The Christian Prince Against the Dad Bod: An Assessment of The Case for Christian Nationalism

I rather tell thee what is to be feared

Than what I fear,—for always I am Caesar.

–Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene II

Our times cry out for deep devotion to truth, pure conviction exemplified through sacrifice, clarity over obfuscation, courage in the face of mortal danger, and rightly ordered loves of worthy objects. Instead, what we normally get from our culture consists of truth-stifling prevarications, selfish platitudinous preening on social media, word-salad justifications for moral compromise, intellectual-moral-physical squeamishness, disordered obsession with the trivial, and vicarious living through the fanciful heroes of Hollywood, professional athletics, and video games.

Our culture is depraved, individualistic, and morally adrift. Our government officials are shallow-minded careerists, democratic demagogues, and wannabe tyrants. Our institutions are eaten up by a metastasized agenda of godless sexual deviance masquerading as sanity, Marxist racial “equity” in the guise of justice, and postmodern exaltation of the self as ultimate ontological, epistemological, and ethical authority. In the early twenty-first century, Christians find themselves being devoured by a gaslighting pagan nationalism that is “dreadful and terrifying and extremely strong,” (Dan 7:7) devouring, crushing, and trampling everything that was ever good, noble, and praiseworthy about America. And yet American Christians are too often epitomized by the “dad bod,” the bodily manifestation of cluelessness, laziness of mind and body, and cowardice that infects contemporary American culture.

Is there a solution to this pervasive threat to civilization? Stephen Wolfe, in his book The Case for Christian Nationalism, argues that the way to combat pagan nationalism is to confront it directly. Rather than cowering before it, or being distracted by laziness or apathy (“lose the dad bod,” he counsels in the epilogue, and be “men of power”), Christian men should embrace a vision of the nation that is centered on greatness. Such greatness is not a mere abstract concept for Wolfe. Greatness should be personified in one great man, the “Christian prince.” This Christian prince is the head of the Christian state, the legal expression of the self-conscious Christian nation. It is the Christian prince that champions the people of the nation. Wolfe sees the answer to our flabby, immoral, cowardly, trivial culture in a form of magisterial Christian nationalism that is predicated on the political thought of the Protestant scholastics of the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. The Christian nation, headed by the Christian prince, has the power to ensure the citizens attain to their heavenly good. “Our time,” Wolfe writes, “calls for a man who can wield formal civil power to great effect and shape the public imagination by means of charisma, gravitas, and personality” (31). Such a man, a divinely ordained Epiphanes at the center of a magisterial Christian nationalism, is the only real solution to pagan nationalism.

Essential to Wolfe’s case is that our options are limited to only two choices: pagan or Christian nationalism (381). We are in a pagan nationalistic situation, “but we do not have to live like this,” Wolfe writes (326). Wolfe argues that his magisterial Christian nationalism provides the political, religious, and cultural solution to the perversity of our age.

Summarizing His Case

In ten chapters, with an introduction and an epilogue, Wolfe builds his case for magisterial Christian nationalism. Wolfe does not use the term “magisterial” as a descriptor of the Christian nationalism he conceives, but this is an apt term to describe it. There have been a lot of different kinds of Christian nationalism in the West since the Renaissance/Reformation, and also a variety of kinds that have shown up in American history. Wolfe insists on making a purely rational argument, not historical, for Christian nationalism: “I do not appeal to historical examples of nationalism, nor do I waste time repudiating ‘fascist nationalism’” (26). This conceptual and logical methodology of Wolfe’s is one of the unique innovations he introduces into the conversation about Christian nationalism. The Christian prince—a figure that Wolfe presents in a priori terms— is at the heart of his a priori model of the Christian nation.

Wolfe begins his “conceptual defense” (26) of Christian nationalism with two chapters on anthropology, specifically, the impact of creation-fall-redemption on man and human nature. Man’s natural end was the fulfillment of the dominion mandate, and obedience to natural law is the outward display of man’s dominion over nature. Even if Adam had not fallen into sin, man would have formed nations with distinct cultures and governments, for these were all part of human nature and the created order. Adam’s fall necessitated government be “augmented” in order to “suppress sin” (88) but governments, nations, and cultures were not themselves a part of the curse of sin.

Grace in redemption restores man to his prelapsarian state. Man has been given eternal life through Christ, and this entails sanctification in Christ. The people of God are restored to God’s original intention for mankind by grace, and so in a state of grace, the people of God orient the temporal to the eternal through the institution of the church.

The argument continues with a consideration of nation and nationalism. To clarify the meaning and substance of the nation, Wolfe starts with specific “fundamental relations of people and place” of our experience in ordinary life, such as customs, language, geography, and cultural norms (118). He also points to the family as the basis of the nation, arguing that the basic unit of a nation is the family. From there, he shows how our loves are ordered, that we favor those who are closest to us. Favoring one’s own nation over another is not immoral, but natural and good. Transitioning from nationalism to Christian nationalism, Wolfe asserts that Christianity perfects the nation. The perfected nation—the Christian nation—orients its people to their “earthly and heavenly good” (164) and “true religion” (183). When it does so, it is fulfilling what God intended government to do, that is, relate the secular and the sacred spheres in their proper order.

