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I'm also the author of The Scattering Trilogy, which is set in 10,000 B.C. Buy, read, pass it on!
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(In case you are not familiar, Shrek was just caught reading the old childhood diary of his now-wife, Fiona. This clip should help you imagine the title of this blog post being delivered in a Scottish accent.)
But, here is the actual book that skeered everybody real bad:
And … behold! I have posed it with my scary black nail polish.
In my experience so far, the people who are most alarmed by this book are just reacting to the title. And it is a scary title, because Wolfe is trying to do something that many people try to do, which is take a derogatory term and own it, while of course redefining it somewhat or at least clarifying the definition. In fact, this book is nothing more nor less than one big, extended definition/explanation of what Wolfe means by the term, and what he thinks Christians should mean by it.
Most of the people who reacted to the publication of this book as if their hair were on fire, apparently did not read it, because their definitions of Christian Nationalism are very different and, in many cases, the opposite of the extended definition found in this book. I will demonstrate this with quotations from the book, below.
(To be fair: the other possible problem is that they did try to read it, or else they listened to an interview with Wolfe trying to explain it. I have heard a few such interviews, and I cannot say that Wolfe is the clearest at expressing himself in person. The book, too, is … dry. It sounds like it was written by a lawyer, or a more-than-usually-dry theologian. Combine this with the fact that many of the concepts in this book are entirely foreign to modern Americans, especially those who have not been raised Presbyterian, and I can easily imagine that someone could dip in, get dizzy, and quickly flee … or else fix on a phrase or two and completely misconstrue them. If you want to hear Wolfe’s ideas expressed in a vivid, accessible, and much clearer way, seekouttheblogposts of DouglasWilson.)
But anyway, here are a few of the assumptions people often make when they hear the phrase Christian nationalism, and quotes from the book that show Wolfe’s actual take on the topic:
Here’s what the scared people are saying:
“Nationalism means imperialism or jingoism“
Several ethnicities can share the same language, of course. But since language is a particular and is necessary for civil fellowship, it follows that at least some particularity is a prerequisite for civil fellowship. Hence, sharing only what is universal — viz., common humanity — is wholly inadequate for a complete social bond. And even a cursory reflection on one’s daily habits and everyday life reveals that more extensive unity in particulars is necessary for living well. We do not, and indeed cannot, live (let alone live well) according to universal rules. Nor can we live well among contrary particulars; there must be a normal to which all conform or assimilate, at least in order for people to live well together. Thus, an instinct for a suitable normal is a good instinct; so too is the moral expectation that people conform to that normal or else face some degree of social separation.
Exclusion [of out-group members] follows not necessarily from maliciousness or from the absence universal benevolence, but from a natural principle of difference that recognizes for oneself and for others the goods provided by similarity and solidarity in that similarity. To exclude an out-group is to recognize a universal good for man — a good made possible only by respecting and conserving difference. Since it is a universal good, you and your people are entitled by nature to a right of difference. This is a natural right, because particularity is necessary to live well according to the nature of man.
pp. 144 – 145
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 to it. Furthermore, guests have duties toward their hosts.
“Christian nationalism is a code phrase for wanting an all-white America (a.k.a. White Supreme Pizza)“
Nations express Christianity like they express gender through dress — a universal is expressed in a particular way. Christianity perfects the whole not by eliminating earthly particularity, just as any man who comes to Christ does not lose his personality and other unique characteristics. The Christian nation is still a nation as described in the previous chapter, having intergenerational memory and love, degrees and types of loves, and a delight in people and place. Grace sanctifies sinners, but it does homogenize personality; likewise, Christ sanctifies nations but does not eliminate national distinctness.
“Christians should not have any loyalty to any particular country or family, because ‘all are one in Christ.'”
