We the Fallen People: The Founders and the Future of American Democracy
The Religion of American Greatness: What’s Wrong with Christian Nationalism
In the short space of about 30 years, we have gone from heralding liberal democracy (or liberalism) as the final political regime (see Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis1) to wondering whether it can or should survive.
The big idea behind liberalism is liberty. Now, liberty is variously defined and can mean something like “freedom from” or “freedom to” or even both at the same time. The modern package of rights and freedoms we tend to enjoy consists of the right to vote, the right to free speech, religious liberty, an economy that is largely oriented around the free market, and a government that limits its ambitions and respects a public/private divide.
Liberalism is under attack from both sides of the ideological divide. There was always a push against the economics of liberalism from the left, but it tended to be accompanied by an appreciation for civil libertarianism. Now, the economic critique is accompanied by an attack on the legal values of liberalism. As an example, one might note the way college students of the 1980s tended to be free speech absolutists of the “I may not agree with what you say, but I will die to defend your right to say it” variety, while today’s college students may write off free speech as a relic of a society rooted in white supremacy. In addition, all have witnessed the steep fall-off in appreciation for religious liberty, largely because it is seen as a value in conflict with the fullest respect for LGBTQ citizens.
While the left-wing attack on liberalism is attention-getting, there has been a growing movement on the right aimed at shrugging off its limitations. According to this way of thinking, corporations and cultural elites have conspired to use liberalism as a way to prevent conservatives and religionists from bringing the full appeal of their case to the people. Instead of holding on to their role as watchmen on the wall who maintain the old rules, “postliberals” of the right seek an ambitious re-ordering of political priorities. That means a demotion of free trade, a promotion of cultural religion, a stricter defense of borders, and a stronger sense of nationalism. The most successful political figure of the postliberal right is Viktor Orban. Orban has turned the postliberal, nationalistic, and culturally Christian agenda into large majorities in Hungary. He has been promoted by American conservative figures such as Rod Dreher and Tucker Carlson.
Of course, the door to a more nationalistic way of thinking wasn’t opened in the United States by Viktor Orban, no matter how successful he has been. Rather, it would be more correct to say that Donald Trump found a ready audience for nationalism and postliberal thinking in the United States and rode a seemingly unlikely wave into the White House by semi-miraculously navigating the twists and turns of the Electoral College. With his case vastly enhanced by the acquisition of political power, Donald Trump became a political role model of sorts. The message was that a more aggressive nationalistic approach could succeed in the United States.
Ronald Reagan may have been a celebrity before he became governor of California and then president of the United States, but he always acted within the established norms of the American political scene. Trump was a celebrity billionaire real estate developer and television host whose first office was the biggest. He had no desire to fit in with American political culture. Instead, he considered it a virtue to break something he argued needed breaking. Or, to use his words, he would “drain the swamp.”
Trump lost his bid for re-election, which was impressive given that he exceeded all previous vote totals for a presidential candidate. It just happened that his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, got even more votes than Trump. When Trump was elected, many observers probably thought he would come and go as an outlier of little consequence. That might have happened except for a few occurrences. One was that people toward the bottom of the wage scale began to see gains during Trump’s presidency. Whether that was because of his policies or not, it was the kind of result at which he aimed with his war against free trade in favor of American manufacturing. The economy expanded. The United States managed to stay out of war, which seemed more likely with Trump than less because of his stance against the world policeman role the United States has occupied. Then COVID-19 happened. Trump went from center stage to being a semi-spectator in his own administration. COVID-19, of course, has proved to be a breeding ground of predominantly right-wing conspiracy theories, including regarding vaccines even though they were the result of a Trump-led program.
