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Can a Christian be patriotic?

Wrestling together with hard questions

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September 5, 2022

The closest I can come to giving how-to advice about relating faith to patriotism is this: keep wrestling with the questions

Questions like these: What does it mean to “love” our nation? If, as the Bible says, “the powers that be” are “ordained by God,” does that mean we should not criticize them? What about expressions of patriotism in our church worship? And what about using religious language at events celebrating national holidays? Is “civil religion” a bad thing? What does all of this mean in times like ours, when we are experiencing deep polarizations?  

My own understanding of how to be patriotic as a Christian is a work in progress. I keep wrestling with the questions, and I hope I can offer guidance to others about how to persevere in the wrestling. I know that there are people in present-day American society who see no need to do the wrestling. They can be found on both ends of the spectrum of views about patriotism. On the one end are the people who simply equate “God and country,” insisting that the true destiny of the United States is to live up to our calling as “a Christian nation.” On the other end are the folks who see all expression of patriotism as bad, with special disdain when love of country is connected to religious faith. 

I don’t know how to get the folks on those opposite ends of that spectrum to listen to each other. But I take comfort in the fact that they do represent extreme ends of a spectrum and that there is considerable room between the extremes. I find it helpful to explore the spaces between the extremes, in the confidence that the Christian message gives us resources for that kind of exploring. 

The problem these days, of course, is that the public debates about patriotism are often dominated by the extremes. This has been especially true in recent years when polarization seems to have become the rule of the day. The result is that many folks—especially many of the thoughtful Christians that I know—avoid talking about these things. When I have told people that I was writing about patriotism, I have often been urged to “be careful.” They worry that just by raising questions and exploring the middle spaces I will lose readers who want me to lean one way or another on the political spectrum. 

I understand those concerns, but I am going to make the effort anyway. My hope is that I can create a safe place for focusing on basic Christian thoughts—drawing on biblical teachings—about what it means to be citizens in the nation where the Lord has placed us. 

My use of the image of wrestling to describe what I hope we can do together here may seem a bit too combative for this kind of discussion. But given the kind of angry combat going on in these partisan days, wrestling is actually fairly tame. As a sport—and I am not thinking here about the WWE variety!—people wrestle together to test their own strength and agility. 

Animosity and the desire to wound the other wrestler are out of place. What I have in mind here is some spiritual and theological wrestling: testing the strength and productivity of our understandings of the obligations of citizenship. We can even set the goal that Jacob had in mind when he wrestled with the angel in Genesis 32. He engaged in the match in order to be blessed. 

The highest throne 

The Bible itself tells us to avoid the extremes. And this gives us space to find ways to love our country while also engaging in some inevitable lovers’ quarrels about our disagreements. It will not surprise me, though, if some readers disagree with me when I get into more detail regarding how I think we should go about loving our country. That is fine. 

The key is to wrestle together with important questions, even if we come up with different answers. What is for me nonnegotiable, though, is that we Christians must be clear that our primary allegiance, beyond what we owe the nation where we dwell as citizens, is to the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the Bible tells us that when we come to witness the fullness of that kingdom in the heavenly regions, we will be joining our American voices with a much larger choir: 

After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: 

“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9-10) 

This is a wonderful vision of a time when we will all celebrate the fact that Jesus’ throne has always been the highest seat of authority in the universe. And we will all have memories of what it was like to serve his eternal kingdom in the context of specific nations. For me, those will be American memories. So, recognizing that, I will tell some personal stories in [my book].

Paying attention to individual stories is especially important right now, given the contemporary mood in our culture, with the Christian community itself divided on these matters. While I have my own perspective on these issues, I have urged my fellow Christians to set aside the stereotypes and caricatures of those with whom we disagree and to work at genuinely listening to our individual testimonies about what we see as happening in our world. For Christians it is important to find ways of listening more carefully to each other in our faith journeys. I love the line from the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem” about “the hopes and fears of all the years” being fulfilled in the coming of the Savior. Our attitude toward our country is very much a matter of hopes and fears, and I am convinced that exploring those hopes and fears in the light of biblical teaching can be a way of listening to each other more effectively. 

Adapted from How to Be a Patriotic Christian by Richard J. Mouw. Copyright (c) 2022 by Richard J. Mouw. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Richard J. Mouw

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