Tooley: Hello this is Mark Tooley, editor of Providence: A Journal of Christianity & American Foreign Policy, and I am hosting a conversation about a very hot topic, Christian nationalism, very much discussed, especially since the events of January 6. We have with us three distinguished contributors to Providence: Paul Miller of Georgetown University, Daniel Strand of the Air Force War College, although speaking only for himself, and finally, Debra Erickson, author and ethicist. So, we’re going to start out with Paul Miller, who has published several places, fairly comprehensive critiques, of Christian nationalism. So, Paul, give us an overview of your critique.
Miller: Thanks, Mark. Thanks for inviting me to be part of the podcast. Daniel and Debra, it’s good to see you both again and talk with you. Yeah, so I’ve been thinking and writing about Christian nationalism for a while, and if all goes well, my book on the subject should be out perhaps later this year or early next year. I think it’s important when we talk about Christian nationalism to kind of use the words the way history and scholarship has sort of taught us to use these words; not to make up our own definitions, but really to use the words the way they’ve been used in the past by advocates of nationalism and by scholars of nationalism. So, the first thing I want to say is it’s not patriotism, right. I don’t think any of us disagree that we should love our countries. I think that’s pretty much a given. There are very few people who argue that we should not love our country. So, I’m going to just dismiss that on hand. Say yes, let’s be patriots. I served in the United States Army. I’m proud to be an American. I’m happy to affirm that. Nationalism is different than that. Nationalism starts with the belief that we can divide up humanity into discrete cultural units called nations, and these nations have a distinct unified culture around some shared trait like a shared religion or ethnicity or language or something like that. And nationalists believe that these units, these nations, should each have their own government, that they merit sovereignty just by existing as a nation. And so, political boundaries and cultural boundaries should exactly overlap. That’s what nationalists believe. So, Christian nationalism, probably better called American Christian nationalism, is the belief that America is the nation defined by Christianity. This is a Christian nation, they say. That’s kind of the popular way of putting it, but there are scholars who have made this argument. Samuel Huntington, in his last book, said that we are the nation of Anglo-Protestantism because that was the founding culture and the predominant cultural influence up through the 1960s. And Christian nationalists say that we should keep it that way, that there’s kind of a moral imperative to stay that way. And indeed, we should actually use the government to support and defend a Christian cultural template for American identity. That’s I think Christian nationalism. That’s my definition. Mark, should I go in and explain why I think it’s a bad idea, or should I stop there?
Tooley: Well, let me ask you one question before we go to Dan Strand. To my mind, nationalism can mean simply a belief in the utility of nation states. And so, in that sense it’s almost a sort of neutral term, but it could be a positive in that a nation state is a preferable to alternative to say tribalism or empire. So, what do you say to that?
Miller: If that’s what you mean, then we have no argument. Again, I would just play that we use the words the way they’ve been used in the past and the way scholars have defined the word nationalism in their studies of it. Mark, you’re suggesting that it means a belief in nations, as opposed to global government or something like that. We might call that view sort of I don’t know sovereign citizen or something. A belief that sovereign states are the principal actors in the world and should remain that way. Again, I agree with that. I don’t have any problem with that belief. I also don’t think there’s many people who seriously contest that idea. I understand there’s this critique against so called globalists. I think sort of the threat of that has been pretty wildly exaggerated. I wrote a book on Just War which touched on issues of sovereignty. I really don’t think there’s many serious advocates of global government, of world government. I think everybody accepts the fact that states are the principal actors and they’re going to remain that way. We should look to sovereign states as the primary vehicle of governance and the primary provider of order and justice. So, that’s a correct view and I don’t call that nationalism.
Tooley: So, in your view you can be a Christian and believer in nation states, but you would just stay away from the term Christian nationalism?
Miller: I would also actually stay away from the term nation state. I would just say state, again, to me the term nation state conveys this idea there’s going to be an exact overlap between culture and government. That political boundaries, cultural boundaries overlap and that governments have a rightful jurisdiction over their cultural life, such that they create a kind of homogenous cultural sense. So, I don’t particularly care for that term, but I think it is okay to be attached to our country as America, and we should cultivate that attachment and love our countries. That’s absolutely true.
