A Children's Crusade
Stephen Wolfe and "The Great Restoration"
Welcome to this SPECIAL EDITION of The Square Inch Newsletter. Subscribers may expect regular programming to resume shortly. The following is a lengthy review of a popular book.
Stephen Wolfe’s The Case For Christian Nationalism (Moscow: Canon Press, 2022) is a manifesto that has garnered a great deal of online publicity. Scoring as the #1 bestseller in Amazon’s “Nationalism” category, the book has enjoyed a large boomlet of popularity across a wide and diverse conservative Christian audience. More noteworthy is the sheer intensity of reaction the book seems to get out of its readers—both its lovers and its haters. “I am not exaggerating,” writes one Twitter fan in possession of an advance copy: “this book is the most comprehensive work of Christian political theory written in the modern age.”
That certainly raised my eyebrows. In a modern age that boasts, say, Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations, something has arrived to take us to even greater heights of understanding about Christianity, Christendom, pluralism, the state, the church, and nations? Alas, the hype is unwarranted. The book has an initially impressive veneer, but it is exceedingly thin. I evaluate this book as a serious work of scholarship not because it is, but because I know that unsuspecting readers might believe that it is. And I care a great deal about unsuspecting readers.
Let me begin at the end of the book, which in my view occurs on page 118:
One of the conclusions from the previous chapter is that neither the fall nor grace destroyed or abrogated human natural relations. The fall did not introduce the natural instinct to love one’s own, and grace does not ‘critique’ or subvert our natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to us. The fall introduced the abuse of social relations and malice towards ethnic difference. Grace corrects this abuse and malice, but it does not introduce new principles of human relations. The instinct to love the familiar more than the foreign is good and remains operative in all spiritual states of man. (117-18, emphasis added)
You might ask why I would describe this paragraph on page 118 as the “end” of a 475-page book? Because the sentence that follows begins, “Having established these conclusions…” Since, as I will explain at length, Wolfe has in no way “established” these conclusions, everything that follows from page 118 to page 475 is essentially superfluous. There may be some material of interest—and some of it will elicit comment—but none of it reaches the heart of the matter.
As for that admirably distilled paragraph, I observe that one of the most obvious and central concerns of the New Testament is precisely a “new principle of human relations.” It is a principle that brought no small amount of controversy, completely occupied the agenda at the very first church council, and continued to find stubborn resistance in the churches of Asia Minor, particularly in Ephesus and Galatia. Jews and Gentiles, separated for all previous ages, are now brought together into one household. One family. One body. One man. Those who continued to act on their “natural instincts” to love the familiar more than the foreign, who thought that grace does not “critique” or “subvert” their natural inclinations to love and prefer those nearest and most bound to them, were, Paul clearly says, opposed to “the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). So strong were these “natural” inclinations and so strong was the tribal peer pressure involved that even the Apostle Peter succumbed to it.
When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Gal. 2:11-13).
Paul is not talking about mere ecclesiastical fellowship. Those with a dualistic cast of mind, as Wolfe most certainly has, might be tempted to think that this controversy was over “spiritual” or “heavenly” matters rather than the “earthly” or mundane—plenty more on that later. But this controversy is as mundane as it gets: Peter will not eat with the Gentiles, and certain Jews followed his example and together they formed a little clique full of familiar faces. A scene from an average high school cafeteria on any given day. And this “natural” inclination was contrary to the truth of the gospel.
This episode, recounted for us in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, does not appear in Stephen Wolfe’s book. Nor does Pentecost. Nor does the Jerusalem council. Not even the Tower of Babel warrants a mention. Key biblical texts dealing with questions of ethnicity and nations do not exist within the covers of The Case For Christian Nationalism. Stephen Wolfe has written a conclusory paragraph that appears to flatly contradict one of the central gospel themes of the New Testament directly related to his topic, and this raises at least two questions: how did we get here? And, more important, how might we avoid getting here? It will be useful and perhaps illuminating to back up.
