Earlier this year, just months apart, two books on Christian nationalism hit shelves. Both were written by veterans of the US Army with PhDs in political science. Both books define nationalism as an effort to use the government to preserve a people’s cultural particularity, founded on a felt sense of affinity and similarity with one another. The main difference is that one book argued that these are good ideas and the other that they are bad.
The first book was Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism. The second was my own, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism. Our books do not cite each other, yet it is remarkable the degree to which they speak to the same issues from opposite perspectives.
Wolfe argues that we have a natural affinity for similar people and that, since God is the author of nature, this natural affinity is good. He believes, therefore, that we should affirm our desire to be with similar people, working to preserve what makes us culturally distinct and using government power as part of that effort. Wolfe’s argument is refreshingly clear, honest, and forthright about the foundations and implications of nationalism.
That we have natural affinities is clear. As I argue in my own book, we are tribal creatures, naturally drawn “to the people and places that feel familiar and in which we see ourselves reflected.” That’s a simple observation of human reality. But that doesn’t mean such loyalties are reliably good. Which leads to my first major difference with Wolfe: We cannot simply take human experience as an infallible guide, because human experience is corrupted by sin. As theologians in the natural law tradition might put it, that something is doesn’t imply that something ought to be. Wolfe leaps over this dilemma by a dubious sleight of hand, reading our group loyalties backwards into humanity’s unfallen state and so sanctifying them, unrevised and unchecked. “Your instinct to conduct everyday life among similar people is natural,” he argues, “and being natural, it is for your good.”
Equating “natural” with “good” is not how one typically appeals to natural law. Sex, to take one example, is natural—but only good within certain bounds. Whether or not our desire to be with similar people dates back to the Garden of Eden is less relevant than how our fallen state corrupts our tribalism and magnifies its destructive tendencies. But for Wolfe, the Fall is no more than a speed bump on his way to sacralizing tribalism with little consideration for the boundaries necessary to keep it good. Nationalism pretends we can embrace the organic simplicity of tribal life without worrying about its dark side.
For that matter, Wolfe also might consider that not everyone experiences the pull toward similarity in the same way. Some of us, at least, are also drawn to difference, finding it equally important to our flourishing. Wolfe’s “phenomenological” method seems to be little more than a license for projecting his own sentiments onto humanity as a whole and thus cloaking them with the authority of what is “natural.” But nature, including human nature, is broader and more multifaceted than Wolfe imagines.
Enforcing cultural particularity
By this path, Wolfe develops a theology of identity politics, though he does not call it that. If our group loyalties are good, he contends, we should advocate for them: “Each people-group has the right to be for itself. You and your people are entitled by nature to a right of difference.” And if we should advocate for our groups, we should try to use the government to protect them. “Nations must have and ought to fight to secure law-making authority … to order and secure themselves according to their particularities.”
That groups should use political power to sustain and uphold their cultural particularity is my second major disagreement with Wolfe. As I explore at length in my book, cultural borders are fuzzy, overlapping, and changing, which makes them a poor fit for clear, hard, permanent political boundaries. Using government to enforce culture is blunt and inevitably leads to repression against cultural minorities and dissidents. Using government to enforce culture ends up violating basic ideas of the open society, like free speech and free religion.
Wolfe addressed this argument of mine—not in his book but on his podcast, Ars Politica, during which he devoted three hours to reviewing my book in September. I am grateful for the attention, but was I disappointed that, when he and his three conversation partners raised this portion of my argument, they mischaracterized or misunderstood it. According to them, my argument about the blurriness of cultural boundaries means that I deny the goodness or even the reality of cultural particularity, and that I treat cultural identity as trivial and easily changeable. In fact, I affirmed both the reality and the goodness of cultural particularity. And my example of changing culture was learning to speak a new language or converting to a different religion, neither of which is quick or easy. I don’t object to cultural particularity—only to its enforcement at the point of law. Wolfe and his conversation partners seemed to miss the point.
They also neglected my argument that nationalism is illiberal. Indeed, instead of responding to my objection, Wolfe made my argument for me: To him, illiberalism is a feature of nationalism, not a bug; an advertisement, not a cautionary warning. Wolfe and I agree that nationalism is illiberal; we only disagree on whether that is a good thing or a bad thing. Wolfe (or one of his podcast interlocutors—it’s hard to distinguish voices amid some of the cross-talk on the recording) noted that I am “really uncomfortable with the fact that some people might be treated as a second-class citizen” in a nationalist regime. Yes, I am, because the Golden Rule tells me to do to others what I want done to me.
