Skip to main content

🚨 URGENT: Mere Orthodoxy Needs YOUR Help

Social Conservatism vs Tribal Nationalism

August 16th, 2017 | 20 min read

By Paul D. Miller

I’m pleased to publish this guest essay from Dr. Paul D. Miller.

What was social conservatism, and why did evangelicals adopt it as their political creed? What has become of the movement under President Donald J. Trump?

Politically, social conservatism came to mean, above all, opposition to abortion and gay marriage. Those two stances were the rubber-meets-the-road implications of the “ism,” the irreducible praxis of what social conservatism looked like in action. But why? What was beneath and behind opposition to the public policy consequences of the Sexual Revolution? What were the ideas driving efforts to protect traditional marriage and human life?

If social conservatism was anything more than reflexive opposition to cultural change, it was a theory of social and political causation. Social conservatism was, supposedly, a political theory, an idea about how society, government, and culture fit together and affect one another. Social conservatives believed some public policy ideas led to better outcomes: outcomes that were more just, more compatible with ordered liberty, and more conducive to human flourishing. The same can be said of any set of ideas used to guide social and political activism.

Specifically, social conservatism was the political theory of Edmund Burke, Alexis de Tocqueville, and Russell Kirk: the belief that tradition, family, mores, and religion are essential for justice, liberty, and flourishing. Law should protect and favor them. And government governs best when it governs closest to the people. William F. Buckley, a Roman Catholic, introduced the Burkean approach to the emerging conservative movement starting in the 1950s.

A few decades later, evangelicals found this movement a natural fit for ideas they found rooted in the Bible. They first found warrant in Scripture, not the Reflections on the Revolution in France, for God’s commission to the family, the church, and the state. But the Biblical inheritance was received in the United States through an intellectual heritage that passed through, and was shaped by, early modern Europe. Evangelicals may have been unaware of this inheritance, but they found intellectual depth and made common cause with its exponents.

Burkean conservatism worried that family breakdown, secularization, cultural atrophy, administrative centralization, and the loss of citizen-shaping education would lead to damaged souls, damaged communities, and a damaged nation. As I’ve argued elsewhere, these ideas can be tested with the tools of historical investigation and social science. To the extent that they have been, socially conservative ideas have usually been vindicated (with nuance, qualification, and exceptions). On the whole, it is better for families to stay together, for schools to teach with rigor and have high academic and ethical standards, for a robust civil society to exist, and for religion to inform the conscience of a nation. And it is better for public policy to foster and encourage such things.

By 2016 it had become evident that Burkean conservatism—its intellectual coherence, philosophical depth and rigor, and consonance with Biblical political theology—was the working ideology of a tiny circle of intellectuals, not the voice of a broad movement. Evangelicals as a group either did not understand or did not care about the deeper ideas supposedly beneath their own movement. There is still widespread opposition to abortion and (decreasingly) gay marriage, but little evidence that such opposition is rooted in the ideas that were supposed to have animated social conservatism.

Instead, evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals, appear to have gravitated away from the ideas of Burkean conservatism and towards nationalism. Nationalism is reflexive tribal loyalty to the majority culture—which is to say, white American Protestantism. This is confusing because the majority culture still professes Christianity (although there is very little distinctively Christian about “cultural Christianity”). As a result, some Christians wrongly equate loyalty to the United States with loyalty to the church.

Donald Trump and American Political Culture

The campaign, election, and administration of President Donald J. Trump has made clear the conversion of white evangelicals from social conservatism to nationalism. White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump in the 2016 election, some 81 percent of them having voted for him. For many, their support was motivated by concern for the Supreme Court, which overrode concerns about Trump’s character, truthfulness, conduct towards women, ignorance of foreign policy, and xenophobia. Evangelicals’ desire to secure a conservative appointment to the Court appears to have been vindicated by Trump’s nomination of Justice Neil Gorsuch ten days into his presidency.

