Getting to Know You: Jacob Wolf
Talking with the Regent University professor about political theory, Alexis de Tocqueville, and the future of religion and politics in America
Greetings from the dog days of summer here in Northwest Arkansas. After several weeks of drought-like conditions, the rain has once again started to fall. It’s been a nice reprieve from the heat and the sun, and a reminder of God’s provision in the midst of the parched and scorched moments of life.
I’m excited to announce a new project on Uneasy Citizenship, which I’m calling “Getting to Know You.” Every once and a while I’ll be interviewing interesting people at the intersection of faith, politics, and public life. These interviews will take place via email, edited for clarity and length, and then shared with you.
My first guest is Jacob Wolf. Jacob is an assistant professor of government at Regent University. He has a PhD from Boston College, where he studied political theory. Before coming to Regent he spent a year at the James Madison Program at Princeton University as a postdoctoral fellow.
In our conversation Jacob talks about what it means to study religion as a political theorist, how his reading of Alexis de Tocqueville informs his understanding of religion and politics today, and how his students have responded to these important questions, among other things.
You can hear more from Jacob on Thursday, August 4 at 11am CDT, when Christians in Political Science hosts a panel we’re calling “What’s Up with American Religion?” Jacob will join political scientist Ryan Burge and journalist Kelsey Dallas about the state and trajectory of American religion. You can join us for this free panel by registering here.
With that, here’s Jacob Wolf.
Daniel Bennett: Tell me a little about yourself and your interests as a political theorist.
Jacob Wolf: I came to political theory through a rather strange path. From a young age I was interested in politics, but I found myself wanting more depth than I typically saw around me. In college, I started an intellectual journey to exchange mere political opinion for genuine political knowledge. In fact, this is how I still define the field of political theory — a quest to place politics upon a foundation, not of personal preference, but of true and universal principles.
Strangely enough, my interest in politics led me to an interest in philosophy and in theology. I realized that any political question, if pursued with sufficient depth, led to a philosophical question, and that philosophical question, in turn, led directly into a theological question. In short, I discovered that politics, philosophy, and theology are all profoundly intertwined. To know something about one of these disciplines, I would need to know something about all of them.
I found political theory to be a nice starting point, as it gave me a synoptic understanding of our developments in thinking across history. It helped me to “peel back” the layers of our thinking, to uncover the presuppositions we hold, and to wrestle with the truth or falsity of those ideas. This is especially important if one is a Christian, as such a perspective helps one think more like a first century Christian and less like a twenty-first century American. As C.S. Lewis once said, the only way to avoid chronological snobbery is to "keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries" blowing through our minds.
I’m deeply convinced that Christianity and Christian presuppositions are central elements in the historical development of self government, democracy, and liberalism. However, I’ve also perceived that democracy and liberalism generate their own worldviews, which slip back into religion.
Political theory allows me some historical and critical distance from modern presuppositions which I find invaluable for uncovering timeless truth and political wisdom. I find it also helps me distinguish between what is true and what is merely fashionable in our society. I came up with a clever (I think) way of summarizing my research interests: I'm interested in the theological origins of modern politics and the political origins of modern theology. In other words, I’m deeply convinced that Christianity and Christian presuppositions are central elements in the historical development of self government, democracy, and liberalism. However, I’ve also perceived that democracy and liberalism generate their own worldviews, which slip back into religion. I think it is the job of every Christian to disentangle what is Christian from what is merely the preference of society, and political theory is the best tool I have found to accomplish that task.
Thanks for reading Uneasy Citizenship! Subscribe for free to receive occasional posts on the intersection of faith and public life.
DB: You recently told me you would describe yourself as an applied Tocqueville scholar. What do you mean by that?
JW: I somewhat jokingly call myself an “applied Tocqueville scholar” to distinguish myself from all the wonderful Tocqueville scholars out there; however, I think there is also a real difference between our perspectives. I am less interested in textual interpretation (important though that may be) than I am with the text’s ability to help me understand the social and political world around me.
