God, Country and the Golden Rule: A Conversation with Paul D. Miller
November 11, 2022
Paul D. Miller is a professor of the Practice of International Affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and the author of “The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism.” For our “Vote is Sacred” series, Miller sat down with Interfaith America’s Mary Ellen Giess for an Election Day conversation about democracy, his Christian faith, and what might bring our nation closer together.
This interview has been edited slightly for clarity and length.
Mary Ellen Giess: For Interfaith America, the idea of Interfaith America only exists within the context of a strong democracy, which allows everyone to bring their full selves to that democracy. Tell me about your own commitment to democracy and how your own religious commitments that inspire you to support the strength of our democracy?
Paul D. Miller: I keep coming back to the Golden Rule, which is a religious principle in the New Testament, the idea of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” But most religious traditions have a version of the Golden Rule. If you think about the political application of that – I treat you as an equal citizen, you treat me as an equal citizen, I respect your rights and freedoms, you respect my rights and freedoms. There’s a basic fairness, an intuitive fairness at the heart of this ethic of reciprocal altruism. Democracy is the political embodiment of the Golden Rule. If we live this idea out politically, we all treat each other as equal citizens, ruler and ruled, citizen to citizen, regardless of religion, race, class, gender. As a Christian, I believe in that idea of the Golden Rule because we’re all made in the image of God, we all deserve equal dignity in His sight.
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MEG: How does that religious idea reflect in founding principles of our nation?
PM: At the time, Christianity was the only accepted public philosophy. Everyone spoke in a Christian language. We understand with the hindsight of history that there was a range of practices and belief at the time – from Orthodox Christians, deists, Unitarians, and of course we’re talking of American citizens as determined by the white Christian men who held the power at the time. I can see my own religion reflected in that. But I also recognize that the way they used Christianity varied considerably. Some used Christianity in a way I support – to talk Christian republicanism (small R), for example. Christianity teaches us not just about equal dignity but also original sin, so we should distrust large concentrations of power, we should diffuse power through checks and balances and branches of government. That’s a good idea. Separation of church and state was defended not just on Enlightenment principles but also on religious and theological principles – there were mainly Baptists at the time like John Leland, Isaac Backus, Roger Williams who were giving a theological, Biblical defense for why churches should be disestablished to maintain the purity of the church, the autonomy of its teaching ministry separate from the polluting potential of political control, so that’s another clear religious influence on the ideals of the Founding.
We have to acknowledge that there are some people who used Christianity in terrible ways, to support slavery and [oppression of Indigenous people] as a terrible and regrettable aspect of our religious heritage but it’s there, and we need to recognize it.
MEG: How did your commitment to democracy and your understanding of the lineage of Christianity in the founding of our nation motivate you to write your recent book on Christian nationalism?
PM: I’m a Christian, and I kept hearing people using Christianity to talk about politics in ways that made me feel more and more uncomfortable, in ways that felt even strange, alien, and wrong. They were using Christianity, but then coming to conclusions that didn’t work for me. In 2016, Trump campaigned very clearly on a platform of Christian power – he used those words at campaign events – and as a Chrisian, I wondered, is that the point of my Christian political involvement? As a Christian, I thought I should be out for justice, equal justice for all, not tribal power for my people or group. That led me to research this book, read a lot about American history and political philosophy. I came to understand the idea of “nationalism” and it gave me a language to something that I felt and saw, smelled, so to speak, but I hadn’t had the label for it until I found the label of nationalism. That’s the best way to describe the political right today. It’s a nationalist movement. I’m still conservative, but the political right isn’t. It’s actually nationalist. In researching nationalism, I saw that it was illiberal, and often idolatrous as well. This is why I’m not a nationalist, and I’m very concerned about the state of American nationalism.
MEG: How do you define Christian nationalism?
PM: Christian nationalism is the belief that America is a Christian nation, and the government should keep it that way. Of course, there are ways to say “America is a Christian nation” that are entirely true and harmless. For example, saying that a supermajority of Americans are Christian is entirely true and a harmless political statement. Or you could also say that Christianity is a predominant influence on our political history and culture. If that’s what you mean when you say America is a Christian nation, got it. But the political ideology – that the government should keep America that way – implies a whole host of things about the role and purpose of government, American identity, and what we need to be in the future. It’s that whole host of connotations that really constitute Christian nationalism. There is often a presumption in Christian nationalism that Christians are the first citizens, guardians, architects – that we built this place, and we deserve to be on top. There is an implied attitude, a possessive, proprietary attitude, (that claims) anything that threatens Christian ownership is unAmerican, unjust, wrong, and we need to fight it.
