I would like to write here a longer and sustained observation on what I perceive to be the fundamental limits of Christian Nationalism, especially as articulated by Stephen Wolfe, as well as the general ressourcement movment which is focused on the retrieval of Christian political theory from the 18th century backwards. These observations should not be construed as an argument to the effect that their theories are incoherent or self-contradictory, rather, the argument here would be that they are inadequate or insufficient because it lacks explanatory power over what I believe to be critical phenomena. Some such limits could be deliberate and by design, one needs to focus one’s discussion and cannot possibly discuss everything under the sun. On the other hand, some missing gaps, I believe, could seriously, even critically, undermine their theories as a whole.
Aristotelian Hobbit Holes
I think it would be useful to start with “the Philosopher” as the scholastics put it, and why I think he’s not a good philosopher for building a contemporary political philosophy. The Aristotelian polis, by his definition, was conceived to be economically self-sufficient civic units, a form of autarky as it were. Further, we can note that Aristotle had no theory of international treaties, and his observations on international relations were purely historical, but theoretically meaningless in his system. We need not appeal to the modern conditions with the Industrial Revolution or highly integrated global supply chains to observe the glaring inadequacy of his theory. It wasn’t even true in his own time where the Greek cities themselves were embedded in leagues and complex international relations, not only among themselves but also with foreign powers. It certainly wouldn’t even reflect the experience of the Ancient Near East (ANE) where empires arose naturally because no polis or city possessed every natural resource required for civilisation. The practice of ratifying international treaties were a prominent feature of the ANE experience because they were economically dependent on other cities.
The Aristotelian approach also tends to skew one’s perspective towards a “bottom-up” understanding of political action. As the polis is built up from local constituent elements, an Aristotelian inspired political theory would not have the theoretical infrastructure to handle “top-down” political action. I think it is critically important to have theoretical resources to handle these as, we shall see, there are several aspects of both the European historical experience and general nature of politics which requires such a concept.
Christendom without Roman Imperium
The Romans certainly went further than Aristotle in its conception of international relations. The concept of ius gentium or the law of nations is a uniquely Roman achievement. The concept of ius gentium refers to a form of “universal” law which the Romans believed bind all the different nations and kingdoms with their empire. Ius gentium is distinguished from civil law which are laws and customs enacted by and particular to specific polities, not usually applicable to everyone everywhere. While certainly a much more sophisticated concept of international relations, we need not look far to see the inadequacy of this theory in that ius gentium was primarily an instrument of Roman imperial rule, it was not a concept shared by anyone else. The East Asian civilisations for example simply blinked incomprehensibly when the Europeans tried to explain the concept of ius gentium and their particular concept of international law to them.
For much of European Christendom, when you have the Roman Imperium, and then the pope (which as Hobbes said, was merely the ghost of the Roman Empire), act as the mediator and locus of international relations among the European kings, one need not have a sophisticated or modern concept of international relations. It is not by accident that Hugo Grotius and the early modern revival of interest in the law of nations arose in the wake of the Reformation when the pope’s imperial role was displaced. But once more, the concept of the law of nations, which was paired with natural law, was not an adequate basis for maintaining European or Western peace, and it was certainly not a consciously Christian concept. They were still groping for a theory or conception which articulated and made explicit what it meant for the different European Christian nations to somehow constitute a common Christian polity or commonwealth, at least without papal imperium.
This moment would come decisively in the wake of the highly destructive Napoleonic Wars. The great European powers, conscious of themselves as part of a common Christian commonwealth against the secularism and “nationalism” of the French Revolution, transformed Christian politics to ensure that the horrors of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars would not occur again. Clemens Von Metternich, the great Austrian statesman who designed the Vienna system, paired the Congress of Vienna with the Holy Alliance Treaty, ratified by the three great European powers representing the three major denominations, Austria for Roman Catholic, Russia for Orthodoxy, and Prussia for Protestantism.
I think it would be particularly instructive to review the text of the Holy Alliance Treaty to highlight certain points which seems to be directly contradictory to the claims of the Christian Nationalism:
Principles of the Christian Religion
ART. I. Conformably to the words of the Holy Scriptures, which command all men to consider each other as brethren, the Three contracting Monarchs will remain united by the bonds of a true and indissoluble fraternity, and considering each other as fellow countrymen, they will, on all occasions and in all places, lend each other aid and assistance; and, regarding themselves towards their subjects and armies as fathers of families, they will lead them, in the same spirit of fraternity with which they are animated, to protect Religion, Peace, and Justice.