But 100 days into Trump’s presidency, evangelicals still expressed overwhelming support for the president, despite everything else the president has done in office. According to a poll by the Pew Research Center, 78 percent of church-going white evangelicals approved of Trump’s performance in office in late April. This is remarkable because, aside from Gorsuch (and a few other symbolic and easily reversible gestures, like reinstating the Mexico City policy), Trump appears to have done little else to encourage, and much to discourage, social conservatism in public policy.

It is not that Trump has promoted progressive or liberal policy, such as abortion or gay marriage. Rather, the problem is that Trump’s presidency has a corrosive affect on the institutions of government and the mores of civil society, which Burkean conservatism says are vital for a healthy, functioning society. Trump’s public personality, rhetoric, and behavior are a walking rebuke to the traditions of American public life—traditions that social conservatives purport to venerate. Put another way, Trump is bad for the norms and informal rules that hold society together. Let me give just two examples. I’ve deliberately chosen two of the lesser examples.

First, Trump lies compulsively—he lied or made misleading statements almost five times per day, every day, for the first 162 days in office, according to the Washington Post. How can evangelicals approve of his performance in office? Either they approve of the lying, which I doubt, or they believe it does not matter very much (perhaps because they believe Trump’s lies are just the typical lies of any politician, which is false). Supporters may dismiss this as so much fake news, which raises an entirely separate question beyond the scope of this essay: the retreat of many Americans into a radical skepticism of all truth-claims and all news they dislike. To anyone open enough to examine the evidence, it is plain that Trump habitually lies.

How can it be unimportant that no one can trust the word of the most powerful man in the world? How can it not matter that he speaks a distortion, exaggeration, or outright falsehood everyday? Consider some of the practical effects: how will the bureaucracy know when to believe the president’s orders to them? How will our allies have confidence in America’s commitment to their security? Why would any partner in a trade negotiation take Trump’s word seriously? Or why would our rivals and enemies take threats and demands from Trump at face value? Trump is fundamentally untrustworthy, which make his jobs as chief law enforcement officer, chief diplomat, and commander-in-chief of the armed forces essentially impossible to fulfill. His compulsive lying simply makes him a bad president.

But we shouldn’t have to think through the practical implications of compulsive lying. It should be enough to say that compulsive lying is bad, and it is especially bad when leaders—men in positions of power, men held up in honor—lie compulsively. The old Burkean conservatism, at least, would have been content to say so. (Yes, it is also true that Hillary Clinton told lies; that is irrelevant to the question of whether one approves or disapproves of Trump’s performance in office).

Take another example: Trump’s praise for well-known autocrats and human-rights violators, including (just since he took office) Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, Turkish President Recep Erdogan, and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un. In past years, he also praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and the autocratic rulers of Communist China.

Such praise breaks with longstanding tradition—and remember, social conservatives value tradition as one of the key bulwarks of a healthy culture. Yes, the United States is sometimes compelled to tolerate and work with autocrats and dictators. But that does not mean the President of the United States must praise and admire such men, as Trump so publicly does. Again, the practical effects are damaging: it corrodes the United States’ soft power on the world stage; it disheartens democratic dissidents in closed societies; it encourages tyrants; it promotes a false and deceiving moral equivalence between ordered liberty and crushing tyranny; and it damages the American brand, the ideas with which the nation has been associated since its founding. It helps tyranny and hurts democracy. American presidents are supposed to do the opposite. That’s our tradition.

But also, again, we should not have to argue from practical consequences. It should be enough to note that praising tyrants is bad. The old Burkean conservatism understood the importance of public speech: we are to praise what is good, condemn what is evil. It understood that culture matters, and that when powerful people praise evil, they are shaping our culture with their words.

