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A conversation with Paul Miller - S10.E9

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WORLD Radio - A conversation with Paul Miller - S10.E9

Discerning the limits of our allegiance to Caesar


Paul David Miller Handout

I’m Warren Smith, and today you’ll be listening in on my conversation with Paul Miller. His new book is The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism.

PAUL MILLER, GUEST: If you're familiar with the kind of, the horseshoe theory of politics, imagine the political spectrum ranging from left to right. As you get further and further away to the extremes on both sides, that spectrum really bends into the shape of a horseshoe, so that the far left and far right come to resemble each other. And this is one of the ways that they resemble each other is that they are both cultural engineers, trying to remake the nation on their preferred model of morals and culture and politics.

What should Christians render unto God, and what should Christians render unto Caesar? That was a question that Jesus himself had to deal with. Jesus’ answer was brilliant and obvious: Render to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s.

But discerning the limits of our allegiance to Caesar is not always easy. Often Christians over-render to Caesar. We idolize political ideologies, or we tell ourselves that faithfulness to God means allegiance to a particular political ideology.

My guest today, Paul Miller, believes too many Christians have improperly identified Christian nationalism as falling within the bounds of Biblical Christianity. His new book makes the case for disentangling the two, and—more than merely disentangling them—he says Christians should re-commit themselves to a Biblical Christianity that takes politics and patriotism seriously, but doesn’t elevate our allegiance to party and country above our commitment to Christ.

Paul Miller has thought long and deeply about these issues. He is a committed evangelical Christian who is also professor of the practice of international studies at Georgetown University. He spent a decade in public service as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Before that, he was a military intelligence officer in the U.S. Army.

WS: Paul, first of all, welcome to the program. It's great to have you on to talk about your new book. And I think the first question that I have for you is sort of the big ‘why’ question. Why did you want to write this book and why now?

PM: First, Warren, thanks so much for having me on the show. I really appreciate it. It's good to meet you. And thank you for giving me the chance to talk about the book. Why did I write the book? I guess you'd have to rewind, six or eight years or so however long it's been now. I suppose I could tell you that the truth that since I was in high school, I've always known I wanted to write a book of political philosophy. And I got the occasion to do so back in, I guess it was 2015-2016, when I realized, I kind of looked at what was happening in our country and didn't understand it. I just didn't, I just simply did not understand what was happening, particularly in the political right. I had come up within, on the right, both politically and theologically conservative, and felt like I didn't understand my own tribe anymore. And so I spent many years reading a lot more about American history, reading political theory, trying to wrap my head around what was going on, and where these things are coming from. And that's where this book came from. It's my desire to understand a bit better about our country and about the trends on the right, as they have been developing over decades and decades, not just the last few years.

WS: Well, you as you rightly said, these trends - and as you document in your book, these trends have been developing over many decades - but it does seem to me and I'm just wondering if you, you know, would agree with this or not that something happened in the last few years. That, you know, maybe there had been pressure building up in the pressure cooker, so to speak. But in the last 10 or 15 years, the top popped off of the pressure cooker, you might say. Do you agree with that? And if so, what were some of the more recent precipitating events?

PM: Yeah, I think that there are reasons why we've seen an upsurge of populism and nationalism around the world. It's not unique to the United States. We've seen this in many countries. Part of it is a reaction to globalization, right? Post Cold War world, there's a lot more interconnectedness around the world, among countries. It's a lot easier to travel and trade. And people have raised warnings for many years that it's flattening our cultures. There's a kind of a bland sameness that takes over in large urban centers all around the world. And people want to hold on to their cultural particularity. And that is part of the backlash, the the desire to, to revive some of our national distinctiveness. You add in things like the 2008 financial crisis, a large spike in unemployment, you throw in the aftermath of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, you throw in the COVID-19 pandemic. All of these things serve to accelerate and inflame some of those pre existing sentiments.

