Review: The Religion of American Greatness

The Religion of American Greatness, Paul D. Miller (Foreword by David French). Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.

Summary: A conservative’s critique of Christian nationalism, distinguishing it from patriotism, and making a case against it both biblically and as an illiberal theory that is at odds with the American experiment of a constitutional democratic republic.

What first caught my attention with this book is that it is written by a White, theologically conservative, Afghanistan war veteran who served in the George W. Bush White House and at the CIA as an intelligence analyst, is pro-life, lives in Texas, and reads the Declaration of Independence to his kids on the Fourth of July. He is also a Georgetown University professor who offers a scholarly treatment that both carefully explains Christian nationalism on its own terms and offers a well-supported critique of it, both as a Christian and as a patriot who passionately believes in the American experiment.

He begins as all good academics by discussing what nationalism is and differentiates it from patriotism, which he supports. He offers this definition:

“Nationalism is the belief that humanity is divisible into internally coherent, mutually distinct cultural units which merit political independence and human loyalty because of their purported ability to provide meaning, purpose, and value in human life; and that governments are supposed to protect and promote the cultural identities of their respective nations” (p. 5).

He then looks at the American version of this, arguing that the particular cultural identity that American nationalists seek to protect is Anglo-Protestantism. What is problematic with this is that cultural identities have blurry boundaries that don’t align with political boundaries. The consequence is illiberal forms of government that marginalize and disadvantage ethnic, religious, linguistic, and other cultural groupings, treating them as second class citizens. Far from promoting national unity, this results in fragmentation and division.

The Christian, evangelical version of this takes a universal faith and weds it to identity politics, reducing it to a tribal faith rather than a faith for every tribe. Miller spends a good deal of time discussing the concepts of “nations” and “peoples” in the Bible and argues that the template of Israel cannot be used to uphold the United States as a uniquely chosen nation under God. He concludes that Christian nationalism is a form of idolatry. He traces the uneasy tension between nationalism and republicanism throughout the history of the Christian right.

Whereas other commentators of a more progressive bent automatically associate Christian nationalism with racism, Miller focuses on the illiberality of nationalism in how it thinks about race, inequality, and naming and remedying the sins of the past. Some may consider this a distinction without a difference, but I appreciate the measured tone and the focus on consequences rather than on the labels we apply.

He discusses the embrace of the former president’s form of Christian nationalism and its attraction for White evangelicals. One of the most telling aspects of this discussion is the suspicion of elites as well as the fear of elite efforts to restrict religious expression. I’ve experienced that in university ministry where universities used institutional power to attempt to restrict access of religious groups on campus (and I met the contributor of the foreword, David French, in conjunction with standing against these efforts). I observed the condescension with which religious convictions were treated. I chose to love those who treated me as an enemy but I can understand how this sense of grievance can be played upon to oppose and defeat “progressive elites,” something I think few progressives really grasp. Miller observes that “while conservatives are proud of their bubble, progressives deny they are in one.”

Miller concludes in arguing that national identity is not bad–we just need a better story than nationalism, one rooted in our history that both celebrates our ideals, especially as they have distinguished us in practice, as well as our ugly failures, that inspire us to overcome and strive for a better future. He argues for a kind of open exceptionalism in which we hold the nation up to the light of our high ideals combined with Niebuhrian humility that faces our national sins and failures. He believes pastors can do a better job in careful teaching that gives the lie to the idea of America as the new Israel, chosen of God and thinking beyond specific issues as to how to engage politically in a pluralistic society and the duties of responsible citizenship.

Miller is self-aware enough to recognize that many Christian nationalists won’t read his book. I hope some will because they will meet someone who actually cares about much of what they care for, who genuinely loves America, and is equally critical of progressives for their own brand of illiberalism. He writes as one who sees the religion of American greatness as an idol, a counterfeit version of the great vision of our faith of God’s love for all the nations of the earth. Miller is unwilling to see it reduced to one puny White evangelical tribe identified with a mere vision of national identity.

He also sees nationalist efforts, Christian or otherwise, as incongruous with our national experiment of a constitutional form of democratic republicanism. He alludes to writing not only a similar critique of progressivism but also a book outlining his ideas of a “framework of ordered liberty.” I hope he gets to write both of those books, but especially the third, which I think will offer great help for all of those who want to think politically beyond the issues that so often divide us.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.

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