After the election, Trump acted differently than any of his predecessors. He fought for every possibility of recounts and even urged the Georgia Secretary of State to “find votes.” One of the great American political traditions, maybe the most valuable of all of them, has been the orderly transfer of power between elections. Trump disregarded the need to maintain public confidence by continually claiming the election lacked validity and encouraged citizens to gather for protest on January 6. Further, he made an argument that Vice President Mike Pence would be able to refuse to certify the election results. Pence, more thoroughly shaped in the American political tradition than Trump, denied that he had any such power and certified the election. The protest became a world spectacle and a debacle. While it has often been noted that evangelicals (as defined by politics more than theology) overwhelmingly supported Trump, it should also be noted that Pence is a man of unquestionable evangelical bona fides who did exactly the right thing when it mattered. He will not be rewarded for so doing. To Trump fans, he is a Benedict Arnold. To Trump opponents, he will always be the member of the American political class who was willing to validate the rude outsider.
The reason it is important to describe the growth of right-wing postliberalism and the part played by Donald Trump for the purposes of this essay is because neither of the books under consideration would have been written without those developments. While both authors welcome readers of all types and there is profitable content available for virtually anyone, both authors also make clear that they are writing to their fellow Christians (and perhaps especially to their fellow evangelicals) in an attempt to woo them away from the mindset that seems to be gathering adherents. As I write this review, there is a third book that is gaining considerably more attention than either of these volumes, which is Stephen Wolfe’s The Case for Christian Nationalism.2 One of the contentions of Wolfe’s book is that things like nations and the preference for one’s own are parts of the lives of pre-fallen humans. He seeks to make the case, then, that something like a religious nationalism and maybe even an ethnic religious nationalism is a desirable form of politics for Christians to pursue. Both McKenzie and Miller would have doubts about such a project.
McKenzie begins his book with Tocqueville and carries the Frenchman with him throughout his excellent discussion of the American constitutional regime and its early history. Thanks to American presidential speechwriters, the one thing many citizens may call to memory when hearing Tocqueville’s name is that “America is great because she is good.” Don’t look for it in Democracy in America. It isn’t there. Tocqueville never said it. McKenzie argues that Tocqueville held the opposite view. To the extent he praised Americans, it was more for their pragmatism. It was to their credit that they engaged in certain habits of restraint related to a combination of religion and enlightened self-interest.
Tocqueville approached democracy as a young aristocrat from a family that had suffered in the French Revolution. He had the wisdom and the curiosity to try to really understand it in the place that was leading the world in democratic practice and feeling, the young United States. His insights have proven to be of lasting value. On one hand, he had considerable appreciation for the New England settlers, their religious conviction, and the value of their township governance. He also saw good in the way democracy seems to lift the low and to bring about a higher median development of personal knowledge and character than one finds in aristocratic societies. Tocqueville draws memorable pictures of Americans full of confidence in progress, reading newspapers, and hewing lives out of the wilderness. If one wanted speech material, it could probably be found there. On the other hand, though, beyond the charming nature of New England town hall meetings and frontier porch philosophers, Tocqueville formed a clear view of the great danger posed by democracy, which is the moral authority it gives to majority opinions. Americans, in his view, were in grave danger of confusing the will of the many with that which is right. Tocqueville documents the terrible danger such a system creates for anyone who is in the minority. It could be with regard to race, religion, or ideas, but democracy was the method of government which most easily confused oppression with righteousness.
In addition to his ongoing engagement with Tocqueville in the book, McKenzie spends considerable time dealing with the American founders. During the past twenty years, academic evangelical historians have sparred with purveyors of pop history over the religious beliefs of the founders. That debate, it has always seemed to me, is misguided. There is nothing in the Constitution (whether the founders were recognizably Christian or not) that deeds the regime to the heirs of orthodoxy. Even if we were to establish somehow that every founder was a highly devout Christian, I am not sure what the legal consequences of that discovery would be. McKenzie wisely avoids that debate and focuses on something that is more easily established, which is the founders’ view of human nature and how they shaped the law in response to that view. Whether the founders were individually Christian or not, McKenzie demonstrates that they tended to share a belief regarding human nature which mirrors the Christian one. Christians have always believed human beings are fallen creatures. McKenzie shows that the founders likewise viewed human beings skeptically. In other words, we are capable of deceiving ourselves as to our own motives. And we tend to seek our private good even when we tell ourselves we are pursuing the common good. Machiavelli said it was better to be feared than loved because fear is the more reliable emotion. In McKenzie’s telling, the founders thought it was important to seek virtue, but that systems should be designed more with sin in mind. Politically speaking, it is this discovery (what the founders thought about human nature) that is potentially more fruitful than proving out their church attendance, baptism, etc.