Fraternity and Affection
ART. II. In consequence, the sole principle of force, whether between the said Governments or between their Subjects, shall be that of doing each other reciprocal service, and of testifying by unalterable good will the mutual affection with which they ought to be animated, to consider themselves all as members of one and the same Christian nation; the three allied Princes looking on themselves as merely designated by Providence to govern three branches of the One family, namely, Austria, Prussia, and Russia, thus confessing that the Christian world, of which they and their people form a part, has in reality no other Sovereign than Him to whom alone power really belongs, because in Him alone are found all the treasures of love, science, and infinite wisdom, that is to say, God, our Divine Saviour, the Word of the Most High, the Word of Life. Their Majesties consequently recommend to their people, with the most tender solicitude, as the sole means of enjoying that Peace, which arise from a good conscience, and which alone is more durable, to strengthen themselves every day more and more in the principles and exercise of the duties which the Divine Saviour has taught to mankind.
The parts in bold here are particularly instructive. By the tenets of Christian Nationalism, these would offend against a coherent Christian political theory. Christianity is not supposed to be that “realised”, it is not supposed to create a nation in itself, and Christians of different countries and nationalities would not become “fellow countrymen” just by virtue of being Christian. And yet clearly when the Christian powers were struggling for a self-conscious concept of themselves as Christian countries on the international plane, that was the language they reached for. (It is also particularly instructive that the pope was not enthused by the Holy Alliance and objected to it. I don’t think it would be particularly unfair to say that he would not be enthused by a Christendom where he did not have center stage.)
I think there is an argument to be made that even before the Holy Alliance European Christians already thought of themselves in confessional terms which supersedes national loyalties. One of the most prominent examples of this is the Glorious Revolution where the English and Scottish Parliament invited the Dutch King William of Orange to take the English and Scottish throne in order to defend the Protestant settlement of Britain against the English James II. It is all the more significant that William himself could not speak English and communicated with his courtiers in French, yet the confessional integrity of Britain took precedence over national identity. It is also significant that during the Napoleonic Wars, the French Marshal Jean Bernadotte, while being Napoleon’s Minister for War, was invited to take the Swedish throne by the Swedish Parliament. What is interesting here is that Bernadotte was willing to both convert to Lutheranism to take the Swedish throne, and when Napoleon wanted him to sign an agreement never to act against France, Bernadotte refused, saying that his coronation oath would not permit it. As Crown Prince of Sweden, when Napoleon unexpectedly occupied Swedish Pomerania, Bernadotte was furious and declared Swedish neutrality in the war between France and Russia. Eventually Bernadotte would conspire to create the 6th Coalition against Napoleon and devised the strategy responsible for defeating Napoleon and the French Army. As such, even though Bernadotte was French ethnically, as Crown Prince of Sweden he acted in Sweden’s interest against his “own” people.
What is missing in the analysis of Christian Nationalism is the “top-down” aspects of Christendom. While they might rightly be concerned that a Dutch or French king might favour “their own” people and maybe flood England and Sweden with masses of Dutch or French immigrants, there is fact a “top-down” aspect of Christian politics, where at the top level, foreign kings can ensure that the ministers, for example, adhered to the Protestant Test Acts in the case of William of Orange, or prosecuted Sweden’s interest in the case of Bernadotte, together with “bottom up” assent from the English and Swedish Parliaments to maintain the local community and cultures. Thus, the Christian character and nature of the polity, being sufficiently abstract and universal, could be enforced and administered at a high level of politics without necessarily needing some sort of organic unity between people and ruler in terms of nationality or the nation-state.
There is even an argument to be made that even in the American context, despite it being resolutely “bottom up” as it were, a Christian Protestant aspect of an American commonwealth could serve as the “universal” aspect, the key element for proper assimilation of foreigners into the American way of life. While being Protestant is by no means a sufficient condition for American assimilation, it could be the gateway for incorporating and assimilating foreigners into the American cultural particularities established around the Protestant religion and cult.