WS: Yeah, I'm wondering what you think about this theory that, that social media coming, becoming ubiquitous or nearly ubiquitous, among at least a certain class of people around 2007-2008, contributed to that phenomenon as well. I mean, Thomas Friedman famously wrote a book, The World is Flat, right around 2006, or 2007. And he sort of identified some of the same characteristics that you were talking about. We saw the Tea Party in 2010, and so on. So yeah, it's a, you know, kind of a Harmonic Convergence, a confluence of events that get us to where we are. But, as we've already alluded to, or even said explicitly, you say, though, that these phenomena while they had, they have catalysts, they have precipitating events in the last decade or so, they've really been developing for a very long time. And in many ways, they've been a part of our national conversation, even from the beginning. And in that spirit, I would like for you to define a few terms. And if I can get you to do so, put yourself on one side or the other of some of these terms. So, for example, you talk about Christian nationalism, but you also talk about Christian republicanism. And in some ways your book is a comparison and a contrast exercise in those two big ideas. Can you define those terms, at least give us your definitions, and what sort of the virtues and the dangers of both movements might be?

PM: You're right. I do kind of contrast Christian nationalism with a lot of other things, and Christian Republicanism comes to play later in the book. What I want to convey is that I'm a Christian, I want to be involved in politics, I want to work for justice. That's good. I think lots of Christians need to hear that, that it's good and right and proper for us to advocate for justice, be politically involved, not apologize for what we believe in. None of that is Christian nationalism, right? I'm going to lump that in a category of call it patriotism and call it Christian republicanism, Christian democracy. Christian nationalism is a is a is a argument about how we define our country. It's a certain way of understanding American identity. If you ask people, what does it mean to be an American? I'll answer that it has something to do with the American creed, democracy, equality, liberty for all. And our history. It's the history, the story of our creed as we live it out in this land. If you ask a nationalist, what does it mean to be an American, they're more likely to answer something to do with the culture, rather than the creed. That to be an American, you have to have some connection to our predominant cultural influence, which they call Anglo Protestantism. I want to be very careful, they're not making a racist claim that you have to be descended from Britons or Europeans. And they're not making a theocratic claim that you have to be a Christian, or the state must enforce Christian dogma. They're making a cultural claim, that our nation was stamped and marked and defined with Anglo Protestant cultural values. And that was true for, you know, 150-200 years. And so if we're going to be true to who we were, we must sustain those values today and into the future. That's the nationalist argument. Our culture is what makes us who we are. And we have to sustain that into the future and even use the government to support those values.

WS: But one of the problems you say with that identity, that identifying with Christian nationalism, is as having it's rooted in culture is that culture is not that easy to define, either. That culture is somewhat amorphous, and it's not always an unalloyed positive influence in our lives. I mean, as a friend of mine, Johnstone Street, is fond of saying, a culture that protects its babies is inherently better than a culture that eats its babies - just to use kind of a ridiculous example. And even in the American experiment, we have seen, you know, dramatic shifts in culture and some ideas that were, especially maybe say, in the arts, we look at jazz, for example. And in fact, you spend a page or two talking about jazz, that jazz was initially rejected as part of the American culture. And today, we understand jazz as, in many ways, a distinctively American cultural artifact, which, again, without getting down that rabbit hole too far, I just cite that as an example, because you cited as an example of how cultural values and cultural definitions change over time.

PM: And I picked on the jazz example, because it crops up in another book by Rich Lowry called The Case for Nationalism. And so if you want to read a book that is kind of the opposite of mine, and you know, it makes up the positive case for it, that's one place to look. But what Rich Lowry says is, number one, we should preserve the cultural nation. He's very clear that that's what Nationalism means - preserve our cultural heritage. And then a couple of pages later, when he's trying to defend the idea that American culture isn't white, he talks about jazz and how jazz comes from the cultural fluidity and mix and change and the ethnic diversity of America. And that's true. But if it's true, why should we preserve the cultural nation? In the year 1900, if we were all nationalists, and we wanted to preserve the cultural nation, we would not have accepted jazz. We would have said this is unAmerican, and we would have rejected it. And so I want to accept the idea that jazz is a good thing. It's a quintessentially American product. And precisely because we want to remain open to more such creation and innovation like that, we should reject the nationalist program of essentializing our culture and freeze framing it and trying to return back to some template in the past. We need to remain open to the the wonderful ingenuity and inventiveness of the American spirit. And that's a better way of understanding American identity than the nationalist way.

