Identifying with a More Powerful Story
A Feature Review of
The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism
Paul D. Miller
Hardback: IVP Academic, 2022
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Reviewed by Joel Wentz
My first explicit encounter with Christian Nationalism (at least that I can remember, though I suspect it may not have actually been the first) was in high school, when I attended a worship service held on Memorial Day. Perhaps the fact that a worship service was being held on a holiday like Memorial Day should have tipped me off, but I was still shocked to see what the musical worship leader did. He randomly selected a child who happened to be sitting in the front row, pulled out a dollar bill, and interrogated the child in front of all those who had gathered.
“Do you see what it says on the dollar bill? ‘In God we trust.’ Now, do you think it is possible to be a good American and disregard what we have printed on our money?”
The child, who could not have been more than 7 or 8 years old, sheepishly shook her head back and forth, intuiting that was the expected answer and clearly hoping to be quickly allowed to melt back into the anonymity of the crowd. Though I could not articulate why I was so uncomfortable, and even angry, at the conduct of this leader in the moment (aside from the inappropriateness of manipulating the innocence of a child, who very likely had no choice in attending this event in the first place, to make a point he could have just as easily voiced himself), I knew there was simply something deeply wrong with what had just occurred. What I did not fully understand was that this hapless leader was pulling on a thread of political theory and theology that far predated him, and would far outlast him. I certainly did not know how it would take deep root and partly manifest in the insanity of what would happen in our nation’s capital (incidentally, only about an hour away from where this worship service took place) about twenty years later, on January 6th, 2021.
Given my cultural context, of broadly-white evangelicalism, I have intersected with various forms of Christian Nationalism for most of my life, ranging from the frequently-spoken aphorisms, “America was founded as a Christian country, after all,” or the slightly more nuanced, “America was founded upon Judeo-Christian values, after all,” to ministry supporters pulling their financial support because of my critiques of Republican politicians, or congregants angrily leaving my community because of my willingness to speak openly about the sins of American history. While I have felt confident in calling such individuals to a broader mindedness regarding the transnational Kingdom of God, or, when needed, even to repent of idolatry of their American identity, I have never quite understood how exactly these various expressions fall under the broader category of Christian Nationalism. Nor have I understood the deeper intellectual currents that inform such nationalistic mindsets, or even their appeal. Honestly, it’s always been a little baffling to me.
Given the American political landscape since 2015 or so, and especially the attention given to the so-called “81%,” no shortage of writing has been produced to explore this topic. While much of that writing has been helpful, particularly from a sociological or demographic angle, Paul Miller’s new book The Religion of American Greatness stands apart in its careful attention to intellectual history and rigorous argumentation, along with his constructive approach to “steelmanning” the topic, and his own quite conservative political leanings. Frankly, it’s one of the clearest articulations of nationalism as a political theory that I’ve ever read, and one of its most confident rebuttals.
Much of Miller’s argument relies on a careful understanding of the differences between cultures, nations, ideologies and the function of government. And he takes great pains to carefully define these terms and trace the logic of various political theories related to nationalism.
“The nationalist argument boils down to an assertion that ideology cannot survive if disconnected from non ideological components of culture. We will lose who we are, they say . . . if our culture changes too much. Taken to its logical extreme, their argument reduces to the belief that liberal democracy depends for its survival on the cultured habits of eighteenth-century English gentlemen” (12, emphasis added).
Understanding the nationalistic impulse this way, that it is an effort to manipulate the authority of established government to enforce adherence to a specific culture, or a “yearning for prehistoric tribalism . . . [in which] adherents of different faiths lived in separate and discrete territories, and racial, ethnic, and cultural segregation was an international principle” was a profound lightbulb-moment for me (71). Miller, an ardent defender of classical liberalism, minces no words in articulating the danger here,
“Nationalism amounts to Jim Crow on a global scale, an insistence that cultural majorities have a presumptive right to defend their culture with the power of the state, a right cultural minorities lack for no other reason than being in a minority . . . at heart, nationalism is internal imperialism . . . the effort by the largest or most powerful group to establish itself as the dominant group whose identity defines the nation” (75).
As Miller would have it, this paradigm will inevitably collapse into illiberalism and cultural arrogance, and, when Christian language and biblical imagery is leveraged to defend it, idolatry. He takes great care to respond to the most sophisticated articulations of Christian Nationalism from thinkers like Nigel Biggar and R.R. Reno in order to illuminate this inevitability. (As I said earlier, he takes the “steelmanning” approach of representing the counterargument in the best way possible, a refreshing angle in this cultural climate). I found it convincing.
There’s a fascinating, and even deeper, conversation happening today regarding the merits of liberalism itself, and whether it is worth attempting to defend in our global and multicultural age (see Patrick Deneen as an example of a public intellectual in favor of abandoning liberalism). The reader’s resonance with Miller’s argument here will likely hang on how you answer that question, but Miller puts forward a compelling vision of preserving these republican (note the small-r) ideals for the sake of the common good, and because the health of society depends on guarding against the very dangers of over-reach from any cultural and demographic majority who have become convinced of their own superiority. “Anglo-Protestantism has been so powerful that it has sometimes been hardhearted and ignorant, historically insensitive to what it is like not to be Anglo-Protestant . . . Anglo-Protestantism has been, in historical terms, rich, powerful and secure. Why would we expect it to be spiritually healthy?” (196, emphasis added)
Finally, a word about Trump (personally, I consider it a win that I got to the last paragraph without going there). Miller is vigorously opposed to Trump, but demonstrates an admirable empathy and understanding for what Trump represents, especially as related to Christian Nationalism itself. For those of us who care both about the health of America for the sake of the general good, and especially the health of the evangelical church, which has demonstrated a painful unwillingness to speak prophetically against the allures of nationalistic idolatry, Miller’s words about the power of story are worth considering,
“Trump’s rise was a symptom of a deeper malady: the American political system had given up telling meaningful stories about who we are as a people . . . Trump’s distinctiveness was that he at least dared tell a story about restoring national greatness. It was not inclusive and only occasionally true, and a majority of Americans rightly rejected it in 2016 and 2020 and throughout his presidency, but it was almost the only effort by any major figure on the national stage to tell an ethically constitutive story, to make national identity mean something” (234).
Those of us in the Kingdom are already equipped with an ‘ethically constitutive story’ that is far more powerful than anything a political leader should be able to muster. I pray we take Miller’s challenge to heart and, as a result of proclaiming this story more boldly, we may see a renewal of fidelity to our true identity in Christ.
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com
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