By contrast, Wolfe openly argues for laws criminalizing blasphemy, heresy, and public impiety. “That is not to say that capital punishment is the necessary, sole, or desired punishment” for heresy, Wolfe reassures us. “Banishment and long-term imprisonment may suffice as well.” How magnanimous.
A Christian Caesar
Sustaining such a world, of course requires more than the church; it requires a Christian culture and a Christian prince. Wolfe wants to enlist the power of the state and the pressure of social conformity to bolster Christian nationhood. He calls for a “measured and theocratic Caesarism,” overseen by a “prince as a world-shaker for our time, who brings a Christian people to self-consciousness,” a man of “dignity and greatness of soul.” In a footnote he frankly states that “modern democracy is often more oppressive than its alternatives. I prefer Caesarism in our time.” Such claims vindicate my warning that nationalism has authoritarian tendencies. One suspects the Uyghurs of China, the women of Afghanistan, and the besieged citizens of Ukraine may differ with Wolfe on the relative merits of democracy compared to its alternatives.
Wolfe’s Christian prince has a far more expansive mandate than our liberal democracies do. “Civil government ought to direct its people to the true religion,” he argues. He roots this assertion not in Scripture (which does not say any such thing), but as “a principle of nature.” This is the cornerstone of all that follows, for the premise can justify anything done for the sake of whatever the government deems “true religion.” Again, Wolfe pays scant attention to how the Fall corrupts governments or to how we ought to guard against their inclination toward abuse and oppression.
Armed thus, the Christian prince is empowered to protect the church from heretics, fund religious education, convene and moderate synods “to resolve doctrinal conflicts,” and “confirm or deny their theological judgments.” Wolfe pays lip service to a version of the separation of church and state—but it’s unclear why he bothers. If the prince can decide whose theological school to fund, how to define heresy, and which theological judgments to endorse, whatever vestigial independence the church has is strictly pro forma.
(Wolfe, to his credit, recognizes that at least one community of Christians fits poorly with his Christian nationalist vision: Baptists. As he writes, “Baptizing infants brings them outwardly (at least) into the people of God. When the body politic is baptized, all are people of God,” which furthers the goal of Christianizing the state and society. As a Baptist, all I can say is that Wolfe has inadvertently made a strong argument for the merits of Baptist political theology.)
The great-souled Christian prince will be aided in his efforts by the social pressures of cultural Christianity, the defense of which takes up its own chapter. Wolfe believes that cultural Christianity “warms the people’s heart to Christianity, making them receptive to Christian belief and practice,” and it “internalizes the felt duty to perform Christian practices.” These are odd claims. Wolfe had earlier used a “phenomenological” approach to demonstrate the lived experience of ethnicity and nationhood. Wolfe ought to have considered the same approach here. The “lived reality” of cultural Christianity is not one of warm hearts joyfully performing Christian duties, but a Christian version of political correctness: a legalistic religion enforced by social pressure and group conformity.
Wolfe defends Christian culture by contrasting it to contemporary culture. In modern society, he complains, parents must stay vigilant to raise children in a hostile culture. As I can attest, that is certainly true. But should parents let their guard down in a “Christian” culture? One of the chief dangers of cultural Christianity is that it lulls us to sleep with promises of spiritual safety while reducing the gospel to nothing more than what sociologist Christian Smith famously dubbed “moralistic therapeutic deism.”
‘Amicable ethnic separation’
And cultural Christianity’s harms can run much deeper. At its worst, it has supplied a kind of religious buttress for whoever happened to be in charge—which, in American history, meant white men. Historically, Christian nationalism was the mask that white supremacy wore.
But Wolfe refuses to discuss that history. The track record of nationalism around the world, and the specific history of American nationalism, is irrelevant to him. He’s not arguing for the bad kind of nationalism, he assures us, so he has no responsibility to denounce it or even notice it. “The reader,” he writes, “should not assume that I’m trying to justify or explain away any historical example of nationalism.” Indeed, he tries to wave away any effort to rebut his arguments with empirical evidence. “If the social scientists wish to critique my book, they must step out of social science, suspend their belief in social dogma, and enter rational inquiry.”
