Long before it featured dramatically in the 2016 presidential election, Christian nationalism had sunk deep roots in the United States. From America’s beginning, Christians have often merged their religious faith with national identity. But what is Christian nationalism? How is it different from patriotism? Is it an honest quirk, or something more threatening?
Paul D. Miller, a Christian scholar, political theorist, veteran, and former White House staffer, provides a detailed portrait of—and case against—Christian nationalism. Building on his practical expertise not only in the archives and classroom but also in public service, Miller unravels this ideology’s historical importance, its key tenets, and its political, cultural, and spiritual implications.
Miller shows what’s at stake if we misunderstand the relationship between Christianity and the American nation. Christian nationalism—the religion of American greatness—is an illiberal political theory, at odds with the genius of the American experiment, and could prove devastating to both church and state. Christians must relearn how to love our country without idolizing it and seek a healthier Christian political witness that respects our constitutional ideals and a biblical vision of justice.
There are presently a plethora of books on the topics of Christian nationalism and the Christian (or better, ‘Evangelical’ [whatever that word is supposed to mean anymore- for me it’s just quite empty] and politics. Or perhaps the Evangelicals and politics and their marriage and mangled offspring. However one wishes to phrase it, twitter is filled with tweets by folk talking about their books on Jesus and macho society and politics.
This book is different, in a good way. Rather than simply lambast Conservative Christianity and falsely equate the whole of it with Evangelicalism (whatever that word is supposed to mean; personally when I see someone identify themselves as an Evangelical these days I presume they really mean that they vote Republican and if you don’t, you aren’t a Christian, and that, furthermore, you must support Trump), Miller examines, fairly, judiciously, and intelligently what he calls ‘The Religion of American Greatness’.
Miller discusses at length both patriotism and nationalism; the latter a negative beast whose presence in Christian churches and Christian lives is extraordinarily problematic. And Miller shows why clearly. To be sure, the very people who should read this book won’t. So Miller urges those who do read it to use what it has to say as a basis for civil, compassionate, and encouraging dialogue with those in the bubble of Christian Nationalism.
Miller also discusses identity politics, the Christian right, Trump and Evangelicals, and he even attempts to provide a guide on how to think about nation and gospel.
The strongest parts of the book are those in which Miller provides readers with a sociological explanation of the phenomenon of Christian nationalism. He is very insightful here. And very illustrative.
The book is at its weakest, in my estimation, in his chapter on thinking about the nation, the Gospel, and the Creed (Ch 10). It feels to me like he here is infected a bit by the virus called Manifest Destiny. This isn’t overt, of course. He doesn’t anywhere state outright that America is God’s instrument in the world intended to fulfill some sort of divine mission from sea to shining sea. It’s just a breeze gently wafting through the tops of the branches; invisible, insubstantial, a mere hint. And yet you still feel it. Ever so imperceptibly.
Miller hints that the present volume is the first in an intended trilogy. The next work is planned to be on Christian Progressivism. And the last planned in the trilogy to be on ‘Christian democracy or Christian republicanism or Augustinian liberalism’. I hope he succeeds. I would love to see his exposition of Progressivism. If he is as thorough at that as he is regarding Christian nationalism, it should be a super book. The third I may or may not read.
Miller is an excellent and expressive writer. Take, for instance, this:
We have taken the name of Christ as a moral fig leaf while shilling for the whore of Babylon.
… when I spend the rest of this book calling fire on Christian nationalism, I do it as an American patriot and an orthodox Christian- and I do it because of my patriotism and my Christian faith, not despite them.
And multitudes throughout.
There are a lot of books that are important. This book is significant. And it is significant precisely because it fully describes a problem and then offers a way forward. It’s easy to say ‘things are awful’. It’s much harder to say ‘this thing is awful and here’s how we can move past it’. Miller does that.
My only sadness, again, is that the very people who most need to read this book won’t. Those people who hail Trump and attend his rallies and believe his lies and who stormed the Capitol and who, it’s fair to say, would be willing to do anything he ordered them to do- even to the destruction of American Democracy- will never read a page of it. And they, most of all, should.
But so should you.