On The Religion of American Greatness
Paul Miller is a man in the middle and a man on a mission. In his preface to The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism, Miller proclaims that “against the progressive left and the nationalist right, I want to defend ordered liberty, liberal institutions, and civic republicanism, particularly a specific kind that I think is consistent with Christianity” (xvii). Miller intends for The Religion of American Greatness to be the first entry in a trilogy, one that will make a more extensive argument against these two “extremes” and in defense of classical liberalism. He chooses to critique nationalism first because he understands the excesses of the “Right” to be the vices of his tribe: “If I focus first on the national right, it is because, having spent most of my life on the right, I feel a special burden to examine the plank in my eye” (xv).
Miller’s credentials are more relevant than usual when it comes to evaluating an author’s work. He holds a Ph.D. from Georgetown University and teaches International Affairs there in the School of Foreign Service. He previously served on the White House’s National Security Council staff, as an intelligence analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency, and as a military intelligence officer in the Army. He identifies himself as a “White American Christian,” claims to be “politically and theologically conservative,” and calls himself a “patriot” (17). But when reflecting on his global experience (such as in the Army) and his elite experience (in the CIA and NSC) Miller concludes that these helped him “gain something of an outsiders’ perspective on my community” (19). From such a position, Miller writes a case against nationalism in general and Christian nationalism in particular, focusing on this crucial theme: “Christian nationalism is a bad political theory, illiberal in theory and practice, and at odds with key features of the American experiment” (5). For Miller, liberalism is the one true plumb line by which all political theory and systems must be measured. And yet, as this review will show, in his book he simply assumes the inherent goodness of liberalism, with little defense or explanation, and then critiques Christian nationalism for not measuring up to a standard that he barely bothers to justify. This assumption is evident at the very outset of his book, setting a tone of assumption that pervades the work and exposing a key weakness in his case against Christian nationalism before he even gets going.
Miller says his book is about “the historical development, key beliefs, and political, cultural, and theological implications of Christian nationalism” (5). In his first chapter, “Christianity and American Identity,” he defines what he means by Christian nationalism as follows: “Christian nationalism asserts that there is something identifiable as an American’ nation,’ distinct from other nations; that American nationhood is and should remain defined by Christianity or Christian cultural norms; and that the American people and their government should actively work to defend, sustain, and cultivate America’s Christian culture, heritage, and values” (4). The thesis of Miller’s book, as previously stated, is that “Christian nationalism is a bad political theory, illiberal in theory and practice, and at odds with key features of the American experiment” (5).
To prove this claim, Miller first considers the relationship between Christianity and American identity. He notes that “American Christians have long merged their religious faith with American identity” (3). Yet he believes the “marriage of Christianity with American nationalism…represents an American and evangelical version of Caesaropapism, the appropriation of the church’s moral authority and evangelical zeal for secular greatness” (7-8). In contrast, Miller believes the core American identity is creedal (built on universal values) and not distinctly or primarily cultural and/or religious (Christian and Western) and therefore “governments should not try to promote or enforce a cultural template” (6). For Miller, ideas and values can and should be understood as severable from culture: “ideas can, in principle, be independent of culture and heritage” (11).
In chapter two, he defines nationalism in contradistinction to patriotism. Miller argues that “nationalism is generally a bad idea” (23) but that “love of country, simply considered on its own terms” is patriotism, which is good (24). He recognizes (and in a largely positive manner) that patriotism can go “hand-in-hand with what is sometimes called a ‘civil religion'” (24). In the American context, this is expressed in objects like our flag, group activities like the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, and annual holidays such as Independence Day, Thanksgiving, etc. While Miller concedes these are a “modern form of tribalism” he also acknowledges that tribalism is “inevitable” (25). Miller supports patriotism and civil religion: “American ideals are actually worth celebrating. Civil religion is what helps create the unum from the pluribus” (26).
