Beware the 'Christian Prince'

The Case for Christian Nationalism advocates for an ethnically uniform nation ruled by a "Christian prince."


The Case for Christian Nationalism, by Stephen Wolfe, Canon Press, 488 pages, $24.99

Since the 2016 election, the term Christian nationalism has been used, narrowly, to describe conservative Christian support for Donald Trump and, broadly, to describe any right-wing vision of Christian politics that left-wing observers deplore. This is ironic given the phrase's history: It began between the world wars with liberal Protestants anxious about the rise of totalitarianism, and it was revived in the 1970s to describe religious anti-colonialism.

We should more properly refer to Christian nationalisms. American history is filled with diverse conceptions of nationhood among religious peoples. Respectable Christian nationalism is often referred to as "civil religion," as when politicians declare America a shining "city on a hill." But Christian nationalisms are always contested. The most popular postcard of 1865 pictured the ascent into heaven of the martyred Abraham Lincoln nestled in the bosom of George Washington. Yet until 2019, travelers on Interstate 95 in Virginia could detour to visit the "shrine" of Stonewall Jackson, a slain saint of an opposing, Confederate Christian nationalism.

The Christian nationalist variant getting the most public attention today has a Pentecostal inflection. Journalists cannot resist the spectacle, whether it is self-proclaimed prophet Lance Wallnau peddling $45 "prayer coins" featuring Trump's face superimposed over that of the Persian King Cyrus, pastor Rafael Cruz promoting Trump as a champion of the "Seven Mountain Mandate," or televangelist Paula White-Cain praying for "angelic reinforcement" to boost Trump's reelection.

But another variant has made waves recently with the publication of Stephen Wolfe's The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe, an evangelical Presbyterian, argues that modern Christians have forgotten the political wisdom of early Protestant reformers and have been lulled into a dangerous secularism. He advocates an ethnically uniform nation ruled by a "Christian prince" with the power to punish blasphemy and false religion.

Wolfe veers chapter by chapter between close readings of often obscure Reformation theologians and mostly unsourced screeds against the dangers of feminist "gynocracy" and immigrant invasion. The book is obtusely argued, poorly written, and worth a read only in the same sense that rubbernecking at a car crash counts as sightseeing. But the ways that Wolfe is wrong are instructive.

For Wolfe, the nationalism part of Christian nationalism is synonymous with ethnicity, which he defines as any self-conscious group of people possessing "the right to be for itself." Wolfe does not grapple with the vast literature on how ethnicity is socially constructed, preferring instead what he calls a "phenomenological" explanation based on his personal experience and reasoning.

Wolfe's view of national ethnicity results from his belief in the importance of "particularity," which he defines as the differences among groups that arise from our "natural inclination to dwell among similar people." He argues that if something is natural it must be good, because natural things were part of the created order prior to the sinful fall of humanity.

That leads Wolfe to speculate about which human institutions and intuitions are natural and thus good. The category turns out to include civil government, patriarchy, and, bizarrely, hunting. Conveniently, the category of natural things includes whatever Wolfe feels most strongly about. He sacralizes his personal preferences without any reflection on the long history of Christians reading their culturally informed beliefs and practices back into holy writ.

As a result, Wolfe has composed a segregationist political theology. If ethnic differences are the natural order of things and if the natural order is good, he reasons, then those differences should dictate the bounds of an ethnically homogenous Christian nation. Wolfe denies that he is making a white nationalist argument, partly on the grounds that he has nonwhite friends and partly because "the designation 'white' is tactically unuseful." But black friends or not, if you wanted to inject a sacralized white supremacy into the conservative mainstream, this book would be a primer on dog whistling past that particular graveyard.

Other reviewers have highlighted Wolfe's racist associations. The book's publisher began as a vanity label for a self-described "paleo-Confederate." Wolfe co-hosted a politics podcast with a closeted white supremacist named Thomas Achord, who once called black men "chimps."

