heresy;
- Christianity is given official favor by the state;
- Church and state are formally united;
- The state takes active interest in cultivating and protecting Christian doctrine;
- Religious toleration is extended only so far as the religion in question does not disturb sound order;
- Non-Christians are subject to a form of second-class dhimmitude;
- Heretics and non-believers could potentially be executed.
Perhaps Wolfe would insist that I’m being inaccurate, but when worked out to their logical conclusion, I don’t see how the principles within his volume are not a total repudiation of Article XVII of the Baptist Faith and Message. Where the Baptist confession envisions a civil arrangement where the church and state are kept conceptually, institutionally, and functionally distinct, Wolfe presents a contrary vision. He gives little attention to differentiating the church from the state to the end that government and church reinforce one another through direct action—with potentially bloody outcomes—where one serves the other.
3. Authorization and Enforcement
Now, in fairness to Wolfe, he admits that the arguments of his book more naturally align with a paedobaptist ecclesiology. That has to do with the willingness to label entities such as nations “Christian” without that necessarily meaning regenerate. Thus, from the start, there is a major adjectival distinction to note. In his taxonomy, “Christian” is a loose concept that may denote little more than Christian influence. Baptists, on the other hand, insist upon “Christian” as meaning that which is regenerate or authorized to carry out a mission that includes regeneration. By that definition, earthly government is neither regenerate nor can be truly “Christian.”
Even if we grant that the state has been ordained by God (Rom. 13:1-7), according to a Baptist perspective, the state lacks the Scriptural authority to enforce religion. It lacks the mandate, competence, and jurisdiction to do so. It is not cordoned off from accountability to God, but it does not rule on behalf of a redemptive kingdom. Because it can’t and shouldn’t try to, we shouldn’t call government Christian. It is not a coincidence that no single iteration of a government-established church has proffered long-term success to the nation’s moral ecology or the church’s commitment to orthodoxy. Either pure Christian Nationalism has never occurred or else its arrangement, like every other form of government, is subject to the frailties and ferocities of fallen human nature.
Rightly construed, authorization makes enforcement possible. For Christian Nationalism to work, it must be biblically authorized in such a way that its principles can be consistently upheld without exceptions. The local church has the authorization and enforcement mechanism to hold its people accountable to the Christian faith (Matt. 16:13-20). The state does not, which means “Christian” becomes just another label subject to abuse and redefinition. It’s one thing to say something is “Christian.” It’s another thing to hold that label in faithful perpetuity. Can a nation, as an amorphous entity, hold its people accountable to a confession that its magistrates and citizens don’t actually believe? That results in the worst form of hypocrisy and religious nominalism, which is the fruit of Christian Nationalism. Hence, the authorization principle behind establishment is biblically flimsy; its enforcement is impractical if not deeply illiberal; and its outcome unappealing and unfruitful.
One should also consider how a government comprised of non-Christians (unless, that is, Christians are the only ones eligible for office, which raises a number of practical questions) can discipline itself when it errs doctrinally or morally. The state, in the interest of preserving its own power, has no safeguard to self-correct and discipline itself once unbelief gets nested somewhere within it. So, either you must adopt a principle of exclusion to ensure regeneracy throughout the echelons of government, or you are peeling off into unbelief as a feature—not a bug—of the system.
4. The Marriage of Church and State
This book doesn’t offer any detail on the specific elements of church-state establishment, but we’re afforded insights into a few things the state can do to promote religion: voicing support for true doctrine, suppressing heresy, and convening synods. While Wolfe tries to distinguish the Two Kingdoms, the distinction is merely rhetorical, not substantive, as Wolfe’s “Christian Prince” is called to promote true religion by defending it against blasphemers and pagan religion. This imagined omnicompetent talisman might as well be Vladimir Putin, which may be okay if Christian authoritarianism is in the offing.
In Wolfe’s imagined utopia, the church is wedded to the state in perfect bliss. Whether that’s a Lutheran Church or a Presbyterian Church, I’m not sure. Whether the Westminster Confession or the Augsburg Confession is operative, who knows? Wolfe writes of a “pan-Protestant” establishment but does not provide insight for how to apply such an arrangement. I’m not sure whether Baptists are a long-term threat to public order in this “Christian nation.” Maybe we will be imprisoned or horse-whipped for challenging the Christian Prince’s particular iteration of Christianity. Or maybe we’ll be executed since that’s allowable in Wolfe’s regime. But here’s where we need to be clear: in Wolfe’s Christian nation, executing heretics and non-Christians is considered just if it serves the common good. Some might reply “Well, that’s what the Magisterial Reformers called for, so don’t be surprised.” I’m not surprised, in fact; what I am is deeply cynical about the biblical authority to carry out such culturally-and-religiously-homogenizing pogroms. I know this might sound audacious, but to speak as a Baptist, on matters of marrying church and state, John Calvin was wrong. Martin Luther was wrong. Any of the Reformers who believed the state could be used to advance religion in a direct manner were wrong. They aren’t wrong according to Andrew Walker. They are wrong because I think the Magisterial Protestant tradition absorbed a theo-political imagination more allied with their cultural setting than with Scripture. Having power and using theology to justify it is a dangerous cocktail.