But nationalism must be rejected. Miller insists that “nationalism is not merely love of country: it is an argument about how we define our country” (30). For Miller this is problematic. As he understands nationalism, it is an improper way to define a country. He goes on to define nationalism, on his own terms (not using a historical definition) like this: “Nationalism is the belief that humanity is divisible into mutually distinct, internally coherent cultural groups defined by shared traits like ethnicity, language, religion, or culture; that these groups should each have their own governments; that one of the purposes of government is to promote and protect a nation’s cultural identity; and that sovereign nations with strong cultures provide meaning and purpose for human beings” (31). One of his main critiques of nationalism is that “nationalists cannot conceive of a cooperative international system, committed as they are to a zero-sum vision of global politics” (34). Further, Miller expresses concerns that “nationalists’ emphasis on sovereignty and cultural independence often gives rise to a certain attitude of national chauvinism” (34).
Next, in chapter three, Miller provides a “Case for Christian Nationalism.” This is his effort to let the Christian nationalists present the positives of their system on their own terms. To do so, Miller surveys five thinkers who could be considered “pro-Christian nationalism”: (1) Samuel Huntington, (2) Nigel Biggar, (3) R.R. Reno, (4) Rich Lowry, and (5) Yoram Hazony. Miller concludes this chapter by claiming that “the unique feature of Christian nationalism 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” (59).
In chapters four through six, Miller argues against nationalism. First, he claims that “humanity is not easily divisible into mutually distinct cultural units. Culture overlaps and their borders are fuzzy”; Miller believes this “introduces a crucial flaw into the cornerstone of nationalist dogma” (62). Any effort to enforce a manufactured cultural unity means that “nationalism…turns out to be the enemy of free government” (62). It is here that Miller exclaims that “nationalism amounts to Jim Crow on a global scale” (75). Following this, Miller argues that nationalism produces division, not unity, on the national level, for “policing culture violates the norms of cultural pluralism and divides, rather than unifies a nation” (88). Since neutrality is the government’s goal, Miller asks, “How hard is it to say both drag queens and fundamentalist Christians can both use the library and host events there?” (99). For Miller, this question “isn’t especially hard” (99): both should be allowed.
Finally, in chapter 6, Miller makes a theological and biblical case against nationalism. At the outset, he admits that he does not “think the Bible endorses world government” (115). Considering Old Testament Israel, which Miller believes is misappropriated as a positive example of nationalism, he argues that “the boundary was drawn around the common worship of the God of Israel, nothing more and nothing else” (122). Miller criticizes the misuse of verses like 2 Chronicles 7:14 and Psalm 33:12 in perpetuating “chosen nation” mythology (124). Concluding this chapter, and this larger segment making a case against nationalism, Miller argues that nationalism is “always idolatrous in the sense of becoming a substitute religion” (140). Furthermore, it is self-defeating and unfruitful: “If nations are defined by the common object of their love, nationalism holds up the nation itself as the object of love. It is thus a form of self-love, in which the nation is invited to love itself: nationalism is little more than political onanism and about as fruitful” (142).
In chapters seven through nine, Miller shifts from Christian nationalism proper to raising concerns with the “Christian Right”—both their general “political theory” and how that theory is “illiberal.” The Christian Right, according to Miller, “contains a contradictory mix of Christian republicanism and Christian nationalism” (164). He connects the present Christian Right with “Jacksonian” nationalism; according to Miller, “Jacksonianism was, historically, racist” (169). In this section, he recommends Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s book Taking American Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States. Miller points to four ways the Christian Right demonstrates its illiberalism: (1) By calling America a Christian nation, (2) by desiring “the re-establishment of some features of the old Protestant dominance,” (3) by how it “teaches history,” and (4) by how the Christian Right “relates to race, racial identity and the history of racism in America” (178-181). All of these features, for Miller, help explain why Christians largely supported Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. He concludes, “Christian nationalism married to Donald Trump’s political fortunes led its adherents, in the name of saving the American heritage, to trample the American creed” (227).