Tooley: Thank you, Paul. Dan Strand, you have written for Providence expressing the concern that Christian nationalism too sweepingly condemns a wide swath of thought that would seemingly dismiss any connection between faith and country. Am I understanding your perspective correctly?
Strand: Yeah, I mean Paul touches on a lot of big questions. There’s the nationalism question, which I think Paul is taking America as sort of a template here. Based on Paul’s definition, so, I spent a lot of time talking to European military officers. What the Fins would say is exactly what Paul said, or what a nation is supposed to do. A Finnish officer doesn’t think the nation state is about keeping culture and religion away. He would say no, the Finnish government is here to protect Finnish culture. Our religion, our heritage, our history. And I think that’s a pretty common view. Churches are established across Europe. England, the Church of England, interestingly enough, most religious minorities in England would say they prefer to have an established Church of England, because the Church of England is actually the defender of religious freedom. So, I think Paul’s definition, I’ll probably still take issue with it.
Tooley: Well, Debra, give us your overview and perspective on Christian nationalism.
Erickson: Thanks, Mark, and it is good to be here and to talk with Dan and Paul today. I’m going to take a slightly historical view of nationalism and perhaps then Christian nationalism. I will bring that in at the end. My thinking on the topic of nationalism has been strongly influenced by, I’m going to show you, it’s show and tell time. This book by Liah Greenfeld, Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity. And in it, she argues that nationalism is essentially a modern phenomenon. That the development of nations sort of constitutes the development of the modern world. But important for our discussion is that really the idea of nationalism or nations started she argues with England as the first nation in about the 15th century, 16th century, and continued up through, particularly there was a lot of nationalism growing, or national identities growing, through the late 18th and early 19th century. So, that was really the period historically when nations started to be the key international political organization, the key unit of international political organization. And then in 1918 with Woodrow Wilson’s famous “Fourteen Points” speech he espoused the doctrine of every nation state, and interestingly, this was seen as a way to end global conflict and give everyone sovereignty, each nation their own state, their own self-determination. And that would promote both liberalism and democracy. So, I want to pick up a little bit on what Dan said, in that Christianity can be part of nationalism, and often is. Because what is a nation? Well, it’s a question scholars have debated a lot. Nations are primarily imagined communities. They’re not they’re not natural communities. And nationalism can contain or be based in a nation, the idea of a nation can be based in a common people with a common history, a common ethnicity, a common culture, a common language, common religion. And it’s held up by folklore, and songs, and these national epics really flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries. That’s when people recovered this supposedly ancient history of how they began as a nation. That then is used to justify some kind of political self-determination or political organization as a state, like the Fins are a good example. They didn’t have a state until the early 20th century. They were a subject people for thousand years of the Swedes, and then I think they were less unhappy about Swedish domination, but Russian domination was certainly not seen as exogenous. So, nationalism as a movement, or an idea, or a belief arises, often in result to external threats. And you can have an inclusive nationalism, such as British identity as inclusive nationalism, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, and even Cornish nationalisms. And you can have exclusive nationalism, and to just take the same example, Brexit is kind of an exclusive nationalism. We are not European primarily, British primarily, and so, I think the same thing can be true of a Christian nationalism. This might be controversial, and Dan can respond to this. Is your Christian nationalism inclusive of others or is it exclusive? Now, in the case of the United States, I don’t think Christian nationalism has much of a place, because the US itself is, formally there’s no established religion. And we have a civil religion instead that we usually use. So, that’s my opening statement.
Tooley: Debra, our friend Yoram Hazony would argue that ancient Israel was the first nation. What do you say?
Erickson: I think people have found analogs in the past, yes. And I have not read his book on the subject, so I can’t comment in depth. But they were a people group, they had a common religion, a common ethnicity, a common history, a common culture, a common language, common religion, and in that sense, they formed a nation. They did not for very much of their history, though, hold territory. Although their claim to be the modern nation of Israel is rooted in an idea, like a claim to a particular territory. And so, the founding of the nation state follows that pattern that Greenfeld lays out. I’m not so sure about the ancient one. They may have been more of a people, and that the word nation was tied more to their people rather than their establishment as a political entity.
