The Case for Christian Nationalism
By Stephen Wolfe.
Canon Press, 2022.
Paperback, 488 pages, $24.99.
Reviewed by Wesley Reynolds.
Stephen Wolfe’s bold new book The Case for Christian Nationalism sets out to renew the cultural underpinnings of nation and Christian institutions. Although it is unfortunately couched within a nationalist framework, it is a call not merely to reclaim our nation but to renew our culture and our institutions. Wolfe’s Christian nationalism is different from Hazony’s national conservatism, different from Catholic integralism, and different from Protestant Reconstruction, in that it asks us to think locally about renewal. Could it be that this book unintentionally brings more concerned Christians in line with traditions and communities and causes them to be less interested in idealistic nationalist projects?
Like T. S. Eliot, Wolfe is not satisfied with culturally neutral space and his argument follows that of Eliot’s The Idea of a Christian Society. Wolfe asserts that public Christianity is the feature which keeps societies from falling into contentious secularism and stripping people ultimately of their moral dignity (not unlike Paul Elmer More, G. K. Chesterton, Christopher Dawson, Jacques Maritain, and Russell Kirk). Society ought to be directed towards both temporal and spiritual good. With Augustine, Aquinas, and Calvin, Wolfe argues that “grace restores nature.” National renewal is not only the result of the civil authority, but also of specific social worlds, “both of which prescribe concrete duties and norms—which the people then act on.” When the spiritual foundations of these norms are destroyed, civil social order falls to pieces.
Wolfe is responding to the recent Neo-Marxist takeover of our public institutions, which daily reveals that cultural neutrality and individualism are no longer viable alternatives to public moral decline (and never were). Hierarchy is part of the social order, Wolfe argues, as is what he terms “civil fellowship,” or neighborhoods of “place-making, aesthetic judgment, conversations on contemplative things, expression of wonder, and ordered liberty” which drive us to our vocations. Wolfe makes frequent nods to Aristotle and Cicero and conservatives like Burke and Scruton on prescriptive duties and loyalty to homeland and ancestors. Wolfe’s nationalism is closer to traditional conservatism than his book admits.
Wolfe is also responding to the more recent “Reformed two kingdoms” position on culture in Reformed circles, which asserts that culture is intrinsically pluralistic and that a religiously-neutral public sphere allows Christianity to grow as a spiritual force. Wolfe counters that this position assumes post-Second World War cultural definitions. He returns to more historical definitions, marshaling two intellectual traditions to his side: Reformed Christian polemics of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (Calvin, Turretin, Junius, Althusius, Bullinger, and Rutherford) and Romantic-ethnic nationalism of the 19th century (von Herder and Carlyle). Reformed polemicists assumed an established Christian public sphere in which the church administered separately over spiritual matters (classical two kingdoms).
But here, Wolfe makes some odd choices. At best, Wolfe’s book cannot speak to any Christian tradition not purely Reformed, and that only in a snapshot of time. Reformed polity such as Wolfe expresses it arguably never existed, or if it did, it only lasted in Geneva, England, Scotland, the Dutch Low Countries, and in New England during brief periods from the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This was the age of absolutism on the continent of Europe, and conversely, Reformed polities were often governed by corrupt financial oligarchs or established clerical and landed elites which maintained or adapted earlier medieval institutions to the early modern world. Wolfe leaves out the eccentricities and failures of Reformed republics, like the Puritan “Levelers” in England (who had read their Calvinist literature). One problem was that after Protestant and Catholic integralist states challenged the older hierarchy, they had no higher power for establishing churches than the emerging nation state (minster cities, monasteries, abbeys, and bishoprics being now under the Christian prince and not the Western Church). Dissent was now a crime against the state (newly solidified), and persecution rose during the early modern period. Reformed polities finally collapsed under the pressures of international commercialism and print cultures which undermined Reformed magisterial sumptuary laws, restrictions on the press, and lower church conformity in worship. Indeed, Reformed state churches never safeguarded Protestants from modern liberalism, rather they embedded secularism into state affairs, as the freethinking movement in established Protestant universities and churches across Europe demonstrated. Integralist and Reformed polities were clunky at best because of rapidly changing nation-states.
There is very little in Wolfe’s book on the emergence of the nation state and the struggle to bridle the administrative state through checks and balances. As nation-states evolved under the pressures of the commercial revolution, colonization, and trade networks, Reformed polities merged into pan-Protestant communities (a transition not unappreciated by Wolfe, but one which remains unexplained). Constitutional settlements in England, Scotland, and America in 1688-1689 broadened theological conformity and expanded the commonwealth tradition into modern constitutionalism, leaving Reformed treatises far behind. Hooker, Blackstone, Montesquieu, Sidney, Hume, Shaftesbury, Addison, Steele, Burke, and other eighteenth century minds more successfully adapted classical notions of government to contemporary history than Reformed literature ever did. Reformed polemicists could not have accounted for the sudden social changes in nation states, social hierarchies, and information networks which transitioned nations into constitutional systems and international alliances throughout the century.
