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 next few weeks, I will be working through Wolfe’s book and offering a response. Others have addressed some of the more controversial takes in the book—I will not duplicate their work. Instead, I want to engage the sentiment behind it. Parts of the book are very well-written, and I suspect it will have lasting appeal. While I reject Wolfe’s vision for Christian nationalism, I want to highlight the positives and offer an alternative path forward to loving a place well.
Wolfe distinguishes between “space” and “place.” I have heard it said elsewhere that “a place is a space with a story,” and while Wolfe doesn’t use this exact verbiage, this is essentially what he argues. A house is a space; the house you grew up in is a place (to you) because of the memories you associate with it. Wolfe illustrates:
“Memory is an essential element of place, creating sentiment between people and place. Sentiment here is a sort of affectivity that is generated by time and activity and intergenerational love. To understand the relationship of memory, sentiment, and place, let us return to house and home. The house of one’s youth is not merely another house among houses; it is your childhood home. As the place of your time and activity, it is set apart from the other houses. Even after moving out, that house remains unique; it is distinct to you from the rest of the houses in the row. And this is not your choice, as if one can freely ascribe this unique relation to any dwelling. It is an unavoidable product of your activity in that space—an activity that generated familiarity and lodged memory. If one’s childhood was generally positive, he relates to that space with positive affection. It is elevated with an affective value—a value that is neither transferable nor exchangeable, nor marketable; and yet this value is real for you and for others who were with you. I recently heard one man speak fondly of his grandparents’ front porch, where they and he would sit, talk, and eat. The grandparents are gone now, and a stranger owns the house, but when he drives by and gazes at the porch, he thinks of them and reflects on his memories. That house has captured these memories for him and his love for his grandparents. We all have lodged memories like this, which speaks not merely of a common emotion but of the power of place to enliven our world.” (124–25)
The other day, my wife and I drove through a part of Bremerton that I have not visited in 20 years. In high school, my friends and I once snuck on to a golf course after hours to play capture the flag. The golf course security guard called the police and we all had to flee. It was a harmless prank and no one was hurt, but as we drove past the course the memories of that night came flooding back to me.
That street and that golf course were a space to the others in the car—there are many others just like them. But to me, they are a place—a place of my youth. That space is part of my story. It is a part of me.
The memories and emotions we attribute to a space make it a place of higher value to us than to others. Your house is a space to me, but my home is a place to me.
The tie to nationalism is obvious. A nation is a collection of people with a similar understanding of the significance of a place. We all love the same place because we are all a part of its story. We love America because we share its story. This collective love for a place creates bonds of love, necessarily leading to in-groups and out-groups. This is why some people get so offended when athletes don’t stand for the national anthem—it’s “un-American.” It's just not something we do in America. Citizens of a place share a story and share symbols that tell that story. Those who don’t share the same story about a place are called aliens, strangers, or foreigners. (144–45)
Finally, Wolfe ties identity to land so that love for one’s homeland is a kind of love for oneself (154). Nationalism, then, is a love for the in-group of people who share the same understanding of the significance of a place (164). Just like it is natural for a mother to love her own children more that she loves other children, Wolfe argues that it is natural and appropriate for people to love their nation more than other nations. Christians should be hospitable to foreigners, but they are not duty-bound to welcome strangers to the detriment of the in-group (166). Wolfe argues that failure to preserve an understanding of a place leads to cultural self-immolation. (170)
I will critique this last argument in a future post, but today I want to acknowledge the beauty of Wolfe’s discussion on the meaning of place. I love the idea that human sentiment is tied up to place and it makes me wonder if we have vastly underestimated the cost of moving away from one’s hometown. I have lived in the same home for 15 years. It is the only house my children have ever known. Their story is tied to its story. How could that be replaced were we to move? How much of modern mankind’s anxiety is tied to the loss of place?
How much of your identity is tied to the space in which you currently live? Would you call that space a “space” or a “place”? Are you part of the story of that place? How does that affect you?