How to Be a Patriotic Christian, Richard J. Mouw. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2022.
Summary: Navigating the space between Christian nationalism and national cynicism, explores how Christians might properly love country within their primary allegiance to Christ, focused around civic kinship and responsibility.
At least in the U.S. setting in which Richard Mouw writes, there often seems to be no middle ground between some form of Christian nationalism and a deep cynicism about any national loyalty. Mouw has navigated this ground over the course of his life, from his days as an “angry young man” protesting Vietnam and racial injustice up to the present, including experiences of tears while touring the American cemetery in Normandy and being present at a Holiday Bowl concert a few days after 9/11. He has wrestled with what the Christian’s primary allegiance to the global kingdom of Jesus means in the context of being a citizen, He invites us to wrestle with him as we consider the possibility and character of being a patriotic Christian.
He describes the basic character of this patriotism early in the book when he writes:
“But patriotism is not just about our relationship to specific government policies and practices. It is about belonging to a community of citizens with whom we share our political allegiances–and even more important, our common humanness. Patriotism is in an important sense more about our participation in a nation than it is about loving a state” (p. 14).
What Mouw argues for is our “civic kinship,” our sense of peoplehood with those who constitute our nation. He proposes that the Boy Scouts are an example of a program in civic kinship, cultivating the kind of character required in our public life with a concern for the place and the people with whom we live. He notes the evidence of the decline in the societal bonds among us and our increasing isolation from each other, and the necessity, in our season of tribalism, to cultivate room in our hearts for those with whom we differ. He appropriates John Calvin’s language of contemplating our fellow human beings in God, not in themselves.
Mouw’s focus on peoplehood and civic kinship calls into question what Mouw considers to be the role of the state. He contends that the preamble of our Constitution actually offers a good delineation of the primary tasks of government: 1) to establish justice, 2) to ensure domestic tranquility, 3) to provide for the common defense, and 4) to promote the general welfare and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. He notes the parallel with Psalm 72 in these four tasks. He cites the Catholic idea of subsidiarity, that higher authorities should not undertake what lower authorities, or even private associations or individual citizens can accomplish, which requires civic responsibility rather than dependence on government authority.
Against some who either implicitly or explicitly believe Christians ought to pursue a theocracy, Mouw supports the idea of our democratic republic, with its protections of differing beliefs rather than compelling uniformity. He believes this creates the space for people to change beliefs of their own, respecting the image of God in human beings. How then do we disagree in a plural society? Mouw encourages active patience (as God has acted toward us), genuine engagement with those with whom we disagree, and an openness that believes all truth is God’s truth, to receive that truth from wherever it appears.
How then should we think of expressions of patriotism within the confines of our church buildings, everything from the presence of flags to the recognition of national holidays? Some would see this as a form of idolatry, or perhaps offensive to those visiting from other countries. Mouw recounts such a conversation where he pushes back, contending that symbols like the flag can remind believers of their Christian calling as citizens, and that Christians in other countries may understand this because of their love for their own countries. Remember, he invited us to wrestle together–there is wrestling going on here! Likewise, there is the need to do careful pastoral teaching–what does it mean to seek the peace and prosperity of the people among whom we live (Jeremiah 29:7) while recognizing our primary allegiance to Christ and that we are part of a global people?
This leads him to consider our patriotic songs, many which invoke the blessing of God, and other civic observances with religious overtones, such as our various pledges and oaths. Is this just an invidious form of civil religion or something the Christian can embrace. Mouw notes the good of an acknowledgment of the transcendent, to which the nation is both accountable and on which it depends.
He concludes this work with four guidelines: 1) to do the work of contemplation to see people in the light of God, 2) to cultivate compassion, 3) to go deep in our quest for rootedness, in Christ, in our place, with our people, and 4) to trust Jesus, in whom are met “the hopes and fears of all the years.”
This is not a massive treatise on Christian political philosophy but a concise work of pastoral theology on what it means to love Jesus and love one’s country, particularly the United States. I affirm his restrained view of the role of the state, an absence of any language of getting the “right” people in office, and his focus on our own civic kinship and responsibility as citizens to pursue the shalom and prosperity of the place where we make our earthly home. His own unashamed expressions of his love of country and solidarity with its people reminded me of similar experiences. Most of all, I appreciate Mouw’s articulation of this rich third way of being patriotic Christians that offers an alternative to the unsatisfying and miserly binary on offer in so much of our national discourse.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher.