THE CATHOLIC REVIEW: How to Be a Patriotic Christian: Love of Country as Love of Neighbor
by Deacon Rick Bauer
What are the political implications of being a Christian in America? At a time of sharp ideological polarities, as both major political parties seem to be locked in an intractable steel-cage death match, let’s sort out these issues see if there is a road to walk.
Like most of us, I struggle with what I owe my country and my God. I have been a Christian minister, a Catholic deacon, a biblical scholar/religious writer, and strive to live my life as a disciple of Jesus Christ; I have also been a soldier, a West Point cadet, an Army base parish administrator (a bit of a mix there), a leader in a U.S. Presidential Transition and Inauguration team, and am the son of a veteran of WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. My father rests from his 33 years of military service (which includes a Silver Star, a Navy Cross, and 4 purple Hearts), in Arlington National Cemetery, so I think I know just a bit about the sacrifices made in defense of our nation’s freedoms.
Still, I am not unaware of our nation’s present challenges and past failures. In the midst of a national fabric that appears to be fraying; of red- and blue-state conflicts that once were addressed by ballots and strident discussion and debate, but never violence, we seem to be a nation in despair in the light of intensifying conflict on a national scale. Violence and insurrection have recently disgraced our national government’s seat of democracy; trust in government in America seems at an all-time low.
What’s a Christian to do? What does it mean for a disciple of Jesus Christ to love his or her country? Some see loyalty to America as a central tenet of our Christian faith and religious identity; others as feeling skeptical that a nation so rich in blessing and the promise of “liberty and justice for all” could have tolerated the abject slavery of millions of its inhabitants, could at times have failed its people so badly as to never warrant a faithful devotion or attachment.
At such a time as this, we find wisdom and good counsel in “How to Be a Patriotic Christian,” published by InterVarsity Press. Richard Mouw, author of the prescient “Uncommon Decency: Adventures in Evangelical Civility” (perhaps more distinguished in how it has been tragically ignored in the political activities of Christian groups in our national discourse), now brings Christian citizens a vision of what it means to have a healthy sense of national peoplehood that promotes civic kinship and responsible citizenship.
Mouw helps us avoid the extremes of either Christian nationalism or complete cynicism and rejection of all political engagement. The author writes with humility and wisdom that are disarming, showing us a path forward that may not be easy to walk, but may well be the last best hope for repairing our broken national psyche.
The book wades through biblical texts that speak to the role of a Christian citizen. Extensive analysis of Romans 13 (which includes v. 1-2: “every person should obey the government in power” (ESV); Mark 12:17 (give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s”, repeated in all the Synoptics); I Peter 2:17 (“love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor”) — these and other verses are thoughtfully examined for what they speak to our lives and behaviors.
There is even an illuminating comparison between the words of Psalm 72 (“endow the king with your justice, O God . . .” and the first sentence of the preamble to the United States Constitution (“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic tranquility . . .” (Mouw, pp. 71-75). We see that it may not be impossible for a Christian to act with charity toward all. The key, Mouw reminds us, is that “a legitimate love for America cannot be nurtured without also grieving and repenting for the things in our nation and its history that are unlovable.”
The task is not easy. Yes, the Christian scriptures have been twisted to support chattel slavery in the early centuries of our history. Yes, the right to vote and participate in our democracy has not always been extended to all, and yes, while some of the singular opportunities extended to our nation’s citizens are remarkable, they have not been spread evenly to all. Can we still love our country, and both pray and act toward its betterment?
Mouw reminds us that we have to keep two truths in mind: “one, that it can be healthy to have a special kind of love for one’s country, and two, that we have to avoid the real temptation to keep that love from taking on a kind of absolute character.” (p.7). We’re reminded that it’s okay to have what Mouw calls “inevitable lover’s quarrels” about our political disagreements, and the author brings the wisdom of G. K. Chesterton to remind us that we have forgotten the art of arguing our case respectfully. Instead, we have descended into unfruitful quarreling, reminding us of Chesterton’s great line on the subject: “Perhaps the principal objection to a quarrel is that it interrupts an argument” (p. 93).
We probably need no reminders about the tone and tenor of social media and how promising a digital forum can often degenerate into nasty name-calling. Speakers of all stripes on university campuses can be drowned out equally unfairly by both “woke” and “unwoke” partisans, with both groups failing to treat differences with the civility, respect, and grace as befits a nation that values freedom of speech.
Mouw’s writings have drawn the respect and support of thoughtful Catholics and Protestants in our world, and it is refreshing that Mouw reminds us that most political positions are not matters of biblical command but more about the practical wisdom to express a shared value through an effective policy. Biblical teaching about God’s concerns for the poor, the marginalized, and the oppressed may guide our hearts to pray and act toward just solutions, but there is no clear biblical counsel that mandates a specific welfare policy or requires us to have mail-in ballots in all national elections (despite their apparent success for the State of Colorado). This short book may yet bring guidance and some civility to our national discourse. Let’s close with that hope.
Like Mouw, one of my favorite patriotic hymns is “America the Beautiful”, written by English teacher Katharine Lee Bates on a summer trip across the nation that included Colorado Springs and Pikes Peak. It was first published in 1893 in a Congregationalist magazine, and two years later was put to music. Many hymnals include a standard four verses, which thrill our hearts with beautiful mountain vistas and visions of fruited plains, inspiring us with a specter of the fulfillment of her promise:
O beautiful for patriot dream, that sees beyond the years;
Thine alabaster cities gleam [a vision of the heavenly Jerusalem in Revelation 21-22],
undimmed by human tears!
America! America! God shed his grace on thee;
And crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea!
We can also be guided to tame any triumphal, exceptionalistic exaggerations by a sober realization of her shortfalls and failures that still need to be corrected, as Bates herself reminds us, expressed in this hymn’s second verse:
America! America! God mend thine every flaw;
Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law.”
The book offers practical, biblical, wise counsel from both a Christian scholar/writer as well as a fellow citizen — perhaps something to reflect upon as we strive to be men and women of peace and civility, to be lights of the world in the darkening mist of national calamity.
—Deacon Rick Bauer