This is nonsense, of course; Wolfe does not get to set parameters on how his critics are allowed to disagree with him. Social science is a mode of rational inquiry, and Wolfe himself invokes history: In an extended argument about the right of nations to exclude outsiders, he recounts the history of how refugees disrupted local communities and destroyed local cultures during the Wars of Religion in pre-Enlightenment Europe. And he makes similar points in a final chapter on the role of religion during the American founding. History, it seems, is relevant after all. As Jesus reminds us, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matt. 7:16). Observing the historical fruit of a given ideology is fair game for discerning its true nature.
And so we should ask about race and Christian nationalism. This question brings us to the most controversial part of Wolfe’s book. In my book, I argued that the cultural particularity of white American evangelicalism comes with certain epistemic blinders that can obscure the realities of intergenerational racial inequality, which can make white evangelicals passively complicit in its perpetuation. In practice and in history, then, Christian nationalism seems to go together with white supremacy.
Given Wolfe’s defense of group identity and the right of groups to advocate for themselves, a reader may reasonably wonder if Wolfe’s argument leads even more directly to white nationalism. He denies this in a footnote, but it is unclear how one avoids the conclusion that white people should advocate for themselves, including through legal power, given passages like this:
Blood relations remain relevant to nations, when referring to one’s ancestral connection to a people and place back to time immemorial. … Christian philosopher Johann Herder was correct in saying that the volk is a “family writ large.” This is an apt description not because everyone is a cousin by blood but because one’s kin lived here with the extended families of others for generations, leaving behind a trace of themselves and their cooperation and their great works and sacrifices. Blood relations matter for your 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 volksgeist [national spirit].
This is, literally, blood and soil nationalism. A reader could be forgiven for thinking that Wolfe is arguing that people who share white ancestry and kinship constitute a nation that should be “for itself.” In his (sort of) defense, Wolfe consistently speaks of “ethnicity” rather than “race.” And he clarified on his podcast that “I don’t think people identify as ‘white’ people,” suggesting he does not think “white” denotes a coherent people group for the purpose of his argument. (He does not offer that clarification in the book).
On the other hand, Wolfe also criticized (on the podcast) the double standard inherent in left-wing identity politics: Everyone else gets to celebrate their identity except white people, who are denied an ethnic identifier despite being saddled with responsibility for historic oppression committed by whites. Wolfe is not wrong about the double standard. But instead of opting for the obvious solution—rejecting identity politics altogether—he lays a theological foundation for embracing our ethnic identities, arguing that we ought to love our own people more than others and, sometimes, seek “amicable ethnic separation along political lines.”
Again, Wolfe explicitly denies that he is arguing for white nationalism—but if you write the recipe, denouncing the cake rings hollow. Wolfe’s denial does not stop others from using the same recipe, cloaked in Christian language—which is precisely what generations of American racists did.
Despite how alarming all this may sound, it only scratches the surface of what is troubling in Wolfe’s book. He presents it as a work of Christian political theory yet disavows any need to consult and faithfully interpret Scripture, which appears almost nowhere over the course of nearly 500 pages. He rests his argument on a dense thicket of appeals to 16th- and 17th-century Reformed theologians, along with scattered references to Thomas Aquinas, Augustine, and, oddly, German philosopher Johann Herder, not usually recognized as a “Christian” thinker.
At points, Wolfe brands his work a product of early-modern Reformed thinking, yet he appeals often to the authority of “the Christian tradition,” as if it were a singular thing. Wolfe wants his work to be seen as an organic outgrowth of a long tradition of continuous Christian political thinking. In reality, it is an idiosyncratic text with little connection to the Bible, resting on a host of cherry-picked quotations from favored philosophers.
Wolfe’s approach to his sources is key to his agenda. “My goal is to reinvigorate Christendom in the West—that is my chief aim,” he says. But this is hardly the chief priority of the Bible, the church, or Jesus Christ, which is why Wolfe cannot appeal to them. “The Christian nation is the complete image of eternal life on earth,” he claims. “My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus affirmed (John 18:36). The resurrection of Christendom is not the point of Christianity.
Wolfe’s agenda becomes clear in his epilogue, in which he drops the scholarly tone. He offers “a series of loosely organized aphorisms,” denouncing progressives, the “New America,” transgenderism, sexual deviancy, the “globalist American empire,” and “gynocracy.” He goes on and on (and on) about the virtues of masculinity and dangers of feminine leadership. Wolfe compares progressive governance to military occupation and calls “the ruling class” the “enemies of the human race,” while extolling the virtues of a “strong and austere aesthetic,” and calling on his Christian prince to nullify unjust federal laws. Wolfe is neither exaggerating for shock value nor writing ironically to demonstrate absurdity. In a chapter on the right of revolution, Wolfe concludes that we are living under tyranny and that violent revolution against the United States government is “morally permissible,” because the “universalizing and totalizing non-Christian regime” attacks true religion. “How is this not tyranny?” he asks.