Man’s limitedness is expressed in the natural need for a sort of directed gregariousness. That is, he is close at heart with a particular, bounded people, who ground and confirm his way of life in the world and who provide for him his most cherished goods. [Even] Unfallen man is benevolent to all but can only be beneficent (i.e., act for the good of) to some, and this limitation is based not merely in geographic closeness but in shared understanding, expectations, and culture.
Cultural diversity is, therefore, a necessary consequence of human nature, and so it is good for us. It is good that particular practices are made habitual by localized socialization and are “owned” in a sense by a particular place and people. It is good that the particularity of each community distinguishes it from the others. Man’s limitedness was not a divine mistake; neither is cultural diversity, separated geographically, an error. It was God’s design for man and thus a necessary feature of his good.
“Christian nationalism” mean getting rid of the First Amendment, and establishing a national church to which every citizen is required to belong.
Althuis states, “Franz Burckhard therefore errs, and the Jesuits with him, who think that the magistrate is not able to tolerate diverse religions.” Burckhard, a Roman Catholic professor at Ingolstadt, is reported to have said, “What more just than to cut off the heads of all these villains of Lutherans!” Burckhard … called for Roman Catholics to rescind the Peace of Passau (1552), which granted religious freedom to Lutherans within the Holy Roman Empire.
This rigid position is natural enough for Roman Catholic theology, which asserted that it is the one true visible church … But in Protestantism the church is essentially invisible and composed of the elect by faith, and belonging to that church is not conditioned on or grounded in one’s outward belonging to a visible, centralized communion. Thus, Protestants of different doctrinal persuasions can mutually recognize their shared faith. This is the basis for principled toleration and religious liberty in Protestant commonwealths. Indeed, the unfolding of Protestant principles — not Enlightenment or Roman Catholic “doctrinal development” — is what led Americans to affirm religious liberty in the 18th century, which I demonstrate in the next chapter. The point here is that a Protestant people have principled flexibility when faced with religious diversity. How a Christian magistrate navigates this complexity requires wisdom, prudence, and resolve.
The political status of non-Christians in a Christian commonwealth is a matter of prudence. Since civil society is a human institution, it must guarantee equal protection and due process with regard to human things for all people. That is, it must guarantee justice and secure natural rights. But this does not entail equal participation, status, and standing in political, social, and cultural institutions. Thus, they are guaranteed a basic right to life and and property (the absence of which would harm the common good), but they may be denied by law to conduct certain activities that could exploit or harm Christians or the Christian religion.
This position, though fairly standard in the Christian tradition until recently, will be received with controversy today, and few would stomach any legal discrimination on the basis of religion. But even in the absence of legal distinctions, the cultural norms of a Christian nation will require non-Christians to be the exception to the norm.
pp. 392 – 393
“It means that the same person is the leader both of the church and of the country in a civil sense.”
I think that a strictly indirect role for civil leaders in intra-ecclesial affairs is both preferable and most consistent with Protestant principles. There is, I admit, a natural fittingness to Christian nationalism and the [civil leader] as the “head of the Church.” But granting the leader this title would be, in my view, an abuse of power and constitute the usurpation of Christ’s kingship over the church. I offer my reasoning below.
It means giving church leaders political power.
God does not (ordinarily) declare by special revelation that this or that person has civil power. Rather, it is “a characteristic property resulting from nature,” writes Suarez. He continues:
‘This [civil power] does not emerge in human nature until men gather in one perfect community and unite politically … Once constituted, this body is at once, and by force of natural reason, the site of this [civil] power.’
The people possess civil power as a necessary and natural consequence of their combination.
One important corollary is that recognizing the true God (or Christ) is unnecessary to possess this power, for having this power is simply a natural consequence of the people’s combination into human society. And they can likewise devolve this power upon those who do not recognize the true God. Hence, true civil authority does not depend on true religion, though certainly in failing to acknowledge the divine source of civil authority, the people and civil ruler are in a perilous situation. It doesn’t bode well for them, but being godless or idolatrous does not itself preclude true political order. Hence, Peter instructs his recipients to “honor the [Roman] emperor.”
pp. 283 – 284
Though we can in principle disobey unjust laws, we should recognize the difficulty in determining whether a law is unjust. It one thing for a law to be unjust and another for you to know that it is unjust. Civil magistrates are necessary, as I’ve said, because of natural epistemic limitations in individuals to determine expedient actions for the common good. … [M]any or perhaps most laws evade a simple evaluation, mainly because civil authorities are typically in a better position than private persons to make judgments about what serves the common good.