It follows that the national culture should reflect the true faith. Thus, Wolfe provides a defense in the fifth chapter of “cultural Christianity” (208). Cultural Christianity is “a mode of religion” (209) complementary to the Christian faith, providing a touchpoint for a unified identity for the nation as well as a coherent array of mores that are informed by Christianity. These mores direct people to the saving Christian faith, even if they do not hold legal or exegetical authority per se.

Wolfe goes on to situate the role of civil law in the nation. Civil law is the legal expression of natural law, or the moral order God built into the universe at Creation. The civil magistracy mediates between natural law and divine law to provide a civil legal framework that is consistent with the Christian faith. Furthermore, the spheres of life have authorities unique to the nature of each sphere. In the sphere of civil life, the civil magistrate is the authority. But civil law, while it is efficacious in the realm of the external life of the nation, it is not pertinent to the inner life of the individual conscience.

In the seventh chapter, Wolfe lays out his theory of the Christian prince. The Christian prince is marked by the attribute of greatness, serving as an inspiration to the people and striking terror in the hearts of the enemies of the nation. Following the contours of the two kingdoms, the Christian prince is the chief magistrate of the nation but the church is not under his jurisdiction. The Christian prince is the prime instrument for Wolfe’s “great renewal” of Christian nationalism (323).

Chapter eight deals with Wolfe’s conception of the right of the people to conduct violent revolution (when prudent), particularly when true religion is threatened or when the good of the people is threatened. And chapter nine addresses the issue of the liberty of conscience. Wolfe bases his conception of liberty of conscience on the premise that the conscience is free, but civil magistrates still retain the right to enact and enforce civil laws that direct the people to the highest, heavenly good.

And while Wolfe does not base his case for Christian nationalism on historical experience, he does include a chapter-length historical consideration of the relationship between church and state in the colonial and early republican period of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth century. In order to demonstrate that negative religious liberty, disestablishment, and a neutral state are modern innovations, Wolfe points to the experience of New England and the period of American history prior to the Civil War. Wolfe concludes the book with a variety of practical considerations with regard to politics and culture in the twenty-first century.

Engaging Wolfe’s Model

There is much to say about this book. Coming in at 478 pages, the case that Wolfe makes for his model of magisterial Christian nationalism is intensely provocative and multifaceted. There are a lot of reviews of this book for those interested in Christian nationalism to access and contemplate. But indulge me as I write a few lines from my own perspective.

The book’s overall argument is tight and coherent. It is based on a theological tradition that is often misunderstood, misapplied, and overlooked. In particular, Wolfe’s considerations on the edifying influence of cultural Christianity is well conceived and well-stated. My own synonymous term for cultural Christianity is civil religion, and I am on record as endorsing civil religion provided it is consistent with theistic premises and does not serve to make the nation into an idol. It seems to me that Wolfe’s defense of cultural Christianity is a needed one. And when it comes to the role of civil law as pertaining to the good of the citizens, I am also with Wolfe, albeit only up a point. Specifically, civil law ought to comport with the Second Table of the Ten Commandments but ought not seek to enforce the First Table. The synergy between a body of civil law consistent with the Second Table and a civil religion (or cultural Christianity) that promotes mores which correspond with and aim toward the Christian faith is something I desire to see, especially in the context of a world gone completely crazy.

Wolfe is also right to reject the gaslighting tactics of the left, especially from figures like Samuel Perry, Andrew Whitehead, or Philip Gorski. They see anyone who embraces pro-life arguments, complementarianism, and biblical sexual ethics as being a Christian nationalist. I find Wolfe’s rejection of lefty intimidation maneuvers to be refreshing and inspiring. If holding to biblical inerrancy, free exercise of religion, and traditional Christian moral norms makes me a Christian nationalist, then button that Christian/American flag lapel pin on me.

But it seems that the real issue Wolfe raises in his case for Christian nationalism is the purpose of the state for human flourishing. Is it the purpose of the state to secure, through civil law, the highest good of the citizens? Or is the purpose of the state to secure the citizens’ individual natural rights, namely, the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? What is the ultimate end of the state? And how does the state assist in the pursuit of the highest good? In whatever way the question is answered, it will have necessary entailments having to do with other issues, such as the relationship between church and state, the legitimacy of magisterial authority, the structure of government, the relationship of citizens to their rulers, and the role of voluntary associations outside of the government—as well as a host of other issues.

One of the strengths of the book is that Wolfe is scrupulous in providing precise definitions as he makes his overall argument. For example, his definition for Christian nationalism proceeds in this way: “Christian nationalism is a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ” (9). He defines civil law as “an ordering of reason, enacted and promulgated by a legitimate civil authority, that commands public action for the common good of civil communities” (248). And there are other such examples. Such precision in Wolfe’s use of terms is necessary to the coherence of the argument, and the reader is left with no ambiguities, even if he is not in agreement on all points.