Tooley: Dan, now that your connection is restored, Debra mentioned civil religion. It seems to be that much of what is now condemned as Christian nationalism is actually civil religion and some effort to at least broadly try to understand God’s potential purposes for the country. And, of course, civil religion is not a development of modern Conservative evangelicalism, but was essentially founded by America’s mainline Protestants over two centuries ago, and was sustained by theologically more liberal inclined Protestant denominations. What are your thoughts?
Strand: Yeah, I mean, I think what Deb said is something that I’m sympathetic to. I think when we’re talking nationalism, I guess part of what I, just to preface before I jump into the American question, American situation, I think there’s different kinds of nationalism. And I think religion is part of the mix. The United States does not have, I think there’s a difference between thinking about religion and how it influences politics in a good or bad way versus establishment, which is a political sanction, a political status that the Church has. Which it has had in many countries outside of Europe, religion plays a sort of fundamental role, and in Europe as well. Europe does in a particular way. The United States rejected that establishment. So, to get to your American question, the way that we do it here has always been indirect, but, as we all know, in the early republic, we had something of an established religion. It wasn’t federally established, but we had state establishments. And even after 1836 or so, when the final, I think Massachusetts was the final state to disestablish their church, it still functioned very much in an established way. What we all know about the WASP, sort of the WASP Anglo-Saxon kind of Protestant culture still played sort of a de facto role. I don’t know why that’s inherently, has to be inherently bad. I mean, like Deb said, it can be inclusive or exclusive. And so, when Paul talks about culture, I want to say culture is always a mixed bag. Culture can be open, inclusive, or at least have some permeability so it does not have this very hard in sense of “us” and “them.” At the same time, culture has to have some sort of grounding, some sense of connection to history, some connection to the people willing to their habits, their literature, to their way of life. So, this sense, I’m very much sympathy with people like Alasdair MacIntyre that really want to stress the historicity, the continuity of moral and political traditions. I think we have to be careful. Political traditions can communicate wonderful, good things that can be about justice, which I think you can point to American history. Many of the reforming movements point back to the founding, they point back to kind of great reformers like Lincoln and so forth. The Civil Rights Movement as a way to reform the tradition, as a way to say when culture or society has gone astray, when politics are unjust or not doing what they should do, then culture I think has a very positive appeal. And that’s largely in the United States very religious. We have a very religious culture. Even though we’re not established, I mean, you go to European cultures, they do not do politics the way that we do. I mean, they find it strange to invoke religion all the time. I think it was Niebuhr, I say Niebuhr, it probably wasn’t Niebuhr, maybe it’s Chesterton that said America had the soul of a church. I think it’s true. So, I think we need to be careful of it. And I guess my feeling of Christian nationalism is it’s going to come in bad forms, and I think my curative, at least in response to Paul’s project, would be to say we need a better one. Let’s correct it. Let’s follow people in the past who did it well. Let’s make those appeals. But I still think it’s going to have, Paul’s very allergic to this idea of the sort of Anglo-Protestant culture. I mean, there were great things about it. There are great things about the Anglo-Protestant legacy that I think were influenced by Protestantism and Christianity. There are bad things about it absolutely. So, I guess I don’t want to just say Anglo-Protestantism is this sort of, at least the way it comes across in Paul’s journey to reject it, or it was this attempt to sort of gain cultural hegemony, while Protestantism at its best has a fairly permeable and flexible identity. That’s why it’s proved to be so successful in Canada, Australia, and wherever, the British Empire. It’s got a downside, and I think we can critique that, but it’s got a pretty positive legacy too.
Tooley: Paul, getting back to you, I suspect, as a good Baptist, you’re more skeptical and critical of civil religion than maybe the rest of us are. But you would distinguish between civil religion, which is fairly inclusive and certainly not restricted to Christians, versus these more extreme forms of Christian nationalism, especially what we saw on January 6, which I would call a kind of a right-wing nativist folk religion.