MEG: What role do you think Christian nationalism is playing in our democracy right now?
PM: Right now, it’s the dominant influence on the political right. Some scholars have suggested that the Republican party has been a nationalist party for quite a long time The political right doesn’t own nationalism, and in pre-civil rights America it was the Democratic party that was the party of Christian nationalism before the political re-alignment that happened in the 60s. Nationalism has been here forever. In the last 10 years, nationalism has become the ascendant factor on the right, supplanting conservatism, libertarianism, all of the other “-isms” on the right. Nationalism is now in the driver’s seat. There are lots of reasons for that – the 2008 economic crisis, losing two wars, COVID, the whole Trump presidency. America has changed a ton in the last two decades. Perhaps many people feel that the pace of change has accelerated. Nationalism is kind of a nostalgic effort to reassert traditional identity in the face of change. When you have such tumultuous cultural and political change, nationalism is a response that says, that’s enough change! I need something old, reassuring – let’s go back to what America was. There’s often not a lot of historical truth in their vision of what America was, it’s a constructed myth, but nonetheless, that’s what animates a nationalist vision. Some scholars call it a “deep story” of American identity.
MEG: Could you go a little deeper in that direction? There are not many Americans who would say, “I am a Christian nationalist” and would take on that identity personally. Given that, in an empathetic way, what’s the appeal? What is Christian nationalism answering as a question to people that makes this a powerful political force?
PM: The question is really, what does it mean to be an American? The Christian nationalist wants the answer to be: America is a Christian nation. That answer is not the full context, though, for what they mean by Christian nation. Let me talk about the deep story again. A sociologist called Arlie Russell Hochschild wrote a book called, Strangers in Their Own Land. She spent time in Louisiana, listening to families tell stories of themselves and their nation. In listening, here is the story she heard from these white, Christian Americans: “We’ve been standing in line, waiting for our turn for the American dream. But we’re not moving forward anymore, we’re moving backwards, because there are people are cutting in line – immigrants, minorities who benefit from affirmative action, women who benefit from women’s rights, LGBTQ Americans. These communities are cutting in line and getting ahead of us.” These folks think, we have a rightful place in line, in front, but we’re moving backwards, and that makes me mad. This is again, a deep story – often unarticulated, but if you push hard, you’ll find a version of this.
There’s another version of this “deep story,” and this is now from Philip Gorski and Samuel L. Perry in their book The Flag and the Cross. In this version of the story, the Promised Land up ahead – the American dream — it’s a Christian dream. The authors go further and say it’s specifically white and they have some statistical data that shows how these terms are “implicitly raced” in their language. In this story, we are losing our way, we are losing our roots. We’re being cut off from our Christian heritage, roots, identity. The people who are cutting in line are not like us – they’re not Christian, not white.
For folks who hold this Christian nationalist perspective, there are two real threats here. First, there’s a threat that we’ll lose our democracy. According to these folks, we all know that democracy was started because of Christianity. If we lose too much, democracy will collapse. There’s a firm belief on the political right that Christianity is the font of democratic civilization, and you simply cannot have democracy survive without Christianity. The second threat is that we will lose God’s blessing. Look at the Old Testament, look at 2 Chronicles or 2 Kings. It’s an ancient story of ancient Israel – national obedience and blessing, national disobedience and curse. We, likewise, must obey and honor God or we will lose his blessing and incur his curse and as a nation, we will suffer the consequences. As we become less Christian, we will lose his blessing and possibly lose our democracy or some other form of national calamity.
MEG: Listening to what you say about “deep story,” part of what we’re trying to do with the idea of interfaith America is offer another pathway, another story of who we can be as a nation. For us, democracy is a key piece of that. What do you think is an invitational way to bring folks who find the ideas of Christian nationalism powerful, into the idea of interfaith America?
PM: On the right, there’s a sense that we’re being persecuted. We, Christians, we, white people, we men – we’re being persecuted. They really believe that. I don’t believe that, but on the right, they really do believe that, and they point to DEI, affirmative action, and other things like that as evidence that they’re being persecuted. By the way, I also don’t like the way affirmative programs are designed, so there are some ways I would maybe agree with them. Then they see things like the 1619 Project which presents the idea that all of American history is actually the history of racism and America is racist to its core, this is the kind of thing that makes people on the right go crazy because they’re like, “OK, you’re telling me that everything is bad, everything is wrong, and that I, as a Christian person, am always, bad, always evil.” That’s the way it feels – I’m not justifying it, just explaining the perception. So perhaps one way into a conversation is to start is by affirming the things that are good about America. Patriotism is a place to start. Specifically, we need to affirm the true and good parts of the Anglo-Protestant contributions to America. We now have a couple of generations about all the bad things that the Anglo-Protestants did. Maybe we could identify the good things, too. We could start the conversation by saying, America is pretty good. We are so grateful for the heritage of the Founders and the ways that they tried, sometimes successfully, to reflect Christian principles in our founding documents. If you begin the conversation this way, maybe it helps disarm the knee-jerk defensiveness. So many on the right feel as though they are in a defensive crouch. Don’t go into the conversation in attack mode – that’s not the right way to start the conversation.