Consistently throughout the book, it is clear that Wolfe’s understanding of the end of the Christian national state is to secure the highest good of the people. I understand this to be the central issue of the book. Others who have parted ways with Wolfe have done so on theological, practical, or historical bases. I also part ways with Wolfe, and I do so because his model is contra-American (note: not anti-American). It is contra-American because it is closer to Hegelian state theory than to the American constitutional tradition of federalism and ordered liberty.

True, Wolfe nowhere relies explicitly on G. W. F. Hegel’s (1770–1831) writings. He builds his argument on the basis of Reformed scholastic thought. But Wolfe’s model adopts, intentionally or unintentionally, the substance of Hegel’s theory of the state and refracts it through a Reformed Protestant lens. The effect is to render his Christian nationalism totalitarian. Wolfe’s magisterial Christian nationalism is functionally and fundamentally incompatible with the American political tradition.

This seems to be Wolfe’s point exactly. For him, the classical liberal political tradition has gotten us to the pagan nationalism of today. Classical liberalism does not orient a nation to its highest good, in part because the individual citizens are not competent to determine what the good is and how to pursue it. They need the civil magistrate to orient them to the highest good, otherwise they will descend into license and harm. The upshot of the failure of classical liberalism is that we only have two real options before us—pagan nationalism or Christian nationalism.

But this is a false choice. Wolfe seeks a “great renewal” of the nation through the Christian prince, but I contend that the renewal that we need is a renewal of tradition, reverence for the Constitution, and adherence to American ideals and institutions. From its founding, the United States was conceived on the idea that the government of the nation is to secure the rights of the people, and in doing so, to “secure the blessings of liberty.” These blessings would abound for the citizens of the living generations, as well as those yet to be born. Government’s role was to set the conditions for the citizens to rightly order and pursue goods under just law, disestablishment, free exercise of religion, and the right to pursue happiness, described by C. Bradley Thompson as, “the foundation of moral action and therewith of civilization.”[1] In the American tradition, the role of government is not to define and orient the people to the highest good. The role of government is to protect natural rights of the citizens and thus, secure their liberties. In so doing, government fosters the conditions for a virtuous society in which citizens may act on their long-term interest, balancing individual goods with the goods of society. Entailed in such a conception is that the common good is best pursued in a society of ordered liberty in which the church, which is disestablished, defines the highest good, not the state.

In what follows, I will attempt to specifically demonstrate my meaning when I say that Wolfe’s Christian nationalist model is Hegelian statism refracted through a Reformed Protestant lens. Wolfe’s model is Hegelian and consequentially totalitarian. It leads to the opposite of what Wolfe intends by actually degrading the true faith as it inordinately exalts the state.

Hegelian political philosophy may not seem that relevant to Wolfe’s Christian nationalism. But one sees Hegel’s relevance not only in terms of the content of Wolfe’s arguments but in the application. For one, Hegel’s influence was deep in nineteenth and early twentieth-century political thought on both sides of the Atlantic, but through the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson especially. And Hegel’s model was also the inspiration for revolutionary Marxist political philosophy. Hegel’s thought applied during the Progressive presidencies of Roosevelt and Wilson was insidious because it shifted American politics away from the constitutional order of the founding and toward the all-consuming bureaucratic state we all have to live with today. Furthermore, like Hegel’s model, Wolfe’s is pure abstraction. There is no historical precedent to demonstrate its success or failure as a working model in real-time. So a look at Hegel is eminently pertinent in any consideration of Wolfe’s Christian nationalism.[2]

Hegel’s Statism

For our purposes, we will examine Hegel’s theory of the state in Philosophy of Right, published in 1821, and Philosophy of History, published posthumously in 1858. These works emerged from his thought while he was professor of philosophy at the University of Berlin until his death in 1831. As we walk through Hegel’s theory, the contrasts and comparisons with Wolfe will become apparent.

Hegel’s definition of the state is difficult to put in plain terms, but essentially, Hegel thought of the state as the actualization of the good, which is the final end of human existence. The state emerges first from the family, specifically the feeling of family devotion. This feeling leads to ethical behavior, which is feeling directed to the good. Finally, devotion to family and ethical behavior develop into “political virtue,” which comes about through the willing of the final end, that is, the good. This transition from feeling to willing represents the shift from the subjective to the objective, the particular to the universal, and the abstract to the concrete. The state grows from the root of the family, and it comes into being by the joining together of particular individuals into the universal whole.

For Hegel, the state is “the actuality of the ethical Idea.” The state is the merging together of the “ethical mind” and the will of the universal whole. The state has a consciousness of itself. It knows and thinks of itself and expresses itself through an active will, which Hegel understands to be manifested in the laws of the state. The state’s universal consciousness stems from the self-consciousness of every particular individual as they combine to form the whole. Hegel’s definition of the state is worth quoting at length:

The state is the actuality of the ethical Idea. It is ethical mind qua the substantial will manifest and revealed to itself, knowing and thinking itself, accomplishing what it knows and in so far as it knows it. The state exists immediately in custom, mediately in individual self-consciousness, knowledge and activity, while self-consciously in virtue of its sentiment towards the state finds in the state, as its essence and the end and product of its activity, its substantive freedom. . .