What is more, Wolfe’s two traditions sit very uneasily with each other and he confuses magisterium for nationalism. The Reformed understanding of country as a commonwealth, or a jurisdiction of law governing a civil polity does not square with Wolfe’s ethnic definition of a nation. Wolfe argues, “(1) that each of us has a people-group (i.e., an ethnicity), (2) that each people-group can be conscious of itself, and (3) that each people-group has a right to be for itself. These last two elements are essential to nationalism.” Nowhere in either the classical tradition, or in Reformed polity is nation absolutely equated with ethnicity. That definition came later when von Herder constructed a heroic origin myth of nationalities as evolving from ethnic folklore, kinship customs, and language. The German Romantic school often conflated ethnic culture (volksgeist) with nationality (nationalgeist) in ways which are anachronistic to the early Reformed polemicists, and certainly the classical tradition of Aristotle and Cicero. After Alexander the Great, hellenization was a multi-ethnic cultural force, and its empire which eventually framed the Roman provinces (gens) was likewise cosmopolitan.
But like the German Völkisch movement, Mazzini in Italy, and the Teutonic nationalists in Britain and America, Wolfe argues that ethnic interests will supersede class divides and bind the nation together. “Since every people-group has internal differences (e.g., class-based differences),” he argues, “nation is used to emphasize the unity of the whole, though no nation (properly speaking) is composed of two or more ethnicities.” Apart from being practically impossible and morally undesirable in modern nation states, it was this very sort of nationalism which led to a century of political upheaval in Europe, culminating in the 1848 revolutions. It set ethnicities against each other. Carving out territory for each ethnic group on the grounds of ethnic sovereignty has never worked in Europe, as was especially demonstrated under the Hapsburgian Austro-Hungarian empire after the union of 1867, when Slavs, Croats, Serbs, and many others all clambered for sovereignty. Serbian anarcho-ethnic nationalism finally sparked the First World War. It isn’t that ethnic nationalism succumbed to narcissism and so just got out of hand, as Wolfe argues. Nationalism fails because ethnic sovereignty has always failed to be sustainable in a geo-political world (in which national standing in a larger international community of diplomacy and war is important). It fails on practical, historical, and moral grounds.
Nevertheless, ethnic and folk traditions are very important for renewing local cultures, and Wolfe’s notion is actually more localist and rooted in place than his nationalist label implies. He says that ethnicity must be experienced and is a “familiarity with others based in common language, manners, customs, stories, taboos, rituals, calendars, social expectations, duties, loves, and religion.” Wolfe’s discussion about attachment to one’s family, ethnic traditions, homeland, etc. is more conservative than nationalist. Take for example this portion: “The land that comes under one’s mastery is worth dying for. An offense against it is an offense against the man, for he and it are united on account of his activity on it…The labor of your ancestors is also brought into your relation of delight. Your kin acted on this ground, leaving traces of their activity; and being united affectively, their activity is your activity.” Although place does not always map out onto ethnicity, often ethnic traditions can color places with distinct cultural meaning.
The question is does Wolfe subsume culture under politics in making culture important in renewing the civil sphere? Nationalism remains a vague proposition. Nowhere does Wolfe draw on the American Framers (except concerning church establishment), nor does he discuss America’s unique alternative to nationalism in Federalism, checks and balances, and separation of powers. Because he avoids the constitutional tradition of the eighteenth century, he has no bridge from Reformed polity to nationalism. Thus, Wolfe falls back on “national will,” a vague Lockean/Hegelian explanation for constituted civil social order. He states, “A nation with explicit awareness of itself has a national self-conception (i.e., a collective recognition of nationhood) and can openly deliberate about its national good, and it wills that good explicitly.” Still, Wolfe admits that “national will is deposited in civil and social institutions as mediums of national good.” Institutions and not individuals frame the civil social order, a conservative idea. Although Wolfe does hope for a Caesarian leader to rally national will (like a French Napoleon), he does not leave civil order either in the hands of the people or a dictator, but rather in local institutions bounded by place (an important concept for Wolfe and for traditional conservatives alike) and in customs (also important for both). Most significantly, Wolfe does not argue from abstract rights, except only to be contrarian and argue for a right of revolution (which he then proceeds to hem in with the conservative principle of prudence). His nationalism, when it is boiled down to its practical elements, might as easily be called localism.
Wolfe often conflates political and cultural questions, and is not at all consistent in conceiving of culture as upstream from politics. Nationalism politicizes culture, while patriotism seeks to renew the culture of a country by returning to its primal precepts, customs, and historic figures. Wolfe understands the value of place and ancestry as safeguards against mass culture and mass state. He has also recovered a vital Protestant tradition of civil polity which is of value to American civil social order. His frequent dependence upon John Winthrop, the Mathers, Samuel Rutherford, and John Witherspoon remind us of Burke’s old adage for America; “the dissidence of dissent, and the Protestantism of the Protestant religion.” America was Protestant before it was anything else, and its success or failure will be determined by how true it remains to its first principles and its covenanted God. Wolfe reminds us that renewal in America is a matter not only of private faith, but of a public Christian spirit which is patriotic and grateful for our ancient Christian civil order. His book is a cry from Longfellow’s Tegnér’s Drapa, “Build it again, O ye bards, Fairer than before!”
E. Wesley Reynolds, III is the Director of the Wilbur Fellows Program at the Russell Kirk Center. He holds a PhD in history from Central Michigan University, USA, in partnership with the University of Newcastle, UK. He teaches history at Northwood University and has previously worked in public policy with the Mackinac Center. Reynolds is the author of Coffeehouse Culture in the Atlantic World, 1650-1789 (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2022), as well as other articles and reviews.
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