Wolfe begins the book by exempting himself from the tasks of exegesis and biblical theology: “Some readers will complain that I rarely appeal to Scripture to argue for my positions. I understand that frustration, but allow me to explain: I am neither a theologian nor a biblical scholar. I have no training in moving from scriptural interpretation to theological articulation.” (16). Readers may accept this excuse, if they wish; given Wolfe’s explicit aim to ground his theory in Christian theology, coupled with his clear attempts to do some form of biblical theology, I do not. If I wrote a book about how quantum theory grounds some novel idea about, say, well, anything, I would not expect to be taken seriously if I admitted to readers that I do not know how to do basic algebra.
Be that as it may, Wolfe invokes a right to simply assume the “Reformed theological tradition,” and it is certainly true that we all must start somewhere and assume something. And so the book is filled with quotations from what seems an impressive collection of Reformed luminaries. There are two problems.
First, the Reformed tradition is not monolithic; not only has it experienced an age of robust theological development and refinement, there have been centuries of intramural debate all along the way over a host of issues, some of which rather importantly impinge upon Wolfe’s case—the extent of the fall and its noetic effects; the “wider” and “narrower” senses of the image of God; the relation of revelation and reason, and more. Wolfe himself sometimes acknowledges these internal debates in his lengthier footnotes. Page 44 reveals that “Thomas Goodwin disagreed with this view, taking what I estimate to be a minority view […].” In the footnote on the following page Wolfe claims that while “many in the Reformed tradition” believed that Adam was under a probationary period, “this position is imposed on the text of Genesis and is theologically unsound.”
And right there is the second problem, and it is called being caught on the horns of a dilemma. Now that Wolfe is, by his own admission, estimating and evaluating and picking and choosing which views to embrace within the variegated, broad stream of Reformed thought, and even making bold claims about the exegesis of Genesis and what is or is not theologically sound, he can no longer avail himself of the excuse that he is “not a theologian nor biblical scholar.” After all, on what grounds does he decide that Turretin is right and Goodwin is wrong? How is he discriminating between the two? Mere preference? Whomever happens to be most helpful to him in the moment? (The answers are likely yes, and yes.) Wolfe wants to have his cake and eat it, too. Either one is competent in biblical exegesis and systematic theology or not. If one wishes to confess ignorance of such things so as to avoid the hard work of attending to the Bible, so be it. But one may not then try to sneak competence in on the cheap through the back door.
So it is sleight of hand for Wolfe to claim that he is merely “assuming” some kind of settled Reformed tradition, when in fact he is actively piecing together a collection of selected witnesses and quotations to support a project few of them, if any, would actually support. Wolfe recognizes his work might give this appearance, so he attempts to blunt the criticism:
To my knowledge, my theological premises throughout this work are consistent with, if not mostly taken directly from, the common affirmations and denials of the Reformed tradition. To be sure, some of my conclusions are expressed differently than this tradition. After all, Christian nationalism was not used in the 16th through the 18th centuries. But none of my conclusions are, in substance, outside or inconsistent with the broad Reformed tradition” (17).
This is untrue, as we shall shortly see. But for now I wish to simply observe that Wolfe is, in fact, actively generating a theological jigsaw puzzle, and he draws his lines just squiggly enough to keep inconvenient facts from view. In later chapters, for one example, he enthusiastically appeals to Samuel Rutherford on whether a people may resist and depose a civil magistrate. But on the very first page of Rutherford’s Lex Rex, indeed the very first question, Rutherford argues that while “civil society” (family, tribes, voluntary associations, customs, mores, etc.) is “natural,” (meaning part of the created design), the state, or what he calls “magistracy,” is not natural, but rather a contingent reality. Readers would never know that Rutherford opposes one of Wolfe’s central claims. Likewise, readers may think that his frequent appeals to Herman Bavinck indicate some kind of sympathy for Wolfe’s proposals. But on that score, too, Bavinck will have none of it: “The church no more belongs to the original institutions of the human race than the state” (Bavinck, RD IV:391).
From my point of view, since Wolfe does, after all, seem to believe himself biblically and theologically competent, readers ought to hold his paltry recourse to scripture against him. His habit—I’m sorry, it is impossible to call it that. What I mean is that when he does get around to actually quoting the Bible, which occurs by my count 16 times in a 475-page volume, he habitually quotes a single phrase or a few words in an incidental or purely illustrative fashion. There is zero exegesis of scripture or biblical interpretation of any kind in The Case For Christian Nationalism.
