Brad Littlejohn offers the following rejoinder to Thomas Kidd’s TGC article “Christian Nationalism vs. Patriotism.”
One of the oldest and greatest of Advent hymns concludes with the haunting lines,
Come desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind
Bid thou our sad divisions cease
And be thyself our King of Peace.
But what does it mean for us to welcome Christ as the “desire of nations”? How do we live rightly as members of particular nations between the two Advents of Christ?
Patriotism vs. Nationalism?
In a recent article for The Gospel Coalition, evangelical historian Thomas Kidd sounds the alarm over what he calls “Christian nationalism.” Of course, “ism”s can be slippery and seductive terms, promising to relieve us of the moral burden of discriminating between all the goods and evils that are done under the sun, lumping different people and ideas together under abstract “ism”s that we can define en masse as “good” or “bad.” Kidd is aware of the danger, acknowledging that “Christian nationalism” is a “slippery category,” and tries to steer us in the direction of clarity with a distinction between patriotism, which he calls “good in moderation,” and nationalism, which he labels “bad.”
Even his defense of the former, however, seems somewhat halfhearted: “measured patriotism still seems appropriate, and somewhat unavoidable for most Christians.” And it is not at all clear whether such “measured patriotism” even includes such basic patriotic duties as fighting and dying for your fellow citizens in a just war. Kidd states that “many of us cherish such intense patriotic commitment that we would lay down our lives (or those of our children) to defend our country, and to promote its power around the globe. Obviously, traditional Christians ought to limit that kind of nationalistic fervor.”
But this blurs together, as a pacifist might, two different things: the traditional Christian moral duty to die in defense of one’s country, and the pagan imperialistic (and thus not very nationalistic) aspiration to project power around the globe. To be sure, in practical politics the distinction can be a blurry one, but that has not prevented the Christian tradition from endorsing and praising the courageous sacrifice of military service in defense of one’s nation. When Kidd categorizes this as the kind of “nationalistic fervor” that Christians should “limit,” it is unclear what he means. If military service is appropriate for Christians, a certain fervor is perhaps unavoidable; most armies don’t march successfully into battle without a fierce pride in their homeland.
He continues, “As ‘strangers and exiles on the earth,’ our ultimate allegiance is to Christ’s kingdom. Our love for a non-American brother or sister in Christ should exceed our comradeship with unbelieving American patriots, whose numbers are legion.”
Kidd gestures toward a biblical truth here, but how are we to apply such a moral calculus?
It is perhaps telling that Kidd equivocates in mid-sentence, arguing that “our love” for a Chinese believer should exceed “our comradeship” with an unbelieving American down the street, because in reality, it is hard to know how to measure such different loves against one another. Should my love for a Christian stranger exceed my love for my unbelieving grandmother? In some sense, perhaps, but probably not in terms of either emotional intensity or practical duty. Similarly, while celebrating my spiritual bond with a Chinese Christian, I cannot conclude that it should trump my moral and affective relationship to an unbeliever down the street. Certainly, in a just military conflict, my love for the former should not lead me to aid him against the latter. I would submit that the question of “who should we love more?” is unintelligible in the abstract. Rather, we must distinguish, with C. S. Lewis, between different kinds of loves, and, with the whole Christian moral tradition, between different kinds and spheres of duties.
Within the Christian order of love and order of duties, I would submit that there is a clear place for love of nation. The nation, like the family, is not just an “imagined community” but a natural category, basic to the structuring of our social lives, loves, and obligations. From the earliest chapters of the Old Testament, the biblical authors organize their moral universe in terms of “nations,” and the entire story of God’s redemptive covenants, from Genesis 12 onward, is a national one: “I will make of you a great nation.” To be sure, Israel’s story is unique, and the American nation is not the continuation of the Davidic kingdom. But what is the next act in the redemptive story? Is it the abolition of nations? Quite the contrary:
“In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. . . . He will raise a signal for the nations and will assemble the banished of Israel.” (Is. 11:10, 12)
This promise is so basic to the Messianic and eschatological vision that Isaiah repeats some version of it at least a dozen times in his prophecies and it is echoed in the final verses of Revelation:
“By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.” (Rev. 21:24, 26)
These passages do not tell us simply that Christ will bring into his kingdom individuals out of every nation, as if the nations were to be dissolved into a homogenous mass of deracinated saints, but that the nations, each with its distinct glory and honor, will find a place within his greater kingdom.
