Christianity and Nationalism: A Review Article

Richard M. Gamble

Ordained Servant: June–July 2024

End-of-Life Care

Also in this issue

Hospice and Palliative Care at the End of Life

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Develop Your Whole Person in Three Areas, Chapter 15

Flannery O’Connor Revisited: A Review Article


The Case for Christian Nationalism by Stephen Wolfe. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022, 488 pages, $24.99.

In 1918, at the height of America’s wartime prohibition of alcohol, the liberal Christian Century promised its readers that “Christianity plus science will bring in the Kingdom of God.” Today, we are as likely to doubt science as to trust it, and such optimism seems naïve and even ludicrous. But that mathematical formula captured the essence of a bygone era’s faith in science and progress, a faith celebrated a century and more ago by a cadre of Protestant leaders in the name of advancing God’s work in the world.

This was the social gospel at high tide, and this was Christian nationalism. The progressives could have easily substituted “nation” for “science” and proclaimed that “Christianity plus nationalism will bring in the Kingdom of God.” In the crucible of reform, the phrase “Christian nationalism” was common among the social gospelers, whether in reference to domestic politics, America’s role in the World War, or missionary activity in India and China. This was a “national gospel,” the phrase some Canadian scholars have adopted to identify the social gospel movement in Canada. Used judiciously, this alternative label minimizes our preconceptions about the relationship between theology and activism and illuminates an aspiration that brought together liberals and conservatives for the sake of saving and sanctifying the nation.

So prevalent was the rhetoric of Christian nationalism and “muscular Christianity” on the theological and political left in the Progressive Era, that it can appear in hindsight that the social gospel held a monopoly on these ambitions. I gave that mistaken impression in my own work on the social gospel and World War I more than twenty years ago. But Christian nationalism was not a monopoly of the left wing of the church. It was broadly evangelical, in some cases Reformed.

“National gospel” also helps clarify today’s Christian nationalism but for opposite reasons. Our understanding of Christian nationalism does not assume that it is a product of the Left in church and state. Far from it. The dominant narrative blames the Right in church and state, especially MAGA Republicans, when in fact it was manufactured at least as much by the liberals. Critics and promoters alike miss this. The lovers and haters of Christian nationalism, and even more dispassionate observers, miss how strong the movement once was on the Left.

A good history of the origins, public expressions, and purposes of Christian nationalism needs to be written. It will require a careful historian. The trending, academically fashionable field of Christian nationalism, like the older study of civil religion, tends to be dominated by sociologists, political theorists, journalists, and theologians. Historians have had less to say about it, for reasons unclear to me. Historians like to rain on everybody’s parade. They resist, or ought to resist, the temptation to use the past to give us more reasons to believe what we already believe. History is messy, contradictory, and filled with surprises. History does not follow human logic; it does not think geometrically or syllogistically. It resists simplification. It does not keep good company with system-builders. Indeed, historical understanding, along with sound theology and ecclesiology, is the best antidote I know of for the dangers of ideology, the taking of one true thing about the world and inflating it into madness, to paraphrase C. S. Lewis.

It is hard to miss the controversy over Christian nationalism that has been brewing in the media, academia, politics, and the pulpit for twenty years at least. A quick search of the phrase on amazon.com shows its prevalence and increasing fashionableness as an academic or pseudo-academic topic. Whether it will grow into something more than a tempest in a Twitter teapot is hard to gauge. But there are reasons to be alert to its claims and potential influence in both church and nation. Many of the opponents of Christian Nationalism are shrill and alarmist. Their books are often hasty and shallow. Defenders, for their part, often pursue their cause with crusading zeal and glib dismissal of objections. Their books, too, can be hasty and shallow. A common tactic on social media is to dismiss critics as “Boomers.” Surely we can do better than that.

Wolfe’s Case for Christian Nationalism

Judging from the attention given to Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism, one could be excused for thinking it is a significant work of scholarship. But Wolfe’s book matters more for the stir it has created than for any weight it carries. One of Wolfe’s first reviewers got it right when he said he felt compelled to review it, not because of its merits, but because so many people would take it seriously. That has turned out to be true. We must engage it even at the risk of increasing its significance. Other reviewers have pointed out Wolfe’s deficiencies in handling Cicero and the Reformers, for example, so I want to focus on his mishandling of historical and other sources that readers might be less likely to notice. Wolfe says he is not reasoning from Scripture or history, and yet he uses both when it suits his purposes. When he condemns the condition of modern culture, he appeals to experience, which is an appeal to history. Past experience ought to be at least as relevant to judge Christian nationalism.