WS: Well, we can't fully unpack these terms that I've asked you to define here, Paul. But there, there are a couple more that I at least want you to take a swing at the bat with. And one of them, we've already mentioned it, is patriotism. You say in your book that patriotism, rightly defined, is a good thing. And in fact, you cite even George Orwell, who made a similar argument. Can you quickly make that argument for patriotism and contrast that with nationalism?

PM: Patriotism is the simple love of country without really taking sides in a debate about how you define the country. CS Lewis says this great thing in his book on the Four Loves about how we ought to love our countries. We have to have an affection and a gratitude for our homes for what is familiar, for the sights and sounds and tastes and smells of where we came up in. Nigel Biggar, an ethicist at Oxford whom I greatly respect, he talks about the importance of having gratitude for the institutions that inducted us into the forms of human flourishing, including the nation. And I think that's all very true, we should be grateful for our country, we should love our country, have affection for it. And none of that requires us to take a stand on this debate about how you define American identity. I'm a patriot. I served in the United States Armed Forces. Very proud to be an American. I fly the flag, and I love the pageantry of the Fourth of July. I'm not embarrassed by any of that. But again, it doesn't require me to take a, to understand American identity in primarily cultural terms.

WS: Yeah. Another word that I want you to say a little bit about is tribalism because, especially in the last five or 10 years, it seems to me that a lot of thinkers, I guess you could say, the intellectual class, has attempted to use the word tribalism as a way of defining what the, what America has become. That we have become a nation of tribes, which, and I think that there is some wisdom in that critique. It is, at least in some ways, helpful in understanding what has happened in America over the last 10 or 15 or 20 years. How would you define tribalism? And what are the, again, what are the benefits and dangers of becoming a nation that retreats into tribalism?

PM: Yeah, that's a great question. And it's a little, it's a little knotty. That's a K knot, like k-n-o-t. It's very knotty question. I think that we are all members of tribes, right? A tribe is in a sense, it is a group of affinity or kinship that we feel a pre rational, atavistic, maybe uncritical sense of loyalty and affection for because it's our "in" group. Usually, these groups are groups of language, ethnicity, religion, or community perhaps. And then there can be kind of looser tribes of voluntary associations and the tribes of sports fandom. You know, people get very tribalistic about which teams they root for. When we talk about political terms, you know, I think nationalism tries to treat our nation as one large tribe. And I think that's actually quite dangerous to do that, because it's simply not true. We're not one big tribe. We're more like an association or a confederation of various sub tribes, is maybe a better way of thinking about it. And if we try to act like one big tribe, it usually means the dominant tribe, in our case, white Christians, end up exercising a kind of an internal imperialism over the other sub tribes that make up our country. So that's why I don't think it's helpful to think of our nation as one big tribe. Let's frankly accept the fact that we belong to different tribes, and that's okay. And understand that our nation is something different, that it gives space for our various sub cultures to exist and thrive. And that's all we should aspire for it to do.

WS: It's interesting, given some of those definitions, Paul, that one of the critiques of conservatives against progressive ideology is that it attempts to engineer culture. That it attempts to impose top down values on the nation. And so for example, you there's been a conservative critique for you know, probably 50 or 60 years that that the military, for example, has been used for social engineering experiments. And conservatives, I think for good reason, rebel against that, or at least critique that. Conservatives will often use similar language to talk about the public schools. That the public schools have become, not a place of education, per se, but a place of propagandizing, a place of indoctrination. And it is ironic, and I think this is one of the points that you're getting at here, is that in the current cultural moment, in some ways, conservatives have become what they hate. That they object to the progressive social engineering, prima facie, because it is cultural engineering. Not, not even necessarily because the particular ideology is bad, but because the engineering has happened, the cultural engineering is happening at all. And yet, that seems to be precisely what nationalism does. In fact, at one point, you say that, that the progressive left and the nationalist right have more in common than they think, because they are both illiberal. Could, first of all, did I get you right on that point? And can you say more about it?