The state is absolutely rational inasmuch as it is the actuality of the substantial will which it possesses in the particular self-consciousness once that consciousness has been raised to consciousness of its universality. This substantial unity is an absolute unmoved end in itself, in which freedom comes into its supreme right. On the other hand this final end has supreme right against the individual, whose supreme duty is to be a member of the state.[3]

Thus, the state is the supreme expression of the ethical ideal in that it consists of the merging of particulars into the universal whole. The unity of the particular with the universal results in the objectivity of the state and the basis for the self-determining action of the state through the laws of the state.

And what is the highest good which the state embodies? According to Hegel, the good is the state itself when the will of the particular, that is the individual person and/or family, unites with the universal whole of the nation. When the particular will is united to the universal will, the good obtains. The expression of the good is freedom. Hegel wrote, “The good is the Idea as the unity of the concept of the will with the particular will. . . . The good is thus freedom realized the absolute end and aim of the world.”[4]

We have thus far the idea of the state as the unity of the particular with the universal, the actuality of the ethical Ideal which has its primitive root in the family. The state is essentially active in that its being is expressed in the will of the whole, which is seen in the laws of the state. The state possesses self-consciousness of itself, so it knows itself as the ethical ideal. The universal self-consciousness is rooted in the individual self-consciousness of the particular, merged together to form the whole. The state is an end in itself, and the state fulfills the absolute end of human civilization and human history, which is the realization of complete freedom, which is the highest good.

What did Hegel mean by freedom? There are two kinds. He wrote, “Rationality, concrete in the state, consists (a) so far as its content is concerned, in the unity of objective freedom (i.e. freedom of the universal or substantial will) and subjective freedom (i.e. freedom of everyone in his knowing and in his volition of particular ends); and consequently, (b) so far as its form is concerned, in self-determining action on laws and principles which are thoughts and so universal.”[5] So, freedom emerges from rationality, and rationality is entailed in the state as the state is the unity of the particular with the universal.

When the unity of the universal and the particular is achieved, rationality is achieved, and thus objective freedom. Objective freedom Hegel understands as the will of the universal. Objective freedom is to be distinguished from subjective freedom. Subjective freedom pertains to the particular. Every individual, or particular person, has self-consciousness as a particular, and also knows and wills his particular rights, desires, and purposes. What we might call individual liberties, in the Lockean sense—rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, for example—Hegel refers to as subjective freedom. Hegel was dismissive of such freedom. Subjective freedom dissipates, as it were, when the particular unites with the universal. The state is the universal, and the final state of the becoming of the ethical ideal. Perfect freedom is birthed in the universal, when the state is perfected through its becoming universal. When the state is perfected, freedom is no longer subjective, that is, it is no longer defined by the individual. The individual is now united with the universal, fulfilling his destiny. So, freedom is objectivized in the universal. The will of the universal is expressed in the law. Perfect freedom, objective freedom, as the absolute end of the world and the highest good, we can thus understand as, in Bertrand Russell’s description, “the right to obey the law.”[6]

Freedom, the good, is realized only through the state. Individuals do not lose their particularity or their identity when they unite with the universal. They also do not surrender their individual freedoms. But subjective freedom is inferior to the objective freedom of the universal. And the universal is predicated on the unity of the particulars as they form the whole. But the individuals relinquish their particular ends and freedoms in the interest of the whole, and the will of the individuals is merged into one universal whole, which has a single self-consciousness of itself and a single will of its own as expressed through the law. Such is perfect freedom, the highest good of the world. Hegel said this:

Personal individuality and its particular interests not only achieve their complete development and gain explicit recognition for their right (as they do in the sphere of the family and civil society) but, for one thing, they also pass over of their own accord into the interest of the universal, and, for another thing, they know and will the universal. . . . The result is that the universal does not prevail or achieve completion except along with particular interests and through the cooperation of particular knowing and willing; and individuals likewise do not live as private persons for their own ends alone, but in the very act of willing these they will the universal in the light of the universal and their activity is consciously aimed at none but the universal end.[7]

This conception of the state as the culmination of perfect freedom in the universal has this direct implication—the state, Hegel said, is the divine will. By that he means that the state is Mind moving toward a world telos. “The state is the divine will, in the sense that it is mind present on earth, unfolding itself to be the actual shape and organization of the world.”[8] Hegel did not conceive of the divine in the same transcendent/immanent sense of Christian theism. His idea of the divine, more consistent with pantheism (albeit not exactly), is derived from the Continental Enlightenment tradition of ontology traced back to Spinoza (1632–1677). And if the state is the divine will, then what is the role of religion in the state?