By the way, I think white people need to learn more about the history of racism in our country. But if you start that way, full guns blazing, the conversation is going to end. The whole thing about white fragility is pretty true. White people don’t like hearing about that. Affirm the greatness of George Washington. Take down every statue of Robert E Lee and Jefferson Davis, please, but leave the statues of Washington and Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant – we need to have someone to honor, warts and all. To me it’s a pretty easy line to draw, take down the statues of the traitors but leave the statues of our leaders who were on the right side of American history. Start the conversation that way – it keeps the door open so that later on, you form the relationship and then you can say, “by the way, have you considered our history of racism?”
MEG: What are the elements of race in the understanding Christian nationalism as you wrote it?
PM: If you listen to what Christian nationalists say and take their claims on face value, they’re not saying overtly racist things. In the book, I examine the claims of folks like Rich Lowry and Samuel Huntington closely. By the way, not saying overtly racist things is an improvement from where we’ve been historically. At the same time, I think it’s absolutely true that in lived practice, if you observe the policy preferences and racial attitudes, there is a convincing covariance of Christian nationalism and other attitudes, for example, on police brutality. Take a poll of Americans, figure out their beliefs on police brutality, those who exhibit beliefs of Christian nationalism are far out of the mainstream on some of these issues. They are far more likely to downplay or not believe in police brutality where is more Americans will recognize the reality of it. On issue after issue, you see the same variance – gun rights, immigration – there’s a package of beliefs that go along with Christian nationalism. You don’t have to believe these things to be a Christian nationalist. But in the US context, it seems Christian nationalism is a carrier of other attitudes as well. I’ve tried to focus just on the theological component, but it is certainly a carrier of other attitudes and policy beliefs, and we can’t deny the reality of that polling data.
MEG: What would you like to see religious leaders and separately, interfaith leaders doing to engage folks who find Christian nationalism alluring?
PM: I want to see pastors speak, not necessarily more or less about politics, but pastors need to recognize that they have a role in shaping our political lives. The message of Jesus has political implications that are much bigger than any one issue. Being Christian is not just about being pro-life or pro-religious liberty – which I am, and I think that’s a true implication of Christianity. But we often approach our religion with American individualism built into our brains and we interpret the Bible that way, and that’s not helpful. The Bible was written by people embedded in community, in early churches in ancient Israel. You have to read the Bible through that lens to understand the full implications of the Bible’s message. It has implications for every outward circle of association in our lives – family, school, church, workplace, and nation.
For interfaith leaders, I’d go back to the language of the Golden Rule. So many traditions have a version of the Golden rule. If that can be our foundational shared principle – there are shared universal values that transcend sect and time and culture. If the Golden Rule can serve as a fundamental axiom, we can build from there. We can see the apparatus of a free society emerge from that. I also want to reiterate the bit about affirming America, affirming our principles, affirming the Founders, affirming, and also transcending our Anglo-Protestant heritage. That heritage is not all good, but it’s not all evil either. So, let’s affirm what we can. Let’s keep that heritage alongside the others, one among many, and not pick on it as a scapegoat. Many folks on the right feel as though it’s been singled out as a scapegoat for all the problems we’ve discuss. Let’s affirm alongside everybody else – America is a nation of e pluribus unum so let’s affirm this tradition as one among many to affirm.
MEG: What gives you hope looking at our democracy now?
PM: We’re here talking on Election Day. The fact that we still have this ceremony, this ritual, is powerful. I have a firm belief in the fairness of the process. I believe our elections are held well and the results are honored. Let’s not take that for granted, let’s be grateful for that. We know that that’s not always been the case in American history, and it someday may not be the case. Let’s celebrate that today, we are likely participating in a free and fair election, and I am grateful for that. In 1852, Frederick Douglass, as he was condemning America for its hypocrisy, nevertheless said, “I do not despair of my country.” If he could manage to not despair the nation was on the brink of Civil War when the Dred Scott decision was around the corner, then so much less should we despair now. Let’s not despair, and let’s be grateful for what we got.
Paul D. Miller is a professor at Georgetown University. His most recent book, “The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism,” was published in July by InterVarsity Press.