Wolfe opens his book with a dramatic retelling of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He warns that “this day changed everything, and we live in its consequences.” I will let the hyperbole of “everything” pass (history is a matter of both continuity and change). The consequences of the Revolution have indeed damaged Europe and America, if not the world at large. He attributes to the Revolution a radically secularized politics, the birth of “political atheism.” Ominously, “The children of the French Revolution, both Christian and non-Christian, are still with us and continue the revolution” (2). (It is not clear who these Christian children of the Revolution are, but it seems likely that they are the advocates of a secular politics that Wolfe opposes, especially the political theology of so-called R2K, Radical Two Kingdom, not to be confused with Reformed Two Kingdom)

Granting for the moment the truth of this claim about the consequences of 1789, what it ignores reveals something important about Wolfe’s story. The irony is that nationalism, far from the solution to our present woes, was itself one of the principal consequences of the Revolution. To embrace nationalism is to embrace one of the most destructive ideologies of the last two centuries. To embrace nationalism is to “continue the revolution” just as much, if not more than, to embrace political atheism. Nationalism is an ersatz religion that fills the void left by the end of Christian political theology that Wolfe laments. This is what it was intended to be. Nationalism endures as the most potent ideological offspring of the French Revolution. It appropriates the language and promises of Christianity and the church, speaking of the nation as if it were the church, heir to the promises of God, and complete with martyrs, prophets, apostles, a canon of sacred scriptures, and holy wars and crusade. It has outlived liberalism, Marxism, and communism. Combined with populism and socialism, it has been particularly destructive, as the history of the twentieth century attests. Nations are old, but nationalism is not. Projecting it back across the centuries to include the sixteenth century Reformers makes no sense. It is an exercise in what historian David Hackett Fischer called “retrospective symmetry.” It is an optical illusion that only confuses the question. To be sure, the Reformers cared about the well-being of their provinces, realms, principalities, and empires, but that concern needs to be kept in proper tension with what they wrote about the mystery of divine providence and their pilgrim identity as strangers and exiles. They knew that, ultimately, they were guests in this world. Many of them lived in a “negative world” far more negative than Aaron Renn’s categorization of contemporary America, and yet they held to a profound pilgrim identity at the same time. One need only read East Anglian pastor John Rogers’s exegesis of 1 Peter 2:11 (sojourners and exiles) to see this. Rogers helped shape the consciousness of the very Puritans who settled the Massachusetts Bay Colony under John Winthrop, a go-to source for Wolfe for the communal ethics of Christian nationalism.

Do the Reading

A frequent rebuke on X/Twitter of those who criticize Christian Nationalism is “do the reading.” That is good advice, for sure. And it applies to the supporters of Christian nationalism as much as to its detractors. Let us do the reading and see what happens. Just the first few pages of the book give us a lot to consider.

Wolfe cites past uses of “Christian nationalism” to show that the phrase is not new and that it has been used in a positive sense. And that is true, as we have seen. But who used these words in a positive sense? For what audience and for what purpose? The answers to these questions are revealing and should make the reader cautious. What Wolfe says about these uses is true but not the whole truth.

In the Introduction, he quotes W. H. Fremantle’s The World as the Subject of Redemption:

the whole life of man is essentially religious; and politics, the sphere of just relations between men, especially become religious when conducted in a Christian spirit. Nothing can be more fatal to mankind or to religion itself than to call one set of things or persons religious and another secular, when Christ has redeemed the whole. (7)

These theological arguments were first delivered in England in a series of lectures in 1883 and published in 1885. Wolfe identifies Fremantle as “a well-respected and accomplished Anglican priest.” The Canon of Canterbury Cathedral was indeed well-respected and accomplished, but by whom was he well-respected and what exactly did he accomplish? His book is radically liberal in its theology. It rejects Augustine’s City of God because the Bishop of Hippo saw the Church as having “no vocation for the redemption of human society.” Fremantle’s book found a larger audience in the US than in England thanks to its enthusiastic reception in the social gospel movement. Social gospel dynamo and economist Richard T. Ely wrote the introduction to the American edition of the book, praising Fremantle

for inspir[ing] us with zeal for rendering Christian the whole of the world and the whole of life. He shows Christians that they are fulfilling the purpose of the Founder of their religion in carrying Christianity into every sphere of social life and into every day of the week.[1]

