In The Case for Christian Nationalism, Stephen Wolfe hopes to “enliven in the hearts of Christians a sense of home and hearth and love of people and country out of which springs actions for their good.” (5)
Christian nationalism has been a part of the national conversation ever since the riot at the Capitol Building on January 6, 2021. It is almost universally condemned by Christians and non-Christians alike. But is this condemnation fair? Wolfe thinks not and seeks to make the case for it.
For the last few weeks of this series, I want to sketch an alternate path forward. In my last post, I emphasized that Christians are to see themselves as aliens and strangers in the land. Our true home is the kingdom of God. Today, I want to offer an alternative to Wolfe’s plan for directing people toward the good life.
Wolfe argues for the Christian’s responsibility to use social power to direct people toward the common good:
“Christians need to recover an assertive will for their good and have the spirit and resolve to exclude what is bad. We should use social power to oppose those who threaten them and who attempt to subvert our faith or exploit its moral demands. That means opposing, suppressing, and excluding the very sort of people who run the American regime. A Christian society that is for itself will distrust atheists, decry blasphemy, correct any dishonoring of Christ, orient life around the Sabbath, frown on and suppress moral deviancy, and repudiate neo-Anabaptist attempts to subvert a durable Christian social order. A Christian nation that is true to itself will unashamedly and confidently assert Christian supremacy over the land.” (239–40)
One can’t disagree with Wolfe’s heart for his nation. Christians should live for God and we should encourage others to do the same. The life God calls us to live is the good life (“the commodious life” to use Wolfe’s language), and our nation would be better if everyone lived for God. We can agree on that.
But what if they refuse? What do Christians do when they find themselves in a culture that rejects the way of Jesus?
Wolfe argues that the primary means of promoting the commodious is life is through social pressure. We treat the Christian life as normative and treat those who live otherwise as violating social norms. We stigmatize, wag our fingers, and shun. Where that cannot succeed, we legislate, deport, or imprison.
Social pressure may work for promoting cultural Christianity, but it only works to the extent that people want to be a part of the social group. Smaller organizations (families, churches, businesses) use social power like this to preserve culture. For instance, companies might tell their employees, “Full-time employees are expected to work 60 hours per week.” Success of such social pressure depends on the appeal of being a part of the group. Appealing companies can get away with a 60-hour-workweek policy, but as soon as the negative social pressure outweighs the benefits of working for the company, people leave.
Similarly, a Christian nation might pressure people into cultural Christianity like honoring the Sabbath or living by Christian sexual ethics, but as soon as people’s desire to deviate from those norms outweighs their desire for upstanding social status, they will break away. When cultural Christianity is the majority (as in 1950s America), this kind of deviation comes at a cost. But when Christianity is a minority, it is easy to deviate from cultural Christianity and avoid social stigma—you just form a new social group with others who reject cultural Christianity. This is why the church in modern America in unable to put social pressure on companies to behave Christianly. Companies can ignore the church and the consequences are minimal.
For Wolfe’s vision to succeed, social pressure needs to be all-encompassing and deviation cannot be tolerated. Those who refuse to comply need to be shunned, deported, or imprisoned. This is obviously not possible in modern America. The church in America lacks the social power to force people into cultural Christianity. The only path forward would be legislation.
But is there another way forward? Is there a way for the church to promote the good life without resorting to social pressure or legislation?
The Scriptures answer with a resounding “Yes!” Jesus said:
“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14–16 ESV)
Jesus taught us that we can live in a way that directs others toward worship of God. So, how do we live this way? Is it through social pressure or legislation? No. It’s through fidelity, service, and suffering. Peter tells us:
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Pet. 2:11–17 ESV)
When the church lives out its calling, it becomes a shining beacon to the world that the way of Jesus is the commodious life. We are to direct people to God, but we are to do so through fidelity and service, not through social pressure and legislation.
A couple of winters ago, my town was hit with a blizzard that brought over a foot of snow overnight. We aren’t used to that kind of snow, so in the morning after, many of my neighbors tried in vain to go to work. The main roads of my town were plowed, but not those in my neighborhood. After I witnessed a few cars get stuck in the snow trying to leave, I decided I was going to do something about it. I grabbed my snow shovel and I went outside to dig one of my neighbor’s car out of the snow. It wasn’t long before I was joined by another neighbor. Soon, we had a whole crew digging a path forward for those who needed to leave the neighborhood.
I love Wolfe’s vision for Mayberry and the Christian nation. That is the kind of community I want to live in. But the path forward is not to make our non-Christian neighbors feel bad about not sharing our values or (worse) passing laws that criminalize unbelief. The path forward is to serve. The path forward is to get to work, to grab our shovels and model for our neighbors the good life. This is Jesus’s model of the city on a hill, the true Christian nation.
What are some things that you have done in your community to "let your light shine before men"?