One might think this judgment pedantic or unfair. What does it matter, so long as the concepts are true and his argumentative logic holds? But how would we know if the concepts are true? How are we to evaluate them? Consider, by way of illustration: when O’Donovan wrote Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, he self-consciously set out to write a Christian account of nations. For him that meant carefully attending to and interrogating the text of the Bible. He sought to learn from scripture what the concepts are and ought to be; what a “nation” is and what “nationhood” ought to entail, and what is God’s plan for the nature and role of nations in redemptive history. Wolfe’s approach is the opposite: “I proceed from the meaning or denotation of the words involved, particularly nation and nationalism, and I then consider nationalism modified by the term Christian” (9). And again: “Christian nationalism is nationalism modified by Christianity. My definition of Christian nationalism is a Christianized form of nationalism or, put differently, a species of nationalism” (10).
So Wolfe begins with a ready-made definition of “nation” and “nationalism” that comes from who-knows-where and only later considers how the Christian faith “modifies” it—the answer being, as it strangely turns out, that it doesn’t modify it at all. Indeed, on his terms Christianity by definition cannot modify it, because “grace does not destroy, abrogate, supersede, or undermine nature” (23). Since he has projected his construal of “nationhood” right back into the prelapsarian Garden of Eden (really, that is the entire thesis in a nutshell), it is therefore invulnerable to any alteration or modification by redemptive grace. That is what that exceptionally lovely and helpful theological phrase, “grace restores nature,” now comes to mean in the hands of Stephen Wolfe—but I am getting well ahead of myself. Wolfe’s “Christian nationalism” is just garden-variety nationalism taken from his own intuitions with an obvious assist from the first few chapters of Aristotle’s On Politics, involving a “Great Man” (31, 290), the “Christian Prince” (277), who is the “nation’s god”(287) and the “vicar of God” (290), and who is in charge of “ordering” everybody and everything to the “national good” (31). I half-expected him to announce that he’s volunteering for the job.
Kicking God Upstairs
Wolfe’s ambivalence toward the Bible has deeper roots, however, than mere feigned ignorance about how to do biblical interpretation. The fact is rather that he doesn’t think he needs to do any biblical interpretation in the first place. The irrelevance of the Bible to the task at hand—political theory—is deeply embedded in his own understanding of reason and revelation, nature and grace. He says it rather straightforwardly:
The primary reason that this work is political theory is that I proceed from a foundation of natural principles. While Christian theology assumes natural theology as an ancillary component, Christian political theory treats natural principles as the foundation, origin, and source of political life, even Christian political life […] Whereas Christian theology considers the Christian mainly in relation to supernatural grace and eternal life, Christian political theory treats man as an earthly being (though bound to a heavenly state) whose political life is fundamentally natural. (18)
Thus begins a work that relentlessly assumes and invokes a divided reality between two realms: supernatural and natural, heavenly and earthly, spiritual and material, grace and nature. And politics and political theory belongs squarely in the latter category; divine special revelation is not its norm, but reason and natural law are its guides. Wolfe is upfront as to the source of this dichotomy: Thomas Aquinas, whom he believes “heavily influenced” Reformed theologians of the 16th and 17th centuries (17).
He is certainly not alone in this belief, but it is far more controversial than he lets on. The extent to which the Reformed embraced Thomas remains a matter of heated dispute in academic circles. Moreover, Thomas himself is hotly contested even within Roman Catholicism. There is a longstanding argument over Thomas’s bifurcation between natural knowledge and "supernatural" knowledge, between natural reason and faith, between general truths that may be known to "unaided" reason and special truths that may only be obtained by special revelation. These sharp dichotomies tend to grant to nature and reason a kind of autonomy from special revelation which leads inevitably, it seems, to some form of Kantian rationalism. The “phenomenal” realm—or “earthly,” as Wolfe has it—operates on principles of reason alone; “faith” is for “extra” information about the mysteries of God and salvation. Many Roman Catholics have felt this problematic even if Wolfe doesn’t, which is why Henri de Lubac and the Nouvelle Theologie attempted a more integrated account of Thomas’s theology.
