As a researcher, I’ve tracked the ascendance of White Christian nationalism in the United States for years by following preachers, rallies, politicians, militias, and, sadly, insurrections. As a former evangelical minister, it’s a world that shaped my youth and young adulthood. However, even after years of researching some of the ugliest corners of the Internet and living through some of the most sensational religious-political spectacles around the country, there are times you can’t believe what you’re reading—and what others are too.
Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism is already a bestseller; it’s been in the top 2000 books on Amazon for weeks, and, since its November 1 release, it’s been charting in the top 500. This isn’t another fringe text touting an obscure ideology; the National Conservatism website has it at the top of their Books section, and it appears at a time when American Christians have begun to gladly accept the Christian nationalist label.
In June, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene said, “I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.” In September, a University of Maryland Critical Issues Poll found that Christian nationalism is becoming a bigger factor among Republican voters, with 61% of Republican respondents saying they supported declaring the United States a Christian nation.
Christian nationalism is having a moment. Scholars and journalists are signaling its dangers in articles, op-eds, and books. Preachers and politicians are encouraging their flocks to take on the identity proudly as a way to blend their faith and politics. Yet, even if Christian nationalism has become part of common parlance over the last half year, Wolfe’s book signals the dangerous escalation of a movement. It goes well beyond the rhetoric of benign Christian patriotism to a theological justification for White ethnonationalism.
Moreover, while the book just appeared, it should not be taken lightly. As a former evangelical minister, I know it as the kind of work that ends up in the hands of evangelical celebrities, seminarians, rural pastors, and Christian influencers seeking a highbrow theological justification for their basest political and cultural impulses.
Wolfe is a Southern theologian and political theorist who just finished a postdoctoral fellowship at Princeton’s James Madison Program. He takes his inspiration from both Thomas Aquinas and the Protestant Reformers, especially Calvin.
His first major premise is that, even if Adam and Eve had not sinned, humans would have congregated in separate communities on the planet. These communities would have developed distinct ways of life and eventually formed into what we now call nations. Christians should thus do everything possible to institutionalize Christianity in their nations in order to structure them according to God’s vision for human life. This means creating a government in which the civil authorities direct its citizens to the “true religion” to the “fullest extent of their power.”
For a self-described work of political theory, Wolfe spends very little time reflecting on the development of modern nation-states and what we mean today when we use the word “nation.” There’s scant discussion of the origins of the modern nation-state beyond the idea of a group of people who occupy a place for generations and develop a particular way of doing life.
In other words, the path from Adam and Eve to the contemporary nation-state isn’t mediated by Rousseau, Hobbes, or any recognition of the long lineage of political theory that has contributed to the development of the nation-state as we’ve come to understand it; there’s no substantive discussion of the differences among communities, cities, people groups, nations, states, and countries. But this is far from the argument’s most egregious shortcomings.
Wolfe’s real interest is in justifying the idea that people by nature are drawn to those who are similar to them. “Indeed, one ought to prefer and to love more those who are more similar to him,” Wolfe writes, “and much would result in the world if we all preferred our own and minded our own business.” This means Christians should love those who share their way of life—or what he calls their ethnicity—more than they should love others.
In his mind, nations can only be founded on a shared ethnicity, because “your kin have belonged to this people, on this land—to this nation in this place—and so they bind you to that people and place, creating a common volkgeist.” Wolfe’s argument for nationalism based on the shared ethnicity of a volk based in blood relations comes into focus when he explains his intended reader. “I am male, and am rooted ancestrally in Western Europe, and am speaking largely to a Western European male audience.”
His emphasis on a common volkgeist made up of people of European descent echoes another social theorist whose life and work shaped the 20th century: “What makes a people or, to be more correct, a race is not language, but blood.” Hitler’s emphasis on the German volk and their ties to the homeland are resurrected in Wolfe’s theological argument for White American Christians to love their own before all others.
