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The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism

Are Christians under siege?  It might feel like it, judging from social media posts by your friends and neighbors.  This is the topic during this week’s Good Faith podcast, in which David French talks to Dr. Paul Miller, a scholar and public servant devoted to ordered liberty at home and abroad.

Paul is a political theorist and political scientist focusing on international affairs, the American experiment, and America’s role in the world. He is a Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He served as Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff; worked as an intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency; and served as a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army.

He’s also a Christian.

In this podcast, David takes up the mantle, while I’m on sabbatical, and talks to Paul about his most recent book, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism.

Specifically, they address:

  • what is Christian nationalism?
  • what’s at stake if we misunderstand the relationship between Christianity and the American nation
  • how is the religion of American greatness an illiberal political theory, at odds with the genius of the American experiment?
  • how can Christians relearn how to love our country without idolizing it?
  • how can we seek a healthier Christian political witness that respects our constitutional ideals and a biblical vision of justice?

DAVID FRENCH: What is Christian nationalism? If you pay any attention to online discourse about Christian nationalism, you’ll know that it’s a phrase that’s subject to many different meanings, some of them bad faith.

It’s both over-defined by people who want to label almost all conservative Christian participation in politics as some form of Christian nationalism. It’s under-defined by those folks who really wish to sort of minimize maybe a darker turn in Christian political engagement these past few years.  So what is it?

PAUL MILLER: I just want listeners to know that I spend three chapters in the book just working up to the definition because I want to be super careful about it. You’re right that there’s a lot of misconceptions about it, misunderstandings and bad definitions.

I worked on this book for something like six years because I wanted to really sit on this and think very carefully about it. This is not a hot take.

I think you can define Christian nationalism kind of from the top down as an ideology and from the bottom up as social practices, as things that you observe in people’s lives.

Anytime you see an image of a star spangled cross, you’re probably looking at Christian nationalism.  That’s kind of bottom up.

That’s what it feels like.

I spend quite a lot of the book, probably the first half or so, really looking at the top down, trying to look at what the advocates say.  Who are the people who believe in Christian nationalism and how do they define it?

I wanted to listen to them very carefully so that I wasn’t beating up on a straw man and to give the stage to them. What do they say about Christian nationalism? To answer that, you kind of have to start with a broader question, which is what is nationalism? Not just American Christian nationalism,but nationalism of all kinds.

Nationalists of any kind tend to believe that we can draw boundaries around culture that are very clear and distinct and hard boundaries… that you could draw a map of the world’s cultures like a checkerboard, and that each square on the checkerboard is very easily demarcated from the other squares on that checkerboard.

Once you’ve done that, you can then just simply assign each square its own government. The government and the culture should overlap exactly. There’s a one to one correlation.

France is for the French, Germany’s for the Germans, Italy for the Italians and America for the Americans.

In other words, they believe that cultural and political boundaries should overlap exactly. There should be a one to one correlation.

But what does it mean to be an American? What are the boundary lines of that square on the checkerboard? 

The Christian nationalists will say it’s about culture, it’s about our unique Christian heritage. Samuel Huntington says Anglo Protestant heritage. Right? Understanding that we come from British Protestantism, that was the over 98% of the population at the time of the founding was British and Protestant. And since that’s defined who we have been for so long, we have to keep being that in the future, if we want to truly remain American. We have to remain true, not physically descended from Britains and not theologically Protestant, but we have to be faithful to the cultural heritage. We have to sustain that Christian cultural heritage, to remain who we are, but also to sustain our experiments in free government, that we will lose our democracy if we are no longer true to our Christian roots.

That, I think, is the best representation I can give you of the Christian nationalist arguments, in their own words, more or less.

DAVID FRENCH:  If you’ve got somebody with the “stand before the flag, kneel before the cross” bumper sticker or the cross shaped American flag, what is the Christian nationalism they’re practicing?

PAUL MILLER: If you look at the Twitter feed of Pastor Gregory Locke or some of what Robert Jeffries does (he kind of rides the line), I think you do see some of that top down Christian nationalism pretty overly.