Pastors can admonish erring magistrates to correct injustice in the law, but pastors must not mistake their theological training or scriptural knowledge for expertise in jurisprudence. Pastors as pastors are no more competent to analyze or make civil law than any other private person.
p. 274, 275
“People who advocate Christian nationalism think that they can use outer means, such as laws, to compel people to believe.”
Civil power cannot legislate or coerce people into belief; it can only command outward things — to outwardly do this or not do that. No classical Protestant has ever claimed that civil action can itself bring about assent to, let alone true faith in, the Gospel. Though the ultimate purpose of civil action can be the spiritual good of the people, the direct object cannot be the conscience. Spiritual good is a matter of the heart before God in Christ. Thus, civil action for the advancement of the Gospel only indirectly operates to that end.
As for power over conscience, implicit power can influence beliefs, such as assent to Christian truth, but civil law cannot command belief. It can only direct bodies. It orders outward action. Civil power cannot touch the conscience. Why? Because the conscience is a forum of persuasion and civil power is the power of command. The civil command “believe in Christ” violates a necessary condition of belief, namely, that belief is a matter of persuasion.
It means that the entire Mosaic law, including the ceremonial laws, would become the legal code of the land.
[W]hether any civil law is good depends on the circumstances, which requires the discernment of a prudent man. Calvin writes, “[E]ach nation has been left at liberty to enact the laws which it judges as beneficial.” Nothing about this disparages the Mosaic law — a law of God. It is a perfect example of law. But it is not a universal body of law.
Some civil laws in the Mosaic law are universal in a way. But they are universal because they are necessary for any just and commodious human society.
Though not universally suitable, the civil laws of Scripture provide certainty as to their inherent righteousness. They are, therefore, morally permissible in civil law, and the closeness of the circumstances aid in determining whether any of them is suitable.
pp. 267 – 268
We can just have a neutral, secular nation, with no national religion at all.
This “neutral” or “common” space lasted only about twenty years, which shouldn’t surprise us: the most common human arrangements in history for public space are decidedly not neutral. It is a shame that we treated this neutral world as normal and universal.
Experience over the last decades has made evident that there are two options: Christian nationalism or pagan nationalism. The totality of national action will be either Christian, and thus ordered to the complete good, or pagan — ordered to the celebration of degeneracy, child sacrifice (e.g., abortion), mental illness, and idolatry. Neutrality, even if it was real for a time, will never hold, because man by his nature infuses his transcendent concerns into his way of life and into the place of that life. The pagan nationalist rejection of neutrality is correct in principle …
For decades, theologians have developed theologies that exclude Christianity from public institutions but require Christians to affirm the language of universal dignity, tolerance, human rights, anti-nationalism, anti-nativism, multiculturalism, social justice, and equality, and they ostracize from their own ranks any Christian who deviates from these social dogmas. They’ve effectively Christianized the modern West’s social creed. The Christian leaders most immersed in the modern West’s [actual] civil religion are those who loudly denounce the “civil religion” of “Christian nationalism.”
But as [the baker] ran, he stumbled and fell heavily. Curdie hastened to help him up, and found he had bruised his forehead badly. He swore grievously at the stone for tripping him up, declaring it was the third time he had fallen over it within the last month; and saying what was the king about that he allowed such a stone to stick up forever on the main street of his royal residence of Gwyntystorm! What was a king for if he could not take care of his people’s heads! And he stroked his forehead tenderly.
