The Cross and the Flag
Who are the Christian Nationalists?
To this point, I’ve not really paid close attention to “Christian Nationalism,” either as term or actually existing movement. This is for a few reasons: First of all, the religious right, as powerful and important as it is in America, is not as interesting to me as more secular currents. Second, I’d sort of dismissed the term “White Christian Nationalism,” which started to crop up everywhere a few years ago, as a sort of faddish liberal mantra, overly qualified and complex. It seemed to me that most of the phenomena being put under that label were either just plain old religious conservatism or, to me at least, plainly fascist, so the term was surplus to requirements. Third, and related to that, I don’t share a reflexive hostility to religious people that some on the left have and I also feel that sometimes by pointing out the “Christian” part of things just serves to tar large sections of people as bigots, which in turn allows the Right to make the case that liberals and the left are somehow persecuting Christians. The problem is their politics not their self-professed religious identity, so why make a thing of it?
But now I think was wrong and should revise this picture a little bit. For one thing, we are in the midst of a very nasty LGBT+ backlash, which is at least partly being justified on religious grounds. There are also now apparently a number of people who self-identify as Christian Nationalists. Some of them are in elected office, like Majorie Taylor Greene, who last year self-applied the appellation: “We need to be the party of nationalism and I’m a Christian, and I say it proudly, we should be Christian nationalists.” Christian Nationalism is also apparently a subject of considerable concern, debate, and polemic within the Christian community itself. There’s more than one organization of the “Christians against Christian Nationalism” type and regular articles in Christian publications warning against the dangers of the ideology. Stephen Wolfe’s book The Case for Christian Nationalism became a bestseller and has been taken seriously in the Christian press.
I will get to Wolfe in a moment, but it’s worth looking at the history of the phrase itself. “Christian Nationalist Crusade” was one of the many organizations founded by Gerald L.K. Smith. Smith begin as a minister in the Disciples of Christ Church, but during the Depression found himself attracted to politics. He made efforts to coordinate with William Dudley Pelley’s Silvershirts organization and even tried to contact Adolf Hitler. Based in Shreveport, Louisiana, he settled for becoming a worshipful crony of Huey Long and lent the Kingfish his considerable talents of oratory. After Long’s death, he attempted and failed to take over “The Share Our Wealth” movement, tried to ally with Father Coughlin with the Union Party, founded the America First Party, and became known as “The Dean of American Antisemitism,” distributing Henry Ford’s The International Jew and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It seems reasonable to conclude that “Christian Nationalist Crusade” was simply one of many front organizations Smith founded in his attempts to create an American Nazi movement. Smith’s project was what I’ve elsewhere called “American Völkisch,” the construction of a fascist ideology around the symbols of Americana. Sinclair Lewis’s (apparently apocryphal) comment, “When Fascism comes to America it will be carrying a flag and a cross,” perfectly fits Smith, who published a magazine entitled “The Flag and the Cross.”
What About Now
Recently, my fellow substackersent me a Twitter thread by Stephen Wolfe, PhD, the author of The Case for Christian Nationalism. Here’s how he begins:
This looks like a clear expression of the ideology sometimes known as “paleoconservatism” — he yearns for the pre-war America First Right, before its regrettable Buckleyite revision. (Buckley’s actual relationship to the Firsters is a long and complicated question that I can’t get into now, but this is more about political myth than political history.) Wolfe continues on how the Conservative acceptance of universalism dissolved the ethnic being of the country to the point that it no longer can be said to really exist:
Postwar conservatism was, in a way, a replacement movement opposed to the old American political tradition of Anglo-Protestantism, by insisting on the exclusive and simplistic *universalism* of the Founding, which permitted Roman Catholics and Jews to have equal standing in a country that deemed them, in a social sense at least, outsiders. But this unleashed the very universalism that has transformed this country demographically and morally. It is why they have no answer to our current crisis. It is why we no longer have a country.