PM: You did get me right on that point. And this is, if you're familiar with the kind of the horseshoe theory of politics, imagine the political spectrum ranging from left to right. As you get further and further away to the extremes on both sides, that spectrum really bends into the shape of a horseshoe, so that the far left and far right come to resemble each other. And this is one of the ways that they resemble each other is that they are both cultural engineers, trying to remake the nation on their preferred model of morals and culture and politics. It's very, they're very different models. The progressive left, they want to re engineer everything by progressive morality. I don't agree with that. But on the right, you're correct that they want to also engage in cultural engineering and revive what they imagined to be this old template of American culture from the 1950s and beforehand. That's why I don't use the word conservative to describe the political right anymore. I am a conservative in that pre-2016 sense, I still believe in most of those old ideas. But the political right doesn't anymore. That's why it's more accurate to call them nationalists, not conservatives. Now, when I say the nationalist and the progressives are both illiberal, what I mean is they're not liberal, and I'm using the word liberal as political philosophers do to refer to 18th century ideas of democracy and political liberties and civil rights. I'm not using it to refer to the political left of the Democratic Party. I'm using it to refer to the philosophy of the American founding. In that sense, we're all liberals, classical liberals, or we all were until recently. And now we increasingly have a lot of illiberal movements on the left and the right, which, which is deeply concerning for the future of our country.

WS: Yeah, I think one of the critiques that, that classical liberals, conservatives, have made against progressivism, and it's a critique that I share and I have voiced, is that one of the problems with progressivism is that it doesn't fully take into account reality. That it doesn't take into account the reality of, for example, the human condition, the the fall, if I could put it that way. And that it places too much trust in large institutions, large cultural institutions, you know, whether it be Washington or New York, or Hollywood or whatever it might be, to affect social change. And I think that's a valid critique, honestly. And the way you put it in your book, is that progressives and nationalists require us to have too much belief in things that we know are simply not true. And it seems to me that that is one more way that that the progressive left and the nationalist right, again, I know you that you have qualified all of those words, but share much in common. I was I was fascinated, for example, a few years ago, probably around 2015, right before the first Trump election, that many people who listed Trump as their first choice for president listed Bernie Sanders as their second choice and vice versa. Many people who listed Bernie Sanders as their first choice, listed Trump as their second choice. And that finding, statistical finding, baffled me, until, in some ways until I read your book, until I realized that they are both illiberal in many of the same ways.

PM: And in that particular example, they both champion economic nationalism, which is not something that either party had championed for decades, until both Trump and Sanders and actually a few others on the left started to do that. And it's quite popular with a segment of the American electorate. I'd say a plurality of the American electorate really likes that idea. So that's another reason you see that overlap.

WS: I want to get you to define another term that has been showing up a lot more, especially in Christian circles in the past, you know, 10 or 15 years. And that is this notion of human flourishing. At one point in your book, in fact, you say that the the litmus test or the straight stick that you can hold up to any political ideology, is this notion of human flourishing. In other words, does this idea, does this political tribe, does this faction, does this ideology contribute to human flourishing, or lead us away from human flourishing? How would you first of all define human flourishing?

PM: So I'm going to confess that when I talk about human flourishing, I'm actually making an argument about natural law. People don't like that terminology about natural law anymore. It sounds medieval, it sounds Catholic. But I'm making an argument about timeless, trans-cultural, moral laws. And the word for that is natural law. When I talk about human flourishing, I'm saying that that is a standard of justice that can and should apply across time and across cultures. Now, how do you measure that? What is the content? What is the definition of human flourishing? You can draw one argument from scripture. But if you want a definition that you can advance in the public square, and maybe get agreement on, across lines of sect and belief, I like the work of a secular philosopher named Martha Nussbaum. She's talked about different aspects of humanity. We all have bodies, and therefore things that make our bodies work better, are better for us than things that make our bodies not work better, right? Health is better than illness. Life is better than death. That's simple. And people should be able to agree with that, across all lines of culture and time. And she goes on and talks about, literacy is a universal good. The ability to find meaning in, in groups or community. Laughter, things like this are these are universal human experiences. And if we can arrange society to make those universal experiences more accessible, and easier and better, and easier for for people more widely distributed, that's good for, that's a good measure of a good society. It might be a, an early stab at a definition of ordered liberty and human dignity. But I do plan to make this the focus of another book in the future, where I want to dig more deeply into it.

