“Christian nationalism” has been a heavily discussed and hotly debated topic in American politics this year, but it’s not clear everyone is talking about the same thing.
Supporters of Christian nationalism often define it in vague terms that leave room for interpretation. “God instituted governments to promote good and punish evil and it is a duty of the Christian to inform the magistrate of what God calls good and evil,” wrote Andrew Torba, the founder of the far-right social media site Gab, who openly embraces Christian nationalism.
But some of the most influential leaders on the right who are labeled as Christian nationalists reject the term.
“I’m an Irish Catholic,” said retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn in response to a question about whether he is a Christian nationalist. Flynn grew angry at the question, from an Associated Press reporter, and ended the interview, as seen in a recent "Frontline" documentary on him and his political-religious efforts.
“I’m a follower of Jesus. How’s that?” he said before he walked out.
Meanwhile, some critics of Christian nationalism describe it as an attempt to turn the U.S. into a theocracy, with laws derived directly from the Bible.
Conservative writer Paul D. Miller is trying to pick apart these strands and to clarify the issue. Many American Christians are Christian nationalists, he agrees, and that number is growing. He also says that does not mean they necessarily want a theocracy or to eliminate democracy — though some do — and that many critiques of Christian nationalism unfairly lump moderates together with extremists.
But finally, he argues, so-called moderates in the Christian nationalist community have a duty to publicly reject and condemn the extremists in their ranks.
Miller is no fan of Christian nationalism. Like Flynn, he’s a former Army intelligence officer. And whereas Flynn briefly worked as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Miller was a National Security Council staffer for Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He now teaches at Georgetown University and is the author of “The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism,” which was published this summer.
But Miller argues in his book and in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast, that critiques of Christian nationalism have to be precise and accurate, or else they risk making the problem worse.
“The movement has serious ideas which have serious problems and require serious debate. That means we need to engage with the strongest possible version of Christian nationalist ideology to understand it and its weaknesses,” Miller wrote in the book.
“Christian nationalism is not a catchall term for any kind of Christian political advocacy, and it is not the same thing as Christianity.”
Miller has strong words for some of the most well-known critics of Christian nationalism, such as Andrew Seidel, Katherine Stewart, Christopher Hedges and Michelle Goldberg. He accuses those writers of “nutpicking,” which he defines as “taking extremists as representative of the movement as a whole.”
“I think they discredit the body of scholarship examining [Christian nationalism] by focusing on the very worst examples and writing as if every mainstream, patriotic American Christian is just one step away from that,” Miller told Yahoo News. “Most average American Christians do not want Christo-fascism.”
In an as-yet-unpublished essay that Miller shared with Yahoo News, he argues that “social movements like Christian nationalism exist along a spectrum. There is a moderate end filled with Christians who love their country but have some confused theology about how church and state relate, and there is an extremist end filled with political agitators who use Christianity to cloak an illiberal, even violent agenda.”
At the same time, Miller said, “the extremists are real, and I fear they are growing. [Jan. 6] and the ‘ReAwaken America’ tour demonstrate that.”
Flynn, who was active alongside extremist groups in the days leading up to the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection and has refused to voice support for a peaceful transfer of power, has been a star attraction at those ReAwaken America rallies around the country.
These events are fusing together Christianity and politics to the point where there is little distinction between the two. They tend to attract, in the words of ReAwaken America organizer Clay Clark, “people who are not churchgoers” who come, initially at least, because they are pro-Trump and anti-vaccine.
“But,” Clark added, “then they experience genuine Christian fellowship, their minds are changed and their hope renewed that we really can turn our nation red — not red as in Republican, but red as in the color of our Lord’s blood shed for us to live in truth.”
Miller’s main concern is that millions of American Christians might be driven further into the arms of Christian nationalism and its more extreme versions by labeling “any and all Christian political activism” as Christian nationalism, or by critiques that might apply to extremists but do not apply to everyday people.
“Being pro-life is not Christian nationalist. Being pro-religious-liberty is not Christian nationalist,” he said.
And it is this larger group of moderate Christian nationalists, which includes many churchgoers and pastors, that Miller thinks is crucial to defeating the more extreme forms. Extremist Christian nationalists might get the attention and the headlines, in other words, but the movement’s rank-and-file members still have the power to reject its worst impulses.
“Within the ranks of Christian nationalists — probably a very large group of American Christians — moderates have an especially heavy duty to call out and condemn the extremists within their ranks,” Miller writes in his essay.
“Extremists have hijacked the language and symbols of Christianity in America and are waging a campaign against democracy and the rule of law. Every Christian — every American — should join against them, especially if they are on your side.”
Flynn, despite his protestations, is the prototype of a Christian nationalist, according to Miller’s definitions of the term. In his 2016 book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies,” Flynn wrote, “Let us accept what we were founded upon, a Judeo-Christian ideology built on a moral set of rules and laws.”
That’s a run-of-the-mill Christian nationalist sentiment. But a year ago Flynn went much further at a ReAwaken America event. “If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God and one religion under God,” Flynn said.
