August 1, 2023

I’m Reading “The Case For Christian Nationalism”, So That You Don’t Have To (Pt 1)

We’ll get to Stephen Wolfe’s The Case For Christian Nationalism in a moment, but first…

It’s an angry political world. And Christians are not immune.

Angry Politics

I am not immune. You are not immune. It’s angry politics at twenty paces – even among Christians. I’m a conservative so I get angry from the Right. I know other people – Christian people – who are from the Left who bag me out when I take a progressive politician to task. They are usually (always) the types who spend a lot of time on social media taking conservative politicians to task and getting angry from the Left. Bad-mouthing each other abounds. Ironies abound. If only politics could see the true Christian vision for humanity! Which happens to align with my vision.

I have a chapter in an upcoming The Gospel Coalition Book, called Faithful Exiles: Finding Hope in a Hostile World, which you can pre-order here. I get to write the chapter called Politics In Exile, which, I must say, pushed me to keep doing the work of dialling down my own political frustrations.

The story of Daniel counters Christian Nationalism

As you can see from the front cover, it’s very Babylonian in its sensibilities. Make no mistake, the exile we inhabit culturally in the West is both hostile, and alluring, just as Babylon was. It presents itself as the right side of history.

The God of Heaven

In my chapter, I explore some key texts from Daniel and his experience as a political leader in Babylon. Yes that’s right, a Jewish, God-fearing man who, for all of the restrictions of life under a dictator king, had enormous political and moral clout in the waxing and waning pagan empires of his day.

One of the key ways God is described in Daniel is “the God of heaven”. The term is used as a safety net “above”, so to speak. It both cautions against the overreach of a pagan king who pays lip service to the gods, yet does what he wants. And it gives hope to the exile who lives under the tyrannical rule of the pagan empire. What we see in Daniel is brute power, but not unlimited power, from the pagan kings.

Unlimited power would not render pagan kings sleepless, astonished at God’s work, anguished, reduced to animalistic behaviour, or killed. God’s in control in Daniel 1-6, as palace intrigues play out. And in chapters 7-12, the apocalyptic vision reminds us where the true throne is; it’s with the God of heaven, in heaven (heaven being the locus of God’s control).

And it’s that sense of God in absolute control of history past, present and future, (away with Open Theism please!) that dials down – or ought to dial down – the political heat among Christians. Here’s why: We don’t need it too much. It’s not a zero-sum game. At least not for God’s people. “Whatever it takes” may well be the political animal’s mantra, but the theological animal’s mantra, it must never be.

As I write in the book, f there is a God in heaven then…

This means two things. First Christians can call secular leaders to account with grace and humility. Even the tone and shape of our political disagreements must adorn the gospel. And second, Christians who find themselves in political power must maintain the tension of holding moral certainty with political reality. It cannot be the case that the winner takes it all. For the fact that there is God in heaven is a liberating reality for Christians as political exiles. It spares us the overreach we will be prone to when we hold political power. And it will spare us the despair we so often see in the evangelical subculture when power is lost.

The Case For Christian Nationalism

The Case For Christian Nationalism

Which brings me to Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism (a book I have only really just started, but will plough through bit by bit, especially on long plane flights). I haven’t provided a link to it, because, well because if you want to read it I’m not going to do the heavy lifting for you! Go find it.

But what piqued my interest in the book was a rather bitter encounter on social media with a couple of Australian pastors who took a long-term, well-regarded and godly older evangelical leader to task for a blog post he had written for The Gospel Coalition Australia, which encouraged churches to make their websites accessible in terms of language and approach to non-Christians.

The pushback was excoriating. Excoriating and scornful. Scornful of that leader who has done much for the cause of evangelicalism and sound biblical preaching in this country. And when I checked, it was from young, rather earnest looking Christian pastors in confessional churches on the east coast of Australia. Pastors of churches that run a tight evangelical ship, if you know what I mean. Tight and Right. Oh, and nary a Christian tattoo or a pair of jeans to be seen. It’s implacably cigars and sartorial elegance all the way down.

At that point, I decided to do some research – albeit very little! I went to Amazon.com and looked up the best-selling political theology book in the USA. It was, no surprise, Wolfe’s book. I then went to Amazon.com.au and looked up the best-selling political theology book in Australia. Well, well well, we have a Wolfe in our midst too. Which tells us just how much the American culture war experience is affecting not only Australia, but Australian evangelicals.

Now there’d been plenty of oxygen employed over Wolfe’s book in other settings, enough to get me intrigued, and not a little alarmed. And the title itself is provocative. It comes at a time in the West in which any pride around who we are as nations themselves is pilloried by the hard Left as some sort of return to fascism. The savour of Trump abounds in just about any political theology book being written at the moment.