I’ve deliberately chosen the least-inflammatory accusations to illustrate Trump’s corrosive effect on American political culture. I could multiply examples. I could cite the Trump administration’s casual treatment of classified information and subsequent endangering of American national security (and yes, I criticized Clinton for the same thing) and undermining of the rule of law. I could mention the Trump family’s evident use of public office for private gain. I could mention Trump’s regular criticism of the public institutions that are supposed to constrain him, including the free press, the intelligence community, and the courts, which transgresses American traditions and denigrates the checks and balances that are at the heart of our system of government.

Most worrisome, I could mention Trump’s firing of the Director of the FBI amidst the Bureau’s ongoing investigation of ties between his campaign and various Russian interests, and the possibility that he may have attempted to interfere in the investigation of his former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn.

The point is that Trump is a bad president, according to the criteria Burkean social conservatives should care about. If bad company corrupts good morals, Trump’s company corrupts good government. Social conservatives have long argued that a healthy culture is a vital component of a free society. That includes a culture of honesty and integrity among our public officials, a culture that demands not mere legal compliance but an expectation that such officials are above reproach, even above the appearance of wrongdoing. Trump manifestly fails this standard.

Evangelicals’ Response to Trump

Yet white evangelicals approve of Trump’s performance in office by an 8-to-2 margin. I see two possible explanations: either they fully understand the major damage that Trump has done and will continue to do as president, and simply believe that Gorsuch outweighs them all; or they have some combination of ignorance, willful blindness, and simple disregard for the damage Trump is doing to the health of American political culture. Both explanations boil down to the same thing: white evangelicals do not actually understand or care about the vitality of culture, tradition, and social mores. They do not believe such things are an important part of how society, government, and culture fit together, or do not care if the right fit is necessary for human flourishing and ordered liberty.

If they did actually care, they would be less hasty to trade away two hundred and fifty years of social capital and republican norms for a single seat on the Supreme Court. They would understand what a fragile achievement an open society is, and quicker to recognize Trump’s contributions (and their own) to its erosion. They would understand the importance of the long view and the power of precedent: the things Trump does today to erode democratic culture are the things future historians will look to as foreshadowing its eventual collapse. They would understand their responsibility to stay informed about what their government is doing, rather than take pride in ignorance and radical skepticism. They would care about the collapse of trust in public institutions and the total loss of faith in the words of public officials. If white evangelicals actually cared about the health of culture, ours would be the first eyes open to the blinking red lights, the first ears to hear the klaxons warning of catastrophe.

(To those who argue saving the Court is essential to reviving culture, I respond you fundamentally misunderstand what it means to revive culture. It means to revive the non-governmental institutions of civil society. If your ideology starts with government policy and treats civil society as secondary or derivative, your ideology is not social conservatism).

The entire premise of Burkean social conservatism, as I argued above, is precisely that it is a better working theory of the functioning of society, culture, and government. The large and sustained white evangelical support for Trump in the face of his assault on American public life leads me to conclude that white evangelicals no longer care very much about such niceties, if they ever did. Whatever they might say about their beliefs, white evangelicals have functionally abandoned social conservatism as an ideology.

Nationalism and Christianity

I said above that there are two possible explanations for white evangelicals’ support for Trump: they don’t understand the full gravity of Trumpism, or they do understand and believe Gorsuch is worth it. In fact, there is a third explanation: some might fully understand what Trump stands for, and willingly, knowingly support it. In abandoning social conservatism, some white evangelicals have found a new ideology to champion.

What, then, do these white evangelicals really believe? I see three defining traits of Trump’s political movement: 1) populist nationalism, 2) opposition to progressivism, and 3) loyalty to the culture of white American Protestantism. These are in some measure three different ways of saying the same thing. Some portion of the “white evangelical” demographic are not ideologically bound to social conservative ideas, or even to evangelical theology; rather, “white evangelical” has become a tribal identity which they equate with the American nation itself, and whose advancement has become their primary goal.