We can see the evidence of this belief both in some of the argumentative material produced in favor of the Constitution’s ratification, such as in Federalist Papers 10 and 51. More telling, we find the skeptical view of human nature and majority power in the design of the federal government itself. I have a sense that American civics has fallen in priority in our public education systems (and maybe in the private schools, as well), but those of us who have lived a half century or so can certainly remember being drilled on the separation of powers, the division of the legislative branch into a House and a Senate, checks and balances, and the layering of the federal government atop the state and local governments, which have their own distinct domains. The intent of this system was to make it difficult for transient majorities to enflame electoral passions and to gain control of the whole apparatus. Instead, passion counters passion and faction counters faction in our system. In addition, it is also the case that no more than one-third of the U.S. Senate is exposed to the electorate in any given cycle. The president is up for election every other cycle. Only the House of Representatives has the potential to turn over entirely at each election. The federal judges, of course, serve for life, given good behavior. Taken together, this is not a system of government built for efficiency. Presidents and legislative leaders for nearly 200 years probably rue that fact from time to time. American presidents have far less capacity to take strong action than, say, a British prime minister with a solid majority. For the founders, the checks, the balances, the separation, the federal division, the veto power, all of these things combined not as some kind of frustrating bug, but rather as a feature. The American system frustrates the majority.
Tocqueville re-enters the picture. From his perspective, as from that of the founders, these structural limitations that frustrate majority power are good. Why good? Because majority power is possibly the most dangerous power of all. Majorities are the most assured of their own righteousness and the least likely to question themselves and their motives. McKenzie brilliantly shows the change in the attitude toward majorities between the age of the founders and the age of Jackson. During that period, the American political zeitgeist moves from questioning majority power to flattering it and enshrining it. Tocqueville, without mentioning Jackson in this regard specifically, unfavorably contrasted the founding generation to the contemporary American politicians who reigned at the time of his visit. He found that there had been a substantial decline in their quality as leaders. For Tocqueville, the statesmen of the founding had devolved into retail politicians who would descend to any level with their sycophancy and flattery toward the voting public. If the founding generation carried Christian lessons (or something very near to them) in their minds, within fifty years their pragmatic and skeptical view of human nature was replaced by something more like mass self-worship. The common man could not go wrong.
Historically, McKenzie’s window really goes from the founding to the presidency of Andrew Jackson. Jackson is a fairly ready stand-in for Trump in the author’s telling. Both Trump and Jackson are folk heroes of a sort (though in vastly different periods). Both are marked by high self-regard and a tendency for taking criticism personally. Both promised the people they would be their champion over elites. McKenzie’s burden, then, is to encourage Christians both to be less sure of themselves and to be more suspicious of potential demagogues. In other words, he wants Christians to question their own motives and to keep their sinfulness always at the front of their minds. At the same time, he wants them to avoid wearing blinders when it comes to political figures who are, in the end, also sinful human beings possessing all the same temptations, failures, and limitations. For that reason, it is good to embrace the kind of safeguards the founding generation tried to establish rather than to find ways to surmount them via emotional appeals to political will.
