"Life-Giving Reproof"

In his review of my book, Mark David Hall has mounted an impressive argument against the idea that Christian nationalism is an “existential threat” to American democracy. Indeed, I am so persuaded that I would repent, retract what I wrote, and recall my book for its fallacious argument—if I had ever written such a thing.

I never argued that Christian nationalism presents an “existential threat.” The phrase does not occur in my book. I have never said so in any of the dozens of talks and interviews I have given on the subject. Despite the fact that the phrase occurs in the headline to Hall’s review, the phrase is entirely, wholly unconnected to me.

The phrase occurs in other scholars’ writings, whom Hall quotes. In a 2,000-word essay that is ostensibly a review of my book, Hall devotes something like a third of it to other critics and books, and Hall is determined to conflate my book with theirs. “Miller and other critics fail to make the case that it is an ‘existential threat’ to the nation,” he writes, and “Miller and other critics vastly exaggerate the threat of Christian nationalism.”

In my book, I specifically criticize other scholars of Christian nationalism for their poor understanding of the subject and their alarmist, exaggerated warnings about it. Indeed, one of the very scholars Hall disapprovingly quotes for his alarmism (Andrew Seidel) I also quote for the same purpose (pg. 44). Suggesting that Seidel’s and my book make the same argument is simply false. Instead of conflating me with the alarmists, Hall might have seen me as an ally against a common problem.

Instead, Hall, like many other readers of my book, seems determined to make my book into something it is not. He is right that, since Christian nationalism entered mainstream discussion in 2021, critics on the left have latched onto it as a useful cudgel with which to criticize any and all Christian involvement in politics. But far from contributing to that dynamic, I did the opposite, warning (before Hall did) against over-generalizing or exaggerating the threat. “Christian nationalism is not a catch-all term for any kind of Christian political advocacy,” I wrote (pg. 59), and I praised the example of Christians who work for equal justice and common flourishing in the public square. Hall describes it as ironic that I praise some policies (the pro-life movement, private schooling, and religious liberty) that other critics of Christian nationalism have criticized. He could have instead chosen to say that I, uniquely among critics of Christian nationalism, have drawn careful distinctions, which sets my book apart from the others.

It seems to me that, in the face of critics who have launched a broadside against Christian nationalism, some of which goes too far, many Christian conservatives have adopted a stance of anti-anti-Christian nationalism. They have decided that over-criticizing Christian nationalism is a bigger danger than Christian nationalism itself. This echoes precisely the stance of anti-anti-Trumpism: the phenomenon of those on the right who may have paid lip service to Trump’s flaws but spent far more time criticizing Trump’s critics than criticizing Trump himself.

I believe we have a different responsibility: precisely because Christian nationalism is something happening on “our” side, we have an even greater duty to recognize it, call it out, denounce it for its injustices, and root it out. We can’t trust the left to advance a good-faith, careful, nuanced critique of our own extremism; we have to do it ourselves. As I wrote in my preface, I felt a responsibility to examine the plank in our eye before criticizing the speck—or plank—in the eye of the leftist (pg. xv). Sadly, instead of finding allies on the right, I have so far been largely disappointed to find, on balance, more embarrassed silence, uncomfortable deflection, knee-jerk whataboutism, or outright hostility than appreciation for what I intended to be a loving rebuke. “The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise,” (Proverbs 15:31).

Hall makes other errors in interpreting my book. He makes much of the fact that the authors whom I review, including Samuel Huntington, Rich Lowry, Yoram Hazony, R.R. Reno, and Nigel Biggar, do not self-identify as Christian nationalists, demonstrating (to Hall) that I have exaggerated the ideology’s prevalence. But I wouldn’t expect them to. Since the term went mainstream, it quickly became mostly a term of abuse, and I do not expect many to openly embrace the label, unless, like Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, they do so to be deliberately provocative. Like “neoconservative” or “fundamentalist,” the term has become laden with connotations disconnected from its scholarly use.

But the term does have a scholarly meaning, which I strove to draw out carefully and impartially with a two-chapter survey of decades of scholarship on nationalism. Lowry, Hazony, and Huntington openly identify as nationalists (I think Reno does too, but I am not certain), and all of them explicitly argue that Christianity is a core part of America’s cultural identity that must be preserved by a nationalist program of public policy. What else are we supposed to call them? They are nationalists-who-believe-Christianity-is-core-to-the-nation. “Christian nationalist” is an acceptable shorthand.

(Biggar is a more complicated case and I could have been clearer in my survey that his is a different kind of Christian nationalism, relying on an overt establishment of a state church).

Hall claims that I argue that evangelicals voted for Trump because of status anxiety, not because of a transactional calculation. In fact, I say it was both; I recognize and do not exclude the transactional calculation in many evangelicals’ voting choice. But I observe that the transactional calculation cannot be “the full story” (pg. 202) because of the wealth of polling data and voting behavior after 2016. I specifically say that we can even “grant that many self-identified White evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016 because they thought he was the better choice than Clinton,” (pg. 203) but then argue we need more to explain their continued support—and, often, enthusiasm—for him in office once the binary choice was no longer in play. This is the kind of nuance I strove for specifically to guard against accusations that I was unfair or polemical, which I wish Hall and others would recognize.

In case after case, Hall seems determined to read me as part of a larger movement he dislikes, rather than as the most careful voice of a movement the right clearly needs. In the review, Hall devotes about three sentences to the fact that Christian nationalism is real, it is bad, it is worth calling out, and that I wrote a “reasonable critique” of it. I appreciate that. That could have been the core of a fairer review, and a better headline.