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The Christian Nationalists (Still) Can't Read and Why That Matters

December 20th, 2023 | 12 min read

By Jake Meador

Whenever you're reading a Christian nationalist author citing historical sources in support of their modern ethno-nationalist positions, you should be suspicious.

You absolutely should track down the footnotes.

And then you should read that excerpt in context.

We went over this once with Augustine.

Susannah went over it far more extensively over at Theopolis. She even noted at some length an especially telling moment in The Case for Christian Nationalism where the book's author, Stephen Wolfe, apparently failed to recognize Cicero's full name, causing him to completely misunderstand the passage he was citing. (There was also some highly selective excerpting in the Cicero case, as with Augustine.)

The track record these men have with their handling of historic texts is clear: They're bad at it.

So in a continuation of this series: Meet Zachary Garris. He's a PCA pastor who has promoted Wolfe's book, published with pro-secession media outlets, and whose publishing house has published the South African kinist Jan Adriaan Schlebusch as well as pro-confederacy podcaster Jon Harris.

Here he is excerpting something on Twitter from 17th century English bishop John Davenant:

Given Garris's associations, it's not unreasonable to wonder why it is so important to him to find Christian sources talking about how one's fellow countrymen ought to be more dear to us than strangers.

In practice, this is how Garris and his associates are going to use this passage from Bishop Davenant: First, they will argue from Davenant that a natural preference for one's own is good and natural. Second, following Wolfe, they will argue that these preferences are not changed or challenged in any way by the Gospel. This provides the theological backing for the claims they want to make about ethnicity and race:

  1. You establish that a preference for one's own is natural and good.
  2. You define "one's own" in racial or ethnic terms. (Often this will start out with "cultural" definitions of one's own, but those rapidly slide into racial or ethnic terms.)
  3. You use one particular approach to the "two kingdoms" to argue that "nature" governs the political sphere and is not modified or regulated by "grace."

That's the argument. So in this situation, Garris is using Bishop Davenant to try and backstop this project.

Given that he was supposedly sourcing this view in a 17th century English bishop, the usual suspects quickly amplified the claim, such as American Reformer editor Timon Cline, Wolfe himself, and CREC pastor Michael Foster:

timon cline zach garris

wolfe-garris

Somewhat amusingly, an actual self-described kinist who works for Schlebusch's think tank, the Pactum Institute, popped in to Foster's mentions to say "hey, this is what kinists think!" before telling him to go read Thomas Achord's book. At that point, Foster dropped the conversation.

Here's the problem: They need to keep reading.

If you keep reading Davenant's commentary after verse 12 of chapter four and get to his comments on Col. 4:15, you'll find this:

The philosophers of old said, that a wise man was a friend to a wise man, although unknown: But we may say, that a Christian is a brother to a Christian, although unknown; yea, he is more united than any friend or brother: for there ought to be one heart and one soul of all believers.

In other words, Davenant is saying that Christian bonds trump friendship or family bonds. If you are a Christian, your Christian brother, regardless of their culture, ethnicity, or city, is more united to you than anyone else who is not a Christian.

This is not the only place Davenant makes such a remark.

Here he is commenting on Col. 3:14:

For charity arises from God whom it loves for himself: corrupt love springs from oneself. Charity proceeds to love one's neighbour for the Lord's sake; corrupt love pretends to love one's neighbour, but pursues one's own advantage and pleasure. Therefore, they neither agree in order nor in object. But when it is said, Charity proceeds from God to one's neighbour, it is by no means to be restricted to relatives, kinsmen, or our familiar friends; but is to be extended to men universally: for every man who is in want of our good offices or our assistance is our neighbour. Hence Augustine says, "Every man is neighbour to every man; nor is the remoteness of family ties to be considered where there is a common nature." With this view the Schoolmen say, Neighbour is to be understood not from nearness of blood but fellowship in reason.

You don't need to take my word for it. Read it for yourself. The 4:15 citation is on p. 297. The second, longer citation from 3:14 is on p. 119.