If this is the case even in the future consummation of Christ’s rule on earth, how much more so in this time between his two advents, when the reign of Christ is mostly hidden! Although modern nation-states have come a long way from the more informal and tribal biblical “nations,” their role in framing moral and political community remains: this side of the eschaton, we must continue to organize ourselves and seek justice within particular communities defined by common roots, common histories, common languages, and common cultures.
Should Christians absolutize any of these identity markers, using them as an excuse to hate or oppress those who look or act or speak differently? Absolutely not. To do that would be to deny the first coming of Christ.
But should Christians ignore these identity markers, pretending that we can live outside of history as citizens of nowhere, with equal obligations to all Christians everywhere, and equal disregard for all nonbelievers? To do that would be to pretend that the second coming of Christ has already happened.
So should Christians be nationalists? Well, in this sense of the word at least, absolutely!
It becomes increasingly clear in Kidd’s essay, however, that his real concern is less over “nationalism” in the traditional sense than what we might call “Christian-nation-ism.” When he turns to describe “when patriotism is actually nationalism,” two of the three “warning signs” he isolates are actually forms of this danger.
Kidd warns us first against letting “the story of the American nation” take “a central place in our understanding of redemptive history.” And make no mistake: Kidd is right to call this bad theology. Such a move effectively denies the first coming of Christ, imagining that the people of God are still fundamentally a political nation, and that our nation is somehow the continuation of Old Covenant Israel. Few would say this in so many words, but many allow such a notion to color their political imaginations, leading to apocalyptic and idolatrous rhetoric and actions, like the recent Jericho March.
Still, we should not race to the opposite extreme. The biblical theology glanced at above makes clear that nations are actors on the stage of redemptive history; in God’s providence, they have their own distinct “glory and honor” to bring into the City of God. We cannot peer behind the curtain of God’s secret purposes to know whether our nation is destined for a starring role or a bit part, but should not try to write it out of the script either.
Kidd’s second warning sign is an extension of the first: “the effort to turn the ostensible defenders of the Christian nation into devout believers, in spite of all evidence to the contrary.” Again, Kidd is right to denounce such bad historiography in service of bad theology. Indeed, even Old Testament Israel’s king list was a litany of failures, tyrants, and idolaters; why pretend otherwise for our nation’s leaders? There really is absolutely nothing to be gained by acting like Thomas Jefferson or Donald Trump were/are Christian believers.
But there is an opposite extreme to which many intellectuals today would hasten us; in fleeing David Barton, we had better not stagger into the arms of Howard Zinn. Just as we should cover over in love and discretion the faults and foibles of our family members, and honor their memories and virtues wherever possible, so there is nothing wrong with celebrating the achievements of our national founders and leaders and refusing to draw undue attention to their vices. We cannot very well bring the honor of our nation into the kingdom of God if we have forgotten what it means to honor our nation.
Kidd concludes on a positive note, admonishing us that we might avoid the evils of Christian nationalism by celebrating the international diversity of Christ’s kingdom. On this, I heartily agree. But notice what this requires. How can I celebrate the heritage of my Ethiopian or Estonian brothers and sisters without acknowledging the historical, cultural, and (at present) political realities of the Ethiopian and Estonian nations? And must not they, in turn, celebrate with me the historical, cultural, and political reality of the American nation, and its just claims on my loyalty? This, I would submit, is authentic Christian nationalism, by which the church prefigures the eschatological kingdom of Christ by bringing into its fellowship, without dissolving or denying, the glory and honor of the nations.
Brad Littlejohn (PhD, University of Edinburgh) is a senior fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation and president of the Davenant Institute. He is the author most recently of The Peril and Promise of Christian Liberty: Richard Hooker, the Puritans, and Protestant Political Theology (Eerdmans), and he writes and speaks widely on topics of Christian ethics, political theology, and the history of the Christian political tradition.