A Patriotic Review of The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, InterVarsity Press, 2022.
Dr. Paul Miller’s new book The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism is a welcome addition to the ongoing conversation about the proper role of Christians in the American public square. In his book, Dr. Miller defends his conception of the American experiment from its challengers on the political right, especially Christian nationalists.
The main thrust of Miller’s argument is that nationalism (including Christian nationalism) is at odds with the ideals of the open society. Whereas nationalists of various stripes seek to define the nation by a characteristic of a people group such as language, culture, religion, or ancestry (and thereby privilege that group and its values in society), Miller defends an “open American exceptionalism” (248) where the government practices a “cultural neutrality” (93) (but, importantly, not a moral neutrality).For Miller, the government ought not to privilege one particular expression of culture or religion. All citizens deserve equal treatment under law. To make his point abundantly clear, Miller addresses the hot button issue: Drag Queen Story Hour. Miller argues that public libraries ought to remain neutral towards various cultural expressions in their practices: “How hard is it to say both drag queens and fundamentalist Christians can both use the library and host events there? . . . denying [drag queens] access to public facilities on the basis of their beliefs or identities would be simply unfair or unjust, a clear misapplication of government’s duty to promote good and punish evil” (99). The ideals of an open society demand equal treatment under the law – even towards those with whom we disagree most strongly.
I want to address the rest of Miller’s book by highlighting three contrasts that Miller makes between Christian Nationalism and the American ideals. Then, I will offer one critique of Miller’s analysis that will hopefully help clarify what is at stake in this debate.
Firstly, Miller rightly identifies the logical incompatibility of the Enlightenment ideals of universal equality and natural liberty with nationalism. For nationalists, what defines a nation might be language, culture, religion, ancestry, common principles of justice, or some combination thereof. As Miller rightly points out, identifying precisely who shares in these characteristics can be difficult. He puts it, “[c]ultural identities are fluid and hard to draw boundaries around, but political boundaries are hard and semipermanent” (62). Thus, “there is no objective or rational decision principle to help us draw hard boundaries and to say that this particular boundary is . . . the one on which political borders should depend” (65). Human life and culture and religion are complex: this is why, Miller argues, we must have an abstract principle which clearly and precisely defines the nation.
Moreover, “[t]he groups we are part of—our peoples, cultures, or heritage—are fluid and malleable; we create and refashion them with our participation; . . . and we can, over the course of our lifetimes, pick and choose which traditions and cultures to recognize and cultivate as central to our lives and our families” (69). Were we to define the nation in terms of culture or tradition, our ability to “learn new languages, convert to a different religion, or immerse ourselves in a different culture” could be impeded, and that ability “is an important part of enjoying the diversity and plurality of the world” (69). By not defining political boundaries by cultural or religious characteristics, we protect our ability to choose which cultural and religious elements we want to add to (or remove from) our individual identities.
In addition, resting nationality on characteristics such as culture or religion is exclusionary. Even Christianity, a religion open to all, still excludes unbelievers, and so if made the foundation of a political order, would privilege Christian institutions and morals over non-Christian values. Basing government on the Enlightenment principles of natural equality and liberty, in contrast, is truly universal and inclusive of people of all religions (or no religion) and cultural practices.
Secondly, Miller accurately describes the historical discontinuity between the expression of American principles in post-1960s America and the American Founding. The Founders mixed liberal and illiberal elements together as they helped form America. John Jay, in Federalist 2, provides a good example of this: “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people; a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs.” Historically, Americans conceived of their nation in terms at odds with the ideal of universal equality – an ideal that has slowly purged the older illiberal elements from America’s self-conception. Those who claim the mantle of Christian nationalism must realize that they are doing an about-turn and walking back to an older path checkered by exclusion and illiberal elements. The open society necessarily rejects that path.
Thirdly, Miller rightly argues that nationalism (and its Christian variant) “is another form of identity politics” (105). Conservatives often denounce identity politics as a poison of the Left. Yet Christian nationalists are seeking to shape the identity of the nation just like those on the Left. Thus, we do not have a case of those practicing divisive identity politics on the Left and those seeking a neutral common good on the Christian Right. Rather, both the Left and the Christian Right are seeking to define (or redefine) the nation’s identity.
What Miller misses – or prefers to leave implicit – is his solution to the divisiveness of our time is also a form of identity politics. All political arguments assume some sort of identity for those included in the polity; all political questions relate back to the crucial question: “Who are we?” Miller would likely explain that “identity politics” refers to subnational groups seeking to extend their identity over the entire nation. Fair enough. Yet this does not negate the fact that even those who are defending a cultural neutrality – such as Miller – are predicating that defense on an American identity that transcends every particular culture. As Miller explains, the “American identity should be founded first and foremost on the ideals of the American experiment as reflected in the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.” (242). The question, then, is not whether we will argue about and establish a national identity, but rather which identity will in fact define the country.
The question is whether we Americans will have the identity the Christians nationalists want, one where the country is defined by its commitment to the Christian God and its governance in accord with Christian values or whether we will fully commit to the inclusive American ideal of universal equality enshrined in the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, clarified by Frederick Douglass in his crusade against slavery, and proclaimed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I have a dream speech.” Much depends on how we answer.