But the problem here runs deeper than mere associations. Wolfe repeatedly incorporates notorious white supremacists into his argument, including the neo-Nazi William Gayley Simpson, the antisemite Ernest Renan, and the virulent racist Enoch Powell. His first chapter opens with a quote affirming "tribal behavior" from Samuel Francis, whom the racist writer Jared Taylor once praised as the "premier philosopher of white racial consciousness of our time." Wolfe's fascination with such ideas predates this book: He has also written an essay linking Francis' idea of "anarcho-tyranny" to black people's allegedly innate criminality.

Fear permeates The Case for Christian Nationalism, especially in Wolfe's list of 38 aphorisms summarizing his grievances against a changing culture. Not only is feminism assumed to be bad, but we supposedly "live under a gynocracy—a rule by women" who emasculate men by enforcing "feminine virtues, such as empathy, fairness, and equality." Racism only comes up when Wolfe calls on Christians to ignore accusations of bigotry. And he argues that the future of America depends on keeping children at home into their 20s, growing your own food, weightlifting to keep testosterone levels high, and avoiding vegetable oil.

When fear propels one's political project, it generates paranoid delusions. It is delusional to propose that the pathway forward for conservative Christians—living in a society in which religious "nones" outnumber any other single religious group—is violent revolution on behalf of a Presbyterian prince who will punish blasphemers. While there are still challenges to religious freedom in America, there has never before been a society in human history where Christians have been so free to worship, speak, and live out their faith.

Karl Deutsch once defined a nation as any "group of people united by a mistaken view about the past and a hatred of their neighbors." Wolfe's nativist vision of a Christian nation and his stated aversion to arguing from history fit that definition in both regards. Like a socialist who declares that true communism has never been tried, Wolfe naively asserts the desirability of state-sponsored religion and hardly bothers to prove it ever actually worked.

Wolfe offers a brief apologetic for religious establishment in colonial Massachusetts, gullibly accepting the word of various Puritan leaders that the punishments they meted out to religious dissidents were just and proportionate. But state violence is necessary for any such religio-political project. In Puritan Massachusetts, Quakers risked having their ears cut off and their tongues "bored through with a hot iron," and they faced execution if they persisted in their blasphemy.

This is the sordid reality of the original "city on a hill." When Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was confronted with what Wolfe might call a "gynocracy"—i.e., women questioning his theology—he responded by digging up Mary Dyer's stillborn daughter and publishing a pamphlet blaming the baby's physical deformities on her mother's heresy. Dyer fled to England and became a Quaker; when she returned to Massachusetts, Winthrop's successor hanged her. Before the platform dropped, her former pastor called on her to repent to save her life. She replied, "Nay, man, I am not now to repent." Then asked if she desired the church elders to pray for her soul, she scolded, "I know never an Elder here." Dyer's execution is a reminder that Christian nationalism is naturally entangled with state violence.

Religious dissidents were both the beneficiaries and the architects of the decline of religious establishment. When Quakers threw their bodies into the gears of the Puritans' Christian nationalist machinery, their bravery inspired Roger Williams to leave Massachusetts and found a haven of religious toleration in Rhode Island. A century later, evangelical pastors like Isaac Backus and John Leland fought against religious establishment with pulpit and pen. Yet some of their modern-day descendants have forgotten that, to quote Leland, "these establishments metamorphose the church into a creature…which has a natural tendency to make men conclude that bible religion is nothing but a trick of state."

Wolfe opens his book with the story of the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution to illustrate the innate hostility of secularism to religion. But if you ever visit Paris, stop by a little museum on the left bank of the Seine containing the disembodied heads of sculptures depicting the 28 kings of Judah. They decorated Notre Dame Cathedral until a revolutionary mob lopped them off, assuming that they must depict the kings of France. It was not simple secularism that led to this mistaken defacement; it was popular backlash against French Christian nationalism, which had granted its "Christian prince" an absolute, divine right of kings. Secular hostility to religion is learned behavior, a self-fulfilling prophecy rooted in the state's past attempts to repress religious dissent and coerce a more Christian society.

Wolfe's ethnicized vision of Christian nationalism is a reminder that, in a post-liberal vacuum, fearful American Christians have become easy targets for people whispering to take up the sword of the state and smite their foes.