Wolfe’s account is anything but integrated. And since in this book he simply assumes and deploys this dichotomy—“on demand,” as it were—one looks in vain for some justification or even basic account of why readers ought to take it for granted. If one consults, say, his academic Ph.D thesis looking for some deeper explanation, one finds more of the same: the crassest sort of dualism, with everything divvied up very neatly between “heavenly” things about metaphysics and salvation known by faith and “earthly” things like science and politics known by reason. In that work he even includes a flowchart dividing it all up that would get full marks from Professor Kant of Königsberg, who would then, of course, just tear the sheet of paper in half and throw the “heavenly” side into his fireplace.
Yes, Wolfe can provide a lengthy compendium of Reformed luminaries saying very nice things about reason. They loved reason. It is no hard thing to find Calvin, or Mastricht, or Turretin waxing eloquently on this extravagant gift that is an intrinsic aspect of the imago Dei, and if you string enough of these quotes together they will all sound like perfect natural theologians and rationalists. But this only works if, simultaneously, you studiously ignore everything they said about the noetic effects of sin. And at this Stephen Wolfe excels.
Calvin’s well-known illustration of how the Scriptures are like “spectacles” needed to correct the dullness of our sight doesn’t get a mention. There is a whole section on philosophy in the dissertation, of which subject matter Wolfe cannot manage to find any criticisms among the Reformed—which is very difficult to do. Wolfe appears to believe that the Reformed doctrine of common grace—which accounts for the natural man’s continued intellectual capacities—is the same thing as Rome’s natural theology, but it isn’t. (Clue: one has the adjectival form of the word “nature” in it; the other has the word “grace.”)
In The Case For Christian Nationalism Wolfe goes so far as to claim that his mild assessment of the fall of man on his rational capacities is actually just good Reformed theology. “The state of sin or total depravity,” Wolfe informs us, “is misunderstood, even in Reformed circles.” He continues:
The fall’s principal effect concerned man’s relationship to God and the promised heavenly life, for it removed man’s highest gifts (those that drew him to heavenly life). Man retains his earthly gifts, those that lead him to the fundamental things of earthly life, such as family formation and civil society. Thus, man still has his original instincts and still knows the principles of right action, which incline him to what is good. (22).
So incompetent is this that I admit being tempted to put the book down for good. And it ought to be an indication that I am, in fact, taking this book far more seriously than it deserves.
What Wolfe is describing here is, in fact, Roman Catholic dogma (articulated in so clumsy a way I don’t think even they would want to own it) with its doctrine of the donum superadditum, the so-called “superadded gift”: that in addition to his “natural” capacities, Adam was granted an “added gift” of supernatural knowledge. The fall meant losing the supernatural “added” part and retaining the natural. This is clearly Wolfe’s own view (cf., 82-83).
Herman Bavinck has something to say about that:
The Reformers unanimously rejected this teaching, especially because it led to a weakening of the doctrine of original sin. Their opposition was primarily directed against the Scholastic thesis: ‘While the supernatural qualities are lost, the natural ones still remain whole.’ (Bavinck, RD II:548)
While many of the Reformers retained the language of supernatural gifts, “it soon became apparent,” Bavinck writes, that “they meant something else by it.” This subtlety is completely lost on Wolfe and, in sum, what he takes to be Reformed theology is something the Reformers unanimously rejected. The loss of the “higher virtues” does not leave human formal or “natural” faculties untouched. On the contrary, the virtues, particularly original righteousness, are
inseparable from the idea of man as such and that it referred to the normal state, the harmony, the health of a human being; that without it a human cannot be true, complete, or normal. When a man loses that image of God, he does not simply lose a substance while still remaining fully human. Rather, he becomes an abnormal, a sick, a spiritually dead human being, a sinner. He then lacks something that belonged to his nature, just as a blind man loses his sight, a deaf man his hearing, and a sick man his health. In Rome’s view a human being can lose the ‘supernatural righteousness’ and still be a good, true, complete, sinless human, with a natural justice that in its kind is without any defect. (Bavinck, RD II:551)
Wolfe’s view is clearly Rome’s. One might try to argue that Bavinck didn’t know anything about Reformed orthodoxy, but, well, good luck.