First, Trump is an avowed nationalist and populist. As I’ve argued elsewhere, nationalism is distinct from patriotism. It is a pursuit of “competitive prestige,” as George Orwell said, not merely affection for one’s country. Trump repeatedly struck nationalist themes on the campaign trail, including the economic nationalism of his protectionist trade policy; his restrictive immigration ideas; and his “America First” foreign policy. He sold these policies, and himself, to his base as a return to authentic popular rule.

Nationalism is, at its worst, a cult with Trump as its priest and prophet. As a form of “closed exceptionalism” that John Wilsey identified, nationalism is a form of idolatry, and it is inconsistent with Christianity. (I do not mean the individual policies are necessarily wrong; I mean the worship of the nation often expressed in Trump’s rhetoric—and some evangelical sermons—when he speaks about America is idolatry).

Second, Trump’s movement is also motivated by an entirely justified backlash against progressivism. The progressive left overreached and has become an increasingly authoritarian and bullying movement devoted to political correctness, campus speech codes, and an extreme gender ideology, policed by social justice warriors and community organizers. Middle America revolted, and Trump was their standard-bearer. This is the silver lining to Trump’s movement.

Third, Trump’s movement appears to be an expression of identity politics for white evangelicals. His campaign made an explicit appeal for Christians to vote for him because he would defend and champion their group interests. 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, “A Trump administration, our Christian heritage will be cherished, protected, defended, like you’ve never seen before. Believe me.” In return, white evangelicals turned out to vote for Trump. Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University, where Trump spoke in both 2016 and 2017, said this month “I really believe [Trump] has done more for the Christian community in that that short, in four months time, than any other president in our lifetimes.”

Of these three components, only anti-progressivism is consistent with social conservatism, with limited government, or with the idea of equal justice under law. Nationalism is, like progressivism, a totalistic political religion that is inconsistent with limited government. Identity politics are similarly illiberal, substituting the advancement of a group for the concept of justice and equality under law. Social conservatives were right when they criticized the left for stoking identity politics for minorities. Identity politics is a dressed-up version of ethnic nationalism and sectarian politics, and it is inconsistent with republican citizenship. The same is true of identity politics for white evangelicals.

The Question of Race

White evangelicals are no longer Burkean social conservatives. Paralleling the Republican Party’s evolution away from conservatism towards white identity politics, evangelicals have become the cheering section and voting bloc for populist nationalism, largely because they identify the nation with themselves. America is a “Christian nation,” they say, and the advancement of Christian interests can only be good for them, good for the country, and good for the world. How can this be wrong?

It is wrong because identity politics are wrong. Our goal should be equality under law for all citizens, not preferential treatment for our tribe. It is wrong because “Christian” shouldn’t be a tribe. It is a gathering of all peoples, tribes, tongues, and languages. Christians have more in common with each other around the world than with their fellow citizens. It is wrong because Christianity is antithetical to nationalism. Christians should be patriots—I served in the US armed forces and I have affection for this country—but nationalism is a false religion that places the nation in the place of the church and the leader in place of God.

It is wrong because America is not a “Christian nation,” except in the narrow descriptive sense that most Americans have always been professing Christians and Christianity has shaped much of our culture and traditions. America has no eschatological status. It is not a chosen nation. It plays no irreplaceable role in the redemption of the world. To say otherwise is flatly unbiblical.

Finally, it is wrong because it is, at least, insensitive to the legacy of race and racism in the United States. A critic may accuse me of smuggling race into this discussion. Trump’s appeal to Christians has, in theory, been available to all Christians, not just whites. On the campaign trail Trump said some pretty standard stuff about being welcoming to minorities. He never did make an explicit appeal to white nationalism, despite what his harshest critics on the left say. The left accused him of racial “dog whistles,” but they’ve said the same thing about every Republican for fifty years.

But consider: while 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, just five percent of Black Protestants did. The election of 2016 and the presidency of Donald Trump have made it painfully clear that white American Christians have a different set of political priorities than non-white American Christians. Set aside Trump himself, it is clear that Trumpism, as a movement, it almost entirely a white phenomenon.