In the final chapter and conclusion, Miller again makes his purpose very clear. The goal of this book is to convince American Christians, primarily “White” conservative American Christians on the political “Right” to reject Christian nationalism. His audience, as he understands it, is his own tribe. Miller believes that “White American Christians bear substantial responsibility for the damage done to trust and common citizenship in the United States” (258). To embrace Christian nationalism is to continue on this path, but to reject it and instead embrace “ordered liberty and human dignity” is the “best and only viable anchors for political order” (260). He believes that there is “no viable alternative to some form of classical liberalism or civic republicanism that can keep the peace among citizens who disagree about the nature of justice” (260). He ends with a “pastoral note” calling on churches to lead the charge against Christian nationalism, since “practically, there is no more credible voice to confront an unhealthy Christian political witness than the healthy kind” (266).
In his own review of Miller’s book, Daniel Strand concludes that The Religion of American Greatness “is a polemical whirlwind. The authority and confidence of his voice are belied by an inability or unwillingness to appreciate complexity or nuance.” Strand speaks well here regarding Miller’s unwillingness to engage with “complexity or nuance”: page after page of this book left me puzzled at the wooden insistence of Miller that nationalism, and Christian nationalism, just must be bad things—because he says so.
But, to be fair, there are some strengths in this book. Miller is a clear writer and approaches his subject with a wealth of personal experience in the political realm. Miller expresses a desire to present Christian nationalists on their own terms, and in this, he somewhat succeeds. He provides a strong definition of Christian nationalism that, arguably, most American Christians would find unobjectionable and many Christian nationalists might adopt. Given this, the burden of proof is on Miller to prove why Christians, and particularly American Christians, should not desire a system that recognizes “American nationhood is and should remain defined by Christianity or Christian cultural norms; and that the American people and their government should actively work to defend, sustain, and cultivate America’s Christian culture, heritage, and values” (4).
However, to be clear, in this task, making the case against nationalism in general and Christian nationalism in particular, Miller fails in two significant ways. First, Miller grounds his case against Christian nationalism as a political theory, and nationalism as an organizing principle, in the claim that they are both “illiberal.” Yet for the vast majority of the book, this is simply assumed. As such, Miller fails to present any criteria by which a given regime could be objectively analyzed outside of this nebulous commitment to his conception of liberalism, nor what makes liberalism good in and of itself.
Readers have to wait until chapter 8 before Miller finally presents negative features of “illiberalism.” Even then, it is more directly applied to the Christian Right in general, not Christian nationalism in particular. He defines “illiberal” in relation to liberalism, his preferred system, simply by claiming it is “not” liberalism. This “definition by negation” is an apophatic act that fails to provide moral clarity as to why nationalism should be rejected by Christians. By “liberal” he claims that he means to use it “shorthand for a framework of ordered liberty: the institutions of political and economic liberty and republicanism, that arose in Europe and gradually took shape in the early modern era…and played the predominant role in shaping the American founding” (xvi). This is a debatable claim; however, even if it were assumed, nationalism is not necessarily at odds with this conception of ordered liberty. In fact, one of the main claims of modern nationalists is that forces of globalism, multiculturalism, and pluralism have significantly eroded our American national sovereignty and our ordered liberty. Thus, pitting nationalism and Christian nationalism against liberalism is not a given, though Miller never convincingly shows why they must be viewed in this juxtaposition.
Second, even if one was to grant that Christian nationalism is “illiberal” (and perhaps it is), Miller does not demonstrate through historical evidence, reason, or Christian argumentation (biblical or theological), why Christians are obligated to prefer, defend, and protect liberalism. It is simply presented as a wholly self-evident truth. Again, Miller argues that “political liberty begins with the belief that human beings possess inherent dignity and moral worth” (xvii). But where does such a belief come from? That is a distinctively and historically Christian political principle, which has even been demonstrated by secular scholars like Tom Holland in his work Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World. It would follow, then, that any truly Christian Christian nationalism would preserve this foundational pillar of liberty.
Thus, Miller’s claim that “every ideological justification for rejecting liberal institutions if brought to its logical conclusion, ultimately must assert that some people are intrinsically worthier of ruling than other people” (xviii) is simply an unargued assertion that anything short of Miller’s version of liberalism must lead to this conclusion. That said, the Bible does not constrain Christians only to prefer “liberal” political organizations. Christians are free, in Christ, to prefer a Christian monarchy if they so desire. Thus, these two foundational pillars of Miller’s arguments, that Christian nationalism is inherently illiberal (he does not demonstrate that it is) and that liberal government is inherently best (he does not prove that it is) and must be the preferred choice of Christians are flawed—and built upon this flawed foundation, the entire argument of the book crumbles.