As one more example, Wolfe claims that God gave “two species of gifts” to man, natural and supernatural, or “constitutive” and “perfective” gifts (82).
[T]he former (e.g., reason, body, understanding) are essential to man as man and principally concern earthly things. The perfective gifts are non-essential to man as such, but necessary for his perfection and his knowledge of, desire for, and ability to strive after eternal life and to worship God rightly from the heart.” (82, emphasis added)
The Reformed theologians attempted to show that all of these supernatural truths were in essence known to Adam before the fall, that they were part of the content of the image of God, and consequently were ‘natural’ in that they belonged to the being of man. […]. (“Common Grace,” 57-8. Emphasis added)
Given that Wolfe repeatedly appeals to Herman Bavinck (or “Hermon,” as it is misspelled in the first reference on page 43), it may surprise the reader to learn that on every single matter—reason and revelation, faith and knowledge, nature and grace, the image of God, the extent of sin’s corruption, even the “goodness” of the cultural division of nations—Bavinck stands emphatically opposed. There was a lot of background image left out when his jigsaw piece was cut, and for the readers’ sake I will not write a book-length explanation for how this is so. For the most part, I already have, in Restored To Our Destiny: Eschatology & The Image of God in Herman Bavinck’s Reformed Dogmatics (Leiden: Brill, 2012).
But I cannot resist this rather inconvenient observation from Bavinck:
The origination of distinct peoples has a deep religious-ethical meaning and speaks of intellectual and spiritual decline. The more savage and rough humanity becomes, the more languages, ideas, and so forth, will take different tracks. The more people live in isolation, the more language differences increase. The confusion of languages is the result of confusion in ideas, in the mind, and in life. Still, in all that division and brokenness unity has been preserved. (RD II:525, emphasis added)
What difference does all this arcane theological hair-splitting make? Simply this: untethering reason from faith, nature from grace, is the road to Deism, naturalism, and/or materialism. At one point Bavinck summarizes a problem with various attempts at a “naturalistic” account of the image of God, and observes: “It erases the boundaries that exist between the state of integrity and the state of corruption, and allows man to keep intact the image of God, which exists in something purely formal, even after the fall” (RD II:539).
This expresses Wolfe’s precise view, and explains why, for him, the fall formally did nothing whatsoever to man’s natural inclinations (see ch.2). They remain trustworthy; indeed, the link between our fallen world and the original state is so undamaged that we can work from our own experience and our own inclinations all the way back to the Garden: “Thus,” he writes, “the basic, near-universal structures of our fallen world—and the instincts we have for these structures—help us to imagine what an unfallen world would be like” (87). Do you prefer people who are like you? It must be the original design. Do you see that humans need an authority figure to order their communities? It must be the original design. And so on.
This is a “horizontal” version of Feurbach’s all-too-commonly-true maxim that all theology is really just anthropology: man simply projects his highest ideals into the heavens. Wolfe projects his highest ideals backward into the state of integrity where nothing can touch them—not even redemptive grace, for in reality there is nothing to redeem. They are perfectly fine the way they are. And that is why all his repeated (and, frankly, nauseating) attempts to get a pat of approval from Bavinck are for naught. Bavinck believed that something couldn’t be “restored” unless it had been first corrupted—and that includes our faculties and our intuitions. The road back to Eden and its creation ordinances is back through the corruptions of sin.
A radical dualism between nature and grace, earthly and heavenly, reason and faith, secular and sacred, leads inexorably to “kicking God upstairs and out of sight,” as Stanley Fish once put it. And that is the real explanation for why Stephen Wolfe does not quote the Bible. The Bible is for “heavenly” matters, such as your relationship to God. If it is your relationship to others you’re concerned about—neighbors, friends, communities, nations, and, well, political societies—then your own empirical experience and the exercise of your own reason is all there is.