I find many of Tocqueville’s major ideas—individualism, materialism, equality of conditions, township government, deformalization— profound in their ability to open up, or unlock, reality. In every scholar's career, they stumble upon a book which supplies them with categories and ideas which help reveal things hidden in plain sight. Similarly, Tocqueville’s works helped me understand why Americans think and act as they do. One fundamental insight from Plato’s Republic is that a society’s ideals depend upon the regime type. Tocqueville, I think, helps us see how much of our thoughts and actions arise from our regime — a democratic regime. We act and think in a distinctly democratic way, and Tocqueville helps bring that to light.
Little do we know it, but we also tend to practice religion in a manner befitting a democracy. I have found Tocqueville’s category of individualism far more enlightening than contemporary discussion of secularization with regard to religion. My own research has shown that American are not less religious than previous generations; however, the religion they confess and practice is far more individualistic. They are more individualistic in two distinct senses: they prefer individual to group activity (classic individualism) and they avoid that which does not affirm their individual preferences, opinions, and desires (expressive individualism).
Growing individualism has caused many interesting developments in American religion, such that we can say that younger Americans are less likely to attend a religious congregation, less interested in becoming formal members of that congregation, less inclined to trace their beliefs to a set of historic dogmas, less willing to submit to pastoral discipline, and less tolerant of church hierarchy. A good summary is that younger Americans want religion that is convenient, makes no strong impositions upon them, can be practiced from the comfort of their own home, and places each person on the same level.
DB: What does your reading of Tocqueville in this way mean for the future of religion?
JW: The general trend in American religion is away from formal religious institutions and towards more personalized, individualistic religion. Individualism does not mean that we have left churches entirely, but it does mean that we demand churches be more attentive to our personal preferences and individual interests—hence the rise of megachurches and small groups. Megachurches offer multiple levels of participation, from mere anonymous attendance to weekly volunteering. One can slip in and out the door unnoticed or “get plugged in,” usually via small groups.
Small groups are an interesting case study for individualism. By definition, they are a community endeavor, which would seem to combat classic individualism. However, the organizing principle of small groups is most often individual interest and preference, whether that be rollerblading or Bible study. The problem with small groups is that they are designed to gather together individuals who are, in the grand scheme of things, quite similar to one another. Small groups subdivide the church into narrow bands of age and interest, and they often reinforce what one already thinks or believes. This is naturally a problem if you believe that the central ethic of Christianity is self-renunciation and self-sacrifice.
The great problem in America is that individualism runs so deep in our society that even our efforts to combat individualism exacerbates the focus on the individual. “Classic individualism” refers to the tendency among Americans to withdraw from communal endeavors into a narrow band of personal and private interests. “Expressive individualism,” on the other hand, is an understanding of the individual which sacralizes individual desires and preferences. It is a belief that one should live wholly according to their inner desires, and not according to any external model of behavior. “Be Yourself,” “Love Yourself,” “Follow Your Heart” — these are all mantras of expressive individualism. An important corollary of expressive individualism is that one is not truly authentic if bound, or constrained, by tradition, institutions, and moral rules. This is a real challenge to the classical and Christian traditions, which together hold that human beings are crooked and in need of straightening, flawed and in need of polishing.
Americans tend to participate in institutions at the most convenient level, and I fear that Covid may have exacerbated a tendency already present in much of Evangelicalism: religion as a mere spectator sport.
The pattern I see is repeated time and time again is that “community”—mere togetherness—is upheld as a panacea to individualism, and yet the sort of community that is built ends up being quite individualistic. In Better Together, Robert Putnam looks around the United States for evidence of genuine reactions to individualism. They spend a whole chapter highlighting—I kid you not—the community ethic of Portland, Oregon. The idea here is that Portland, with its emphasis on community association, is winning the fight against individualism. What Putnam seems not to have noticed is that our attempts to combat classic individualism leads us to slip into expressive individualism.
I see this happening quite often in our churches. Our pastors rightly tell congregations they need community; however, that community is often something totally amenable to our individualistic presuppositions and our individual interests. Again, the megachurch is a good example of trying to accommodate a highly individualistic society — it offers multiple levels of participation and multiple entry points based around various personal interests and hobbies. Americans tend to participate in institutions at the most convenient level, and I fear that Covid may have exacerbated a tendency already present in much of Evangelicalism: religion as a mere spectator sport.