Hegel saw religion in purely subjective terms, the domain of experience and feeling, in a similar way that Kant and Hume saw religion. Religion, according to Hegel, “is a relation to the Absolute, a relation which takes the form of feeling, representative thinking, faith,” and is thus subjective. If religion retains this vestige of particularity and subjectivity, then religion has no place in the state. But if religion is “of a genuine kind, it does not run counter to the state.” Religion can support the state by shedding its particular and accidental forms and conforming to the universal. When religion complements and upholds the state, contributes to the unity of the state, then “the state should even require all its citizens to belong to a church.” There can even be toleration extended to churches dissenting from the state church, provided the members of a dissenting church “fulfill their direct duties to the state passively.” The church finally must be governed by the state, and cannot exist apart from the state. Still, the state cannot dictate the content of the church’s doctrine. Hegel insisted that “the content of a man’s faith depends on his private ideas, and the state cannot interfere” and “doctrine as such has its domain in conscience and falls within the right of the subjective freedom of self-consciousness, the sphere of the inner life, which as such is not the domain of the state.”[9]

So, the church’s relation to the state is marked by complementarity when the church teaches doctrines that comport with the ethical ideal of the state. The state is the senior partner, and the church is the inferior partner, but church and state support one another through establishment. In that establishment, the church supports the unity of the state through its teaching objective ethics, and the state protects the independence of the church by respecting the rights of the inner conscience of the members.

But the state exists for itself. The state is the divine mind and the divine will. The laws of the state are the concrete expression of the active will of the state, and obedience to those laws is perfect, objective freedom. Furthermore, Hegel says, “the state is the actually existing, realized moral life. For it is the unity of the universal essential will, with that of the individual; and this is ‘morality.’”[10] Hegel rejected the idea that ethics and morality were found in individual moral reflection. Rather, morality should be understood in the way the ancient Athenians understood it—as duty. So since the state is the divine idea, and since the state is essentially the embodiment of morality, perfect freedom is found only in the expression of the law. “Law is the objectivity of spirit; volition in its true form. Only that will which obeys the law is free; for it obeys itself—it is independent and so free,” Hegel wrote.[11]

The state, being the universal whole resulting from the unity of particulars, is thus not formed on the basis of, as Alexander Hamilton described in Federalist 1, “reflection and choice.”[12] The state emerges from the unity of the particular with the universal. It is the concrete reality of the divine idea. And its emergence does not occur by the choices of the particular persons, because the state is the actual manifestation of Spirit. Hegel wrote, “it is not the isolated will of individuals that prevails; individual pretensions are relinquished, and the general will is the essential bond of political union.” That unity goes through stages of development in history. The first phase is purely monarchical; in the second phase, particularity begins to be distinguished from the singularity of the monarch through an aristocracy or a democracy; and in the third phase, the universal emerges to bring all particular interests together into the whole.[13]

Hegel equated the universal state with the nation. The state’s laws, institutions, citizens, mountains, rivers, and produce Hegel described as belonging to the nation. These are “their country, their fatherland, their outward material property.” Hegel also saw the history of the nation and the history of the state in equal terms. The nation’s history is the “history of this state, their deeds; what their ancestors have produced belongs to them and lives in their memory.” All these claims of the nation are the claims of the state. And the claims of the state encompass everything, both spirit and body. Hegel said it this way: “All is their possession, just as they are possessed by it; for it constitutes their existence, their being.” Furthermore, the nation is conditioned by its laws, the members of the state find freedom in obedience to those laws, and the laws are the manifestation of the active will of the state, the nation. And the nation, the state, represent the citizens as a self-conscious whole, for their own sake. “It is this matured totality which thus constitutes one being, the spirit of one people,” Hegel said. “To it the individual members belong; each unit is the son of his nation, and at the same time, in as far as the state to which he belongs is undergoing development, the son of his age.”[14]

And who is the head of the state? Hegel’s state—the universal, the ethical ideal which orients its citizens to their highest good, which is the freedom to obey—is a monarchy. The monarchy is based first on the “universality of the constitution and its laws.” Hegel meant here that the monarch is the embodiment of the whole nation and its will, expressed in law. Second, the power of the monarch “refers the particular to the universal.” In other words, the monarch, as a particular person, does not derive his powers nor make his decisions based on an individual caprice, but all his actions have their root in the unity of the state. Third, the monarch possesses “self-determination to which everything else reverts and from which everything else derives the beginning of its actuality.” Thus, sovereignty rests with the monarch.[15] The monarch is the single individual in whose person the will of the state is concentrated, and is thus, “the ultimate self.”[16] The will of the monarch and the will of the state are unified together, and it is in this unity that factions, parties, interests, and warfare are kept at bay. Being mere particularities, these threats would have the effect of destroying the unity and the existence of the state, but the monarch, as the majestic head and embodiment of the state, guards the state from dissolution into particularity.[17]

This brief engagement with Hegel only scratches the surface of his theory of the state. In short, Hegel exalted the state to divine status and brought the true Christian faith down to theological degradation and subservience to the state. The state, being defined as ultimate expression of active ethical will through law, defines and orients the nation to what it sees as the highest good: freedom. But this freedom is freedom to obey, to fulfill one’s duty to the will of the state. The head of the nation state is the monarch, and the monarch is the ultimate self, just as the state is ultimate. Executive, judicial, and legislative power is in the monarch and carried out by civil magistrates who serve as the extension to the monarchy.