“A high ideal of national righteousness is set before us by Canon Fremantle,” he continued. “Not the isolated individual is to be saved but the individual in the nation . . .” Moreover, “In reading this book one thinks of the expression, ‘the manliness of Christ,’ for it is a manly Christ which is here presented, a Christ strong in action, Christ the Ruler as well as Christ the Consoler” (ii–iii). No wonder The World as the Subject of Redemption became a foundational text for the social gospel.

For his second example of the positive use of “Christian nationalism,” Wolfe quotes T. C. Chao, identifying him simply as “the Chinese theologian.” But this will not do. Chao came under the direct influence of the social gospel through American missionaries and the YMCA. He was a progressive theologian who signed the “Christian Manifesto” backing Mao and the People’s Republic of China.

The full text of Chao’s essay, reprinted from Truth & Life (February 1927) can be found online as “The Chinese Church Realizes Itself” in The Chinese Recorder (May-June 1927). The article concerns the emergence of a Chinese “church consciousness” and the need for a Christianity that is non-dogmatic, non-creedal, ecumenical, and social-service oriented. Regarding historic doctrines of the faith, Chao wrote:

In regard to the doctrines of Christianity, there are indeed some that we [Chinese Christians] have not been able to understand, some that we doubt, and some that we cannot and will not believe. (303)

Among these doctrines were belief in miracles and a literal hell.

Wolfe quotes the following passage from the article (quoted in a history of the YMCA and the social gospel in China):

Chinese Christians are Christians; but they are also citizens of China. According to them, nationalism and Christianity must agree in many things; for if there are no common points between the two, then how can Chinese Christians perform the duties of citizens? (7 in Wolfe, but 306 in the version I cite above)

The question is why Wolfe is taken in by 1) a seminal influence on the social gospel and 2) by a product of the US export of the social gospel through the YMCA in China? Why did he not identify them for who they were? I am not accusing him of deception. He has been careless and too quick to quote authors out of context. And his readers are not well-served by contextless quotations meant to reassure them that Christian nationalism is nothing to worry about.


A more serious problem arises with his use of Ernest Renan later in the book, specifically Renan’s 1882 lecture “What Is a Nation?”[2] Here again Wolfe seems not to know who Renan was.

The French intellectual Renan was the author of The Life of Jesus, the notorious 1863 account of Jesus as a purely human great man. He ends the biography with an empty tomb but no resurrection. Wolfe quotes a long section from “What is a Nation?” beginning with the following:

A nation is a soul, a spiritual principle. Two things that, in truth, are but one constitute this soul, this spiritual principle. One is in the past, the other in the present. One is the possession in common of a rich legacy of memories; the other is present consent, the desire to live together, the will to perpetuate the value of the heritage that one has received in an undivided form. (140)

These are stirring sentiments. Wolfe says, “Renan got it right.” But Renan is not as useful to Wolfe’s case for nationalism as he thinks. In fact, Renan rejects many of the aspects of the nation that Wolfe depends on in the rest of the book. Let us do more of the reading.

Rather than being organic and natural, Renan argues, nations are the result of force and violence, a brutal past we need to forget or misrepresent in order to carry on as a people:

The act of forgetting, I would even say, historical error, is an essential factor in the creation of a nation, which is why progress in historical studies often constitutes a danger for nationality. Indeed, historical enquiry brings back to light the deeds of violence that took place at the origin of all political formations, even of those whose consequences have been the most beneficial. Unity is always achieved brutally . . . (209)

This is not a happy story of social compacts and political consent. Some imagined natural, preexisting unity did not lead to nation-formation. Quite the contrary. Nations are the last step in a calculated process of imposed conformity that then turns around and pretends that we are all of one race, one language, and one history, and that our geographical boundaries are natural. Indeed, claiming that ethnicity gives a primordial right to the nation, Renan continues, “It is a great error, which, if it were to become dominant, would doom European civilization. The national principle is as just and legitimate as that of the primordial right of races is narrow and full of danger for true progress” (211). “The truth is,” he argues, “that there is no pure race and that to base politics upon ethnographic analysis is to base it on a chimera” (212).