The easy explanation for why is, of course, “racism.” But relying on that explanation would be to fall into the intellectual laziness and causal misanthropy of the progressive left, for whom anything done by any conservative is always racism. I think it is far more complex than that. Simply ascribing every political problem in America to white people’s supposed personal animus against people who look different is radically simplistic. The progressive left too often excuses itself from serious social analysis by attributing everything to the racism (and sexism and now homophobia). But taking one explanation and turning it into the only explanation for everything is the fastest way to take a meaningful insight and turn it into a punch line and a cliché. As the adage goes, when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you have progressivism, everything looks like racism. Simple charity demands that we start with more grace and more understanding for those whose behavior we are seeking to understand. If racial hatred were really the primary driving force of the American right, we would almost certainly see far more racial violence and more explicit appeals to racial solidarity by public officials.

What bothers me about American nationalism is not its secret racist plan to re-impose Jim Crow laws and reestablish the monopoly of white men on positions of power in America, because no such plan exists. Vice President Joe Biden told a crowd of supporters in 2012 that Republicans “want to put y’all back in chains,” an offensive and stupid critique that paved the way for Trump’s vulgarity by normalizing such overwrought and baseless accusations. The progressive critique—that Middle Americans are just a bunch of bigots—is so insultingly wrong to anyone who lives in, or has family in, Middle America that it is itself, ironically, a form of bigotry.

In fact, the progressive mania about the supposed epidemic of Middle American racism is counterproductive because, in the face of their hysteria, it becomes too easy for us to dismiss legitimate concerns about race and ethnicity. If we were honest with ourselves, we would recognize the need for some soul-searching. The problem with American nationalism is its amnesia about its own past; its insensitivity to how it sounds to outsiders; its tendency to identify the nation with its largest demographic group; and the potential for it to lapse back into old habits of equating culture with color.

How Should the Church Respond?

To the casual white evangelical Trump supporter, I would ask that you look more closely at the history of the movement you have joined. Ask yourself if this is a community and a tradition that you are comfortable carrying forward. Look at the past record of this movement—not the Trump movement, but its predecessors, the previous incarnations of white Christian American nationalism—and ask if this is the fruit by which you want to be known. Is nationalism truly a better fit as a Christian political theory than social conservatism?

To the churches, I ask: what sort of unity do you want to foster, and how are you fulfilling your duty to teach your members about their responsibilities to love their neighbors? Since the election I have heard many calls for unity in the church. I’ve heard pastors boast that they have Trump voters and Clinton voters sharing the pews, praising God for the picture of unity captured therein. But I wonder: what kind of unity is that? Is it proof of unity in the Spirit and true neighbor-love, or proof that your church functionally ignores politics?

Does it show that you have taught your members how to truly grapple with the difficult questions of a Christian’s duty to steward the responsibilities of democratic citizenship, and your members have tragically come to opposite conclusions? Or does it show that you avoid controversy, let your members carry on their political activities in their “private” lives, and that you only preach about the evils of abortion and gay marriage?

I know many churches are in the habit of (rightly) challenging their members who vote for Democrats tough questions about how their vote functionally supports unjust policies. Do you ask Trump supporters similarly tough questions? Do you even recognize the need to do so? If you don’t, then you are implying by your silence that nationalism is unproblematic for Christians. You are modeling—from the pulpit—the same insensitivity and blindness towards American history and systemic injustice that appears to afflict most white Americans.

Beware the shallow unity of ignoring difference, of avoiding hard conversations. That is the unity of a marriage in which the husband and wife have agreed to avoid difficult topics because they just want to avoid conflict. That kind of marriage does not last. I am not suggesting that churches should divide over the question of politics. I am saying that we are already divided, and that we should be far more troubled than evangelicalism appears to be about the racial and ethnic split in American political theology.

Paul D. Miller teaches public policy and political theory at The University of Texas at Austin. He is a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.