Miller: Yes, I can affirm a basic kind of civil religion. I think the key question here, Mark, is can nationalism in principle be inclusive the way both Debra and Daniel have claimed that it is. I find it interesting that the examples they’ve raised are Anglo-American nationalism and British nationalism, claiming those are examples of inclusive nationalism. I’m pretty sure that Roman Catholics in England and the United States would disagree that American or British nationalism was inclusive. Anglo-American nationalism was bigoted and anti-Catholic for all of history clear up to the 1960s. The Anglo-Protestant nationalism played a pretty big role in sustaining slavery and segregation as well. So, I don’t think they’re good examples of inclusive nationalism at all. Now, I want to agree with Dan that there are good things and there are bad things about Anglo-Protestantism. My main argument actually isn’t about the intrinsic worth, goodness or badness, of Anglo-Protestantism. My argument is about whether or not it deserves government sponsorship. Just like we should not establish churches, I do not think we should establish cultures, whether it’s Anglo-Protestantism or some other culture. Because that inherently is an illiberal exclusivist enterprise. We can engage in an effort to cultivate the best of our Anglo-Protestant heritage, and I’ll be first in line for that, but it does not need, it cannot have, government sponsorship or government coercion behind it. As soon as you use the government to try to make cultural and political boundaries overlap, you run across the reality that cultural boundaries are fuzzy. They’re blurry and they overlap. Cultural boundaries, our identities, are fluid. They’re hard to draw boundaries around. And so, trying to found a political order on cultural likeness is always a fraught endeavor. That you mentioned World War 1, “Fourteen Points,” self-determination, that was a disaster for international order. It launched a century of wars all over the planet as people tried to define who exactly is the self that merits that self-determination. It has not solved any problems; it’s only caused countless problems around the world as people define and redefine the self that merits self-determination. So, every time we tried to vest our culture with this significance and back it with the power of the state, it is intrinsically, inherently illiberal. An exclusive list, as American history shows. So, I think it’s a bad project.
Erickson: I want to jump in here, because I think Paul might have misunderstood my point. I don’t think Dan or I are supporting, well actually, I’m not sure how you have a political establishment of a culture. Culture itself being a very slippery term. But certainly, I don’t think either Dan or I are supporting some kind of exclusive Protestant Christian nationalism. I’m certainly not. And nor am I defending every nation state, because I recognize exactly what you say, Paul, that though it worked quite well in Europe, I mean, Europe has been relatively peaceful since the end of World War II and it was not peaceful before. And so, I do think that that’s part of what I think Greenfeld is arguing, which is that a particular kind of modality that we see has been shaped by nationalism. And interestingly, she only uses European countries in her examples where, as you know well, there are nationalist movements all over the world, and some of them have been great sources of conflict.
Tooley: Daniel, if you are a pastor, how would you explain to your flock how they should understand their relationship with the country in which they live?
Strand: I think at least historically the big concept, or one of the big concepts that’s been developed over many, it’s still debated, I mean it’s not a settled issue. But this idea of what was referred to as Pope Gelasius, the “Two Swords,” the two authorities. There’s a debate between Christians, Catholics and Protestants, about the relationship between temporal and spiritual authority. Protestants kind of shake down in one way on that seeing a stronger distinction between the two. And you see this in Luther, Calvin actually less so. But I think I would want, let’s just go back. So, planting that idea in their mind I think is an important one for Christians to have. I think Christians are woefully, I mean, evangelicals as a whole are woefully, on these issues of ethics and politics, we have a really, really long ways to go. So, at least if I’m going to start with a sort of basic framework, I would want to talk about Christians understanding the distinction between temporal and spiritual authority. I think Augustine famously talks about the two cities, and I don’t always agree the way that that’s invoked today, but at the same time, I think it’s important for Christians. And I think a lot of Christians are too connected to their cultures, don’t have a strong separation between, a strong identity between their own kind of culture that they were brought up in. I think this is all Christians. I mean, this is a problem around the world. You talk to Christians in Africa, India, or just wherever you go, you need to understand yourself, your identity as a Christian as something distinct from your culture. And then I think you’re able to look at your culture the way that I think every culture has echoes of the Gospel. It’s wherever you go, even un-Christianized cultures have those echoes. And so, I think it’s important for Christians to have that separation, and then be able to look at what can we redeem, what can we work with, and then what do we need to reform, and then what do we need to reject. And I think it’s an ongoing process, and it’s complicated, it’s hard, it’s often a debate. What we’re doing right now, I think it’s just part of the process, right. We have to grow to learn to discern the good from the bad.