Waiting for Mr Caesar vs Coalition Building
The Holy Alliance between the Christian monarchs, binding themselves by international oaths and treaties into a single Christian “nation” or commonwealth, highlights the importance of the Christian need to form coalitions and alliances to defend its own interest against external threats. In the case of the Holy Alliance, it is the secular horrors of the French Revolution and its liberal ideals. Christian Nationalism on the other hand doesn’t seem to have any concept of coalition or consensus building between Christians, even less between Christians who do not share Christian nationalist principles or even with non-Christians. Wolfe and a lot of Christian Nationalist, especial on the reactionary right, seem to just hope that some grand Caesar steeped in their principles will turn up and miraculously convert the entire nation towards Christian Nationalism. But even a Constantine only became Christian because Christians already populated the imperial court and were in a position to educate him in Christianity, Caesar himself was a member of the elite who had extensive network of supporters among the elite willing to take over the functioning of the Roman state in support of him.
We are not even discussing coalitions in the sense of coalitions of voting blocs but basic networking and coalition building between different factions who occupy and run key civic institutions and social infrastructure. Wolfe and company cannot, at the same time, exhort Christians not to be squeamish about acquiring, using, and wielding political power, and being realist about how it functions and works, while hoping rather unrealistically for a Mr Caesar to just turn up to save the day. Politics is the art of ordering and organisation, which means precisely coalition and consensus building with people who do not exactly share your fundamental political principles, may not even the same ultimate objectives. Christian Nationalism as a political theory is fundamentally limited by its parochialism and has no political theory of coalition building and organisation with non-Christian nationalists. They seem to think that once the principles are grasped somehow the Christian polity would flow out from the principles, like emanations into the real from the Platonic Forms by sheer deductive force.
This once more points to the weakness of the “bottom up” approach of Christian Nationalism, where the Body Politic flows from the literal body of the individual self, where if you just have right wing men work out, poast fizeek, and looksmaxxing, a dashing Caesar would emerge, draw men to himself by his sheer personal magnetism, and lead them to victory. (Again, the case of Napoleon here is instructive for he was a Caesar like figure, personally a brilliant administrator and general, of monumental force of will and charisma, but he had no concept of delegation, had few subordinates who could act independently, and was eventually defeated by a literal coalition who exploited this weakness by picking off his subordinates in battle and avoiding him, until they were able to overwhelm him personally by sheer numbers.)
Conclusion: In Search of a Christian International Relations Theory
Christian nationalists like Wolfe and company, wants to defend the goods of local community and the nation, they want to reaffirm its integrity and organic unity, and the right to use political power in pursuit of its protection. They also want to emphasise the proper distinction between the two kingdoms, the fellowship of Christians across national boundaries will not obliterate or eliminate “natural” national boundaries or communities, the spiritual fellowship of believers will not constitute a kingdom in itself. Following Aristotle, they also want to emphasise self-reliance, independence, unto the point of autarky, they hope to avoid the need to engage in the politics of international relations, even less what a Christian approach to international relations may look like.
While we might desire maintaining the goods of nation and local community, the reality is that autarky was an unrealistic Aristotelian pipedream which was not even true in his time, let alone ours. Politics is the art of organisation, the ability to form relations with others, and sometimes those others would exceed the national community into international treaties and relations. Whatever concerns one might have about overrealised eschatology, when the Christian European powers were confronted with the common threat of secularism and liberalism in the form of the French monster, they transcended their denominational and national differences to form “one and the same Christian nation” in an alliance against those threats. A consciousness of themselves as rulers of Christian countries meant that Christian nations would relate politically to each other in a way qualitatively different way from other countries or nations. There is a top-down aspects of politics which allows the implementation of high level universal Christian principles without necessarily destroying the integrity of local communities. It would be in vain to attempt to do historical Christian political theory while ignoring historical Christian political facts.
The Vienna system was quite successful in maintaining European peace from the Napoleonic Wars until the system collapsed with World War I. I naturally would not recommend that we ape or simply attempt to revive the Vienna system in full, even less the Holy Alliance. However, if we are going to do a “retvrn” to the politics of the past, we should continue and develop the efforts of the last European Christians who did politics as Christians before the World Wars decisively displaced Christendom as the basis for international politics. There is little point to “retvrning” to a time before the Vienna system and back to the Reformation when the Vienna system already had the benefit of centuries of experience and reflection after the same.
Again, I want to re-emphasise that this isn’t a criticism of Christian Nationalism as an incoherent or self-contradictory system, as a closed system it may be intellectually pretty and elegant, but as a basis for concrete politics, it is wholly inadequate and needs to be supplemented by the historical experience of Christendom since the Reformation.