As with everything, however, there will also be a reaction to this broad trend I’ve just laid out. There will always be those who few who find individualistic religion shallow and unfulfilling and who seek something deeper.
DB: This idea of a reaction to this is fascinating. What kinds of traditions within Christianity do you see potentially filling this void among those dissatisfied with the individualism you described? Or differently, what kind of “deepness” do you see appealing to these folks?
JW: I’ll suggest an answer from my personal life and one from my studies. I used to attend a church in Minnesota, which I can quite safely say was theology-lite. To combat this lack of depth, I started a Bible study where we studied the book of Acts, reading one chapter per week. In order to prepare for this, I read several commentaries and historical books so that I could say something meaningful. What started as a group of 15 people grew to 30, and so we split the group in two. Both of those groups grew to 30 and similarly divided. Within a couple years, there were more than 150 people studying the book of Acts, all of which followed a little study booklet I prepared based on my reading. Clearly there was a hunger for real Biblical instruction, for something more than the usual three-point sermon.
Most churches in America follow something like a supply-demand model, and it seems like if more people demanded real depth to the teaching, then certain churches would have to start providing that depth. If a church is lacking depth, it’s on the congregation to demand more. Pastors in America are something like religious entrepreneurs, always seeking new ways to provide what the religious community wants and needs. However, most congregations have settled for surface-level Christianity or don’t know how to demand more. On the whole, I see this as fundamentally a demand problem. Whether the supply is there—whether or not pastors in the Evangelical church are prepared for such instruction—is another conversation entirely.
From my scholarship, I see two opposite ideals of the church forming in America: one dedicated to traditional, historical Christianity, and one seeking to distance itself from traditional, historical Christianity. We are going to see a lot of shuffling between denominations and even splits among denominations in order to realize these competing ideals. Evangelicalism seems to be splitting into these two camps. Those seeking more depth (and less self-gratifying content) tend to find their way into Presbyterian or Catholic churches, in order to link themselves up with a Christianity that has a longer time-horizon. They rightly perceive that the solution to individualism, and a lack of depth, is not “community” but an infusion of historic, orthodox Christianity.
Evangelicalism, with its seeker-sensitivity and its sentimentality, tends not to want to draw hard lines, so I see Evangelical churches slow to react to this coming bifurcation. I would hope that many Evangelical churches begin to infuse liturgy, tradition, and intellectual depth into their bloodstream—that they would read and study great thinkers like Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Edwards, and Wesley—but that is as of yet somewhat hard to find.
DB: What do you think this shift in religion means for the future of American politics?
JW: For better or worse, I think Americans will continue to sort by political/religious persuasion. We have already seen this sorting happen within political parties, with the total disappearance of “Blue Dog Democrats” and “Rockefeller Republicans.” It appears that something similar is happening now with regard to states, with conservatives fleeing blue states and liberals fleeing red states. To dig a bit deeper into what I said above, this divide is also happening within churches, with more conservative or liberal churchgoers finding their way to more conservative or liberal churches and church congregations, in general, reassessing their denominational affiliation. Expect to see more of this, with the Methodist Church being only the latest battleground.
I dissent from the now-common perspective that political partisanship causes one’s religious affiliation. To the contrary, I think there is a deeper kind of sorting going on here—a sorting at the level of philosophy or anthropology. I think there are now two distinct understandings of the individual—that is, two rival understandings of the self—in America. The former sees the individual best realized in the context of tradition, institutions, and moral rules; the latter sees the individual best realized when freed from tradition, institutions, and moral rules. Call these two perspectives whatever you want, but the point is that they amount to radically incommensurate understandings of the self. The very things the former group sees as essential to human flourishing are considered by the latter group as chains upon authentic individuality.
As to how this affects politics, I don’t think this philosophical divide can be remedied with legislation. No legislation can unite when the fundamental presuppositions of a society are so vastly divergent. I am of two minds here, when it comes to how to deal with this issue. On the one hand, I believe the view that human beings are only happy when liberated from moral and social restraints is a false anthropology. I would hope that teachers of politics, philosophy, and theology can once again express that human beings are made from “crooked timber” and therefore need certain constraints.
