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.
In the last post, I highlighted Wolfe’s distinction between space and place—a place is a space with a story. This longing for a place forms the basis of the appeal of Wolfe’s book. America is changing and we are losing our sense of place. Wolfe’s book is a clarion call to take it back.
As a pastor, I can’t help but note the parallels with what happens as churches change. Churches have stories. These stories form our identities. When people raise their children in a church, that church takes on special significance. The church space becomes a place. When churches change, congregants feel a sense of loss. It’s not just that musical styles or familiar pastors change—it’s that with these changes comes a sense that memories are being lost with them.
Like it or not, places change. Churches change. Neighborhoods change. Cities change. Nations change. This change is part of the story of the place. We get to be a part of that story, but ultimately the story is not about us. It is God’s story. We get to be a part of it, but it is not our story.
I previously highlighted Wolfe’s callback to Mayberry, the fictional town in The Andy Griffith Show. Wolfe writes about the sense of place in Mayberry:
"Mayberry is the fictional North Carolinian town of The Andy Griffith Show. That show depicts a Southern form of commodious life: a community of few and small concerns, high social trust, and an ease of life. The residents had common songs and customs, often singing them together on porches, at times for consolation. They all went to church on Sundays. The children, known by all, ran around town perfectly safe, being protected and watched by the community. Any American who watches that lighthearted, heartwarming show cannot but feel nostalgia for an America lost by negligence and malevolence." (226)
This is powerful illustration from Wolfe, but he leaves an important detail out—the Mayberry experience was not the same for everyone. What was Mayberry like for people of color? Would they consider it “a Southern form of commodious life?” What would happen to Mayberry if a thousand Muslim refugees moved in? Would it be a commodious life for them?
Wolfe would say “no,” and would argue that there needs to be regulation of immigration. Mass immigration leads to the loss of cultural homogeneity and the commodious life.
This is the fatal problem with Wolfe’s vision: for Mayberry to sustain itself, it has to exclude. Wolfe concedes as much (144). Cultural self-preservation is crucial to nationalism. But Christians are called to hospitality—to welcome the stranger, alien, and foreigner. How can this be reconciled with a nationalism that excludes?
Wolfe gives lip-service to hospitality. Recognizing the Christian duty to welcome the stranger, he argues that we should welcome immigrants as long as they change to become like us. He writes:
"The principle of exclusion does not preclude the reception of foreigners absolutely. Nations ought to be hospitable. At the individual and family levels, hospitality demands generosity to strangers, especially to those in need. A nation, as a sort of corporate person, can and ought to be hospitable as well. But hospitality is subordinate to higher duties: no individual, family, or nation is duty-bound to welcome strangers to the detriment of the good of those most near and bound it. Furthermore, guests have duties toward their hosts. Foreigners who are granted residence thus have unique duties. . . .
The foreigners fundamental principle is conformity, to the greatest extent possible; they are not at home but guests in another’s home. Their posture or disposition to the place must be respect, humility, deference, and gratitude. They must have no attitude of ‘mine’ in relation to space except what is allotted to them. Nor may they subvert or exploit the commonwealth for their own gain. The foreigner should must his own customary ways. His ways are not necessarily bad, evil, barbarous, or inferior in any way. Indeed his customs might be superior and more refined than the host country’s. But the foreigner has a duty not to disrupt the host people’s way of life, and the hosts have every right to hold such people to these duties, even to the point of deportation." (166–67)
Again, Wolfe forgets that “The earth is the LORD's and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it upon the rivers.” (Psalm 24:1–2 ESV)
The land belongs to the Lord. The story of a place does not belong to the people who inhabit it. It is God’s story, and we get to participate in it. Wolfe would rob God of what is properly His.
Christ calls us to welcome the stranger—to invite him or her into our spaces so that they become part of the story of our place. This means that the meanings of the signs and symbols of our space change. Hospitality requires it. For nationalism to be Christian nationalism, it must be hospitable nationalism.
Wolfe calls this approach self-immolation (170). If a nation allows foreigners to shape the story of a place, the citizens willingly die to themselves. But here’s the thing: The Scriptures use similar language:
“And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.’” (Mark 8:34 ESV)
Dying to oneself is part and parcel to being a follower of Jesus. If you are not willing to “self-immolate,” you are not willing to follow. You may prefer a society like Mayberry, but all land (including Mayberry) is God’s land (Leviticus 25:23). God owns the land and He determines who can live on His land. He has welcomed the nations; who are you to send them away?
You may prefer Mayberry, but you cannot know Christ until you die to yourself and your preferences. The cost of discipleship is high and not all are willing to pay it. You can have Mayberry or you can know Christ.
You cannot have both.