But let’s talk about the Christian Right. The Christian Right is a social, political, cultural movement that arises, starting in about the 1970s, and mobilizes Christians largely towards conservative political action.

The Right mobilized Christians not towards conservative political action only, but also towards nationalist political action. I grew up within this movement, and some of their beliefs are great. It advocated for the pro life cause, for religious freedom, and that’s wonderful.

It’s not Christian nationalism.

But a whole lot of other policy proposals were packaged together with the conservative movement and implicitly with the Christian Right that really don’t have to do with Christianity, right?

Gun rights and immigration restrictions… Now, there could be merits to their arguments – I’m a gun owner myself – but they don’t have anything to do with Christianity..

Nonetheless, there was kind of a Christian gloss put on many of these things, and you can now hear people defending the Second Amendment on kind of biblical grounds that I think are kind of fabricated. 

This is kind of the version of Christian nationalism that is in the air, it’s in the atmosphere: when you think that all conservative political views come back to some source in the Bible.

[This excerpt was lightly edited for clarity.]

HOST: David French

PRODUCER: Caleb Parker

IMAGE CREDIT: Pixabay

The Good Faith podcast comes out every Saturday on The Dispatch. Listen and subscribe here or wherever you listen to podcasts.

7 comments

  1. Ned Leco says:

    He really did it, he really did the meme of “the conservative case against Christianity.”
    Remember this is the guy who things trans strippers reading to children is a good thing, but teaching Christian values isn’t.

  2. Dr Miller is excellent. Rarely does one hear from a political scientist and scholar — who is also theologically well educated and and an astute observer of the growing threat from Christian nationalism.

  3. Wayne Valleau says:

    This was a wonderful discussion: open, honest, considered, and insightful. Had you not announced your faith, I would not have imagined that you are evangelicals. In my experience, those adjectives rarely apply. I am Christian, a member of the United Church of Canada, and as such, I have studied and lead studies in the Bible. What jars me is the absolutism of much evangelical pronouncement. As a creation, a human cannot know the mind of the Creator. At best, we can seem after righteousness. Exegesis, archaeology, and language analysis shows us that the Bible was written by humans, and history shows us that its contents were determined by humans. Beyond question, they were inspired by faith, by revelation perhaps. Still, they wrote within the knowledge parameters of their time. If it is revelation, then surely God revealed to them what could be understood within that same frame. So, the claim of Biblical inerrancy is not comprehensible to me.
    Dr. Miller seems to be profoundly thoughtful, a man of great good will, a man who follows Jesus’ great commandment. Yet, American evangelism is rife with sexism, misogyny, and racism. How can he, and you, not first look to bring justice to your
    denominations, to demonstrate in faith and action a love of Jesus? Your forthright presentation gives me hope. Yet I am troubled by the great weight of insularity and negativism that evangelism projects in the world.

  4. Sascha says:

    I also think that theories like “American Exceptionalism” play into American Nationalism and American Christian Nationalism. There seems to be a sense that one must believe and defend the idea that the US is and must always remain the greatest country in the world. Moreover, that the US’ Anglo Christian roots are at the core of this exceptionalism. Americans are believed to be God’s new chosen people, somehow. That then also justifies Manifest Destiny. I once asked a friend to define the difference between patriotism and nationalism. He said that patriotism is the belief that your country is a great country. Nationalism is the belief that all other countries are and always must remain inferior to yours.

  5. Gayle Wilson says:

    So helpful – especially the aspirational part. Thank you!

    I am the worst interrupter, and I’m trying to be conscious of that – so this is not a ‘high horse’ criticism. David – I think your interrupting speech pattern works better in regular conversation vs. in a podcast.

  6. Charlie Pinter says:

    Excellent discussion, very interesting and full of crucial points and observations. I should definitely buy Dr. Miller’s book!

  7. Harold Cohen says:

    David, why do you not see the Joseph Kennedy prayer case as one of power rather than liberty? If he was not the coach who could decide the fate of the players, if he did offer prayers quietly, not in a public mob in the center of the field, if he was actually fired for beliefs, then it would be about liberty. But as you have said, those in power often see their privilege as liberty because they (we) are able to get what they (we) want.

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