Miller clearly presupposes the benefits of classical liberalism. It also appears that Miller is biased against nationalism in general and against “White American Christians” in particular. It is a striking and stark admission that Miller admits that “my background, experience, and beliefs have made me politically and culturally homeless” (19). While I credit Miller for his effort to present Christian nationalists on their own terms, this bias against the tribe that Miller now, by his own admission, feels alienated from, reveals itself in sharp polemical and rhetorical attacks throughout the book. As noted, he refers to nationalism as “Jim Crow on a global scale” less than a fourth of the way into the book (75). He also engages in a case of false equivalence when comparing “fundamentalist Christians” with “drag queens” and their respective desire to use public spaces, such as libraries. Such false equivalencies and ad hominem attacks litter each chapter of The Religion of American Greatness, as Miller claims nationalism is the “identity politics of White Christians” (105), “culture war is the natural consequence of nationalism” (108), nationalism is “political onanism” (142), that shows more concern for “restoring Christian power” (165), and that “we should look for echoes of racism and sectarianism in contemporary White Christian practice” (165). Given that Miller positively quotes figures like Jemar Tisby (chapters 8 and 9), his assumption of racism as being inherent to American Christian nationalism is as unsurprising as it is unproductive.
Miller makes two more fundamental category errors. First, his insistence that America must be understood through an exclusively “creedal” lens overlooks the authentic cultural history of the United States. He rejects, out of hand, the notion that the United States was built on “Anglo-Protestant culture.” He insists that the American national identity is reducible—and necessarily so—to our creeds: “America is defined by the American creed—ideals that stand apart from and over the nation itself; ideals which are, in principle, universal” (29). It is to these “universal ideals” that Miller demands Americans swear their loyalty, and never to a people or a place. Always to the Constitution, never to our hometown; always to ideas, never to the embodied flesh and blood of our neighbors.
This is, of course, blatantly ahistorical. At the time of its founding, America was indeed a “Christian nation” and a Protestant one at that. Historian Mark David Hall argues convincingly in his book, Did America Have a Christian Founding, that there is
a great deal of evidence that America had a Christian founding…Progressive secularists may want to believe that most of America’s founders were deists who created a ‘godless’ Constitution that strictly separated church and state, but these views fly in the face of evidence.
Even one of our most progressive presidents, Woodrow Wilson, admitted that “America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”
And America was at its founding a people of predominantly Anglo-American heritage and culture. This is not offensive nor exclusionary, it is merely a statement of historical fact. John Jay, in Federalist No. 2, reflected that
Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people–a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
Yoram Hazony echoes this more realistic assessment of the nature of America in his recent work, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, arguing that:
‘American Nationalists,’ describes the revival of the Anglo-American conservative tradition in the United States in the 1780s. . . . [with] the Federalist Party of George Washington, John Jay, John Adams, Gouverneur Morris, and Alexander Hamilton as the force that actually established America as a cohesive and independent nation. This party was the forerunner of today’s national conservatives, developing a political program based on the existence of a distinct American nation of British heritage, the continuity of the traditional British constitution and common law in America, a strong national government, economic nationalism, a nationalist immigration policy, alliance with Britain, and an alliance between religion and state.
Hazony further notes that this party, the forerunner of modern American nationalists, “was also a political home for opponents of slavery.”
Miller will have none of this. While one feature of the “American experiment” (to use a less than apt phrase) is that American citizenship is not limited to “Anglo-Protestants,” the reality is that anyone who comes to America and appropriately assimilates is unavoidably assimilating into a nation with a distinctly Christian heritage and culture. This is right and good, and not something to be discarded or set against the universal ideals that go along with this culture. America is both cultural and creedal, and Miller is wrong to insist it is one or the other.
