I have taken a closer look at Wolfe’s Introduction to his book on Christian Nationalism. What I find is something common to almost every work in social science today. Keep in mind that Wolfe explicitly presents a political theory and not in fact political theology or some kind of exegetical case for his point of view. In the Introduction, Wolfe problematizes a subject and advances a critical theory meant to motivate change on the part of his readers. This move is inherently Foucauldian.
Wolfe begins by noting that “the absence of God in public life is now normal”, he invokes Rousseau to claim that today’s Christians glory in their suffering, our religion is used as a “coping device for inaction”, and that our problem today is a “lack of will” for political change.
Wolfe then wants to advance a political theory that will “enliven…the hearts of Christians” so that they then are inspired to take action for their good. Wolfe attempts to frame this as a positive answer to what he calls the “secularist civil religion” of our day, but really it’s offered as a negative dialectic as much as we might call it anything positive because his chief concern is to answer the problematization in play. In this way, Wolfe is entirely postmodern in his approach. Wolfe isn’t presenting a normative political theory that attempts to explain the world, he’s offering an alternative critical theory meant to change it. The change he seeks is right in line with Marx’s Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”
We should consider that Augustine wasn’t the only one to frame man’s condition in terms of creation, fall, and redemption. Marx did also and the key difference is the demythologizing Marx offered through gutting Hegel’s work of any Christian content. Of course, Wolfe would like to return to a sort of baptized critical theory in his establishment of Christian Nationalism but he is working in the same vein as Adorno, Horkheimer, Marcuse, and the general dictates of political science today as far as theory is concerned. Wolfe would answer that he’s not doing sociology in his work but I don’t believe him. Political science is just as much social science as sociology is and both are thoroughly infected with critical theory throughout the disciplines.
So far, most critical reviews of Wolfe’s work of any substance have focused on how Wolfe misinterprets the Reformed tradition as if the book in the main is about Reformed theology. Critics are certainly right to knock Wolfe here as Mattson has brilliantly done, but I would suggest that Wolfe’s methodology is largely unconcerned with the details of the various Reformed traditions in play. First of all, Wolfe pretends there is a single Reformed tradition to speak of when the fact of the matter is that there are multiple streams in play with both the magisterial Reformation and what we might call post-Reformation Reformed scholasticism. There is actually a great diversity in thought the deeper you go into the various historical sources, but you will never catch Wolfe talking about the Reformed traditions in play as any sort of conversation partner with the actual traditions themselves (except, for example, to dismiss the likes of Augustine or Luther as he moves toward Aquinas). Wolfe merely assumes he’s speaking for the Reformed tradition and as such his presentation is entirely begging the question in the first place.
In fact, Wolfe even extends this to a larger unitary Christian tradition also. Wolfe constantly acts like there is only one Christian tradition. This is perhaps best seen when Wolfe pretends that “the Christian tradition” has historically seen love in three ways (benevolence, beneficence, and complacence). In fact, Christianity has seen love in massively different ways that can’t merely be framed through the work of Aquinas or Edwards as Wolfe representatively cites them for the whole of Christian tradition, both rather late witnesses considering the extensive commentary over the last two thousand years on the subject of love. He’s just wrong here and misrepresents the diverse nature of Christianity throughout the centuries on a fundamental question like the definition of love.
We don’t even see the nuance of Turretin distinguishing between this and that in Wolfe’s Epilogue, for example. No, the politeness of an academic theory is left behind for what’s ultimately tweetable in the last section of his book and operative for political change. Wolfe presents post-Reformation Reformed scholastics precisely because he is appealing to a Reformed audience conditioned by the likes of the Davenant Institute and Richard Muller’s Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics to see a certain type of historical theology as acceptable sources. In other words, Wolfe needs Aquinas to ground his prelapsarian approach in something valuable to his readers. What better than a selective read of Reformed scholastics that purportedly borrowed from Aquinas and Aristotle? Wolfe’s sources are, true to form, very selective, postmodern in their appropriation since it is anachronistic to say they would endorse a Christian nationalism, and he also ignores other important voices in the various traditions that could be employed to speak against his theory.
Further, Wolfe also forgets that nationalism as he theorizes was not in play per se in the 17th-18th centuries but rather the discovery of a New World and colonialism along with the likes of Westphalia. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was a colony, not a new nation, so grounding religious tolerance in the descendants of Cotton Mather don’t ring quite as true as he would like. Geneva was a city-state of sorts, not a nation. So, whatever Wolfe would like to posit toward nationalism in its historical context is likely operative in arguing for other alternatives seen in things like the foundation of the Dutch Republic establishing the modern nation-state, a new international order contra the previous Holy Roman Empire, and the rise of the British Empire, itself a multi-ethnic conglomerate.
Notice that Wolfe has an entire chapter devoted to revolution and a second one on freedom of conscience. The critical nature of critical theory is to liberate the oppressed and the yearning toward freedom is the one thing that critical theory seeks to establish. While Wolfe’s view is premised on order (following, incidentally, Hegel), the truth is he seeks freedom for a nation to do good in line with the dictates of the gospel. So, Wolfe’s viewpoint properly understood also aligns with critical theory. The question is not whether Wolfe is some kind of Marxist parading as a Nationalist but rather the methodology he employs and the goal of his working theory.
Wolfe also demonstrates other tendencies common to contemporary political thought that go uncited and unnoticed unless one has read Marcuse and other critical theorists. Watch in his chapter on revolution how he describes today’s society in fine Marcusean fashion:
“The powers of our modern world—the ones that undermined true religion in the West—are more implicit and psychological; they operate in the normalization of secularism. Its normalization is evident in the fact that “normal” people affirm it, live it, and expect it. Our secularized minds are shaped for it, and thus theological traditions that are clearly opposed to secularism had to be recast as its greatest adherents (e.g., modern two-kingdoms theology).” (341)
Further, Wolfe then goes on to say that the solution to “normalized modern liberalism” is “deconstruction” because the current “regime’s chief objective is suppressing an activist Christian religion that seeks Christian normalization and anti-secularism” the very thing Wolfe would like to see instituted as Christian Nationalism.
The point here is not to call Wolfe a Cultural Marxist but only to identify that the methodology of his book certainly follows the dictates of critical theory and his project can be seen in that light given how he proceeds throughout his book to establish a case for what he calls Christian Nationalism. While Wolfe draws on selective support from historical theology, remember that his work is really a political theory and ought to be evaluated as such. The irony, of course, in being yet another instance of critical theory at work is that it remains a racist accounting meant to support a nationalism that isn’t Christian and that remains attached to the obscure political movement of Kinism. Other more sinister tones are offered in light of struggle, the will of a people, and the constant focus on order in the book that should also give one pause the same way films like Triumph of the Will cause us to shudder today. The real historical tradition Wolfe relies on here is much more a matter of nineteenth century romanticism and the stuff of Wagnerian operas. Thinking Reformed theology is the primary driver of his viewpoint is a royal mistake as he quotes figures like Ernest Renan in addition to Aquinas and whoever else provides cover for the inherent racism he projects through terms like ethnicity.