If we continue to push partisan legislation at the national level, it could be very bad for civic stability. My hope is that this will encourage each side to lay down their weapons (i.e., governmental power), but my fear is that it will make each side cling to their weapons.
On the other hand, I suspect this polarization will continue to grow. And it will probably necessitate a return to federalism, with more legislation being passed at the state level. However, if we continue to push partisan legislation at the national level, it could be very bad for civic stability. My hope is that this will encourage each side to lay down their weapons (i.e., governmental power), but my fear is that it will make each side cling to their weapons.
Whatever happens with political polarization, I suspect individualism—especially expressive individualism—will proceed apace. Long-term, I am more worried about expressive individualism than I am about polarization, but I suspect (though I cannot prove) that the rise of expressive individualism has caused a large portion of our polarization.
DB: How do you communicate these things to your students? What do they make of all this?
JW: I like to get my students to attend their churches with a simple question in mind — namely, how many times did the pastor (or worship team) suggest something which could be categorized as “self-esteem” or “self-affirmation,” on the one hand, or “self-renunciation” or “self-abnegation,” on the other hand. On balance, I find that most churches are skewed in the direction of the former, despite the fact that self-renunciation is the essence of the Christian ethic.
I generally find that there are three types of responses on the part of students. A small number of them see the danger posed by individualism and devote themselves to finding a church which teaches true self-renunciation. A somewhat larger group instinctively dislikes what I have to say because they have deeply believed the modern notion that Christianity is about the affirmation, rather than renunciation, of the self. A third group simply cannot understand why sincerely religious people should be concerned with ideas from philosophy or politics. I can work with the first two groups, but I find the third group quite difficult to address. It is difficult to convince them that “simple faith,” in the context of modernity, requires a complicated investigation of their philosophical presuppositions. Discernment is a virtue won at great cost and with little praise.
DB: What are two or three books you think all people interested in faith and public life should read to better make sense of our world today?
JW: If it isn’t already obvious, Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is at the top of my list. I can’t say enough good things about it.
Next, I would recommend Philip Rieff’s Triumph of the Therapeutic. This is a complex but wonderful book, written by an idiosyncratic sociologist about how psychotherapy has invaded modern religion. In particular, it demonstrates how comfort and self-esteem have become the primary goal of religion, something which should worry Christians especially. In case one doesn’t want to work through Rieff’s cryptic and oracular prose, there are good treatments of Rieff at the end of Christopher Lasch’s Revolt of the Elites and early in Carl Trueman’s Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.
Third, if social science is more your thing, one can’t do much better than works by Robert Wuthnow. He has a brilliant capacity to gather data and interpret it well. Everything he writes is worth reading. He rightly perceives in the contemporary religious world the present tenuousness of our connections — to others, to institutions, and to tradition.
Finally, I adore fiction, so I can’t resist a chance to recommend my favorite American author: Nathaniel Hawthorne. In particular, I recommend his Mosses from an Old Manse. Hawthorne is, in my opinion, America’s greatest novelist, and all of the brilliant short stories collected in this volume demonstrate, in some way or another, how old-fashioned religion corrects for some of the defects of modernity. I particularly recommend “The Celestial Railroad” and “Earth’s Holocaust.” The first is a retelling of Pilgrim’s Progress, in which humanity tries to build a railroad to the Celestial City, to replace the slow and outmoded pilgrim’s path. It is essentially a cautionary tale about trying to make Christianity appeal to modern sensibilities.
The latter, on the other hand, is a brilliant little tale about a bonfire of the vanities, in which the human race dispenses with all the baubles no longer necessary in a modern democratic context. With regard to Christianity, the participants first decide to throw into the bonfire all the “trappings” of religion—the ceremonial and formal elements of religion—only to work themselves into a frenzy which ends with them setting the Bible itself ablaze. It’s a brilliant parable for our contemporary moment.
Thanks for reading Uneasy Citizenship! Subscribe for free to receive occasional posts on the intersection of faith and public life.