Christian Nationalism vs Christian Political Engagement

Christian Nationalism vs Christian Political Engagement September 5, 2022

Should Christians be involved in politics?

For most thoughtful people, this is a silly question. Citizens of this country have the right to participate in the political process. Being a Christian does not negate that right. All you need to do to see the absurdity of saying something like “Christians shouldn’t be involved in politics” is change the group you are talking about. You wouldn’t think of saying, “Atheists, Jews, Muslims, Latinos, etc. shouldn’t be involved in politics.” Thus, we should not pretend like it’s okay to exclude Christians from American civil life.

A better question would be, is Christian involvement in politics good or bad?

Good and Bad Political Involvement

Dr. Paul D. Miller, in his Christianity Today article titled “What Is Christian Nationalism?” maintains that there are good forms of Christian political involvement. However, his affirmation comes with a good deal of qualification. He concludes his article by distinguishing between Christian political engagement and Christian nationalism. He credits politically engaged Christians with working to end slavery, segregation, and other evils. By contrast, he credits Christian nationalism with things like social division and the January 6th riot. In so doing, he points out that there are good and bad forms of Christian political activity.

According to Miller, good forms of political engagement work to advance Christian principles. Bad forms of Christian engagement work to advance Christian power and or Christian culture. This key distinction is what he uses to delineate between Christian political engagement (Good) and Christian nationalism (Bad).

I contend that, for all practical purposes, this amounts to a distinction without a difference.

Miller’s Approved Christian Political Engagement

Miller claims that Christianity is political in the sense that “Its adherents have always understood their faith to challenge, affect, and transcend their worldly loyalties…” It is not entirely clear what he means by this. It ostensibly means that his notion of political engagement is really a disengagement from earthly political aims. However, towards the end of the article Miller admonishes Christian readers to do the following:

  • Pursue justice in the public square
  • Fight against abortion
  • Promote religious liberty
  • Foster racial justice
  • Protect the rule of law

Thus whatever he means by transcending worldly loyalties, it cannot entail a refraining from any earthly political involvement whatsoever. It does involve advancing certain moral principles that Miller finds worthy of promoting in the public sphere. However, these principles are not uncontroversial. Pro-choice advocates would vehemently disapprove of promoting his pro-life cause. The Anarchists’ political aim is to remove the rule of law. Some atheists advocate putting parents in jail for promoting Christianity to their children.

In every instance, he is fighting against one set of values in favor of another. Such a fight aims to overcome those who would promote the contrary view. Advancing a contrary principle is to attempt to change his interlocutor’s mind. Or if he couldn’t change their mind, surely he would try to promote laws that foster, say, racial justice. After all, changing minds and changing laws is to influence the culture and vie for cultural and political ascendency.

Advancement of Christian Principles Leads to Christian Power and Culture

Power as Byproduct

If the principles you advance become adopted by enough people in a democratic nation, your ideas translate into power. Perhaps Miller would respond by saying, “Yes, but we aren’t advancing the principles to get power, that is just the byproduct.” Fair enough, but does that mean the main distinction between you and the Christian nationalist is that you get power as a byproduct rather than as a goal? If, for example, the principles you advocate become part of the broader culture due to your influence, are you not part of creating what you would consider a more Christian culture?

Just Promoting General Principles, Not Christianity

Miller could respond here by saying that he is not promoting a more “Christian” culture since he is promoting more general principles that are common to several faiths. However, this response just pushes the question back one step. His principles might be common to some other faiths, but it is not common to all groups represented by our government. He is vying for a pro-life culture, a religiously free culture, a culture that respects the rule of law. There are people in our culture that oppose these things explicitly. His goal is to change the culture in hopes that the government will reflect these values, despite the fact that there are large swathes of Americans that don’t want these goals to be realized. How is this not a vying for a place of cultural and political privilege?

Promoting Classical Liberalism, Not Christian Culture

He might respond by saying that he is vying for classical liberalism as opposed to a quasi-theocracy. Fair enough, but that too would be an admission that the main distinction between Christian political engagement and Christian nationalism is not the distinction that he proposes. Rather acceptable political engagement becomes the advancement of classical liberalism. I don’t have a problem with this per se as I would likely defend something like classical liberalism myself. My point here is that the distinction that Miller makes fails to get at the heart of the differences between traditional Christian political engagement and Christian nationalism.

Not the Same, but One Thing Leads To Another

I understand that technically the “advancement of principles” is not the same as the “advancement of power.” But one naturally leads to the other. Due to this fact, the distinction Miller makes seems to be a rhetorical sleight of hand.

If you still are unsure of this, consider his point about Christians valiantly working to promote justice by ending slavery and segregation. These examples are interesting given the amount of political power it required to bring them to an end. The anti-slavery principles advanced in the mid-1800s resulted in the death of over 600,000 Americans in the Civil War. Ending segregation didn’t require a civil war, but it did require an official government mandate and national guard troops to enforce it. If these are examples of merely advancing principles, then they demonstrate my point, not his.

The Bottom Line

Miller and others like him, want to distance themselves from the Christian nationalist movement. This is understandable as Christian nationalists are being likened to Nazis and other White supremacists. But his principle of delineation doesn’t work. Any group that advances a set of principles in the political arena is vying for cultural and political advantage. That is true when Miller does it, it’s true when the LGBTQIA+ people do it, and it’s true when Christian nationalists do it.

Every one of us has some kind of vision of what America is and what it should be. Every one of us has thoughts on what would make a better society. I’m not saying that all of these opinions are on equal footing, but I am saying that engagement in the political process just is to put your set of principles up against competing principles. This is true no matter what group does it.

Real Distinction Between Miller and Christian Nationalists

The real distinctions between Miller and Christian nationalists are something like this:

  • Miller advances classical liberalism and Christian nationalists advance a quasi-theocratic republic
  • Miller’s assessment of Christian involvement in the development of our country competes with the Christian nationalist assessment
  • Miller thinks pluralism is inevitable and Christian nationalists think the cultural identity of subgroups should be more strongly maintained

When put like this, a discussion between Miller and Christian nationalists can take place. Perhaps he can win some over to his side. But when he frames the distinctions between himself and Christian nationalists in terms of “I fight for good causes and you fight for power” there is no conversation to be had. Miller becomes another talking head that perpetuates an unproductive “us” vs “them” narrative about people who would likely agree with him theologically. This is remarkable given that he knows that the label “Christian nationalist” is nearly synonymous with “White nationalism” or “Nazi” in popular left-leaning culture.

Thus he is fine with throwing his Christian brothers and sisters as far under the bus as he can because they are misguided politically.

Final Thoughts

I agree with Miller that Christian nationalism is misguided. But Christian nationalists are not “white nationalists” or “Nazis”. Even a cursory investigation of these groups reveals the foolishness of making them synonymous. It is irresponsible of Miller to perpetuate that association.

Christian nationalists have the same right to advance their agenda as any other group. If you want to stop them, do so by means of public debate on the specific points you think they get wrong. Labeling them as evil power mongers drives them underground and confirm their suspicions that you are part of the system that they oppose. Public debate treats them with respect while exposing areas of ignorance publicly. It is a much better long-term solution.

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