I would be remiss if I did not mention here a highly relevant fact: Roman Catholicism, to its great credit, at least understands the danger of leaving the natural (read: fallen) world untethered from and untouched by the “supernatural” order. And thus they attempt to sacralize it with supernatural grace. This is difficult and problematic given their ecclesiology, for the only means of supernatural grace in the world is the church of Rome. And so everything “profane” must be made holy, and it is only made holy by being ecclesiastically consecrated. So Bavinck notes:
Ensuing from this worldview are both the world domination for which the Roman Catholic Church always strives and the contempt of the world that it evidences, especially in monasticism. Since nature is of a much lower order than grace, the latter must always have priority over the former and hold sway over it. Furthermore, since what is Christian coincides with the ecclesiastical and does not exist apart from it, the whole world needs to be subordinated to the church. (Bavinck, RD I:361)
That rather neatly explains why the Roman Catholic post-liberal nationalists like Ahmari, Reno, Deneen, Vermeule, et. al. are all attracted to what they call “integralism.” Their concept of nature and grace and their ecclesiology all but demands it. (And, as an aside, it is pretty impressive that Bavinck had their number all the way back in 1895.)
But Stephen Wolfe has no such ecclesiology. Nature, cut adrift at the fall from “superadded” revelation about “heavenly things”—which it didn’t even need in the first place—is still formally whole and impervious to the workings of “supernatural” grace. It is very much on its own. Let us see what he does with it.
The Method To The Madness
Instead of unfolding the nation as a concept or analyzing it with historical examples, I use a phenomenological method to uncover and reveal the nation as we exist and dwell in it. I attempt to bring to consciousness the fundamental relations of people and place—relations so familiar to us that we are largely unaware of them. For many, this unfolding will help to clarify one’s people group. For all, it explains and justifies our preference for some people (family, kin, countrymen) over others. Additionally, this chapter shows (1) that each of us has a people-group (i.e., an ethnicity), (2) that each people-group can be conscious of itself, and (3) that each people group has the right to be for itself. (118)
Having dispensed with the need for any divine wisdom and knowledge with respect to the origin, character, and purpose of nations, Wolfe now also brushes aside any need to engage in any analytical or historical study. Indeed, this is as he promised early on: “I do not appeal to historical examples of nationalism, nor do I waste time repudiating ‘fascist nationalism’ (26).
What is left is an awakening of “consciousness” by way of self-reflection. This self-reflection reveals to us our “belonging” to a people group, and—if he is to be believed in the paragraph above—the mere fact of this awareness “explains and justifies” our preference for our people group. And so in the following pages Wolfe takes the reader on a journey, explaining to people their own lived reality. He writes about “space and place,” “socialization and meaning,” “memory and sentiment,” “time and intergenerational love,” and “familiarity.” And the conclusion of all of these “phenomenological” forays is this: if you notice it and feel it, you must trust it.
[W]e feel natural affection for these people (and not for others) and we clearly see the good of preferring them over others. That is to say, we know by instinct and reason that we ought to prefer some over others. It is also evident, from both instinct and reason, that we ought to prefer our own nation and countrymen over others. This instinct is not from the fall or due to sin; it is natural and, therefore, good. We are naturally drawn to what, in principle, is necessary for our complete good. (150-51)
Our intuitions are self-justifying, in other words, and so mere feeling gives way to something else: this must be reason. Others in history have sought to justify and ground their understanding of people-groups and place in precisely this fashion. Here is an example from one historical memoir:
In the period of this bitter struggle between spiritual education and cold reasoning, the pictures that the streets of Vienna showed me rendered me invaluable services. The time came when I no longer walked blindly through the mighty city as I had done at first, but, with open eyes, looked at the people as well as the buildings.
One day when I was walking through the inner city, I suddenly came upon a being clad in a long caftan, with black curls.
Is this also a Jew? was my first thought.
At Linz they certainly did not look like that. Secretly and cautiously I watched the man, but the longer I stared at this strange face and scrutinized one feature after the other, the more my mind reshaped the first question into another form:
Is this also a German?
That was the moment of awakening—this is not a German!—that began the theorizing of the man who would become Chancellor of Germany from the years 1933 to 1945. The obvious question, which Wolfe indignantly waves away with a brush of the hand, is why the author of that memoir shouldn’t have trusted his intuitions? Why is it that, reflecting on place, people, and natural affections, exactly as recommended here, he came to Wolfe’s exact conclusions: (1) each of us has a people-group, (2) each people group can be conscious of itself, and (3) that each people-group has a right to be for itself? What does Wolfe have to say to that? Is he going to wheel the Bible back in at this point to provide guidance on this “earthly” matter of “natural” political arrangements? On what grounds?
