Acton Institute Powerblog

The Will to Power Is Not the Christian Way

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A new book on Christian nationalism has touched a chord with many who feel alienated from a culture increasingly hostile to religious faith. Its prescriptions, however, may prove as deadly as the disease it wishes to cure.

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It is not a point of dispute that the Christian faith, both in influence and number of adherents, is declining in the Western world. Every month, new books, articles, podcasts, surveys, and sermons analyze, diagnose, and strategize about the waves of secularism pounding through churches, synagogues, homes, marriages, workplaces, universities, primary and secondary schools—indeed, what feels like every square inch of our society. As a college Presbyterian pastor at a state university, I feel this as acutely as anyone. The statistics of opposition for campus ministry are overwhelming; I often tell friends that my job is as a rear guard for the faith in the West. I now look to the Global South and the East for the future of institutional Christian faith.

So when I first encountered fellow Presbyterian Stephen Wolfe’s articles in 2020, I was excited. But my excitement shifted to dismay as his book, The Case for Christian Nationalism, swept through bestseller lists in 2022. Although he makes some helpful observations, Wolfe’s manifesto is an ultimately unhelpful response for American Christians facing the reality of an aggressive secularism.

Wolfe argues that the Christian religion is not merely a spiritual truth but also the best and only solution to society’s quest for civil justice and equity. His hope for America is the establishment of a “Christian nation,” or a nation whose “totality of action,” both legal and social, is directed by the Christian faith and toward Christian goods, both “earthly and heavenly.” He defines “nationalism” as civil actions and social commitments that protect and further “one’s own”—particularly one’s own nation.

Wolfe comes to this conclusion not as a theologian but as a political philosopher observing “natural principles,” or natural law. He is emphatic that grace (God’s redemptive interaction with his creation) does not replace nature but rather perfects and completes it. Thus, the rational man is capable of deducing true justice independent of special revelation. The fall into sin had only minimal effect on a Christian’s capacity to discern, and hopefully apply, Christian nationalism to a given polis.

First, some praise. Wolfe sets himself a colossal task: He tackles nothing less than the major philosophical and political questions that have animated us “social animals” since Aristotle. What is justice? What is the political good? What is peace? How do religious claims interact with human social life? And Wolfe’s ambition is matched by his breadth of reading. He earnestly consults the theological and political voices of the Protestant Reformation, especially the Magisterial Reformation, which sought an interdependence of church and state. He writes with admirable zeal. It is clear that he cherishes his country, his family, and his faith. Lastly, he rightly sees the threats posed by radical progressivism and secularism against not only spiritual order but earthly order as well.

Wolfe also correctly understands government pre-exists the Fall and is a creational good from God. Therefore, government deserves Christian prayer for “peaceful and quiet lives in godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2), and to “punish evil and praise good” (Rom. 13). Christians must pursue civil order that protects justice and punishes evil, even with political office. Second, Wolfe rightly studies the Reformers’ desire to integrate Christian faith with government, even in ways that raise our separation of church and state eyebrows. Government exists for our common good, and somehow that common good must be inferred from Christian faith.

However, there are major problems with The Case for Christian Nationalism. First, regarding style, Wolfe is far from accessible. This book is slow going. Wolfe claims to “resurrect” the style of the Magisterial Reformers and to counteract tweetable sound bites with “the force of logic.” At times, though, it seems as if Wolfe’s strategy is to employ a verbal barrage as a tidal wave to obscure just how debatable some of his contentions are, whether condoning Christian violent revolution or warning against the perils of seed oil.

Second, Wolfe is hardly charitable to any challenge or disagreement. Wolfe dismisses any criticism of Christian nationalism as lacking logical coherence, being critically beholden to leftist sociology, or just not in his domain (like theology.) He simply cannot entertain a world where he might be wrong.

For more substantial political, historical, and philosophical criticism, others have written long critiques, most notably Kevin DeYoung, Neil Shenvi, Brian Mattson, and Susannah Black Roberts. I, however, wish to address several ways that Wolfe betrays his own tradition—a betrayal that ought to make us wary of his approach to scholarship in general.

Wolfe writes explicitly as a Presbyterian and endorses a Presbyterian Christian nationalism. Reformed Presbyterians are compelled by conscience, tradition, and confession to found any theological and theological-political program upon scripture first. Yet Wolfe does not even make a passing effort to consult scripture to bolster his arguments; instead, he says, “I make little effort to exegete biblical text.” He attempts instead to validate his arguments by appealing to the Magisterial Reformers (including John Calvin), Puritans, and others. Throughout his argument, scripture is decorative, not foundational. In the most theological chapters, the first and second, Wolfe writes dozens of pages with hardly one proof text, let alone serious explication or exegesis.