Wolfe’s Hegelianism

Wolfe’s model bears the substance of Hegel’s statism. Consider Wolfe’s definition of Christian nationalism: “Christian nationalism is a totality of national action, consisting of civil laws and social customs, conducted by a Christian nation as a Christian nation, in order to procure for itself both earthly and heavenly good in Christ” (9). The categories of “totality and national action” are Hegelian in that they underscore the nature of the nation-state as totalizing and defined by active will. Wolfe uses the analogy of the soccer team to explain the nation. Hegel’s conception of the unity of the particular with the general fits well with the team analogy also—the members of the team do not lose their identity per se, but they do act as one in a unified interest.

The active will of the nation-state is expressed through “civil law and social customs” in Wolfe’s model—the same is true in Hegel’s model. The civil laws of Wolfe’s Christian nation and the laws of Hegel’s nation state both, in Wolfe’s words, “form an interrelated and oftentimes redundant web of obligation that orders everything ultimately to the national good” (13). It is true that Wolfe’s national good and Hegel’s national good are different—the former is a heavenly life, the latter is concrete freedom. But this is what I mean: Wolfe’s model bears the substance of Hegelian statism, even though it is refracted through a Reformed Protestant lens.

Finally, the Christian nation conducts itself as a Christian nation, or as Wolfe later writes, “The work of the Christian nationalist is convincing his Christian nation to be a nation for itself” (38). Hegel’s direction is the same—the state is self-conscious of itself, acts for its own sake, and is justified in acting for the good of itself as it defines the good, just as Wolfe’s Christian nation does.

Throughout the book, Wolfe conceives of the Christian nation in Hegelian terms. He seeks a “reinvigoration of a collective will that asserts and stands up for itself.” He understands the term “nation” to “emphasize the unity of the whole” (135). Wolfe conceives of the Christian nation as a perfected nation (26) and defines nationalism as “a nation acting as a nation for its national good” (164), just as Hegel conceives of the nation as the Whole and has the nation developing into a state of actuality and concrete freedom. Wolfe’s “complete nationalism” consists in the “nation in itself” having “become a nation for itself. Thus, the steps to perfect nationalism begin with a nation moving from implicit to explicit knowledge of itself and then, on the basis of that self-conception, acting for itself by willing its national good” (166). In this striking sentence, Wolfe employs the same categories as Hegel: a nation, equated with a state, having a self-consciousness of itself, defined by active will, bringing about the good as it defines the good. While Wolfe does insist that his model does not immanentize the eschaton, “but has ordered itself to eternal life” (180), the logic of his model is inexorable. Hegel lifted the state to divine status, and in so doing, degraded religion by stripping it of transcendence. Wolfe, in making the attainment of eternal life the purview of the state, is on the Hegelian path of doing the same.

Wolfe’s conception of the magistrate, and later, the Christian prince, also bear the substance of Hegel’s thought. The individual citizen, in Wolfe’s model, “cannot always determine appropriate public action for the common good” but “civil leaders, having the whole in view, determine suitable action” (30). The civil laws, Wolfe argues, are both “theonomic and, in a sense, autonomic. The magistrate enacts and enforces laws of his own design, though only as a mediator, a sort of vicar of divine civil rule” (269). Hegel was not as specific in locating the source of authority in a personal God, but the similarities between his and Wolfe’s conception of the rule of the magistrate are substantial enough to raise profound concern. Hegel also believed that civil law in the state was just, and that it was the highest good of the people to obey that law. And who made, interpreted, and enforced the law in Hegel’s theory? The magistrate, that’s who.

Which gets us to Wolfe’s Christian prince—“the civil power of the prince comes immediately from God” (31) and “the prince mediates God’s divine civil rule” and “he makes public judgments in application of God’s natural law, effectively creating law (though derivative of natural law), and he has the power to bring about what he commands.” The Christian prince “holds the most excellent office, exceeding even that of the church minister, for it is most like God” (286). In holding judicial, executive, and legislative power in his office, Wolfe’s Christian prince bears substantial similarity with Hegel’s monarch, who is supreme over the church, the ultimate self, and possesses self-determination to express the will of the state.

One could shrug his shoulders and wonder how any of this matters. What’s the problem if Wolfe’s model resembles Hegel’s? Hegel’s theory is totalitarian. The state is ultimatized in Hegel’s view. The church is subordinated to the state, and Wolfe admits that the Christian prince is over the minister. The logic that Wolfe uses can only lead in the same direction as Hegel’s did for Marx and Heidegger—the totalizing of the state and the degradation of the Christian faith that Wolfe holds dear.

