An examination of recent religious thought
Review of "The Religion of American Greatness" by Paul D. Miller.
The religion of American greatness
Paul D. Miller
Intervarsity Press, 2022.
When does healthy patriotism slip over into destructive nationalism? When is Christian social action unjust to others? Are Christians saving democracy in North America or destroying it? These are important questions at this particular moment in the history of the church, democracy, and good governance globally. Paul Miller’s answers to such timely questions are a helpful addition to the growing focus on Christian nationalism and its real-life impacts. This book is significant because it is a thoughtful critique by a conservative insider who combines principled thinking with practical experience and takes both Christianity and democracy seriously.
Christian nationalism, North-American style, has come under greater scrutiny since CC featured three books on it (Jesus and John Wayne, Taking America Back for God and The Power of Worshipppers in our September 14, 2020 edition). Thoughtful networks within American Christian circles, such as Christians Against Christian Nationalism, are now raising serious questions about its influence and outcomes. While there is not a similar movement in Canada, the issues are also relevant for Christians in Canada and elsewhere. Evidence of Christian nationalism was on public display during the Freedom Convoy in Ottawa and it continues to have influence across Canada below the public radar. Similar Christian rhetoric and slogans were evident in Brazil during the violent attacks to restore Bolsonaro to power instead of a newly elected president.
The title of Miller’s book, The Religion of American Greatness, situates his analysis in the U.S. context where Christian nationalism has taken over much of public Christian witness and the outcomes are more obvious. The sub-title: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism captures broader applications for different contexts as well. This review will focus on the broader themes rather than U.S.-specific analysis or Trumpism.
Miller provides a detailed analysis of what Christian nationalism means and he describes how it has fused religious and national identities to preserve the power of a narrowly defined Christianity in the U.S. He presents the case for Christian nationalism first and then works through a systematic analysis of its dangers for both Christianity and democracy. Analysis of alternatives is less developed; but Miller’s call for Christians to intentionally reject Christian nationalism because of its destructive elements and find other ways to engage in society is compelling.
Damages for Christianity and democracy
Christian nationalism is damaging for both Christian witness and democracy, according to Miller. Evidence shows that it destroys public trust instead of being a positive force, and it erodes the foundations of good governance. Within Christianity it leads to a focus on preserving the power of certain Christians at the expense of the central teachings of Christianity. It has become another form of the identity politics it condemns, instead of providing an alternative. It asserts Anglo-Protestant tribal interests in ways that erode equality under the law and the common good. In its insistence on the universal superiority of a particular shape of Christian culture – a golden age – it ignores or downplays national sins, such as racial injustice, something that should be a high priority for Jesus-followers. Christians in the U.S., agues Miller, need to “embrace and transcend Anglo-protestant culture.”
Miller also challenges prevalent myths that draw Christians to Christian nationalism. He debunks the myth that Christian values, as defined in Anglo-Protestant culture, are essential for democracy. Globally and historically there are thriving democracies in other cultural contexts. He also challenges popular evangelical thinking that the U.S. is a chosen nation, the new Israel, in a chapter on nationalism and the Bible.
Miller is passionate about the need for churches to actively preach against Christian nationalism and teach the difference between it and healthy patriotism. “When his [Jesus] name and his message are misrepresented, the church must be at the forefront of saying no and correcting the record.” CC readers might question whether this is the task of churches or not. A first, significant step would be disentangling churches from current rhetoric so they do not reinforce Christian nationalism in their practices or through remaining silent on Biblical teachings that question it.
Principled pluralism as alternative
While the book’s analysis of alternatives is weaker, a number of central themes are helpful for people dealing with Christian nationalism. Miller promotes respect for cultural pluralism, because cultures are constantly changing and using state power to enforce one culture leads to injustice. Canadians will nod in agreement with Miller’s recognition of tensions between pluralism in practice and maintaining enough common ground for unity; he convincingly argues that expansive pluralism is better than trying to maintain unity by insisting that one expression of Christianity is a universal norm.
Core principles for healthy Christian public engagement, says Miller, are human dignity, human flourishing, and ordered liberty. “Common good-ordered liberty and human flourishing, not the pursuit of our own tribe’s power and privilege, must be the animating vision for Christian participation in democracy.” While this may seem idealistic, Miller’s comparative approach is helpful. Choices that support human flourishing are better than choices that do not. That can be a useful guide in the world of real-politics. In the context of climate change, the flourishing of creation needs to include non-humans as well.
Ordered liberty, another core principle he advocates, is helpful to avoid what he calls the illiberal nature of Christian nationalism or libertarianism labelled as Christian freedom, which is a prominent slogan for Christian nationalism. It captures a healthy balance between individual freedom and the common good.
Elements of Miller’s analysis will be contested. I could list disagreements. Far more important is the book’s invitation to seriously examine one of the spiritual forces that easily seeps into what we think is Christian culture and does harm to our Christian witness and our society.