In order to achieve his vision for a Christian nationalist state, Wolfe argues that it’s necessary to overthrow the very foundations of American democracy. In his mind, it’s impossible to form a nation around a creed made up of universal principles such as the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, and the idea that all men are created equal. In other words, the Bill of Rights just won’t cut it when it comes to national identity and formation. Instead, he maintains that nations must be rooted in “a love for one’s own” in the context of intergenerational occupation of the same homeland.
Once again, the resonances with Hitler’s view of the nation are uncanny. Hitler says in Mein Kampf that the purpose of the state is to maintain a community of people “who are physically as well as spiritually kindred,” and thus to “preserve the existence of the race.” While Wolfe argues that technically speaking the will of the people forms the nation, he has in mind a strict set of people who are part of the blood and soil of America. The nation doesn’t exist to protect the rights and freedoms of its people, but to cultivate the traditions and faith of one people.
What does Wolfe’s view of the Christian nation look like on the ground? On Twitter, he has argued that women should willingly give up the vote in order to ensure the nation is run by men as God intended. In a nation run by a hierarchy of Christian leaders, with a “Christian prince” at the helm, Wolfe also advocates for the enforcement of Sabbath laws and the punishment of “false religion”—i.e. anything outside of the state-approved Christian practice.
Since the nation is based on a love of one’s own people, he maintains that interethnic and/or interracial marriages may be “sinful.” On September 30th, Wolfe tweeted, “And thus while intermarriage is not itself wrong (as an individual matter), groups have a collective duty to be separate and marry among themselves.”
As one can imagine, Wolfe’s approach extends to a troubling analysis of race relations in the United States. Eight months ago, Wolfe stated in an article at IM-1776 that he believes Black people are more prone to lawlessness. “For complex reasons, blacks in America, considered as a group, are reliable sources for criminality, and their criminality increases when constraints diminish,” Wolfe writes. “Despite being around 13% of the US population, blacks have consistently committed over 50% of the homicides for decades, and it is getting worse. In 2020, according to the FBI stats, blacks committed nearly 57% of all known murders.”
It’s not insignificant that the book is published by Canon Press. Canon is an imprint started by Doug Wilson, pastor of Christ Church in Moscow, Idaho. Wilson is an authoritarian Christian who oversees a ministry empire that includes a nationwide network of churches, a nationwide network of Christian day schools, several publishing outlets, a seminary, and a myriad of media channels. In Southern Slavery as It Was, Wilson and his co-author argue that slavery provided a “genuine affection” among Black and White people, “that has never existed in any nation before the War or since.”
Over the last year, prominent politicians and pastors have begun proudly identifying as Christian nationalists. It’s a rhetorical ploy intended to take the stigma out of the label and use it to advance a political agenda aligned with Trumpism. However, the argument of Wolfe’s book should erase any notion that Christian nationalism is a benign force in the American public sphere.
Despite its highbrow language and theological jargon, it’s abundantly clear that the book is a justification for the xenophobia, queerphobia, religious intolerance, White supremacy, and misogyny that have become the hallmarks of Christian Trumpism, and sadly, large swaths of the American Right. Wolfe openly calls for a new social order based on a strict theology of family, volk, homeland, and patriarchy. He openly refutes constitutional democracy in favor of a nation mediated by a Christian leader who is the “head of the people.”
It would be easy to write it off as an obscure theological treatise coming from the fringe of the Christian Right. But it’s already in the hands of an army of Christian nationalist leaders poised to bring this version of the Gospel to their people. In other words, the case for Christian nationalism is already being made.
Every Christian pastor and politician who has readily accepted the Christian nationalist label should be asked if they’re on board with Sabbath laws, the negation of women’s suffrage, and eliminating the Constitution that anchors our democracy. If nothing else, the work provides a litmus test for what Christian nationalism actually means in the public square and a chance to realize the tragic consequences it may have for our country.