Wolfe says that his book is not an “action plan” (433). But he does say that we need “some blueprint for Christian civil and moral leadership . . . when our time comes” (322). Like Marx, Wolfe does not see himself as a philosopher, but a prophet. His book is meant to “contribute” to the preparation for the Christian civil and moral leadership that will come under the Christian prince, the one who directs and orients the people to their “highest good.”

Wolfe assures the reader that in the Christian nation, while abuse of power is possible, it is unlikely. The magistrate knows the Scriptures, knows the good, and can execute justice reliably. We should all hope that Wolfe’s many conflations of can with will, ought with is, and knowledge with right action will obtain under a civil order ruled by some Christian version of Antiochus Epiphanes. We should hope that a man of majesty claiming divine right will define the “highest good” aright. I am not at all optimistic that this is possible, because I believe that the Fall of Man is a lot more profound than we know. Merely waving off the terrible potentialities for abuse of power as hardly conceivable in a purely conceptual model, as Wolfe does again and again throughout the book, will not do when crafting a manifesto such as this.

Where Wolfe Fits

Postliberalism, a school of thought into which Wolfe’s book fits, is predicated on the idea that the classical liberalism of the American founding has failed. Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed (2019) and Adrian Vermeule’s Common Good Constitutionalism: Recovering the Classical Legal Tradition (2022) are works by Catholic thinkers who also argue that liberalism has failed. The New Right, a counter-revolutionary, reactionary movement, is made up of a growing following of people who are fed up with the failure of liberalism represented by the neo-liberal emphasis on the free market on the right and the progressive one-track-mindedness of the left stressing personal identities based on race, sexuality, and gender. Francis Fukuyama has offered a book-length treatment on the collapse of liberalism in his Liberalism and its Discontents (2022).

But there is nothing new in counter-revolutionary reactionism in the Western tradition. Richard Hofstadter had his “pseudo-conservatives” in 1955, those he described as “simply the old ultra-conservatism and the old isolationism heightened by the extraordinary pressures of the contemporary world.”[18] Peter Viereck, in his 1956 work, Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill, argued that two forms of conservatism have prevailed since the French Revolution—the evolutionary conservatism of Burke and the reactionary, counter-revolutionary conservatism of Joseph de Maistre. He coined the term “ottantott” to refer to the reactionary side of conservatism, the side that “seems just as revolutionary against the existing present as the radical Jacobin or Marxist, only in the opposite direction.”[19] Viereck derived his term, ottantott, from the story of the reactionary king of Piedmont-Sardinia, Charles Albert, who sullenly muttered “ottantotto, ottantotto” (Italian for “eighty-eight”) because he thought that if the world could just go back to 1788, the year before the French Revolution, all would be well.[20]

Ottantottists have never used the term “conservative” to refer to themselves. Neither does Wolfe (38, 437). He believes that today’s conservatives and progressives are not distinguishable from one another. Even this argument is not all that new, since Louis Hartz argued something similar in his The Liberal Tradition in America in 1955. Wolfe, however, is wrong to conflate neo-liberalism with conservatism. Conservatism in America has always been diverse. Historian Patrick Allitt argued that the Civil War was a war between conservatives over what to conserve.[21] Ottantottism has been part of the broad conservative tradition in America since the 1820s. McCarthyite anti-communism and rightist libertarianism have been important since 1945.

Burkean evolutionary conservatism, predominant in America since the national founding, reveres tradition, constitutionalism, religion, and deliberation in the management of change. Conflating neo-liberalism with “conservatism” is just confused and anachronistic.[22] Neo-liberalism refers to the world of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, whereas evolutionary conservatism has its roots in the thought of Edmund Burke (whom Wolfe rightly cites favorably in defining society as embracing the dead, the living, and the yet-to-be-born on page 137).

Concluding Reflections

Both Wolfe and Hegel make much of the nation (state) existing for itself, for its own sake. Hegel said the state is the good, per se, because the state births true freedom. Wolfe says the state orients citizens to their good, which is a distinction without a logical difference from Hegel. If the state exists for its own sake, then it is a good in itself. If it is a good in itself, then the citizens exist for the good of the state. The Lockean liberal position is the opposite insofar as it reflects the salus populi position presented by many other thinkers. The state exists for the good of the citizens because the state is a means to an end—the protection of their rights and the extension of their liberties. Wolfe may reject this emphasis on rights and liberties, but this is only hair-splitting. He still emphasizes the importance of a “commodious” (just) civil order that enables the “common good,” a term he deploys several dozen times. Whether that common good is defined by rights and liberties or not isn’t the point. He offers no constitutional or institutional provision to keep the good of the state from being confused with the good of the people.

Wolfe’s model demands that the citizens exist for the state, because he has articulated it in Erastian terms (though he denies his model is Erastian) with a monarch possessing all judicial, legislative, and executive authority. Furthermore, his purely “conceptual” and a priori model necessitates that he, like Hegel, know the Whole by knowing every conceivable property of the whole, including every relation of all its properties. Wolfe tries to answer every question, every possible objection as he works through his case. But a purely conceptual model cannot possibly attain to that kind of knowledge of the Whole.