Second, and finally, Miller is confused in his distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Miller defines patriotism as “love of country” (24) and says this is a “healthy affection” for one’s country, echoing George Orwell’s definition that this can be a “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life” (27). Yet how do we know what this particular place and particular way of life is—or who the particular people are that we share the country with—if not for a measure of nationalism? After conceding this, Miller demands that we must define our “national identity by a set of ideals” (28). Which is it? Or, as I would argue, why not both? As Miller himself admits, “nationalism is an argument about how we define our country” (30). Indeed. This argument must be had if there is to be any country—any nation—for which one can feel a healthy affection. Patriotism and nationalism are not the same things—I agree with Miller on that. Still, contra Miller, I would argue that a healthy nationalism is a prerequisite for healthy patriotism. Why? Because people must know who their country is before they can love it rightly. Patriotism isn’t loving disembodied ideals, but the land, the place, and the people of your fathers; patriotism, after all, derives from the Latin word for father—pater. As Strand quoted in his review, Augustine said that “A people is an assemblage of rational beings bound together by a common agreement as to the objects of their love.” And as such, Christian Americans should unapologetically be Christian nationalists, not just Christian patriots—for when understood rightly, these twin “isms” entail and support each other.
To be frank, this is a book that should never have been published. As such, it is a book that should never have been written. In line with its foreword by David French and the endorsements of anti-conservative and anti-Christian antagonists like Samuel Perry, it is little more than a slightly-less-progressive version of the various and sundry anti-Christian nationalist screeds which have hit the Acela Corridor market since 2016. Try as one might, studious readers searching to be persuaded by Miller will be left empty-handed, as nowhere in his 250+ pages does Miller present a compelling case against Christian nationalism.
Miller’s concerns regarding our national need to honestly confront American history, including the unavoidable blemishes of slavery and segregation are well taken, although unoriginal. But he extends such grievances into an infinite horizon where “White American Christians” must reject Christian nationalism out of fear of regression and illiberalism. He fails to make a compelling case for the virtues of liberalism, while smearing nationalism in the worst light possible (“Jim Crow on a global scale”).
At the beginning of the book, Miller claims that he intends to present contemporary advocates of Christian nationalism on their own terms. But by the time readers have worked their way through these various and sundry smears, the sincerity of that professed effort is in serious doubt. This, combined with his inability to make a compelling case for classical liberalism rather than Christian nationalism (largely because he just assumes that liberalism is good and insists that his readers should too), suggests that Miller has no real answers for the political problems facing America today. Instead of making a positive contribution, The Religion of American Greatness largely devolves into an exercise of name calling—criticizing the men in the arena rather than joining them or showing them a better way.
Miller is an unrooted and “politically homeless” man (by his own admission) and appears to want all of his fellow travelers on the “Christian Right” to join him in his unenviable position. While he claims that his book is a work of political theory, it reads more like a shallow survey, even a literature review, of popular works both for and against nationalism (with a heavy emphasis on the latter). He only provides a singular chapter that seeks to make a “Christian” case against nationalism, and one that relies heavily on a particular understanding of Old Testament Israel and covenantal discontinuity. He never engages in a serious, biblical-theological case for what the scope and role of the civil magistrate should be before God, nor does he interact with thinkers and theorists from the Reformed Christian tradition who have written about these topics, men such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Francis Turretin, or Johannes Althusius. Furthermore, he ignores centuries of American history, which are replete with documentation and substantial figures who understood America to be a distinct nation with a Christian heritage.
The question of Christian nationalism, the cases for and against, and the overall project is still in the conceptual stages. Miller’s contribution, unfortunately, adds neither heat nor light to the process. Serious interrogators of Christian nationalism will engage in more than table-pounding, axiomatic assertions about the goodness of liberalism and less name calling of their opponents. Substantive critiques of Christian nationalism are needed and welcome. Miller provides neither. If anything, this book inspires me all the more to pursue a positive construction of Christian nationalism as a needed project of spiritual, cultural, and national renewal for the United States. Miller might desire a deracinated nation defined by mere ascent to ideals, but that is not the real America, the land that I love and the place that I call home.
*Image Credit: Unsplash