“Was it your head or your feet that ought to bear the blame of your fall?” asked Curdie.
“Why, you booby of a miner! My feet, of course,” answered the baker.
“Nay, then,” said Curdie, “the king can’t be to blame.”
“Oh, I see!” said the baker. “You’re laying a trap for me. Of course, if you come to that, it was my head that ought to have looked after my feet. But it is the king’s part to look after us all, and have his streets smooth.”
“Well, I don’t see,” said Curdie, “why the king should take care of the baker, when the baker’s head won’t take care of the baker’s feet.”
“Who are you to make game of the king’s baker?” cried the man in a rage.
But instead of answering, Curdie went up to the bump on the street which had repeated itself on the baker’s head, and turning the hammer end of his mattock, struck it such a blow that it flew wide in pieces. Blow after blow he struck until he had leveled it with the street.
But out flew the barber upon him in a rage. “What do you break my window for, you rascal, with your pickaxe?”
“I am very sorry,” said Curdie. “It must have been a bit of stone that flew from my mattock. I couldn’t help it, you know.”
“Couldn’t help it! A fine story! What do you go breaking the rock for — the very rock upon which the city stands?”
“Look at your friend’s forehead,” said Curdie. “See what a lump he has got on it with falling over that same stone.”
“What’s that to my window?” cried the barber. “His forehead can mend itself; my poor window can’t.”
“But he’s the king’s baker,” said Curdie, more and more surprised at the man’s anger.
“What’s that to me? This is a free city. Every man here takes care of himself, and the king takes care of us all. I’ll have the price of my window out of you, or the exchequer shall pay for it.”
You may recall that a while back, I accidentally discovered that if you make zigzag stripes on a poncho in a gradient of colors, it looks like mountains receding into the distance. I’ve been wanting to make one for myself, for some time.
I discovered this nice, affordable yarn that is something like 90% acrylic, 10% alpaca. I could have done the poncho in shades of grey, and that would have looked awesome, but I already own a grey poncho and I “needed” one that was more in the orange family. So, these mountains are going to have a cloudy sky in the background, alpenglow on the upper peaks, dun lower peaks.
When I have two long rectangles, I’ll sew them together to make a poncho.
I picked this up with moderately high hopes. The protagonists are all sixty-year-old ladies who spent their youth as private assassins. I thought there would be more old-lady thoughts, but in the end, they mostly seem like 21-year-olds in 60-year-old bodies. So, the character development and themes disappointed a bit.
What did not disappoint was the research and the plot. Unlike some novels, where the premise is only half-developed, this one takes us on a very thorough ride. We get to see how the ladies got recruited, how they got trained, and to see a number of hits they did in their youth, in exotic locations throughout the world. These interleave with hits they are carrying out now, in their old age, in self-defense. There is not just one but many tense, intricate, detailed climatic action scenes. And it all works together into one big, overarching tale of betrayal. It’s like not just one, but all of the Mission: Impossible movies, in novel form. If this had billed itself just as a thriller, then these factors alone would cause me to give it four or five stars.
But unfortunately, the cover and premise promised not just Thriller, but a study of what it’s like to be a woman of a certain age. Have your goals changed? Do you miss what you were able to do in your youth, or are you content with that and ready to move on to something else? Have you left a legacy? Had any children? Are you ready to go?
No, none of that. One of the four women has married, but the only effect of her recent widowhood is to make her lose her nerve in survival situations. Another has married another woman; another is still chasing younger men at sixty. Meanwhile, the main character, Billie, never married or had children.
He was six years older than me and ready to settle down, build a life, make some babies. And no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t figure out how to make myself small enough to fit into that picture.
So, Billie, you think making and raising people is a small life, huh? It is sooo much smaller than your life of traveling around the world killing people. You couldn’t reduce yourself to being a mom.
This quote pretty much encapsulates the book’s shallow yet heavy-handed feminism, and it is the reason I have bumped it down to three stars.
