SUMMARY: Many books taking on the subject of Christian nationalism identify, and rightly so, the idolatry, racism, and tribalism of the movement, but few theologically, academically, historically, and charitably dismantle the movement as well as Paul D. Miller, does in The Religion of American Greatness. But, dismantling Christian nationalism was not his sole goal in writing the book–he hopes his book assists Christians with being better witnesses.
“I hope this is useful for readers who already agree with its basic message by clarifying exactly what Christian nationalism is, why Christian nationalism is bad, and what its damaging implications are,” Miller writes. “thus equipping you to be better Christian witnesses in the public square and better teachers in your own churches, families, and schools.”
The book starts out slow as Miller, rightfully, defines his terms such as republicanism, history, heritage, evangelical, White Anglo Protestantism, and, of course, Christian nationalism before digging into the reasons for the resurgence of nationalism in the 21st century.
“The resurgence of nationalism in the twenty-first century is a response to decades of weakening national identities driven by globalization and tribalization…Globalization led to deindustrialization; the loss of manufacturing jobs, and the homogenizing and depressing sameness of ‘McWorld,’ as Benjamin Barber termed the global monoculture that was everywhere and nowhere.”
What makes Christian nationalism unique “is that it defines America as a Christian nation and it wants the government to promote a specific Anglo-Protestant cultural template as the official culture of the country.”
This doesn’t necessarily, although it often does, manifest itself in the political agenda of Christian nationalists, but in the attitude that they hold: “an unstated presumption that Christians are entitled to primacy of place in the public square because they are heirs of the true or essential heritage of American culture, that Christians have a presumptive right to define the meaning of the American experiment because they see themselves as America’s architects, first citizens, and guardians.”
Miller methodically, and charitably, takes on three main points that Christian nationalists make for the movement – “that humanity is divisible into cultural units, that cultural units should be the foundation of political order, and that Anglo-Protestantism is essential for democracy.” He does not mock nor demean the points, but robustly refutes them by showing the inconsistencies in their arguments.
For example, Miller says that the argument that humanity is divisible into cultural units is false since “the groups we are part of—our peoples, cultures, or heritage—are fluid and malleable; we create and refashion them with our participation; cultures overlap; the boundaries between them are fuzzy and indistinct.”
In the following chapter, he argues against Christian nationalism where he says the ideals of the movement are historically unAmerican and create division rather than unity
“At no point has America’s culture been defined by its concern to ‘preserve’ anything, but rather to constantly reinvent everything,” Miller writes. “Because nationalism is arbitrary and relies on coercion and exclusion to fabricate a national identity, it fosters division, not cohesion; fragmentation, not unity. Nationalism undermines its own goals.”
Miller, perhaps, makes the strongest argument against Christian nationalism from a theological point of view. He takes common Biblical passages such as 2 Chronicles 7:14 and Psalm 33:12 that are used to justify nationalism and clearly points out that the verses are talking about Israel and the church–not the United States.
“America is not Israel: the church is. Americans are not God’s chosen people; those who trust in Jesus from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation are. The divine mission of God’s chosen people is not to spread political liberty, national sovereignty, or capitalism; it is to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Miller writes. “America is not a ‘Christian nation,’ except in the descriptive sense that most Americans have always been professing Christians and Christianity has shaped much of our culture and history. The church is the one and only true Christian nation.”
One of the major problems with Christian nationalism, and why it seduces so many Christians is that it is an ideology that functions similarly to a religion.
“It is a set of symbols that establishes powerful moods that last for centuries. It describes a general order for life, an orienting framework with a standard of right and wrong, a sense of purpose and direction. And it roots the general order in an ‘aura of factuality,’ a story about the nation’s ancient roots and primal existence which seems feasible because the nation preexists us and outlives us.”
Miller spends a large part of the book on the Christian Right and how many of their ideals and beliefs overlap with Christian nationalist beliefs and ideals. We appreciate Miller’s candidness as he doesn’t mince words when parsing out the differences between the Christian Right and Christianity.
“The Christian Right is identity politics for tribal evangelicals, a response to the decline of Anglo-Protestant power, more than a movement or ordered liberty and equal justice for all,” Miller says. “Christianity is a set of beliefs about ultimate things—most importantly, about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
Miller concludes the book with advice to both Christians and pastors on how Christians can distinctly speak out against Christian nationalism. It starts with learning our nation’s history–the good and the bad.
“To beat nationalism, we need to tell a better story…The national story can and must include both triumphs and failures because that is the best way to include everyone—victor and victim alike—and to inspire people with a sense of responsibility.”
Historian Robert McKenzie, in We the Fallen People agrees.
“I’m convinced that faithful remembering is critical to faithful living,” McKenzie says. “I’m distressed by the ‘historylessness’ that generally characterizes American Christians. Among its other costs, our historical amnesia contributes directly to our dysfunctional engagement with contemporary politics, a pattern distinguished chiefly by its worldly pragmatism and shallowness.”
“I fear we are giving the culture reason to view followers of Christ as simply one more interest group, one more strategically savvy voting bloc willing to trade political support for political influence.”
One of our favorite parts of the book is the end of the final chapter where he exhorts pastors to talk about Christian nationalism and what it means to engage in the political sphere with a uniquely Christian view.
“Quietism is itself a public, political stance: your congregations absorb the lesson that Christianity has no particular implications except to endorse the pro-life movement,” Miller pens. “and thus, there is no particular problem with the de facto Christian nationalism that dominates much of White evangelical political life.”
The church, when done correctly, can serve as a model for the rest of the world where people who do not agree are united in their love for Jesus. A community that pursues the common good for all people. A community that treats all humans with dignity and respect.
“People need to be taught how to live as part of a body, how to understand and live out our roles as a member of a church, citizen of a nation, and resident of a community,” Miller says. ” In our self-centered, narcissistic, individuaistic, expressionist age, we are incompetent in the arts of living together. We may be naturally social and political animals, but we still have to acquire the cultivated virtues of citizens. Churches must help form us into better political animals.”
While we do not recommend this book as a starting point on Christian nationalism, for that we suggest The Flag and the Cross, we appreciated how thoroughly Miller takes on the subject. For those looking for a deep dive, you cannot do any better.
KEY QUOTE: “The danger of nationalism is not that it encourages us to cultivate loyalty to and affection for our country—which is inescapable—but that it endows the state with almost limitless jurisdiction to reshape culture, imagines the nation as a quasi-religious body, and exacerbates sectarian and ethnic cleavages at home. Christians who uncritically buy into nationalism are giving support to an incoherent secular idea with a troubled historical record and making themselves credulous supporters of a dangerous and thoughtless theology.”
BONUS: Don’t have time to read the book? Listen to Miller discuss his book on The Holy Post; skip to 44:50 to get to the interview.
DID YOU KNOW? Sunday to Saturday has a Good Reads page where we post all of the books we have read – even the ones that didn’t make the cut.
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