A seeming call for state religion, or state-enforced religious uniformity, is extremist Christian nationalism.
Miller’s book dissects, with precision and a great effort to understand Christian nationalism on its own terms, how millions of Americans came to be sympathetic to Christian nationalism or are unaware of what he considers its dangers.
“Christian nationalism is the belief that the American nation is defined by Christianity, and that the government should take active steps to keep it that way,” Miller wrote in a Christianity Today essay last year. “Popularly, Christian nationalists assert that America is and must remain a ‘Christian nation.’”
This type of sentiment has been widespread among Christians for a long time. A recent poll by the University of Maryland found that 61% of Republicans surveyed supported declaring America a “Christian nation.”
For decades, evangelicals and other religious conservatives have been told by their leaders that they are under siege. But today that sense of existential crisis is more heightened than ever. America is much more secular and diverse than it was a generation ago. White Christians no longer make up the lion’s share of the electorate and increasingly see themselves as a minority group besieged by liberalism. They feel their way of life is being threatened.
“Right now, Christianity is practically persecuted in America,” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., told journalist Robert Draper recently.
Trump supercharged these tensions by telling Christians he was the only one who could protect them and by waging an assault on the nation’s democratic order. He provoked his critics, and then held up the anger he aroused as proof that his followers must stay close to him.
But the term “Christian nationalism” entered the public lexicon in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 insurrection, as analysts sought to make sense of the Christian symbols that were everywhere among those who attended Trump’s rally on the Ellipse and those who then stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overthrow a lawful election.
“Arm in arm we’re marching forward, till we reach the promised land,” sang one group of people, arranged in a semicircle like a choir, surrounded by Trump flags, along with a Christian flag. “We are the people of the Lord. We’re a holy nation, believers in Jesus, lifting up our voices to the Lord.”
Another woman watched Trump supporters assault police and enter the Capitol building while singing over a loudspeaker, “The blood of Jesus covering this place.”
“It doesn’t take much theology to understand that what many of them at the Capitol that day believed was that they were an army of God. And that’s what scares me about Christian nationalism here in America,” Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who is a United Methodist pastor, told the New York Times.
Just as religious rhetoric and symbols were used to sanctify lawlessness based on a lie on Jan. 6, Miller says, many right-wing extremists use the language of freedom and democracy sincerely, but also to deflect criticism and draw in unwitting followers.
“I am fighting for our constitutional rights. And, you know, in a big way, to save America, I guess,” Flynn told the Associated Press. “Because I like to think about all of the people that came before us and all the sacrifices to create this great experiment in democracy. We’re going to lose it.”
Miller’s book unpacks the thought process that leads many, like Flynn, to apparently believe that America can remain free only if Christianity remains the dominant religion.
“The Christian Right interprets ‘virtue’ in a unique way: It asserts that Christian values are the necessary precondition of individual virtue. Thus, to sustain the American experiment in liberty, citizens must honor Christian values,” Miller writes.
“This political theory is false. Worse, this political theory is intolerant because in an increasingly pluralistic nation, citizens will not honor Christian values voluntarily, and so Christians must get and use power to do it for them.”
Miller, in his book, notes that “nationalism is usually authoritarian in spirit and violent in practice, founded on the raw assertion of power.”
“Nationalism is not patriotism,” he told Yahoo News. He said the core flaw of nationalism is that it seeks to define national identity based on arbitrary preferences — such as language, religion and culture — or even inherent traits such as ethnicity, rather than on the values of liberty and equality based in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence.
“I love America. I think it’s a great country. And I think that patriotism is a virtue. And I think basically, we should all be patriots,” Miller said. “I just don’t think it’s important for us to seek symbolic recognition of Christian preeminence in America. ... It’s not what Christianity is about. And so we should concern ourselves with equality and with justice for everyone.”
He says “human flourishing” based on “natural law” should be the benchmarks for how society decides what norms should be promoted and legislated, and that “Christians should join with Americans across the political spectrum of any faith in fighting to preserve religious liberty,” the separation of church and state “and the rights of conscience.”
Finally, Miller’s book demonstrates how Christian nationalism builds on the identity-based approach of nationalism and marries it with a belief that America is chosen by God to carry out a special purpose in the world and in history.
He says in his book that this belief is based on a mistaken reading of the Bible and a dishonest account of history. “American Christians stand in need of correction, rebuke, and remedial education on a rudimentary point of theology,” he writes. “[America] is not a chosen nation.”
The more prevalent form of Christian nationalism, Miller argues, is not a push for installing the Ten Commandments in place of the Constitution. Rather, it is when Christians act and talk about their faith as if it is “more like a cultural tribe, an ethnoreligious sect advocating for its own power and protection, rather than a people from every tribe and nation advocating for universal principles of justice, flourishing, and the common good.”
Some of Trump’s speeches early in 2016 were some of the clearest examples of this “ethnoreligious” mindset, Miller said. “Christianity will have power,” Trump said in a campaign speech that year in Iowa. “If I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power, you don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
That kind of Christian nationalism, Miller said, “turns our religion into a tribal identity instead of a universal faith. And Christianity should be a universal faith.”