Wolfe does not want to go to history for any epistemic justification. If he did, he would see that his reactionary, counter-revolutionary, authoritarian rightism has been tried before in America between 1828 (Calhoun’s South Carolina Exposition and Protest) and 1865. The Southern Confederacy was, in significant measure, a reactionary, counter-revolutionary, ottantottist project not unlike Wolfe’s. It promised constitutional reform, and common good, and freedom from the presumed authoritarianism of Lincoln but delivered only one and a half million casualties and 620,000 deaths in the Civil War. Even if one asserts that the problem started long before Fort Sumter, that problem began when rhetoric and protestations that moderates were oblivious overwhelmed prudence. Logical arguments in favor of violent revolution are fine, but when logic collides with realities in space and time, unintended consequences and unforeseen conditions that may not be desirable inevitably come to pass. Look no further than the conceptual plan put forward by Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx in 1848. Ignoring history in favor of pure logical arguments is, to put it bluntly, insane.

Ultimately, why would a reasonable person seek to correct the weaknesses of liberalism—many of them real—with authoritarianism at best, and totalitarianism at worst? How does the abuse of freedom justify the jettisoning of freedom? Wolfe has done his readership a great service in reinvigorating the Reformed Protestant tradition. But the results of his work are not renewal. His model points to revolution, the overturning of order in the creation of something altogether unprecedented in the American experience.

Alexis de Tocqueville observed that the French Revolution began as a move to change the government. It grew to embrace a radical vision that overthrew society as a whole. Tradition was jettisoned, and with it, all traditional authorities. Anarchy resulted. Thus, as Tocqueville wrote, the revolution “was obliged simultaneously to attack all established powers, to undermine all acknowledged influences, to efface traditions, to renew mores and customs, and somehow to rid the human mind of all the ideas on which respect and obedience had previously been founded. This accounts for its singularly anarchic character.”[23]

Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary models go in different directions, but their methods and results are the same. To put it more precisely, leftist revolutionaries (represented by, say, Antifa) and rightist counter-revolutionaries (represented by Catholic integralism and magisterial Christian nationalism of Wolfe) seek to overturn the American constitutional order. One disparages it as morally reprehensible from the beginning because it was supposedly conceived to protect slavery and racial hierarchy. The other says that the federalism of the founding is dead. But they both seek to rid America of the tradition of ordered liberty under the Constitution and replace it with something totally unprecedented in the American experience. But Burkean/federalist conservatives counsel caution in the face of change. I fully agree with Wolfe that progressive, utopian, revolutionary, anti-Christian visions for society are horrible and must be confronted directly. Let the Scriptures, history, and tradition be our guide as we seek a renewal of American constitutional order and liberty, not abstract theorizing.

Be friends, you English fools, be friends:

We have French quarrels enow,

If you could tell how to reckon.

-Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV, Scene 1


Editor’s Note: The London Lyceum seeks to publish book reviews by experts in their field of research for the purpose of inspiring thinking. Therefore, not all reviews and/or reviewers will hold to our confessional commitments. But as with all our work, we publish a range of viewpoints to encourage thinking.

[1] C. Bradley Thompson, America’s Revolutionary Mind: A Moral History of the American Revolution and the Declaration that Defined It (New York: Encounter, 2019), 210.

[2] See Jean M. Yarbrough, Theodore Roosevelt and the American Political Tradition (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014) for Hegel’s impact, particularly on Theodore Roosevelt.

[3] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of Right, trans. T. M. Knox, The Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, no. 46 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), III.iii.§257.

[4] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, II.iii.§129.

[5] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, III.iii.§258.

[6] Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1945), 737.

[7] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, III.iii.§260.

[8] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, III.iii.§270.

[9] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, III.iii.§270.

[10] Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, The Philosophy of History, trans. J. Sibree, The Great Books of the Western World, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins, no. 46 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), Introduction, 170.

[11] Hegel, Philosophy of History, Introduction, 171.

[12] Alexander Hamilton, The Federalist, 1, ed. J. R. Pole (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005), 1.

[13] Hegel, Philosophy of History, Introduction, 174.

[14] Hegel, Philosophy of History, Introduction, 177.

[15] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, III.iii.§275.

[16] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, III.iii.§280.

[17] Hegel, Philosophy of Right, III.iii.§281.

[18] Richard Hofstadter, “The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt,” in The American Scholar 24.1 (Winter 1954-55): 14.

[19] Peter Viereck, Conservatism: From John Adams to Churchill (Princeton: Nostrand, 1956), 11–12.

[20] Viereck, Conservatism, 11.

[21] Patrick Allitt, The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 67.

[22] See Wolfe, Christian Nationalism, 434–35 , especially this statement: “The left in America are now the true conservatives. This isn’t a compliment but a statement of fact. The institutions are theirs and they now conserve them; they protect these institutions from the New America.” See also Francis Fukuyama, Liberalism and Its Discontents (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2022) for a book length treatment of neo-liberalism.

[23] Alexis de Tocqueville, The Ancien Régime and the French Revolution, ed. Jon Elster, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 17.

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