But the critical point here is that Renan offers the alternative, inspiring, “spiritual” unity of the nation because, he says, “religion cannot offer an adequate basis for the establishment of a modern nationality . . .” (214–15). Wolfe would say that we need to return to that religious basis. But what Renan proposes as the binding force of modern nations—“the cult of ancestors,” “a heroic past, great men, glory,” and a glorious past—is in fact a substitute for religion in a world of political atheism (216). “We have driven metaphysical and theological abstractions out of politics. What remains after that? Man, his desires, his needs” (217). What Wolfe endorses is Renan’s replacement for the theological and metaphysical basis for nations. I do not think Wolfe knows what he is doing by appealing to authorities such as Renan (and Herder and Carlyle). What Wolfe embraces as an accurate expression of Christian nationalism is in fact an ersatz religion of nationalism created to provide the spiritual glue for modern nations.

These are the concerns of a historian and a ruling elder in the OPC who has spent more than thirty years with vulnerable and confused young people, never more so than now. They hear from a certain breed of political theorist and political theologian that the American “regime” has lost all credibility, that America is an occupied country, and that the only solution is a political “strong man” who will rescue them. They hear the words “action,” “discipline,” “will,” and “solidarity.” At points, reading Wolfe is like reading Franklin Roosevelt’s First Inaugural. This is an authoritarian temptation, even if it comes in the guise of a restoration of freedom. It is the old appeal of populist nationalism. We have been here before.

Let me spell out more clearly what I have been saying. Wolfe and Christian nationalism more broadly promote a national gospel that has more in common with the social gospel than appears at first sight. Many who advanced an agenda for “Christianizing” America used a modernist theology and an earth-bound ecclesiology to remake their world. They were optimists who believed in inevitable human progress to the reign of Christ on earth. They mobilized pastors and parishioners to that end. Like Wolfe, they spoke the language of power, will, action, and discipline. They wanted to be at home in this world, despite all Christian teaching against such aspirations. Jesus told Pilate, one of those arrayed against the Lord and his Anointed, that his kingdom was not of this world, and if it were his disciples would fight. He warned his disciples that the world hated them because it first hated him. But Wolfe imagines a world populated by Christian warriors led by Christian Princes with pastors serving as the “chaplains” of Christian nationalism, as he said in a podcast interview. Sounding like Nietzsche, he warns Christians to reject their slave mentality. He feeds on resentment. If the minds and imaginations of young people, especially young men fretful about assaults on their masculinity and the rule of a “gynocracy,” are formed by the emerging vision of Christian nationalism, this generation will be disappointed and disaffected by churches committed to Word and sacrament and teaching how to live “peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness” (1 Tim. 2:2, NIV). The world does not belong to us, and we do not belong to it. It is not ours to “take back.” Christianity plus nationalism will only distract us from the genuine gospel, from preparation for a life of suffering for the name of Jesus, and from embracing the scandal of the Cross. The nod to Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism in my title is intentional. Christianity and Christian nationalism are separating as two theologies engaged in heated competition in our world a century after Machen. The stakes may be as high today as they were then.


[1] W. H. Fremantle, The World as the Subject of Redemption, with an Introduction by Richard T. Ely (New York: Longmans, Green, 1892), i.

[2] Ernest Renan, “What Is a Nation?” in Ernest Renan and M. F. N. Giglioli, What Is a Nation? And Other Political Writings, Columbia Studies in Political Thought / Political History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

Richard M. Gamble is a professor of history at Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, Michigan, where he holds the Anna Margaret Ross Alexander Chair of History and Politics. He serves as a ruling elder at Hillsdale OPC. Ordained Servant Online, June-July, 2024.

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Ordained Servant: June–July 2024

End-of-Life Care

Also in this issue

Hospice and Palliative Care at the End of Life

The Voice of the Good Shepherd: Develop Your Whole Person in Three Areas, Chapter 15

Flannery O’Connor Revisited: A Review Article


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