The ‘symbolic gestures’

Mark David Hall

Almost no one was concerned about Christian nationalism in America before 2006. Since then, there has been a constant stream of books warning of its dangers. The stream became a flood with the election of Donald Trump and, especially, the January 6 attack on the Capitol which was, according to the sociologist Samuel Perry, “as Christian nationalist as it gets .”
The sociologist Andrew Whitehead believes Christian nationalism poses “an existential threat to American democracy and the Christian church in the United States.” Similarly, Andrew Seidel, vice president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, claims that it is an “existential threat to a government of the people, for the people, and by the people.” Amanda Tyler, president of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, more modestly contends that Christian nationalism is the “single biggest threat to America’s religious liberty.”
Most of the literature on Christian nationalism is written by activists and journalists who clearly have axes to grind. The concept is ill-defined, often amounting to little more than the idea that Christians are bringing their faith into the public square to advocate for positions disfavored by the authors. Thus, the literature usually portrays Christians fighting to end abortion or defend religious liberty as Christian nationalists, but understands Christians motivated by their faith to pursue civil rights legislation as laudable political activists.
Paul D. Miller, Professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Georgetown University, recognizes that most of the existing works on Christian nationalism “are rather extreme and almost comical examples of beating up on straw men—or would b-e, if they weren’t also fear-mongering scurrilous libel masquerading as scholarship.” In The Religion of American Greatness, Miller, who identifies himself as a “Christian scholar, political theorist, veteran, and former White House staffer,” proposes to offer a “detailed portrait of—and case against—Christian nationalism.”
Christian nationalism, according to Miller: Asserts that there is something identifiable as an American “nation,” distinct from other nations; that American nationhood is and should remain defined by Christianity or Christian cultural norms, and that the American people and their government should actively work to defend, sustain, and cultivate America’s Christian culture, heritage, and values . . . [it] is bad political theory, illiberal in theory and practice, and at odds with key features of the American experiment.
The polemical literature on Christian nationalism often attributes its modern manifestation to Rousas Rushdoony. Rushdoony’s The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973) articulated a vision of a thoroughly Christian society, one that looks something like that described by Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale. But a major problem for the polemicists is that almost no one has heard of or admits to following this obscure Calvinist theologian. Accordingly, they inevitably turn to activists such as Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, D. James Kennedy, and David Barton who were supposedly influenced by him. Happily, Miller does not go down this road, and instead highlights “arguments from the best contemporary advocates of Christian nationalism”: Samuel Huntington, Nigel Biggar, R.R. Reno, Rich Lowry, and Yoram Hazony.
According to Miller, the-se authors agree that (1) h-umanity is divisible into na-tions, (2) each nation des-erves its own state, (3) governments have “rightful jurisdiction over the cultural life of their nations.” To this list, “we can add the distinctive beliefs” that (4) America’s predominant c-ulture was and mostly is Anglo-Protestant, and (5) “(a) our Anglo-Protestant culture was the essential precondition for the Am-erican experiment in liberty, and American democracy would become unsustainable without it; and (b) God blesses nations who honor him with symbolic gestures.”
After describing (and adding to) the work of these authors, Miller offers a critique of nationalism. Humanity, he explains, is simply “not easily divisible into mutually distinct cultural unities.” Any given nation contains multiple languages, cultures, religions, races, and so forth. Attempts to impose uniformity, e.g., by requiring everyone to adopt the same religion, language, etc., are necessarily illiberal.
A major difficulty faced by critics of Christian nat-ionalism is that almost no one claims to be one (Rep-resentative Marjorie Taylor Greene and the occasional Christian academic who wants to “reclaim” the label are the exceptions that prove this rule). Indeed, none of the five “the best contemporary advocates of Christian nationalism” calls himself a Christian nationalist, and in response to e-mail queries, Biggar, Reno, and Hazony reject Miller’s characterization of them as advocating Christian nationalism (Huntington died in 2008 and Lowry did not respond).
It is reasonable to describe these five authors as nationalists who believe culture is important. And they advocate positions that can be viewed as illiberal. Huntington, for instance, clearly thought that all Americans should be able to speak English, and Biggar supports England’s mildly established church. But there is no reason to conclude that they embrace the sort of illiberal policies that Miller rightly detests. And, at least in the publications he references, only one seems to argue that “our Anglo-Protestant culture was the essential precondition for the American experiment in liberty, and American democracy wou-ld become unsustainable without it” (Huntington). None of them asserts that “ God blesses nations who honor him with symbolic gestures.”
If there are good reasons to question if Huntington, et al. are advocates of Christian nationalism, there is little doubt that the founders of the Christian Right such as Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson promoted something like it. Miller observes that they regularly claimed that America was founded as a Christian na-tion, warned that our constitutional republic requires a Christian population, and contended that God blesses nations that honor Him (although I don’t think any of them called for America to honor God with “symbolic gestures”).
In a profoundly ironic passage, Miller praises the Christian Right for advocating three policies that most critics of Christian nationalism consider to be profoundly illiberal. In his words, “[i]in recent decades the Christian right has an admirable record of opposition to abortion, support for school choice and private education, and support for religious liberty . . .” To Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry, opposition to abortion is a manifestation of “Christian nationalism’s commitment to male authority over women’s bodies,” and understanding religious liberty to be something more than “freedom to worship” is largely about anti-LBGTQ bigoty. And almost every critic of Christian nationalism follows Randall Balmer in contending that the Christian Right’s support for private education was motivated by racism.
While Miller shares some of the Christian Right’s most prominent political objectives, he is troubled that its adherents believe that America “was, and should continue to be a ‘Christian nation.” And he is profoundly concerned by what he takes to be the illiberalism of the contemporary manifestation of the Christian Right: Christian nationalism.
To describe today’s Christian nationalists, Miller utilizes Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s influential Taking America Back for God. Whitehead and Perry use responses to six statements to determine the extent to which someone is a Christian nationalist. They conclude that 51.9% of Americans are partially or fully supportive of Christian nationalism (which they refer to as Accommodators and Ambassadors), a figure Miller recognizes is “almost certainly an overestimate.”
Miller contends that Whitehead and Perry’s figures are high because one of the statements, “that the federal government should advocate Christian values,” can be interpreted in non-nationalist ways. Indeed, Miller is clearly on record as affirming this proposition, and of course he does not consider himself to be a Christian nationalist. But Miller glosses over three other statements used by Whitehead and Perry:

  1. The federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state. [The authors “reverse coded” responses to this question so that strong agreement is recorded in the same way that strong disagreement is recorded for the other five.]
  2. The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces.
  3. The federal government should allow prayer in public schools.
    Unless one views these statements to be privileging Christianity, which is a possible but not a necessary reading, strongly disagreeing with the first and strongly agreeing with the next two means that one not believe in the strict separation of church and state. But that is not the same thing as being a Christian nationalist. Reasonable people can disagree about, for instance, whether a Star of David should be in a public monument, but there is no reason to think supporters of such monuments are Christian nationalists.
    And consider the claim about school prayer. The statement concerns whether prayer should be allowed in public schools, not whether teachers should lead children in prayer. In a series of cases dating back to 1981, the Supreme Court has permitted voluntary student prayer in public schools. Surely prohibiting students from engaging in voluntary prayer would be profoundly illiberal.
    Miller may be a closet separationist, but an earlier essay suggests he is not, and he is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, an organization that strongly disagrees with the first statement and strongly agrees with the latter two. It is entirely likely, then, that Miller would earn at least 16 points on Whitehead and Perry’s scale, making him a solid Accommodationist, and almost an Ambassador. Surely any scale that concludes Paul Miller and David French (who wrote the book’s foreword) are Christian nationalists should be taken with a grain of salt. Whitehead and Perry do a good job of measuring the extent to which citizens are not strict separationists, but that is a far cry from identifying the number of citizens who embrace the toxic stew that they call Christian nationalism (perhaps that is why separationists like Seidel and Tyler like their work so much).
    Like many elite evangelicals, Miller is very troubled by evangelical support for Donald Trump. He considers briefly the possibility that they were voting for the lesser of two evils or because of judicial appointments, but he concludes that, ultimately, white evangelicals were motivated by “status anxiety.” This is certainly a possibility, but this does not describe a single evangelical I know—and I know many. I write this as an evangelical and life-long Republican voter who publicly encouraged my fellow conservatives to cast a protest vote in 2016; and did so myself. I share Miller’s concerns about Trump, but I simply don’t buy the claim that 81% of white evangelicals were motivated by status anxiety to vote for a presidential candidate who, as it turned out, appointed the justices who made it possible to overturn Roe v. Wade. More than one evangelical friend has said “I told you so”; and perhaps they are right.
    At its worst, Christian nationalism improperly conflates God and country, something all orthodox Christians must reject. And Miller is correct that some Christian nationalists have illiberal tendencies. Far too many Americans believe that “the federal government should declare the United States to be a Christian nation” (c. 30%), hardly an inclusive gesture given that roughly 37% of Americans do not identify themselves as Christians. And he rightly complains that too many Christians are insufficiently supportive of religious claims made by adherents to non-Christian religions.
    American Christian nationalism is a problem, although Miller and other critics fail to make the case that it is an “existential threat” to the nation. Why, then, has it received so much attention? In many cases, it is a useful cudgel to be used against Christians who are motivated by their faith to argue for the protection of unborn babies, an understanding of religious liberty that goes beyond “freedom to worship,” religious monuments (like the Bladensburg Cross) on public land, and public funding for private schools.
    Miller does not use Christian nationalism for these ends, but instead appears to have latched onto it to explain why so many of his fellow evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. His search for an explanation leads him to see advocates of Christian nationalism where they do not exist, and to uncritically accept arguments that large numbers of white evangelicals embrace a racist, illiberal manifestation of Christian nationalism.
    Miller and other critics vastly exaggerate the threat of Christian nationalism, but that does not mean it doesn’t exist. It does, and The Religion of American Greatness offers a reasonable critique of it from an insider’s perspective.