WS: Paul, I want to pivot in our conversation just a little bit, and because we've been talking about a lot of ideas, and I want to maybe try to get us a little bit closer to street level, if I could, and talk about some of the conversations that have been happening in especially the conservative intellectual space in the last few years. I think for, you and you, you devote some energy in your book to Rusty Reno, R.R. Reno, who is the editor of First Things magazine. And I remember pretty vividly back in, I think 2016, being in New York for an event put on by First Things magazine, the Erasmus Lecture. Russell Moore was the speaker at that lecture. And, you know, Russell Moore made a very powerful case, under the auspices of a First Things event, against Donald Trump and against some of the ideas of Christian nationalism that that you're talking about today. And yet, you know, fast forward five or six years and in fact that transformation is now fully complete. The transformation actually took place in a matter of a couple of years. First Things completely flipped in it's editorial focus.

I think about the National Review. The National Review, I believe it was also in 2016, devoted an entire issue that, to the case against Donald Trump. And Rich Lowry was, you know, was then and is now the editor of the National Review. And Rich Lowry recently wrote a book that we've already cited here in our conversation, which was basically the case for nationalism. What happened? What happened to conservative intellectuals that caused such a dramatic shift in their political allegiances in a really relatively short period of time?

PM: That's a big question. And it takes us a bit far afield. I am hesitant to speculate about what happened in the hearts and minds of other intellectuals. That, I just don't know, you know. Let me give them the benefit of the doubt and say that it was a genuine, intellectual conversion on their parts that they saw the light and saw something different that I still don't see to this day. I will say that you mentioned Rusty Reno. His book on the [Return of the] Strong Gods. It's a very challenging book, I take issue with it in my book, I engage with it and I sketch out my disagreements. But at the end, I return to Rusty's book, and actually end up agreeing with a part of it. Because he, I think, is correct, that our politics needs some grounding that is more than the technocratic expertise or efficiency on the libertarian right, and more than the identity politics of the left. I think he's he's correct about that. He goes much further than I would and talks about the strong gods of nationalism. I think that's quite dangerous. And instead, I talk about the need to cultivate our story together. And perhaps, to circle back and answer your question, what happened to the intellectuals on the right, I think perhaps many sensed that there was a problem on the right, on the libertarian right. They could not quite articulate the solution. And Trump came around, he won quite unexpectedly. And it was a jolt to the system. And it jolted people too far. Instead of being a helpful, edifying reminder of the importance of the nation, and our story, and our identity, it just yanked people way out, and to the point that they embraced full blooded nationalism. So I'm hoping that my book will be a helpful corrective to the corrective, right? There are some good things to learn from the moment from this cultural moment, you know, we started out talking about patriotism. That wasn't actually very fashionable 5, 6, 7, 8 years ago. It's still not fashionable on the left. But I think that people on the right, we've got the message. And now we need to reexamine a little bit to make sure our patriotism is truly the healthy, open, tolerant kind and has not fallen into the dangers of nationalism.

WS: There's a political philosopher that I I'm not fluent in, but what little I’ve read of him I'm fond of, and that's the political philosopher Jacques Ellul. And one of the things that Jacques Ellul says, is that, that we human beings are vulnerable to succumbing to what he calls the political illusion. The idea that all problems are political problems, therefore, all solutions should be political solutions. And he makes the case against that. That we had that we not succumb to the political illusion. That we have our understanding of the world, including our politics, be more grounded in you know, I hate to use 50 cent words here, but and in an, in a more robust ontology, that it's rooted in reality. It strikes me, Paul, that you say much the same thing near the end of your book, when you say that the problems that Christian nationalists identified are real. That, and you and you just said that a few moments ago, just now. That the progressive left, their project is rooted in falsehood, or at least many, many things that are verifiably false, many ideas that are verifiably false. But on the other hand, you also conclude your book by saying that, and I'm going to read this quote from your book: "Reviving the West is too important to trust to Washington." When I read that, I thought of Jacques Ellul's The Political Illusion. And I'm just wondering, when I sort of connect those two dots, how does that hit you? And can you say more about that?