So to summarize Davenant, his full claim within the broader context of his commentary is not that grace leaves nature untouched, thereby allowing us to maintain "natural" preferences "for one's own" even after coming to faith in Jesus.

Rather, Davenant's claim in broader context is simply this: All things being equal, you love your relative more than a stranger. This isn't terribly novel, nor is it in itself objectionable: We can all relate, after all, to the pleasures of commonly shared rituals and traditions and the sense of belonging and identity they give us. Humans create cultures together and then enjoy their fruits together. That is natural and good and it is all that these classical sources the Christian nationalists love to cite are saying.

It does not follow from that, however, that these sources are, therefore, on board with everything in the contemporary Christian nationalist project. The classical sources, unlike the Christian nationalists, also recognize what Jesus plainly teaches in the Gospels: There are social or communal claims that are weightier than the claims of common culture, ethnicity, or family. As Susannah noted at Theopolis, Cicero sees friendship as more basic than kinship. The great Christian thinkers, meanwhile, recognize that the claims of Our Lord outrank the claims of family, ethnicity, and culture. Our natural bonds are relativized both by our bonds with fellow believers and by the universalizing impulse of Christianity that says, with Bishop Davenant, that, "every man who is in want of our good offices or our assistance is our neighbour." (That line, of course, is also quite Augustinian.) That isn't to say that our natural bonds are bad or evil. But it is to say they are relative bonds which can be surmounted by other higher loves. Thus you find Davenant saying that you ought to love an unknown Christian more than you love your relative who is not a Christian.

Calvin, who Wolfe quoted in his thread citing Garris's misreading of Davenant, is of the same mind as Davenant. That is why he said,

For consanguinity and the same original ought to have been a bond of mutual consent among them; but it is religion which doth most of all join men together, or cause them to fly one another’s company.

If you read those Davenant and Calvin quotes we are supplying above, quotes so notably ignored by the Christian nationalists, and you think "well, that just sounds like Jesus, doesn't it?" then you are beginning to understand my point.

Why does this matter?

The point of this repeated exercise is not to service or support some sort of "post-war consensus" or to baptize globalization or anything like that. We have made some more targeted criticisms of post-war liberalism ourselves and have been doing so since the mid 2010s.

What I wish to do, rather, is to expose proof-texted misrepresentations of the Christian tradition. I want to do that especially when those proof-texted misrepresentations are then used to prop up what are actually deeply modernistic political projects that are antithetical to Christian belief and practice. The Christian nationalists are not friends to the Thomist tradition or to Augustinianism or the Reformed faith.

They are, rather, engaging in an attempt to Christianize a volkisch modernist political project founded on ideas about ethnicity and culture more at home in 20th century far right political theory than they are in Scripture. This is why so many of their engagements with the catholic tradition are so sloppy. Their own arguments won't survive a real encounter with historic Christian belief. All they can do is snatch random passages out of context, as they have repeatedly done, and act as if those out-of-context passages simply are the Christian tradition. But they aren't, as my friends and I keep demonstrating. So on the textual merits, they're simply wrong and sloppy.

But even that isn't the totality of the problem. To get at that, we need to understand the appeal of the Christian nationalists. The reality facing us today is that we live in a deeply complex moment, and in particular a moment where many people feel a deep sense of rootlessness, isolation, and alienation.

The false certainties of the Christian nationalists offer a certain veneer of security. They'll look at that angst and give you an easy answer: Your "natural" community was stolen from you by the globalists and the woke and the false conservatives who lack the will required to take back what has been lost. If we have the will to seize political power, even power obtained through unlawful means, we can restore our stolen culture and reclaim the life we once had.

That's the vision they're selling. And you should be able to understand why it has such an appeal, especially to disaffected young men and to pastors who feel betrayed in some sense by certain failures of the young reformed coalition.

