I’ve been reading The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism (InterVarsity Press, 2022) by Paul D. Miller. The author is a PhD foreign policy guy at Georgetown, described in the dust jacket blurb as “a Christian scholar, political theorist, veteran, and former White House staffer.” Which is fine. It takes a broad range of expertise and experience to understand Christian nationalism. Miller also makes it clear in the book that he is a conservative Christian himself, so this is more of an inside critique than the standard Left attacks Right or Right attacks Left pieces that are so popular in publishing right now. The book is of interest to Mormon readers because just about everything Miller writes about Which Christian Nationalism (“WCN”) is equally applicable to White Mormon Nationalism. It’s all the same thing, really.

First, Some Terms

Nationalism is not the same as patriotism. Patriotism is directed towards a political entity, a state (in the sense France or Japan is a state, not the Nebraska or Montana kind of state). Nationalism is directed towards a nation in the sense of a racial, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic group that holds a controlling position within a particular state or that seeks to establish its own political state where it can exercise some control. The modern nation-state is where a nation and a political state overlap to a large extent, but that overlap is often exaggerated and almost every modern state deals with internal tension and conflict. Moderate nationalism can be a positive force, but extreme nationalism can disrupt a state internally and also lead to external armed conflict. It is also a handy justification for any authoritarian leader that wants to attack and annex a neighboring country. Ask Ukraine.

Christian Nationalism is Christian not in the formal sense of being sponsored by Christian churches or being rooted in Christian values (quite the opposite!), but rather in drawing from Christian culture, history, and identity in a loose and general sense. Christian Nationalism is not Christianity. Whatever is Christian in Christian Nationalism is primarily used to justify the particular nationalist aims and goals of the movement. You’ve heard the phrase “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel”? Nationalism invoke Christian culture and history in the same way scoundrels invoke patriotism.

What’s White about WCN? The ideology is rooted in the sense that the original and authentic form of America is threatened by outside forces and outside persons. Immigration and everything that comes with it — racial diversity and religious pluralism and minority groups that demand equal civil rights — is the big threat. The “original and authentic” America are White Christian Protestants who largely settled the original colonies (although that, too, is exaggerated). The threat is anyone who doesn’t fit that story: Catholics, African-Americans, Native Americans, Asians, Hispanics, and any other group you can identify, almost always (surprise!) non-white. The racist component generally lies under the surface but is undeniably a real and emotional component of the ideology. The reaction to Black enfranchisement after the Civil War gave rise to an early form of WCN in the South. The reaction to the election of Barack Obama in 2008 gave rise to the acceleration of the current form of WCN across the country as a whole.

As an aside, this is not just an American problem. A potent form of Russian Christian Nationalism is the political ideology or Mr. Putin in Russia, or at least the one he publicly employs to further his political aims. The best book I’ve read on this is Timoth Snyder’s The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America (2018).

Now Some Quotes

I’m just going to pull some quotes from the book and add a comment to each rather than try to synthesize the whole book.

There are effectively no true nation-states in the world today. Virtually every state in the world is a pluralistic, multiethnic, multilingual polity in which questions of who or what defines the polity are live debates. … Nationalism is a yearning for prehistorical tribalism … (p. 71)

So any nationalism is going to overstate its role in the history and success of its country and seek to marginalize or ignore alternative claims. White Christian Nationalism in America overstates the degree to which America, even original America, was white or Christian. The Founding Founders weren’t very Christian. America during and after the Revolutionary War was not very religious. The Great Awakening of the early decades of the 19th century, which among other things gave rise to Mormonism, only makes sense in light of the largely unreligious decades preceding it. The WCN rhetoric about early Christian America is largely a fiction.

[I] is helpful to recognize that nationalism is another form of identity politics. … Nationalism is the identity politics of the majority tribe; identity politics is the nationalism of small groups. In each case, groups of people defined by some shared identity trait look to the public square for status, spoils, recognition, and power. (p. 105)

I know you’ve heard the term “identity politics” before. You might think, why don’t those people stop banging their drum and just be regular Americans? That’s equivalent to saying, why don’t you just give up your (minority) identity and embrace my (majority) identity?

It is telling that when the Bible seeks to convey the reality of demonic power, oppression, and deceit, the image or metaphor it uses is a government trying to be a god. When we invest our governments — nationalist, imperialist, fascist, communist, progressive, or any other kind — with sacred meaning or saddle them with the expectations that they act godlike or carry out a divine mission, we are erecting a frighteningly powerful idol. (p. 132)

He is saying that it is wrong and unbiblical to think that any modern nation is favored of God or carrying out a divine mission. Not only wrong, but misguided and dangerous. Obviously, this is something Mormons are going to struggle with. The author identifies any post-Jesus divine mission with the Church or with Christians as a whole, not with any country or nation. That makes more sense to Mormons, although they identify the carriers of that divine mission much more narrowly.

I’ve got about twenty more quotes, so I’m going to just list some of them briefly in a few bullet points, then wind up.

  • The myth of the chosen nation with a special historical destiny (p. 139).
  • Christian nationalism is a uniquely American form of Caesaropapism, where the church is subordinate to the state (p. 140).
  • The Christian Right professes universal values while protecting tribal interests (p. 146). Sound familiar?
  • Recall that “under God” in the Pledge and “in God we trust” on our currency were added in 1954 and 1956, respectively (p. 148). These were in response to the godless communism of the USSR, not part of traditional American values or religiosity. Traditionally, Americans didn’t mix politics and religion. WCN as a political movement is an aberration.
  • Jerry Falwell, Sr., on civic virtue: God will bless America and preserve our freedoms if we are righteous (p. 155-56). Sound familiar?
  • “White American Christians have a history of believing themselves to have access to a universal vantage point and an unmediated interpretation of the Bible, and using that moral high ground to ride roughshod over the perspectives of those who disagree with them” (p. 190). Sound familiar?

There’s a chapter toward the end of the book, “Evangelicals and Donald J. Trump.” Essentially, Trump has tapped into WCN and weaponized it in devious ways for his own political purposes and gain. For Evangelicals, Miller argues, Trump is a road to increased Christian political power, which garners him overwhelming support from Evangelicals despite the obvious fact that Trump embodies few if any Christian virtues or attributes. It’s a great chapter for any Mormon trying to understand why Mormons, to a large extent, give similar support to Trump.

I’m going to wind up rather than continue. If there are too many loose threads here, I could follow up with another post next week, maybe looking at LDS scriptural passages which push roughly the same ideas as WCN and are subject to the same objections that Miller makes in the book. Or look at General Conference quotes that push the same ideas. For now, here are some points to kick around in the comments.

  • I would love to hear non-US commenters give their take on the traditional and ongoing LDS view of the USA as a divinely chosen country working God’s will in the world. Don’t pull your punches.
  • Remember, Mormons were not American patriots in the 19th century. Most Mormons left the country following Brigham Young and fought (or at least strenuously opposed) the US Army when it came out to Utah in 1856. Mormons didn’t become good Americans until the last decade of the 19th century.
  • To what extent has the LDS Church as an institution and the membership of the Church as a whole overcome its previous racist ideology? Or is it still, as with WCN, lurking just beneath the surface?
  • Is there a Mormon identity politics? Is it different in state level politics (Utah, Idaho, Arizona) than in national politics?
  • I shudder to think what is included in the political and historical curriculum of private Mormon schools that are so popular in Utah. I’m thinking all the misguided ideas of WCN, plus additional misguided Mormon ideas.