PM: So I have not read Jacques Ellul. The only, my only familiarity with him is, through Alan Noble's work on his recent book, You Are Not Your Own. If readers, if listeners, you haven't read that book, go and read that book. It's excellent. But I, as I encountered those ideas, I felt like I was reading something maybe I had run across before or just felt familiar. You know, quite a lot of what I'm trying to get across here in my book is that we should expect a little bit less from our government, and do a little bit more in our lives outside of it. If listeners want to cultivate their cultural identity, great. Don't go to the government to do it for you. And don't expect the government to enforce whatever cultural identity you decide you want to cultivate. If you want to revive Western civilization, or Anglo Protestantism, or or whatever else, go do it. Form a hobbyist association, form a club, meet with your neighborhood or go form an internet group or something like that. But it really doesn't have to be political. You can cultivate these kinds of things on your own as a matter of civic education.

WS: Yeah. So in some ways, Paul, it sounds to me that you are calling us back. You know, I, I hate to say something, like, make conservatism great again. Or, but, but in other words, I don't, I don't want to just look back. I want you know, I think it's important to look forward because I think nostalgia and sentimentality are at least in part, the problem that we're having to overcome today. That said, I think of Russell Kirk, and his definition of conservatism. I think of Edmund Burke. I think of Alexis de Tocqueville, who in attempting to define democracy in America, he noted that America is a nation of joiners. And Edmund Burke talked about the ‘little platoons’ that might be a label for what you just described. In, in, in Democracy in America, you know, we we are introduced to the idea that America, by Alexis de Tocqueville, he didn't say it quite this way. But I think that it can be translated this way that America is great, not because it's great at the top, places like Washington D.C., or New York City, or in our great economic or, or entertainment institutions. And it's really not a nation of rugged individualists, either. We're, it's not great because it's great at the bottom. It's great because it's great in the middle. That there's a thick, middle to our body politic that is held together by these connecting tissues that you just described. Is that a fair assessment as sort of a bottom line for your book?

PM: I think so. And if I could, maybe zero in on one particular point. As a Christian, I kind of think that we have a duty to engage in these things. In the middle, in the civic associations, in the neighborhood. We're called to love our neighbors in every way possible. And I think that means we love them politically, by voting for justice. We love them culturally, by tolerating difference, but also cherishing and being grateful and cultivating the cultural forms that are around us. That means participating. That means showing up at your neighborhood association, at your land use commission, that's actually a live issue in my particular neighborhood, or your Parent Teacher Association. Show up. And showing up as an act of love for your neighbors because participating in those, in those things helps enliven your community and keep these organizations alive. I want listeners and readers to understand that as part of being a Christian in the public square is showing up and being a part of your community. Don't just shut yourself up in your room. If you're, if you are, if you think you're being a Christian public square by posting on Facebook your opinion about pro life cause that ain't it. Look, I'm pro life. But that is not the extent of our Christian duty in politics. You got to show up in face to face interactions and talk with people, form relationships. And that's more where the work gets done.

WS: Yeah, you would think that if the Incarnation means anything, it should mean that, right? I mean, Jesus is God and yet he showed up as human and that is not an incidental Christian doctrine. But that is an essential Christian doctrine.

PM: Amen.

That brings to a close my conversation with Paul Miller. Paul Miller is a former White House official and is currently a professor at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service. His latest book, the one we discussed today, is The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong With Christian Nationalism.

Listening In comes to you from WORLD News Group, and this program is just one of the many benefits that comes with a WORLD subscription. To find out more visit WNG.org/subscribe.

Also, a reminder that we have an extensive archive of more than 450 conversations with writers, filmmakers, musicians, artists, politicians and pastors, news makers, and interesting people of all kinds. So if you’re new to the program, head over to the World News Group website and use the search engine to explore what we have there. Again, that’s WNG.org.

Tune in next week to hear my conversation with author, speaker, and Christian apologist Sean McDowell. Sean’s new book – A Rebel’s Manifesto -- provides short, sharp, biblical answers to some of the most troubling questions teenagers face today. And though the book is aimed at teens, I’ve read it, and let me tell you, parents and grandparents will find it helpful too. I hope you will join us.

The producer for today’s program is Leigh Jones. Johnny Franklin is the technical producer. And Paul Butler is executive producer for WORLD Radio. I’m your host, Warren Smith. And you’ve been Listening In….



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