Beware the ‘Christian Prince’
The Case for Christian Nationalism, by Stephen Wolfe, Canon Press, 488 pages, $24.99
Since the 2016 election, the term Christian nationalism has been used, narrowly, to describe conservative Christian support for Donald Trump and, broadly, to describe any right-wing vision of Christian politics that left-wing observers deplore. This is ironic given the phrase’s history: It began between the world wars with liberal Protestants anxious about the rise of totalitarianism, and it was revived in the 1970s to describe religious anti-colonialism.
We should more properly refer to Christian nationalisms. American history is filled with diverse conceptions of nationhood among religious peoples. Respectable Christian nationalism is often referred to as “civil religion,” as when politicians declare America a shining “city on a hill.” But Christian nationalisms are always contested. The most popular postcard of 1865 pictured the ascent into heaven of the martyred Abraham Lincoln nestled in the bosom of George Washington. Yet until 2019, travelers on Interstate 95 in Virginia could detour to visit the “shrine” of Stonewall Jackson, a slain saint of an opposing, Confederate Christian nationalism.
The Christian nationalist variant getting the most public attention today has a Pentecostal inflection. Journalists cannot resist the spectacle, whether it is self-proclaimed prophet Lance Wallnau peddling $45 “prayer coins” featuring Trump’s face superimposed over that of the Persian King Cyrus, pastor Rafael Cruz promoting Trump as a champion of the “Seven Mountain Mandate,” or televangelist Paula White-Cain praying for “angelic reinforcement” to boost Trump’s reelection.
But another variant has made waves recently with the publication of Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism. Wolfe, an evangelical Presbyterian, argues that modern Christians have forgotten the political wisdom of early Protestant reformers and have been lulled into a dangerous secularism. He advocates an ethnically uniform nation ruled by a “Christian prince” with the power to punish blasphemy and false religion.
Wolfe veers chapter by chapter between close readings of often obscure Reformation theologians and mostly unsourced screeds against the dangers of feminist “gynocracy” and immigrant invasion. The book is obtusely argued, poorly written, and worth a read only in the same sense that rubbernecking at a car crash counts as sightseeing. But the ways that Wolfe is wrong are instructive.
For Wolfe, the nationalism part of Christian nationalism is synonymous with ethnicity, which he defines as any self-conscious group of people possessing “the right to be for itself.” Wolfe does not grapple with the vast literature on how ethnicity is socially constructed, preferring instead what he calls a “phenomenological” explanation based on his personal experience and reasoning.
Wolfe’s view of national ethnicity results from his belief in the importance of “particularity,” which he defin
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