The subtitle to this section is “Method to the Madness” and I mean it. This is madness. Just think of the things that could be justified in this manner besides that one. It seems intuitively obvious that business owners and corporations rake in massive profits and workers are barely making a living wage. It is also seems intuitively obvious that the massive wealth disparity created by this “system” is the cause of all manner of human misery and dysfunction. And it seems intuitive that the workers are at an insurmountable disadvantage to remedy the situation. Intuitively, this system must be an aberration and my intuitions must—how did Wolfe put it? Oh, yes. They must be helping me to “imagine what an unfallen world would be like.” Ergo, Marxism is true.
This is a bloated, sprawling manifesto and there is, of course, much more one could examine: his unconvincing and incredibly brief speculation that the State is a prelapsarian institution; his assumption that a “nation” can be considered a “person” with a single will; his reliance on figures like Johann Gottfried Herder for his theories on race and nationality—Wolfe calls him a “Christian philosopher,” but he’s actually the font of a great deal of Germanic obsession with race (like that never caused any problems); one could engage his treatment of the right of revolution (it is very comforting—first he advocates installing a Prince with literally totalitarian powers [see pages 12-13], but if anything goes wrong we can always depose him); one might consult his analysis of the American founding; one could marvel at his full-throated defense of the magistrate enforcing both tables of the law (with its nifty two-step on how he can bring the Bible back into the conversation); one could also, if a glutton for punishment, examine entirely tedious and irrelevant rabbit trails in which he trashes Russell Moore and picks a fight with David VanDrunen; and then there is an insufferable Epilogue that consists of Wolfe sharing his expert opinion on his every hobby horse—education, the military, globalism, his thinly disguised sympathy for Vladimir Putin, masculinity, effeminacy, and something called a “gynocracy.”
But, truly, none of this matters. The book was over on page 118.
It does not surprise me that Wolfe intentionally refuses to put his case for nationalism in any kind of historical context, because history has been unkind. The world between the great wars was a petri dish incubating versions of “blood and soil” by the dozen. In a late-in-life memoir, Bertrand Russell reflected on his relationship with British literary figure D.H. Lawrence:
The world between the wars was attracted to madness. Of this attraction Nazism was the most emphatic expression. Lawrence was a suitable exponent of this cult of insanity. I am not sure whether the cold inhuman sanity of Stalin was any improvement. (Russell, Portraits From Memory, 116)
He recounts a letter he received from Lawrence, who argued for a “Great Man” to take over and lead the nation to its highest good:
‘You must utterly revise the electorate. The working man shall elect superiors for the things that concern him immediately, no more. From the other classes, as they rise, shall be elected the higher governors. The thing must culminate in one real head, as every organic thing must—no foolish republics with foolish presidents, but an elected king, something like Julius Caesar.’
He, of course, supposed that when a dictatorship was established he would be the Julius Caesar. This was part of the dreamlike quality of all his thinking. He never let himself bump into reality. (112)
Russell’s final summation is apt, I believe, for this new generation of post-liberal nationalists :
I do not think in retrospect [his ideas] have any merit whatsoever. They were the ideas of a sensitive would-be despot who got angry with the world because it would not obey. (115)
Legend has it that in the year Anno Domini 1212 a German boy named Nicholas of Cologne was visited by Jesus and given a divine commission to lead a Crusade to peacefully conquer the Holy Land. Gathering some 30,000 children, he marched them to the Mediterranean, believing that the waters would part before him. When the expected miracle did not occur, unscrupulous merchants offered to take as many of them as they could across the sea. Many were disillusioned and turned for home. The ones who boarded the ships were taken to Tunisia and sold into slavery.
In the year Anno Domini 2022 Stephen (of “Wolfeshire,” his bio says) has launched a manifesto sparking the imagination and enthusiasm of a large cohort of energetic, young, American men. There is a Holy Land to liberate from infidels and their enablers—the anemic and compromised relics of the post-war generation. That Holy Land is the United States of America. His manifesto is a theological train wreck and a political mishmash of dangerous and historically deadly ideas. I hope that many will turn away in disillusionment before they get to wherever they are headed, because the waters are not going to part.
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