For the Left, including the Left of evangelicalism, globalism is, apparently, God’s way. Which I don’t believe, for all sorts of reasons. As a conservative I think that nations are, by and large, good things. And God things. God loves the nations and isn’t looking to renew the whole creation as one greyish lump of indeterminate plasticine. He likes all the colours and variety that nations bring. The Kingdom Come, will not be, -despite the words of St Bono-, a place where all the colours bleed into one.

But I also don’t believe that all the colours are meant to be separated out, like some sort of cosmic ethnic washing machine in which the whites are separated out. Yet, as I begin reading Wolfe, it would appear that he does. In fact from the outside, there’s a self-interest in Wolfe’s reading of what a Christian nation is supposed to be, and how it should police its boundaries (if we can even begin to imagine what seems itself already imaginary – a Christian nation).

Take this, for example, on the right to refuse refuge to other Christians, an issue signalled in the Introduction for discussion in chapter three:

…an important question is whether a Christian nation can refuse to allow the immigration of fellow Christians from foreign lands. I argue that they can. The argument is that a spiritual relation – something that Christians share regardless of nationality – is different in kind from a civil relation and therefore cannot serve as the ground for flourishing civil society. Sharing the highest good – a title to eternal life – does not mean that all Christians share what can provide the complete good, and indeed the journey to eternal life in this world requires cultural particulars for that journey. A common language, for example, is necessary for the highest form of encouragement in one’s spiritual life.

And he closes out that section with this zinger:

I argue that a Christian nation may exclude foreign Christians from immigrating when immigration would harm their ability to pursue their good. Nations ought to be hospitable, but they are not obligated to be hospitable to their detriment, just as a household ought to practice hospitality, but not to the extent that it harms it or leads to its destruction.

Christian Nationalism and Casual Racism

It’s the casual racism and self interest that takes my breath away. I don’t know what Wolfe’s favourite colour is, but it reads like his shirts are brown, especially in his demand for exclusive Lebensraum for particular ethnic Christianity. And for all of its theological profundity in the opening chapters – Wolfe is an wide reader and interacts extensively within the Reformed tradition – there’s a crassness, and quite frankly unbiblical and anti-gospel flavour to those statements. I’ll be interested to see how they play out. Interested, and alarmed, I have to admit.

And of course, the one thing missing from what he said is, you know, Bible stuff in which the first allegiance Christians have is to other Christians, not their state, whether it be vaguely Christian or not. And the blinding lack of any idea that the gospel is about putting self-interest aside. And serving! Serving in costly ways. Ways that cost you in this age in light of the great reward in the age to come. Oh and other things come to mind such as:

Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food.  If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?  In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. (James 2:15-17)

I guess the trick is to ensure that the brother or sister is ethnically aligned with you, or at the very least didn’t turn up on your shores in a boat.

Of course Wolfe himself caveats so much, not least of all when he says “This is a work of Christian political theory. It is not, overall a work of political theology”. Perhaps he should give Amazon a call to correct their category error. But he clearly wants to keep it up in the air. so as to avoid charges the likes of which I am making.

But that, I suspect, is his out-clause. Since, technically so far there’s no such thing as a Christian nation (Sorry Doug Wilson , Moscow, Idaho isn’t even close), Wolfe can offer up a Christmas wish-list of what he would like a Christian nation to be, take ultimate views on many matters, yet throw up his hands at the end of it all and say “Meh, but it will never happen!”

But the problem is that he’d like it to. And the other problem – from where I sit – is that a bunch of earnest young men (and they usually are young men) in Australia would like it to as well. And in a sense, with so many evangelical churches rolling over in the face of the cultural hostility, punching right and coddling left, which I believe many do, this stuff is catnip for some people. And I fear these zealous types will scorch a lot of people, and gain and indoctrinate many others, on their way to finding out that it is not the solution that ails them or the church.

I’m going to keep reading The Case For Christian Nationalism so that you don’t have to. Perhaps I’m misreading Wolfe and I am set to be corrected. Yet, from what I have read so far, I expect it to be clever, intellectually rigorous, theologically deep, politically conservative, and wrong.

And wrong not least of all in its definite post-millennial bent. After all, if Jesus isn’t coming back for another five thousand years, then there’s plenty of time to take a kingdom or two on earth for him in the meantime. Yet as we read in Hebrews 12:28, we are “receiving a kingdom”, not building one ourselves.

And I suspect in that received kingdom there will be no wolves.

(Part two to come as I read further).

Written by

stephenmcalpine

There is no guarantee that Jesus will return in our desired timeframe. Yet we have no reason to be anxious, because even if the timeframe is not guaranteed, the outcome is! We don’t have to waste energy being anxious; we can put it to better use.

Stephen McAlpine – futureproof

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