The Religion of American Greatness:
What's Wrong with Christian Nationalism
by paul d. miller
intervarsity press, 304 pages, $30
In the October 2003 issue of First Things, Paul Griffiths and Stanley Hauerwas wrote a scathing critique of the Bush administration’s War on Terror. Grounded in an Anabaptist commitment to nonviolence, Hauerwas galvanized an ecumenical movement of Christians that were resolutely opposed to lending any Christian support to the project of neoconservatism.
Today, a new, unabashedly liberal critique of the Christian right has arisen from different quarters. Like the criticism of Bush and neoconservatism, it gains its energy from the figure it rejects: Donald Trump. Hauerwas was unique, though, in that he criticized so-called liberalism as harshly as he did neoconservatism. A pox on all houses, as far as he was concerned.
Critics of “Christian nationalism,” on the other hand, train their fire on conservative evangelicals. They aim to show how the Christian right is illiberal, authoritarian, and idolatrous. They embrace liberalism as the correct form of government. In this sense they are quite conservative, believing themselves defenders of the status quo against attacks from retrograde theocrats.
Their critique suffers from many deficiencies, however. It lacks a coherent, normative account of “true” Christian moral and political beliefs, in contrast to the “false” one they denounce. Too often these critics are indifferent to the Christian political tradition as a whole, and denounce the new right as “illiberal” while providing no reason why Christians should think liberalism or progressivism are more in line with their faith. It is a moralizing critique that sees no need to ground its judgment historically or theologically. Whose Christianity? Which justice? Answers to these questions have been debated for well over a millennium, but the critics of Christian nationalism, in their Whig view of history, presume all to have been settled.
Paul Miller’s recent book, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, attempts to fill this normative lacuna with an explicitly Christian defense of “classical liberalism.” Unlike other critics, Miller is keen to distinguish his position from progressivism and nationalism, both of which he believes are wrongheaded and sub-Christian. Whatever my disagreements with Miller’s book, and they are many, this is the direction debate over Christian nationalism should take.
Miller’s thesis is that Christian nationalism is illiberal in theory and practice, at odds with American political tradition, and idolatrous. He never ponders, as Hauerwas frequently did, whether Christianity itself may be illiberal; he simply assumes its compatibility with the American system.
At the outset, Miller declares that his is a work of “Christian political theory.” A serious book would deliver on such a claim by drawing on the long history of Christian political thought. But outside of a single chapter where he engages with a few contemporary figures—whom he takes to be representative, despite the fact that, excepting Nigel Biggar, none are political theologians—we are left with a few general assertions, a sprinkling of quotations, and episodic digressions. Whatever Miller’s book is, it is not Christian political theory.
A telling example comes at the end of his chapter “Nationalism and the Bible.” Miller quotes St. Augustine’s initial adoption in City of God of Cicero’s definition of a republic as a community bound together by “common objects of love.” He then applies this formulation to nationalists, concluding that they made the nation their object of love: “[nationalism] is thus a form of self-love . . .” But this is not Augustine’s line of thinking. Book 19 of City of God culminates in Augustine’s revision of Cicero’s definition. Augustine believes the Roman republic was never truly just because it did not give the one true God his due: worship. According to Augustine, “justice is found where the one supreme God rules an obedient city according to His grace, so that it sacrifices to none but Him.” Ironically, the passage Miller thinks proves the idolatry of nationalism—Christian or otherwise—actually names worship as the central obligation of human republics.
The clearest theoretical statement we get from Miller comes at the end of the preface, where he elaborates an account of political egalitarianism. Political order is grounded in the image of God, equal human dignity, and the Noahide covenant. “If none of us merits political power by virtue of some innate trait,” he writes, “we all deserve an equal say in how we are governed.” From this we arrive at inviolable, individual rights, limited state jurisdiction, and representative government. Everything else, he asserts, “is complete and utter nonsense.”
Miller ignores traditional Catholic and Protestant political thought, perhaps because the presuppositions of both are irreconcilable with his worldview. Rather, he embraces “classical liberalism” as the proper “biblical” understanding of Christian politics. He makes allusions to “Christian republicanism” and “Augustinian liberalism,” but these are gestures rather than Christian political theology.
Miller’s neat and tidy definition of nationalism is 1) the belief that humanity is divisible into mutually distinct, internally coherent cultural groups, 2) these groups are defined by shared traits—language, ethnicity, culture, etc., 3) these nations should have their own governments, 4) government should promote culture, 5) sovereign nations with strong cultures provide meaning and purpose. This definition overdetermines the reality of nationalism as a historical phenomenon. Benedict Anderson, the single most influential historian of nationalism in the past forty years, uses a very broad definition of nationalism as “an imagined political community—and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” Nationalism, for Anderson, is best understood not as an ideology, as Miller has presented it, but as an observable tendency in human communities.
Miller’s book is a polemical whirlwind. The authority and confidence of his voice are belied by an inability or unwillingness to appreciate complexity or nuance. For example, the fact that most nations in Europe with established churches are thoroughly liberal is of little interest to him.
Though he has garnered amens from those anxious to police American conservatives, those who find themselves in his crosshairs will recognize that he has little interest in or knowledge of their traditions. His book is for the already convinced. Those who want affirmation that Christian nationalism is “wrong” and “idolatrous” will find their beliefs affirmed. Likewise, those who think “Christian nationalism” is a shallow, overly generalizing term employed by people who do not understand Christian political thought will find few stronger proofs of their case.
“A people is an assemblage of rational beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their ,” wrote Augustine. The proper interest of Christians in America is that those common objects (laws, customs, mores, families, mediating institutions) that bind us together are worthy of love. That does not mean politics become a means of salvation. A properly ordered love of the nation will actually demarcate political from spiritual goods. Politics cannot regenerate, but they can point and orient. To pursue the good of our fellow citizens, in the end, entails more than respecting their rights. We must also aid them in becoming good citizens within the larger body that we call the American people.
Daniel Strand is a professor who teaches courses on the just war tradition, ethics and leadership, and contemporary political ethics.
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