Paul Miller largely shares McKenzie’s concerns and is certainly reacting to Trump, as McKenzie is. Miller, however, is highly focused on the emerging theme of Christian nationalism. In particular, he is carrying the debate forward that briefly flared up between Sohrab Ahmari and David French a few years ago.3 French, formerly an attorney working in the field of religious liberty who also wrote the Foreword for this book, has vigorously defended liberalism as probably the best achievable public philosophy for human flourishing, albeit one that requires many compromises. Ahmari, a rapidly rising journalistic figure on the right and a Catholic convert, has argued that an approach such as French’s basically amounts to a kind of cultural capitulation that prevents Christians from bringing its full case to the people and which robs everyone in the broader society of the benefits of the kind of cultural Christianity that might be established by more ambitious believers.
As postliberalism gains steam, so, too, does Christian nationalism and nationalism more generally. Part of what is driving the conversation is the realization that the West, and the United States specifically, has been able to sustain its own version of liberalism with substantial help from a non-established Christianity, which is largely taken for granted. For a long time, this unofficial establishment of the Christian faith underwrote the American civil religion. Every culture has a cult. Christianity, in a watered-down form, has served that function in the United States. Between the slow recession of religious engagement by Americans and the increasing advance of the revolution in human sexuality, the status of Christianity in the nation is at a low ebb. One of the major questions Christians face is how to react to that situation. Miller is deeply concerned that we will make the wrong move for the wrong reasons.
One of Miller’s major interpretive frameworks is the opposition of Anglo-Protestantism over against white evangelicalism. Miller speaks in terms of Anglo-Protestantism when he wants to describe the cultural influence of English immigrants to the United States. It is largely through Anglo-Protestantism that we get the shape of our constitutional democracy with its limitations of government designed to protect certain fundamental rights. While Anglo-Protestantism is flawed (it obviously tolerated the treatment of the African slaves and the native Americans that Tocqueville abhorred), it also is the channel through which much of what we appreciate about the modern world has traveled. One of the interesting twists of Miller’s argument is his insistence on separating the Christian faith from any kind of essential relationship with constitutional democracy. In other words, it is true that constitutional democracy developed through western Christians, but Miller treats that as simply something that happened through such people and that can easily be recreated by any other people. In service of his argument, Miller notes how democracy has flourished in the modern world in non-Western lands that have found ways to adapt democracy to their unique cultural conditions. It seems that a major reason Miller denies that Anglo-Protestantism is essential is because he feels that kind of reasoning empowers forms of nationalism that are used to keep outsiders at the margin. In particular, he is thinking about a case such as the one made by Samuel Huntington arguing for limitations on immigration.4 Miller wants to express appropriate appreciation for the achievements of Anglo-Protestantism while simultaneously resisting the idea that people who do not derive from it are somehow problems for the American republic.
Miller has significantly less mixed feelings about the phenomenon he labels “White evangelicalism” (184). If Anglo-Protestantism represents western Protestant Christianity at its zenith of cultural influence, then white evangelicalism is what remains as the zenith fades toward a nadir. While Anglo-Protestantism has its blind spots, it is still something that is ultimately constructive, and which can claim to have made major contributions. White evangelicalism, on the other hand, is basically an outraged response by a segment of the population that was once dominant (or at least far more influential) who see themselves being marginalized. It is important to note that Miller is dealing with white evangelicalism less as a category defined by theological markers and more the way the United States media tends to identify them. It is to this group that Donald Trump appeals when he promised to bring back “Merry Christmas” as opposed to the more bland “Happy Holidays.” Likewise, it would be to this group that Trump would appear to appeal when he stood in front of a church with a Bible in hand during a period of social unrest.
This group is likely to be insensitive to the way their resentment can be perceived by others. For example, I have attended a conference in which an evangelical speaker gave the familiar narrative of religious decline in the United States with which many of us (including me) would tend to agree. However, it was attention getting when an African American attendee stood up and pointed out that it was during this same period that conditions had improved radically for people like him. It was important to him to make sure that this narrative of decline did not erase the gains made by African Americans. White evangelicals can be unaware of that dynamic. Miller clearly understands that perspective and is speaking to it.