Though natural law is a universal law, you cannot derive from it a universally suitable body of civil law. Bodies of law will vary in content based on peculiarities of geography, commerce, the people’s character, religious diversity, and numerous other types of circumstances. Some laws will be present in all or most civil societies, such as prohibitions of murder. These are universal because they are so close to human nature that they will not alter with changes in circumstances. But many laws are indeed based in circumstances and thus particular and mutable.
Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism, p. 255
Here is a representative New Atheist argument from Richard Dawkins:
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, page 31
Of course, each of these epithets could be backed up with an example from Scripture in which God calls Himself ‘jealous’ (not bothering to investigate what was meant by this), or appears to condone – or at least appears in the vicinity of – one of the crimes mentioned.
On its surface, this argument sounds really convincing and even damning … as long as you know nothing about the Ancient Near East. It basically blames God for all the pre-existing features of the cultures into which He was speaking.
Description Is Not Prescription
First off, let’s dispense with a very basic misunderstanding
that nevertheless seems to be widespread.
Just because an incident is recorded in the Bible does not mean that the Old Testament God endorses, let alone prescribes it. Much of the Bible is not prescriptive but is straightforward history. The Ancient Near East was a horrible place, and any history set there will contain horrors. In Genesis 19 there is an attempted homosexual gang rape. In Judges 19 there is a horrific, fatal gang rape, followed by a bloody clan war, followed by a mass kidnapping. In 2 Kings 6 there is cannibalism. And so on. It makes no more sense to blame God for these events than it does to blame a historian for the atrocities he documents.
God Commanded Animal Sacrifice, Holy War, Theocracy
But, let’s move on to the more difficult stuff. It is true that in the Old Testament, God commands His people to establish a theocracy by force. Furthermore, His worship involves animal sacrifice (which seems mild by comparison, but some people have a problem with this too). To modern eyes, all of this is very very bad. If God were really good, He would never have set up a theocracy.
I would like to ask the Richard Dawkinses of the world: What
kind of society, exactly, do you think the ancient Israelites found themselves
in at the time that God gave them all these laws?
Apparently, before the mean ol’ God of Israel came stomping through the Ancient Near East, all the other peoples there were living in a state of secular, egalitarian innocence. Everything found in the Old Testament was completely new to them. They had no gods, no priest-kings, no temples in their city-states. They did not offer animal or human sacrifices. They had no war, no rape, no slavery. They did not even eat meat. They were all vegans and went around with Coexist bumper stickers on their camels.
No, no, no. Come on. That picture is the exact opposite of the truth. There was no such thing as an egalitarian, secular society back then, and would not be for millennia.
The Actual Conditions in the Ancient Near East
When God began speaking to the Israelites, here are the
historical and cultural conditions that He had to work with:
In the Ancient Near East, literally every kingdom was a theocracy.
If you wanted to live in civilization, that meant that you lived in, or
were a farmer attached to, a city-state. At the center of your city would be the temple
of that city’s god. Typically the king
was also the high priest of said god and was considered his or her
representative on earth. So, the god was
ruling you through the king. Every
citizen of the city-state owed the king absolute obedience and the god service
and sacrifice. And how was that religion
practiced? Typically with animal sacrifice. This is pretty normal for cultures
in which livestock represent wealth. But
actually, animal sacrifice was the least of it.
prostitution (which could include ritual rape) was a frequent feature of
fertility cults. Human sacrifice, even child sacrifice, was also not unheard-of
and in some places it was common.
In other words, every single person in the ancient world lived in, not to mince words, a brutal theocracy. All of these kingdoms were far more authoritarian than the system set up by God for the Israelites. The power of the ruling class was considered absolute. Being enslaved was routine: because of your own debts, or your parents’, or because your city had been conquered, or because someone fancied you or because you had somehow annoyed the king. There was no concept of the lower classes having natural rights; and, in many cases, no sense of the rule of law. Nobody can be a snob or tyrant like an Ancient Near Eastern god-king.
