Discover more from The Freemen News-Letter
Nationalism and Providence
A review of Paul D. Miller's 'The Religion of American Greatness: What's Wrong with Christian Nationalism'
Paul Miller argues in his recent book, The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism, that American conservatives should reject nationalism because it is idolatrous and illiberal, and that we should instead embrace simple patriotism based on devotion to the American creed. He identifies nationalism as composed of the following beliefs: “(1) Humanity is divisible into mutually distinct and internally coherent cultural units called ‘nations.’ (2) Each nation deserves its own state. Political and cultural boundaries should, ideally, align perfectly. (3) Governments have rightful jurisdiction over the cultural life of their nations.”
He argues convincingly that any nationalist project of creating neat lines between cultural groups will be extraordinarily difficult because culture constantly bleeds across state boundaries. If culture is flexible and hard to define (let alone confine), then efforts to keep national boundaries matched perfectly with cultural boundaries will be chaotic and dangerous.
Thanks for reading Out of the Best Books! Subscribe for free to receive new issues of this and other Freemen News-Letter offerings.
Less convincingly, he argues that nationalism requires that government police culture, which will inevitably lead to illiberalism. He overlooks the many ways in which a shared national culture can be cultivated voluntarily, not only by private individuals (parents, teachers, artists, musicians, journalists, authors, politicians with a bully pulpit) but also by civil society and the private sector. In fact, there is a vast literature documenting how nationalist movements (such as the anti-communist Polish Solidarity led by Lech Walesa in the 1980s) operating outside of official government power have been instrumental in resisting and often overthrowing oppressive regimes.
Most controversially for those on the Right, Miller argues that American conservatives must reject the idea that God has a special purpose for the United States. According to his reading, literal Israel is the only nation that God has ever ordained with a purpose. He states, “The Bible nowhere even slightly hints that any other people…have a divine mission like Israel. When nationalists claim their nation is chosen, a ‘new Israel,’ or has a divine commission to accomplish God’s purpose in the world, they are reading their secular polities into the biblical narrative, substituting their nation for God’s people, a frank admission that nationalism is a religion.”
However, Miller fails to acknowledge, for example, the Old Testament’s description of how “the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia” to free Israel from their Babylonian captivity and enabled His chosen people to rebuild their temple in Jerusalem. Nor does Miller wrestle with Job 12:13, which states that God “makes nations great, and destroys them; he enlarges nations, and disperses them.” It would be overly simplistic to equate the modern nation-state to the use of the term “nation” in the Old Testament. Nevertheless, Miller’s interpretation of the Bible as precluding God from commissioning other peoples and nations with divine purposes is far from obvious.
Miller acknowledges that his view constitutes a rejection of much of the American tradition, including John Winthrop’s vision of Christians in the New World as “A City On A Hill.” It is also a rejection of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan’s reinterpretation of Winthrop, applying the vision to the modern United States more broadly. Miller warns that when we entertain any idea of our nation “carry[ing] a divine mission, we are erecting a frighteningly powerful idol.”
This is the most striking contradiction of the book. The very creed which Miller endorses repeatedly portrays America as carrying a divine mission. Miller does not provide a rigid definition of the American creed, but signals that it is contained in a variety of sources, including “the US Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, the writings of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, the sermons and speeches of Martin Luther King Jr., and others of the great papers of American history.” The theme of Providence is woven throughout the majority of sources that Miller cites.
The Freemen News-Letter publishes all its content for free thanks to the generous donations of its supporters. Please consider joining those who value our efforts to elevate the political and cultural dialogue in America by offering a one-time, monthly, or annual donation.
For example, the Declaration of Independence not only confesses a “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence,” but also appeals to the “Supreme Judge of the world” to affirm “the rectitude of our intentions.” During the same month the Declaration was issued, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin produced drafts of an official seal of the new country depicting Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt, a clear effort to connect the American cause to the story of Exodus.
A decade later, commenting on the success of the Constitutional Convention, James Madison (one of the more relatively secular founders) wrote, “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand.” Similarly, Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Our General Convention...when it formed the new Federal Constitution, [was]...influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent and beneficent Ruler in whom all...live, and move, and have their being.”
Moreover, the writings of Abraham Lincoln were premised on the idea of a Providential America. In Lincoln’s 1862 Meditation of the Divine Will, he states his belief that “God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.” Throughout his presidency, Lincoln’s words and actions reflected a conviction that parties should humbly, but diligently, seek to conform their actions with the will of God.
While he was cautious about his ability to discern it, Lincoln was haunted by the perceived need to align himself with it. Lincoln seemed to have been reconciled to a strange position humanity had been placed in: having a duty to conform themselves to God’s will, but also having an inescapably limited ability to discern it. Such a position compels man to humility. As he said, “[W]ith firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right'' mankind must “strive on to finish [their] work.”
Lincoln’s was a chastened view of the role of Providence in the nation’s affairs. In his second inaugural address, Lincoln acknowledged that the North and South “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God and each invokes His aid against the other.” With this statement, Lincoln cautioned against judging overly harshly and against either side being overly confident in their ability to discern the will of God regarding how long the war would last and how much damage it would inflict on each side. But it was no rejection of the role of Providence in national affairs.
Miller highlights Frederick Douglass’s compelling argument that although the culture of the North and the South were both rooted in Anglo-Saxon Protestantism, that shared culture was not enough to prevent secession and Civil War. Yet Miller omits Douglass’s stated belief that he had been blessed by Providence in his escape from slavery and his belief that “All the Divine powers of the universe are on the side of freedom and progress” and that "providence will bring freedom to the slave out of this civil war." It seems that the creed promoted by Miller facilitates the providential nationalism he warns against.
Miller understates how ambitious and difficult the project of reading Providence out of the American creed would be. The task becomes all the more precarious if we accept Miller’s assertion that “If you do not know or do not agree with the American creed, in an important sense you are not truly or fully American, even if you hold American citizenship.” Our very identity as Americans depends, apparently, on agreeing with Miller’s very particular interpretation of the American creed.
It’s worth exploring the consequences of a period in American history when American elites, especially Northerners such as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. and Madison Grant, soured on the idea of providence. Understandably traumatized by the carnage of the Civil War, and influenced by critical interpretations of the Bible coming out of Germany, these elites cultivated a more jaded, and more coldly transactional view of society and the role of government. It was during this time that increasingly secular and materialist American elites crafted a new racialist immigration quota system and developed eugenics programs that would later be emulated by Germany in the 1930s. It should not be taken for granted that a less enchanted view of our country’s role in the world will summon our better angels.
Miller’s book is an important and thoughtful contribution to contemporary debates about American nationalism. He is right to warn against the hubris of those who have been loudest about being on God’s side over the past two centuries. Nevertheless, despite our nation's serious failures and hypocrisies, it remains difficult for many Americans to look back over our history and not, to paraphrase Madison and Franklin, perceive in it a guiding influence. If we as a country decide it's time to leave that behind, we need to have a frank conversation about how much of the American creed remains intact.
Nathan Brown is an immigration attorney in Fresno, CA. He received a BA in Economics and History from Brigham Young University and his Jurist Doctorate from Emory University School of Law. @nathankblbrown
Currently, all freelance contributors to the Freemen News-Letter have volunteered their writing abilities Pro Bono, but one of our major goals is to have enough cash on hand to pay those who offer their submissions freelance fees for their efforts. If you value the written word as we do, please consider offering a one-time, monthly, or weekly donation to the Freemen Foundation and help us with this goal.