Christianity and American Identity
Taken from The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism by Paul D. Miller. Copyright 2022 by Paul D. Miller. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press.
“America is winning again. America is respected again. Because we are putting America first. … We’re taking care of ourselves for a change, folks. … You know they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned, it’s called a ‘nationalist.’ And I say, really? We’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. Okay? I’m a nationalist.” President Donald J. Trump proudly spoke these words to a crowd in Houston in October 2018. The crowd roared its approval and broke into a chant: “USA! USA! USA!”
The media treated this as news, but to close observers it had been evident for a long time. Trump plainly was not a conservative as defined by the political right since the 1950s. It was at first hard to identify Trump’s place on the political map because nationalism had been underground, so to speak, for a few generations. In its place, conservatism, as articulated by thinkers like William Buckley and Russell Kirk and practiced by statesmen like Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, served as the quasi-official ideology of the political right. Conservatism stressed the paramount value of human liberty within a framework of limited government. But Trump had at various points endorsed abortion, trade restrictions, gun control, and other positions at odds with the modern Republican Party and the conservative movement. Trump did not use the rhetoric of liberty, limited government, or constitutionalism. He talked about national greatness, cutting advantageous trade deals, and looking out for “America First.” Trump’s success illustrated a broader phenomenon. By 2016 it had become evident that “conservatism”—its intellectual coherence, philosophical depth and rigor, and the consonance some saw between it and biblical political theology—was the working ideology of a tiny circle of intellectuals, not the voice of a broad movement. The political right was—and, in fact, had long been—far more indebted to nationalism than to conservatism. Donald Trump recognized this reality and rode it to the White House.1
American nationalism is infused with the rhetoric and symbols of Christianity. When Trump pitched himself as a champion of regular Americans, he repeatedly and explicitly cast it as an appeal to Christians. In June 2016 he told the Faith and Freedom Coalition, “We will respect and defend Christian Americans.” In August 2016, he told a group of pastors in Orlando, “Your power has been totally taken away,” but under a Trump administration, “you’ll have great power to do good things.” In September 2016, Trump told the Values Voters Summit, “[In] a Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before. Believe me.” At the same venue the following year, after his election, Trump reminded them of his promise. “I pledged that, in a Trump administration, our nation’s religious heritage would be cherished, protected, and defended like you have never seen before,” he claimed. “That’s what’s happening. … We are stopping cold the attacks on Judeo-Christian values. … We will defend our faith and protect our traditions.” In June 2020, amid nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice, Trump posed for a photo holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Church, a historic church one block north of the White House (after police forcibly evicted protesters in the area) to “show a message of resilience and determination” according to the White House Press Secretary. Days later Trump said he believed “Christians think it was a beautiful picture.”