Tooley: Debra, [say] you’ve been ordained. How do you explain to your flock how they should relate to their country as Christians?
Erickson: Well, no surprise, I would take a very similar tone to what Dan has just described. I think it is important, I think he’s right that many Christians have grown up in a place where there was a predominant Christian influenced culture. And when they now come into contact with parts of American culture, largely that are not so influenced by Christianity, they find it hard to separate out their identity as a Christian from their identity as an American. And this other American culture that is coming at them, which is less Christian, they experience as a threat to their identity. And so, their response is, I think at least for some groups, it’s come out as you, Mark, what was the term that you used about what was on display on January 6?
Tooley: Nativist folk religion.
Erickson: Nativist folk religion, right. It’s not actually Christianity. So, learning to separate Christian identity from political identity I think is the first step. And as Dan said, it’s true for everyone who’s a Christian, because we’re all embedded in our local cultures. And so, that would be a start. I think I would also encourage people to find their place perhaps in this new America. Some people have talked about because Christianity contains resources for that as well, we don’t necessarily need to be, we can look at the nation of Israel as God’s holy people. And some people talk about that, right. My people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray, and I will heal them and I will restore their land. It’s completely not appropriate to apply that to America. And so well, we kind of look at that Israel model for the chosen nation. If we look more to the New Testament model, we see Christians who are alien strangers and pilgrims. And so, I’m encouraging people to understand that Christianity has resources for both when the culture seems to be on your side, and maybe when the wider culture is not on your side. I think it’s is a way to help Christians to engage more fruitfully with politics to understand that the church has a life that is, as CS Lewis would say, beyond that of nations.
Tooley: Paul, finally with you, you’re in the pulpit of your church, it’s the Fourth of July, what do you say?
Miller: Well, I agree with Debra and Daniel’s remarks here about what churches can say about these things. I think that we agree on what the bad stuff looks like and how to address it. I think probably what we disagree on is the magnitude of how much of the bad stuff is there. How big of a threat is this? How serious is it? I’ll just read you some statistics here, 65% of Americans believe that it is fairly or very important that a citizen be a Christian to be considered truly American. That’s shocking and it’s wrong. That’s absolutely wrong. You don’t have to be a Christian to be truly American. Two thirds believe that God has granted America a special rule in human history, Debra getting to your quotation in Second Chronicles 7:14. These are big numbers and they’re extremely troubling. Now, I agree with you that it’s not real Christianity. I think the pastor should say that from the pulpit. On the Fourth of July, they should say this is not Christianity and they should recognize that millions of Americans practice, 10s of millions of Americans, believe that it is Christianity, and that they are using Christian language, symbols, and rhetoric to advance a political ideology that is not Christianity. And we need to be very clear about the difference, and we need to recognize the magnitude of the danger and the threat out there, because it is I think much bigger than we elites tend to think. It’s wildly popular in quite a lot of the country. And it is growing in an increasingly dangerous direction. So, I agree with you that the churches need to confront this. They need to do so repeatedly, publicly, and explicitly. And more than teaching, they need to form alternate forms of community. I think a lot of this Christian nationalism comes from a sense of alienation and loneliness. People out there want to belong to something bigger than themselves, and this nationalist movement offers that. And it feels good and it’s fun. It’s exciting. Our churches should be providing that sense of community, that sense of belonging, and that sense of purpose to pull people away from dangerous movements.
Tooley: Paul Miller, we look forward to your book and thank you for this conversation. And we thank you, Debra Erickson and Daniel Strand.
Erickson: Thank you.
Tooley: Until next time. Bye-bye.