Okay, highly reactionary and insane, but what comes next is where things get really creepy. Wolfe writes, “In other words, their attempt to be equals made everyone else equals and thus we are now a "nation of immigrants" and perpetually so. These "conservatives" created the very conditions ensure national suicide. And yes I'm fully aware that the Protestant establishment destroyed itself, largely by listening to non-Christian radicals in the Northeast (esp. NYC).” There is no other possible reading of non-Christian radicals in the Northeast than the Jews. What Wolfe is offering here is an antisemitic conspiracy theory on the origins of American decline.
His book does little to dispel concerns about the true nature of his ideological orientation. One of the key parts of Christian Nationalism as Wolfe defines it is “a totality of national action:”
A totality of national action, being the formal cause of Christian nationalism, refers to all the actions that a nation expects of its members for their overall, national good. These range from great acts of sacrifice to mundane, everyday things, like caring for one’s children. It is a “totality” because although each action has a good unique to it, together each strengthens, supports, or makes possible other actions to form an organic whole. A mother nursing her child has the child’s immediate good in mind, but that action—as part of a totality of action in the nation—is also for the national good, for well-nursed children grow up to be healthy, productive, and sacrificial participants in the nation. In this way, the nursing of children is a national action, and the good of nursing is not only the child’s good directly but also the nation’s good. In other words, the good of the mother in nursing her child transcends the immediate good of child nourishment.
As the use of the word “totality” may have clued you into, this is well, totalitarian — it conceives of every action of the individual as contributing to the good of the whole: there is no aspect of life, no matter how intimate, that is not geared at the biopolitical preservation of the all-encompassing social organism.
Wolfes also calls for something of a low-key Führerprinzip: “I envision a measured and theocratic Caesarism—the prince as a world-shaker for our time, who brings a Christian people to self-consciousness and who, in “his rise, restores their will for their good. “Prince” is a fitting title for a man of dignity and greatness of soul who will lead a people to liberty, virtue, and godliness—to greatness.”
Okay, so far we got a national totality, a charismatic, Caesarist leader who will restore national greatness, what else? How about some blood and soil nationalism:
Blood relations remain relevant to nations, when referring to one’s ancestral connection to a people and place back to time immemorial. … Christian philosopher Johann Herder was correct in saying that the volk is a “family writ large.” This is an apt description not because everyone is a cousin by blood but because one’s kin lived here with the extended families of others for generations, leaving behind a trace of themselves and their cooperation and their great works and sacrifices. Blood relations matter for your ethnicity, because your kin have belonged to this people on this land—to this nation in this place—and so they bind you to that people and place, creating a common volksgeist [national spirit].
First of all, by citing Herder here, he is being a little sneaky. Herder’s particular form of romantic nationalism is easy-going and pluralistic, not aggressive and chauvinistic. And Wolfe asseverates he just thinks people are better off with their own but that peaceful relations between different ethnic groups is both possible and desirable. This is a rhetorical gambit typical of White Nationalism, attempting introduce the concept of an ethnic nationalism and racial segregation in a way that appears benign and voluntary. But, as his choice of words above indicates, this is quite literally a völkisch conception, he is introducing the mysticism of national identity. And some groups are also apparently hostile or alien to that nation and must be rejected. The book concludes with something striking for a self-identified Christian; a call to reject “universalism” and embrace ethnic particularism: “Western man is trapped in a cycle of universality unable to wake up into and embrace his own particularity.” For the Christian Nationalist, Christianity is not really a faith as such: it is just an expression of the Western volksgeist; the emphasis is on the Nationalism part, not so much on the Christian part.
To sum up, The Case for Christian Nationalism is a völkisch nationalism calling for a totalitarian “Christian” state lead by a charismatic “Caesar” who will restore a lost national greatness. Why did the nation lose its greatness? An alien ethnic pollutant, of course! So, I revert back to my earlier position, Christian Nationalism is just fascism, or if we are being pedantic, proto- or para-fascism. Characteristic of much propaganda today, it presents a softer version, shorn of frightening verbiage, but the core ideas are all there. Wolfe’s Reformed Christian American Völkism is one several fascioid currents in politics today. Although there’s a lot more mainstream interest and concern about Christian Nationalism, it’s concerning to me that the clear connections aren’t being made. For instance, in the New Yorker’s long piece from March on the phenomenon there’s no real discussion of the history of fascism or Nazism. Once again, I wish people would just call this stuff what it really is.