How to Be a Patriotic Christian: Love of Country as Love of Neighbor

Written by Richard J. Mouw Reviewed By Bruce Riley Ashford

Richard Mouw is a distinguished American public theologian whose most recent literary contribution, How to Be a Patriotic Christian, gives voice to biblically-informed and practically-savvy proposal for our divided nation. The first chapter, “Wrestling Together,” encapsulates Mouw’s intent and previews the chapters to come. In it, he draws upon the image of a wrestling match to communicate his desire for Americans to cease their public brawl and begin wrestling together with the issues that face our society.

Addressing the complicated concept of “patriotism,” Mouw urges American Christians to cordon off a “safe place for focusing on basic Christian thoughts … about what it means to be citizens in the nation where the Lord has placed us” (p. 2). Within this “safe place” of civil debate, he urges Christians to eschew two extreme positions. On one hand, we must reject the embrace of an unhealthy patriotism that conflates “God and country” and thinks America is uniquely called to be a light to the nations. On the other hand, we must reject the wholesale negative view of patriotism that is self-loathing and harbors a special disdain for citizens who connect their Christian faith to American identity.

Throughout the remainder of the book, Mouw addresses the question of what binds Americans together as a national community (ch. 2) and why our bonds have become so fragile (ch. 3). He draws upon core biblical passages to make an argument for a healthy love of nation that includes honest critique of its flaws (chs. 4–5). He addresses the proper relationship between religion and politics, calling for a principled pluralism (ch. 6), warns against the errors of ecclesiasticism and statism (ch. 7), and concludes by exploring the ways in which a citizen’s greatest hopes and fears are bound up in his or her national context and national identity, and urging Christians to foster a patriotism of humility and compassion rather than of arrogance and vitriol.

The merits of Mouw’s proposal are myriad. Significantly, he recognizes the fact that shared history, devotion to ideals, and affection for our shared terra firma bind us into a national community. To this aspect of his proposal, the reader should be reminded of a broader Western intellectual current that seeks to drag citizens away from any attachment to strong forms of the nation-state and strong forms of religion. Initiated by French philosopher Auguste Comte, this line of thinking—which imagines that evil is entirely systemic and carried on the back of organized religion and the nation-state arrangement—has captured the imagination of Western elites. This flawed and deeply unbiblical vision for the world afflicts the progressive Left, the Wall Street Right, and other significant factions. Thus, Mouw’s call for a healthy patriotism warns citizens of an intellectual riptide that threatens to carry our society into the deep.

Furthermore, Mouw rightly construes the proper relationship between religion and politics. In Mouw’s view—expressed most substantially in Pluralisms and Horizons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993) but also with concision in the present volume—the Rawlsian liberal project must be rejected. Unlike Rawls, Mouw recognizes that a person’s religion is the most deeply ingressed aspect of that person’s being, and thus cannot be cast off when a person enters the public square. Thus, religion and politics cannot be separated. Yet, he further recognizes that religion can be brought into politics in both good and bad ways; thus, we should strive to act upon our religious convictions that respects America’s diverse citizenry and strive for the common good. The reader wishes only that Mouw would have explored the way that comprehensive ideologies such as Marxism or Critical Theory function in the same way as religions, and thus should be subjected to the same constraints as organized religions.

Additionally, the author’s twin critiques of ecclesiasticism and statism are salient. Consider the example of a local congregation who chooses to sing patriotic hymns on special occasions. On the one hand, Mouw refused to condemn congregations for doing so. On the other hand, he doesn’t let churches off the hook for conflating religious devotion and national fervor. Instead, in characteristic Mouwian form, he provides an even-keeled and practically wise approach: he urges churches who choose to sing patriotic hymns to also use those hymns as a teaching moment, reminding congregants that our primary allegiance is to Christ and that our secondary allegiance to nation must be accompanied by loving critique of our nation’s flaws.

Finally, Mouw is especially skillful in his empathetic exploration of American fragilization. The human bonds that naturally draw together the diverse members of a nation have begun once again to disintegrate. Thus, Mouw avers, we must heed Scripture’s call for Christians to reweave the fabric of our shared life by living as salt and light. Christian citizens must live uprightly as citizens of our earthly kingdom so that we can simultaneously function as previews of the heavenly kingdom. As we love our neighbors—despite social differences or political divisions—we strengthen the national bonds that could cause our national community to flourish.

Richard Mouw is right: a citizen’s greatest hopes and fears are, to some extent, bound up in his or her national context and national identity. Americans are no exception. It does us no good—in fact, it causes great harm—either to hate our nation or to love it inordinately. Instead of gravitating toward either extreme, we must determine to love America not because she is perfect but because she is our God-given home community. We must grieve when our nation falls short of God’s ideals and we celebrate when it meets those ideals in an approximate manner. Our patriotism, therefore, must be one of humility and compassion rather than arrogance and vitriol. This is how to be a patriotic Christian.

Bruce Riley Ashford

Bruce Ashford is provost and professor of theology and culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina.

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