Miller confronts the rising phenomenon of Christian nationalism and does so in a way that honors the calling to integrate faith and scholarship. While Miller is a foreign policy expert at Georgetown University, he pays special attention to rebutting the idea that the Bible is friendly to nationalism. He states the matter bluntly and in a way that perhaps invites debate when he writes, “There is simply no biblical command or model for the most important nationalist beliefs . . .” (118). Miller believes we have made a grave mistake trying to think of America as a new kind of Israel. Our attention should instead be on the church. One of his more sobering points has to do with the tendency of Christians to misplace their priorities when it comes to the nation. It is all too easy to make the nation, rather than God, the object of our religious attachment. In his first book, Peter Drucker observed that many German households replaced their portraits of Christ with an image of Adolf Hitler.5 That may seem like a cheap shot, but it is the kind of thing that can easily occur within the confines of a cultural Christianity of the type Christian nationalists believe would be beneficial. Perhaps it would be more fair to simply note that where Christians have hitched the wagon to the nation, we have tended to see the nation bolstered while the church declines.
Both of these books point to major problems with populism and with difficulties posed by demagogues. McKenzie notes on multiple occasions that the best way to think of democracy is the one C. S. Lewis endorsed, which is that it is a check against power concentrated more than it is a glorious path to fulfilling our dreams. Miller would likely embrace that view.
But we are left with an unresolved problem. We know the dangers. We can gird ourselves against them and trim our sails accordingly. Nevertheless, that leaves us still in what seems to be the declining stages of liberalism. Robert Nisbet memorably wrote about the ceaseless action of big commerce and big government operating upon the culture in such a way as to slowly disintegrate all the mediating institutions of life, thus leaving atomized and alienated individuals looking for some way to integrate.6 It is little surprise that we seek constant entertainment and distraction and end up looking to political movements to offer significance.
There are two answers to all of this that one can find in both Miller and McKenzie. The first is that we must recover our belief in the common good as something to be pursued. Our political culture seems to have degenerated into a permanent contest (perhaps it was ever so) of interests seeking their own good at the expense of the broader community. We have become morally lazy in our apparent assumption that as long as all partisans can enter the tournament with their separate narratives and visions, good will somehow come out of it. But it seems to me unlikely that such an approach will give us more than a victory of the stronger, the more charismatic, the more skillful in manipulation. Instead, we need to somehow develop greater emphasis on the virtue of all parts seeking to act as a body rather than as segments.
Second, and possibly something that is increasingly dawning on many of us, we need to recover the discipline of being the church. We have turned the church into a source of entertainment, into a political body, and into a platform for book sales and speaking engagements. There are so many uses for it. But to what degree is the church really focused on being the church? How much sanctification is occurring within the bodies? How true is our worship? Are we developing in love, patience, and wisdom? Is the church forming us more than the broader culture is? For Christians, at least, we should perhaps stop looking for a political solution and instead focus more on the Kingdom. The church is the Christian strategy.
I mentioned Peter Drucker earlier in this essay. In his study of totalitarianism, he noted that one of the great appeals fascists and communists offered to the people was the possibility of obtaining an identity and a status that was separate from the economic system. In other words, through the party one might partake of a non-economic basis for society and belonging.7 Any Christian reading these words should immediately realize that it is in Christ and his church where this status and identity should be found.
Cite this article
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York, NY: The Free Press, 1992).
- Stephen Wolfe, The Case for Christian Nationalism (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2022).
- Ahmari launched the debate with a flame-throwing essay “Against David Frenchism” that originally appeared on the First Things website on May 29, 2019. It may be accessed at https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2019/05/against-david-frenchism. Their exchanges made famous the controversy over drag queen story hours at public libraries.
- Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2004).
- Peter F. Drucker, The End of Economic Man: The Origins of Totalitarianism, (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1995). The work was originally published in 1939.
- Robert A. Nisbet, The Quest for Community (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1953).
- Drucker, The End of Economic Man, 87–111.