The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism by Paul E Miller

The Religion of American Greatness: What's Wrong with Christian Nationalism by Paul E Miller cover imageSummary: The best critique of Christian Nationalism I have read, because Miller so clearly understands the reasons that Christian Nationalism can be attractive and reasonable.

There have been various books about Christian Nationalism; initially, they were all condemning, and more recently, a few made positive cases for Christian Nationalism. The Religion of American Greatness is a conservative (theologically and politically) case against Christian Nationalism, one that does mention but does not focus on Trump. And one that is generous in its assumptions about why some find the movement toward Christian Nationalism appealing.

His fifth chapter, Nationalism, Cultural Pluralism and Identity Politics, is a good example of where I agree broadly with the conclusions and disagree with how he got there. As a broad stroke, he points out the weaknesses of the Nationalist orientation and the methodology of using the state to maintain a particular cultural orientation over time. To illustrate this, he commends freedom of speech and the rule of law, which must be done for all to have a sense of fairness and equity. He uses the “Drag Queen Story Hour” complaint as an illustration and, I think, rightly critiques how it is used to stir up a culture war agenda. This brings him to consider whether Christian Nationalism is a type of identity politics. I understand this point, and I do not entirely disagree with it, but I think he misses the reasons that we need to repair past harm and how minority identity sociologically works. (Although he does have a stronger call for repair of past harm later in the book.) I believe that Christian Nationalists are acting as an identity group, but what needs to be teased out more is whether that identity group has justification in their complaint. (But that is more about sociology than political science.) Regardless of the accuracy of the complaints, his ability to take those complaints seriously is the book’s strength.

Kevin Kruse, in his book White Flight, suggests that the rise of the libertarian wing of the GOP was facilitated because many White citizens viewed integration not as a requirement for fair treatment of all, but as the government removing their exclusive access to parks, public transportation, schools, residential communities, etc and “giving it” to Black citizens. In other words, the result of integration was not viewing these spaces as newly integrated, but that an integrated park went from being a “White only” park to a “Black only” park. There is some sense that Christian Nationalism, as Miller is identifying here, views itself as an embattled identity group, but there needs to be an honest grappling with whether that is true (Miller is not assuming that it is) and if prior movements toward equity were addressing a real issue. Because this book is not written to me (as I will say more about later), many of my complaints about the book are about the fact that it does not address issues in the order I would prefer, even though he does address almost everything I would like him to address. He keeps the target audience squarely in view so that he can persuade.

It is also in this chapter that Miller asserts that Natural Law is the way forward in determining what is good for the flourishing of all. This is a minimal understanding of Natural Law, but it needs to be more detailed to know whether I agree with it as a concept. I don’t think invoking Natural Law is a benefit here. I primarily object to Natural Law because of the ways I see it used to uphold cultural preferences, including how some Christian Nationalists use it to assume white normative beliefs (which Miller regularly points out as a problem.) But again, the target audience does not need the detail that I would like and has less opposition to Natural Law than I do as a progressive.

At the root, his critique of Nationalism is that it rejects (lowercase r) republican values that the country is founded on. Miller has no illusions that the history of the US has not lived up to its ideals. He understands those prior weaknesses and believes we should learn that history, which is why he views the rejection of those ideals as so dangerous. He critiques the Christian part of Christian Nationalism as a type of idolatry (not unlike what Andrew Whitehead did in American Idolatry)

It matters that Miller is approaching this as a political scientist. He is well-versed in theology and understands history and sociology well. Different academic disciplines approach their areas of study differently. There are good sections where Miller reviews the approaches of historians and sociologists who also study Christian Nationalism. There is much he agrees with and much he disagrees with. He knows Christian Nationalism has a historical background, as Mark Noll and Jamar Tisby point out. But more than history, he thinks that sociologists and polling over-identify Christian Nationalism because some of the tendencies that make people open to Christian Nationalism do not mean that people are Christian Nationalists. He believes that many reasons people are open to their influence are the natural tendency toward shared stories and poor discipleship (with at least part of the issue being distrust of institutions and expertise) but explicit agreement with the larger theory of Christian Nationalism. But he does believe that the openness to the shared stories that Christian Nationalists tell could mean that more people will become stronger Christian Nationalists if we do not directly address the problems of Christian Nationalism.

This is a book that is attempting to persuade those that can be persuaded. He is aware that many who read this book are already persuaded, especially those like me who are progressive. It is not that he doesn’t want me to read the book; he wants me to read the book and learn to apply similar principles to critique progressivism. But he is writing the book for theological and political conservatives to push back against both theological idolatry and political illiberalism.

Overall, I think it is the best book on Christian Nationalism that I have read, not because I agree with all of it, but because I disagree with significant parts of it, especially many parts in chapter 10 about how we should positively think of the country and the idea of a national story. I think it is the best book on Christian Nationalism because Miller, as a politically and theologically conservative, pro-patriotism veteran with years of work within both political and theological institutions, has done the best to understand the positive reasons for the attraction to Christian Nationalism and therefore his critiques of Christian Nationalism are more potent because they are generous in the assessment of motivation and reason while narrow in critique.

I am unquestionably a progressive in theology and politics. I anticipate that I will disagree strongly with his future book on the dangers of progressivism, but I will pay attention to it in part because I know that I have read this book where his critique of those that are closer to his own beliefs are handled with care but devastatingly thorough attention. What I am most wary about in The Religion of American Greatness is the areas where he is hinting about what is objectionable about progressivism. As much as I think he is generous toward understanding Christian Nationalism, the broad strokes about progressivism, especially in the introduction and conclusion, are not generous attempts to understand. Lines like “Progressivism is a religion, but one without grace” and “…the progressive commitments to abortion, the sexual revolution, and identity politics are a feature, not a bug, of the movement. They express that the fundamental core of progressivism is a rebellion against any and all constraints on personal independence, including the limits of nature itself.”

Again, I don’t want to divert from what I think is the best book on Christian Nationalism I have read by concentrating too much on something that is not the book’s focus. But Miller, in his descriptions here of progressivism, is talking about a purely secular movement and ignores the history of Evangelical progressivism, which he discussed earlier in the book in favorable terms. There is a need to critique progressivism, but I hope that when Miller gets to his book-length treatment of progressivism, he is as generous as he is here.

One more note: I am not new to this topic; I have read at least a half dozen books that are directly or indirectly about Christian Nationalism and have a decent background in theology and political theory. This book is pitched at an educated layperson, but I was surprised how many reviews on Goodreads complained about it being dense. One of the problems that he identifies is Noll’s Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. This is a college-level book on Christian political theory, but it is accessible. Miller is careful to define what he means by terms because the terms matter to this debate. I do not think he should have written a longer book, but those complaining about it being too dense or too long have not sufficiently understood the problem.

The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism by Paul E Miller: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Audiobook

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