Within the tradition Wolfe claims as his own, this move is inexcusable. Any reader of the Westminster Divines, Calvin, and the Puritans knows this: Do not start an argument by saying “I will ignore scripture.” The Reformed tradition long admits that it stands or falls on privileging scripture when interpreting human experience and obligations, and that more systematically than any other Christian tradition. In dismissing scripture, Wolfe betrays his confession and the theological giants whose shoulders he claims to stand upon. With that betrayal, he casts a shadow on all his many invocations of past thinkers, for he makes little effort to understand these theological traditions, which themselves are rooted in biblical reflection. Instead, he merely exploits them.

Second, Wolfe minimizes the effect of sin on human society and civil life. For Wolfe, the Fall’s main effect was spiritual: It compromised man’s relationship with God and merited divine wrath but did not substantially damage man’s natural, earthly (civil) relationships. Thus, humans may consult their natural gifts or instincts for guidance in civil order. Again, Wolfe claims that grace does not abrogate nature but perfects it. This theology of sin is nowhere close to the Augustinian, Protestant, Presbyterian traditions. As Wolfe downplays human sin and overemphasizes natural human instincts and impulses, he ironically arrives in the same philosophical zip code as a Rousseau or a Schleiermacher—hardly champions of traditional Christian thought.

This leads Wolfe to some dangerous places. For example, natural pre-Fall man, Wolfe argues, only associated with “one’s own.” Christian nationalism seeks to harness what he claims is a natural impulse for civic purposes. Exclusivity is not a product of sin, Wolfe contends. Contrary to the biblical ethic of love and fraternity with “the other,” contrary to the Church’s call to break down social divides, and contrary to the reality that the impulse to exclude and alienate is sinful, Wolfe would have Christian nationalists associate and seek the good only for the people like them, whether racially, socioeconomically, or geographically.

Lastly, Wolfe misses the major theme of the true biblical position of the people of God in society: that of exiles, foreigners, and outcasts. Wolfe presents an overrealized eschatology of heaven on earth, brought about by a Christian prince compelling the Kingdom to come. Biblically, true peace and justice will come only when the Prince of Peace returns. Until then, the default position of the Christian community is not to yearn for earthly power and influence but to bring faithful witness through simple (“foolish” is the apostle Paul’s word) means of worship, evangelism, and family.

Wolfe has no conception of this witness-in-opposition. For Wolfe, the future is a strong nation, and a strong nation happens to be the Christian one. The church’s witness of a future Kingdom, the faithfulness of God, and the “weak things of the world shaming the strong” barely register. Wolfe’s only response to opposition is a Nietzschean-like challenge: Does a Christian man (yes, male) have the strength of will to impose his vision of Christian life and law onto a vacuum of secularist life? There is only one answer he will accept. And anyone who disagrees with him has submitted to the contradictions of an Enlightenment-infused liberal agenda and is close to embracing the progressive excesses of the left.

Wolfe’s work could function all too well as a theological and philosophical foundation for some of the worst impulses in our all-too-human hearts. It lays the foundation for Caesaropapism, a renewing of racial divisions within society and church, blurred lines of church and state authorities, overly ambitious civil laws, and brute power politics. Wolfe is himself careful to avoid invoking the “nationalism” of the 1930s and ’40s, content to defend a “phenomenological nationalism,” or, “the lived experience” of associating with one’s own. Nonetheless, Wolfe writes a manifesto that in the wrong hands could do great harm.

As I read The Case for Christian Nationalism, I admit to empathizing in places. Often I even agreed. To the average college student, I am the bad guy: white, straight, male, upper-middle class, a Christian pastor. I know that the Gender Studies department on my campus teaches a vision of humanity that is, by my Christian lights, anti-human. Wolfe correctly senses these errors. But he goes the wrong way in search of a solution. He dignifies sinful natural impulses to generate a will to power, and he tries to match a leftist power narrative with a Christian nationalist one—an eye for an eye, or rather, a blow for a blow. For Wolfe, the meek not only cannot inherit the earth—they ought not. They simply don’t deserve it.

This is no way forward for Christians. Our faith depends on the power of weakness. The meek shall inherit the earth. God will use the weak to shame the strong. I trust this, not because I deduce or intuit it or even because my tradition confesses it, but because God’s Word tells me. That is enough for my family—and for my nation.

Jonathan Clark

Jonathan Clark is a Presbyterian minister (PCA) and serves as the campus minister with Reformed University Fellowship in Colorado Springs, Colo. He holds an MDiv from Covenant Theological Seminary and a BA in politics, philosophy, and economics from The King's College. He is married to Caroline, a graphic designer, and together they have one daughter. His interests include Christian missions in a secular culture, Enlightenment philosophy and politics, and cycling whenever it's warm outside.