So much of Wolfe’s volume is a hypothesis in search of a praxis. What practically results are Prince Joe Biden’s Catholicism calling for abortion and Princess Nancy Pelosi adjudicating ecclesiastical appointments. Such absurdity is what Wolfe’s book legitimizes, even if he would be appalled at the character of their Christianity. Wolfe would object by insisting that the abuse of the principle does not lead to the principle’s negation. But inside of the logic of his system, there is absolutely no principled reason this could not be the case. After all, there is no further authority to ensure the state’s authority is used for Wolfe’s Christianity rather than Biden’s or Putin’s or anyone else’s, never mind some other religion.
Through all the syllogisms and Thomistic argumentation, Wolfe’s recapitulation of Magisterial Protestantism ends with a nation that has never existed in ur-form. Where it has been tried, it’s failed spectacularly in protecting public morality and growing the church in faithful perpetuity. If the theological case is thin, the historical facts bode even worse for making Christian Nationalism appealing. Looking at the historical record, one could not envision a program so inimically apt to undermine the gospel as Christian Nationalism has wrought. Christian Nationalism is an arrangement where everything is Christian except the actual people, and where the abuses of the status quo are baptized with the church’s imprimatur.
I want to begin concluding with what I think is the sum and substance of Baptist discomfort with Christian Nationalism, which I’ve already mentioned but want to discuss again: authorization and enforcement.
To take an example from my friend Joe Rigney’s piece here at 9Marks, the distinction between a Christian radio station and a Christian state is that it poses no practical problem for a self-selecting entity such as a radio station to hold itself and its members to a particular religious confession—especially if it is an auxiliary association tied to an ecclesial body. The radio station is not a church, but it has a confession that it can uphold and enforce through a confessional statement that its members are held accountable to within their local churches. The same goes for a Christian school. There is a proximal degree of enforceability through voluntary and conscientious cooperation that allows for self-sustaining institutions to remain Christian. But can a nation as an amorphous entity actually hold its people accountable to a confession that its magistrates and citizens don’t actually believe?
I know this review has been strongly negative, all things considered. And that isn’t to say that there aren’t valuable aspects of the book at all. There are. Wolfe’s section on Christian Culture is one of the best defenses of the organic development of culture and why “Christian” culture is not the bogeyman that some, even in my own Baptist tradition, make it out to be. But I am interested in tracing the book’s argument from the perspective of a confessional Baptist. On that front, while a Baptist might appreciate elements of the book’s reflections on nationhood and the importance of Christian culture, a Baptist who knows their confession is going to bristle at “Christian” and “Nationalism” being conjoined together under one idea. What I also want to express gratitude for is there now being an identifiable foil from which to engage “Christian Nationalism” from. Far from it being David Barton God-and-Country schtick or Christian Nationalism being a liberal swearword, Wolfe has given a serious argument that will, undoubtedly, be one test case for further conversation. Again, I reject most of what Wolfe is offering, but his forthrightness is appreciated.
An even longer essay would give greater attention to the soteriological fuzziness of Christian Nationalism, its ecclesial nominalism, and its missional confusion. And this is to say nothing of the imagined pipedream that Christian Nationalism is in our context—America is not returning to a small, homogeneous monoculture. But if words have meaning at all, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 brooks no compromise with the sort of Christian Nationalism that Stephen Wolfe argues for. Intellectual honesty demands that Baptists who are tempted to make Wolfian Christian Nationalism compatible with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 should stop.
This debate isn’t about conservatism versus liberalism. As I have written elsewhere, I understand the attraction of Christian Nationalism and can sympathize with many elements of it. So, if the spat over Christian Nationalism gets put in conservative versus liberal or woke versus anti-woke, the whole conservation is going to go off the rails. I, too, am tired of secular progressivism. I want it disempowered. I have spent my entire career in public policy circles and within the academy working to undermine secular-progressive order. I want moral order. How do I get it? Overturning the current legal regime through violent revolution (which Wolfe sanctions)? Or do I do what is legitimate within the process of our legal regime, which is to persuade, argue, and mobilize? A better political theology understands that all regimes are imperfect and fallen and works backward from that reality. Political theology must be adjusted to the era of redemption that we inhabit, lest we falsely believe we can outpace the limited vision that Scripture has for government’s responsibility right now.
The greatest danger in this conversation is exchanging a conversionary ethic so cherished by Baptists for a more nominalist ethic that deadens the church and further paganizes nations. Such an ethic would have a rapaciously violent outcome on the nature of the church. In studying the history of the church’s relationship to civil polity, a consistent error throughout, whether of conservative or liberal varieties, is making Christ’s kingdom co-equal with the nation-state. Every tradition is prone to exaggerating, denying, or flattening out the antithesis. The solution is a rightly ordered arrangement between heavenly attachment and heavenly detachment. But The Case for Christian Nationalism trades the beatific vision for Bible verses at the DMV.
* * * * *
 This should not be construed to mean that threats to public order, public health, and public safety are permitted under a rubric of religious liberty. There is no absolute right to religious liberty and restrictions should be justly determined by legitimate public authorities.