But our problems will not be solved by authoritarian fantasies of Christian princes who somehow by magic undo centuries of industrialization, urbanization, colonization, and mass global migration. We won't solve any of this through political fiat or right-wing ressentiment. Simplistic appeals to "nations" will not solve the problem either, as I have explained elsewhere. We also won't solve it through twisting and distorting the catholic tradition in service of that authoritarian ethno-nationalist project.

What could help? There are several things.

First, we would benefit from actual intellectual seriousness. We should read texts in their context, interrogate them with Scripture, and follow where Scripture leads us, guided by reason and the catholic tradition. And we should have the honesty and courage that such a commitment will require of us.

But it isn't just seriousness we need, although that would be beneficial. We need an intellectual system that allows us to preserve natural goods without making those goods ultimate. An authentically Christian political theology will do precisely that.

On the one hand Christianity does allow for us to name and recognize natural goods as good and to enjoy them. I have written extensively about my life in southeast Nebraska, talking about my family's roots here going back nearly 150 years, our local culture, and the role Husker football in particular plays in shaping the place. (Husker volleyball has now come to occupy a very large place in our state's psyche as well, which is its own interesting trivia given how progressively coded most women's sports are and how deeply red much of Nebraska is.) I love my home place and the culture that exists here and I share in it in a thousand ways, large and small. I'm raising my kids in it, taking them to orchards in the fall, Husker sporting events, the Farmers Market down in the Haymarket, and a host of other local things unique to life in southeastern Nebraska.

It is right and good to rejoice in the natural gifts God gives us through the ordinary realities of human existence in the world. In as much as the project of the Christian nationalists is limited to that fairly modest claim, it is unobjectionable. Yet as their persistent misunderstanding of Augustine and Cicero and now Davenant demonstrate, their project is much more than that. Their project is to make grace subservient to nature in public life and then repackage a kind of morally neutered public Christianity and make that vision of the faith part of "nature." But as I have said many times before, natural goods are not ultimate goods and God's Word won't be accommodated to suit one's political ambitions. Where natural goods threaten to replace ultimate goods, they must be killed. It was Our Lord, after all, who said that he who does not hate father or mother cannot be his disciple. We can't worship the strong gods, however much the Christian nationalists might want us to. We can only tell them to repent and be baptized—and if they will not, then we must cast them down.

Much of the time the problem is not nearly so clear cut as that: The world is for the most part not neatly divided between white supremacists and place-hating globalists. Indeed, I think both of those groups, in their most explicit and extreme forms at least, are actually rather small. What remains are ordinary people trying to live well in an anxious and uncertain time, living downstream of complex historical events and realities, feeling routinely threatened in often basic and understandable ways, and seeking a better life. The process of working to discern what of the natural loves residing in your own heart are rightly ordered and what must be repented of is difficult. Ultimately only Christ will help us answer those questions conclusively and satisfactorily. In the interim, we need theories of neighborliness, and care, and affection, values that help us resist the ontological violence equally hardwired into both the contemporary successor ideology and the Christian nationalism of the new Christian right.

And this, then, is the significance of the fact that the Christian nationalists are bad readers: To read badly is sometimes a technical failure—a product of reading while distracted, reading to have read, reading as you are falling asleep and therefore failing to comprehend. But then there are also many times when to read badly is actually a failure to love neighbor. It is a failure to listen, to attend to the text you are considering, and to take the time to honor what its author has said, choosing instead to exploit the author for your own purposes.

To read badly in this way is to train yourself in habits and practices of apathy, dishonesty, laziness, and indifference to both what is true and to the human beings God has made who are affected by these vices. The complex problems concerning identity, belonging, and even reality itself which have been posed to us by the developments of the past century will not be resolved with the aid of people schooled in indifference, dishonesty, and laziness. They will, rather, be helped by people schooled in habits of prayer, careful thought, and who possess the requisite courage to remain faithful to God's Word, even at great cost.

"Pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks."

Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter quotes those words of St Paul's near the end of the novel that bears her name. Then she continues: "I am not altogether capable of so much. But those are the right instructions."

Indeed they are.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).