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.


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

Review: The Psychology of Christian Nationalism

The Psychology of Christian Nationalism, Pamela Cooper-White. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2022.

Summary: A discussion of the rise of Christian nationalism in the United States, why people are drawn to it, and how to talk across the divide when one differs from those who embrace some form of Christian nationalism.

Beginning with the election of 2016, there has been a rise in what is termed “Christian nationalism,” fusing Christian hopes for national renewal with a movement setting out to restore “American greatness.” What is seen from within as a type of revival movement or a return to what is believed to have been lost to progressivism is perceived as a disturbing authoritarian and idolatrous movement with connections to white supremacism. What is more painful is that this movement divides families, friends, and churches, as well as the broader fabric of the nation. Deep differences with those close to us may lead to harsh words and estranged relationships.

What is this movement and why are people drawn to it? And how ought we (if we are able) to have conversations across these divides? These are the questions Pamela Cooper-White sets out to discuss in this book. She begins by discussing what Christian nationalism is, an overview of the history of its rise, and how this differs from patriotism. Cooper-White cites this definition: “Simply put, Christian nationalism is a cultural framework–a collection of myths, traditions, symbols, narratives, and value systems–that idealizes and advocates a fusion of Christianity with American civic life” (p. 13). She traces the rise of these ideas within white evangelicalism and the growing focus on “redeeming God’s chosen nation.” While patriotism is simply love for one’s country, “nationalism is the identification of that country with a historically dominant ethic, cultural, and/or religious group and a fierce loyalty to protecting that national identity” (p. 25).

Chapter two, the longest part of this work, focuses on why people are drawn in to Christian nationalist groups. Cooper-White traces this to our conscious desire to belong combined with a shared sense of purpose and values. She draws concerning parallels between Christian nationalist groups and tactics used by cults. She also delineates those shared values: sin as personal and not corporate, protecting white status and power, defending patriarchy, and gun rights. She also discusses unconscious motivations including groupthink, the power of leaders, especially narcissistic leaders, and trauma that leads to a “doer and done-to” polarity.

How then do we engage? Cooper-White suggests a triage:

  • Red light: STOP (at least here, at least for now)–talking with true believers. There are times when people are not open to conversation, or this is not a conversation that is good for us.
  • Yellow light: Tread lightly where we sense some openness. Often, the first step is to listen and show respect and curiosity.
  • Green light: Go deeper, gently, and wisely. Cooper-White goes deeper here, beginning with building and maintaining relationships, awareness of how new conflicts arouse old family dynamics, breathing, noticing our feelings, listening to understand more than speak, avoiding assumptions, making I statements, avoiding argumentation and debate, and admitting our own failings.

She also offers guidance where conversations threaten to become tense including awareness of power and social contexts, conducive and unconducive settings, and choosing our battles. Self-care, including channeling our energies into social activism may be helpful. We need to be aware that this is hard work.

The third chapter is one I found especially helpful, including the idea of triaging our conversations. Likewise, the definitional discussion of chapter one helps with understanding what it is we are talking about, and how we can love country without becoming nationalists, Christian or otherwise.

Chapter two on why people are drawn in was the one about which I felt conflicted. What I most agree with is the idea of group identity–how our affiliations do shape us. The description of values that draw people feels very much like an “outsider” perspective. I do not think this sufficiently reckons with the deep sense of offense many who would identify with these groups feel at being condescended to, marginalized, and treated as unenlightened yokels. Nor does it reckon with the genuine concerns about moral decline perceived by these groups. Even though outsiders perceive them as both enjoying a certain amount of white privilege and political influence, their felt and lived experience is very different. While some identify with Christ in these experiences and trust God to exalt when they are humbled and marginalized, others are drawn by strong figures who suggest they may take these matters into their own hands and take the country back. While there is much I would agree with in the author’s analysis, this felt a bit too much like the progressive version of the parallel echo chambers that divide us.

None of this should detract from the reality that Christian nationalism is a toxic movement. First of all, it idolizes both strong leaders and American greatness when God is greater. To the degree that it is allied with white supremacism, patriarchy and the abuse of women which is a scandal in evangelicalism, and the use of authoritarian means to accomplish its political ends, it is dangerous to the flourishing of a diverse, democratic society. The value of this work is both that it makes this clear while recognizing that people we care for have been drawn to this, people with whom we hope for continued relationships that change us all for good.


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