For most people in the Ancient Near East, life was a horror show.
It Wasn’t the Bible World, It Was the Whole World
Actually, this highly centralized kind of politico-religious system was not confined to the Ancient Near East. The early civilizations of the Indus Valley had a very similar system to that of ancient Sumer, even down to the temples and city layouts looking almost identical. The Indian style of centralized religious system can be spotted in Cambodia and Indonesia. Meanwhile, back in the Ancient Near East, this kind of system persisted, in the centuries following the giving of the Old Testament law, in the civilizations of Crete, Greece, the Hittites, Babylon, Assyria, and Persia. Thousands of years later, we see similar arrangements in Mayan, Aztec, and Incan culture. In fact, it is not too big of a stretch to say that until very recent times, a centralized, stratified, bureaucratic theocracy has been the norm, at least among major civilizations, throughout human history.
But that kind of world is strange to us now. We are
accustomed to a very different kind of society: relatively open, free, and
secular, with lots of social mobility (and no
animal sacrifices whatsoever). For many
people, their first encounter with this once-familiar style of centralized
theocracy comes when they open the Bible.
They then attribute all this stuff to the God of Israel, as if He had
commanded all of this. But no, He was
not instituting theocracy, animal
sacrifice, arranged marriage, slavery, or any of the rest of it. Those things were already universal. He was, instead, speaking in to cultures for which these things were already the
norm. He spoke to them in their terms,
but at the same time transformed the terms to be more in line with His
Well, Why Didn’t God Just Fix It?
You might say, “Well, then, why didn’t He tell them to stop having theocracies, sacrifice, and slavery, and to become a modern secular state?” This would, of course, have made no sense to them. They would have been completely unable to understand the message. If they had nevertheless tried to implement it, it would have led to a French Revolution-style Terror and a complete breakdown of their societies. You cannot completely and instantly transform a society without breaking it. But He did begin to transform those Ancient Near Eastern cultures by giving them a model of a good theocracy.
Suddenly, people had available to them the option to live in
a land where the local god was not represented by a statue (this was unbelievably counterintuitive) and where
instead of being arbitrary, He was “righteous” … where His worship did not
allow human sacrifice or temple prostitution, but only carefully regulated
animal sacrifice … where the behavior of priests was regulated and limited by
the law … where institutions like slavery and arranged marriage were, again,
limited by relatively humane laws … where each family was supposed to own their
own land … where, for many years, there
was no king.
If you wanted to set up a sane society in the midst of the
Ancient Near East, I don’t know how else you would possibly go about it.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006)
Public domain images in this post come from the pages of Streams of Civilization, Vol. 1, 3rd ed., edited by Albert Hyma and Mary Stanton. (Christian Liberty Press, Arlington Heights, Illinois, 2016)
Information about life in the Ancient Near East, Cambodia, Indonesia, and the American civilizations comes from Streams of Civilization and from many, many other sources.
“Jo Marshall, Dashiell Hammett’s only surviving daughter, in 2006 said ‘Yes!’ to a prequel to the The Maltese Falcon. Jo gave me not only her blessings and inspiration but also the idea (and the research) for much of part III of the novel. Vince Emory let me write the introduction to Hammett’s Lost Stories, then shared his vast knowledge of San Francisco and Hammett with me. A history of the coroner’s office from 1850 to 1960 gave me the idea for part II.”
Ten stars. Ten.
This is so well researched and written, so atmospheric. Naturally worked into the story, we find a wealth of details about San Fran in the 20s: how people dressed (including disguises), what they ate, and how much it cost. (They ate well, and for cheap!) There are ferryboats and fishing boats, there are foghorns, there is lots and lots of fog. There are immigrant communities: Greek, “Portugee,” Chinese, and German. Stuff happens that will rip your heart out, and Spade reacts to it in his characteristic hard-boiled way. Twists are many, revenge is sweet. This book covers the years 1921 to 1928.