As it happens, before writing a book on Christian nationalism, I wrote one on just war theory and paid special attention to the right of revolution. Wolfe is wrong on several counts. He acknowledges that other, peaceful avenues are still available to contest the government’s unjust policies. If such avenues exist, how is this tyranny? And how would war be the last resort (a standard criterion in the just war tradition)? It is fashionable among far-right commentators to accuse the American “regime” of tyranny, and their freedom to do so is the best proof that they have no idea what real tyranny is. Wolfe’s theology of civil war is wrong on the merits—and deeply irresponsible in our polarized times. His use of Christian language to defend political violence against a freely elected government should be bigger scandal than it is: It amounts to a call for holy war against democracy.
Sedition aside, his epilogue isn’t wholly without insight. Drawing from Friedrich Nietzsche and Francis Fukuyama, he condemns the “Marvelization” of reality—our passive consumption of virtual battles through social media to distract us from the boredom of life at the end of history. He’s not wrong. But Wolfe offers Christian nationalism as the answer, entailing a “pursuit of higher life” that requires real will, effort, and sacrifice. This is no answer: What is Christian nationalism but another imagined epic contest, a fantasy of Great Renewal? Wolfe doesn’t hate Marvelization—he just thinks he has a better script.
Nietzsche hovers in the background in other places. Wolfe muses about the importance of mustering sufficient will to achieve the Christian nationalist state. “I emphasized the will throughout this book,” he says, because “we have to retrain the mind by the strength of will.” Elsewhere Wolfe asserts that “we must overcome ourselves.” It’s an odd phrase; biblically, a better concept would be self-control, which is a fruit of the Spirit, not of our own (sinful) will. The idea of “self-overcoming” through strength of will is a Nietzschean concept, and a close cousin to another of Nietzsche’s best-known ideas: the will to power, and its triumph.
Where Christian nationalism leads
The tale of our two books has a strange coda, one that unfolded like a parable illustrating the dangers I warned against. At the conclusion of his three-hour podcast, Wolfe dismissed my work as an “anti-white book,” an odd claim considering I had written admiringly of Anglo-Protestants’ “awe-inspiring historical record of moral and political crusading,” and argued that we should honor the American Founders and their heritage.
I wondered why Wolfe and his interlocutors seemed so taken with my treatment of race, a relatively small part of my book. They complained that I “spent so much time attacking white people.” Weeks later, I got at least one answer: Wolfe’s co-host, Thomas Achord, was outed as the person behind a virulently racist, misogynistic, antisemitic, white nationalist anonymous Twitter account.
To be clear, this revelation is not, by itself, an argument against Wolfe’s book. Wolfe denounced Achord’s tweets, claimed he was unaware of Achord’s views, and is not responsible for them. (Within days, the Ars Politica podcast was taken down and has disappeared from almost every distribution app.) On the other hand, Wolfe did promote Achord’s book about the virtues of segregation. Regardless, Wolfe would be understandably eager for his book to stand on its own and not be judged guilty by association with his podcast partner. That is a fair expectation and the reason why I’ve only mentioned Achord after assessing Wolfe’s book itself.
Still, the whole episode does suggest something about the relationship between Christian nationalism and America’s racial history. Why did Achord, who believes in the superiority of white people, see common cause with Wolfe, the author of a book defending Christian nationalism? It is easy for Wolfe to disavow the connection, but why did Achord believe the connection was there? Why do white nationalists believe that Christian nationalists are their allies?
Because history matters—the history Wolfe resolutely refuses to talk about, even as Achord and his ilk know it well. And that history consistently shows that Christian nationalism is not a guardrail against authoritarian white nationalism, but the gateway to it.
Or to something even worse. Recall that Wolfe spent the scholarly portion of his book calling for “theocratic Caesarism” helmed by a great-souled, world-shaking prince who is “a sort of national god”; musing on the importance of blood and land; affirming our tribal instinct to stick close to similar people; calling for state control of churches and the banishment of heretics; exhorting us to show strength of will; yearning for the “totality of national action”; dismissing liberal democracy as worse than its alternatives; and justifying violent revolution against the godless regime. With even a cursory knowledge of history, we know what this is.
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University, a research fellow with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan. His most recent book is The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism.