Do Americans have to be Christians? An excerpt from "The Religion of American Greatness" by Paul D. Miller

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Do Americans have to be Christians? An excerpt from “The Religion of American Greatness” by Paul D. Miller

August 15, 2022 - Paul D. Miller

© By glebcallfives/stock.adobe.com

© By glebcallfives/stock.adobe.com

The following excerpt is taken from The Religion of American Greatness by Paul D. Miller. Copyright (c) 2022 by Paul D. Miller. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press. www.ivpress.com

American Christians have long merged their religious faith with American identity. In the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, Americans regularly described the United States as a “new Israel”; in the twentieth century, as a “Christian nation.” When they do so, they are expressing a collection of beliefs: that to be a faithful Christian in America, one must be loyal to the American nation; that the American nation is defined in part by Christian values and Christian culture; that it is, in some sense, the outworking of Christianity in political form; that it may enjoy a special relationship with God; and that American Christians should ensure their government keeps Christianity as the predominant ordering framework for our public life. American national identity has long been defined by many Americans to include Christianity as a necessary part of it. Since at least the Civil War, Americans have regularly read 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land”) and Psalm 33:12 (“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord”) and applied it to themselves and the United States: Americans are the people called by God’s name, and the United States is the nation whose God is the Lord. Seen in this light, the Christian Right, a broad social and political movement that arose in the late 1970s, is not new in its effort to define the United States as a Christian nation. Rather, the movement stands solidly within the tradition of American Christians—mostly White—who define their sacred and secular identities in terms of each other. The Christian Right is the latest in a long line of White Protestant American nationalists.

In response to Trump’s campaign pitch aimed at them, 81 percent of White, self-identified evangelical voters cast their votes for him, and they remained a core base of his support throughout his presidency. Their acceptance of Trump suggests that many American evangelicals have accepted nationalism as their political philosophy: at a minimum, as something that is consistent with their faith; at most, as the necessary political implication of Christian belief and practice. In a recent survey, a staggering 65 percent of Americans believed it was “fairly” or “very” important that a citizen be a Christian to be “truly American,” including 75 percent of those scoring highest on measures of nationalism.[1] In other recent polls, 29 percent of Americans believed that “the federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation,” and almost two-thirds that “God has granted America a special role in human history.”[2]

Christian nationalism 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. Historians have often argued that a generic Protestant Christianity served as the de facto established religion of the United States until the 1960s. A Christian nationalist is someone who believes that historical fact is normative for today, that the United States should return to the days of a quasi-official, nondenominational (Judeo-) Christian establishment that privileges Christian norms, values, symbols, culture, and rhetoric in American public life and public policy. They do not advocate repeal of the First Amendment, but they do favor a strongly “accommodationist” interpretation of it in which the government is permitted to favor religion over irreligion, and even favor America’s historically predominant religious tradition (i.e., Christianity) over new or different ones. Christian nationalists believe that the American nation was, is, and should remain a “Christian nation”—that America’s identity as a Christian nation is not merely a historical fact but a moral imperative, an ideological goal, and a policy program for the future, which also means that defining the nation’s religious and cultural identity is rightfully part of the government’s responsibility.

What are the origins, historical development, key beliefs, and political and cultural implications of American Christian nationalism? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? What is its relationship to the ideals of the American experiment? What does nationalist governance look like in practice, and what effects has it had on American society and the world when they have had opportunities to pursue their agenda in the past? What is the difference, if any, between nationalism and patriotism? What is the right way to love one’s country? To these historical and political questions, we can add a host of theological ones. What is the relationship between Christian nationalism and Christianity? Between Christian nationalism and other forms of Christian political engagement? Does the Christian faith permit, or possibly even require, its adherents to believe in the tenets of nationalism? In short, do American Christians have to be nationalists? Do Americans have to be Christians? These questions raise broader and deeper questions about the relationship between religion and politics, questions that have been asked ever since the Pharisees used a question about taxes to suss out Jesus’ take on collaboration versus resistance toward civil government, and about humankind’s ultimate loyalties.

[1] Bart Bonikowski and Paul DiMaggio, “Varieties of American Popular Nationalism,” American Sociological Review 81, no. 5 (2016): 949‑80.

[2] Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 10.

More by Paul D. Miller

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