Publishing Date: July 19, 2022
In his latest book How to Be a Patriotic Christian, Richard Mouw offers counsel in a conversational tone and principled discernment amid conflicting views and equally principled charity toward the people who hold them. After several years in which Christians have found it increasingly difficult to talk to one another across partisan, generational, social, theological and racial divides, what Mouw offers folks—across kitchen tables, folding tables in a fellowship hall, or small round tables at a local coffee shop—is a place to start, and the courage to do so.
With real world experience as well as a respectful curiosity, Mouw takes the reader gently into the places where wars are waged: the relationship between love of country, and critique, the role of religion in public life versus the role of public life in religion, the value of local political action and policies over national, and oft-sensationalized political posturing. This book has the potential to make previously impossible conversations between ideologically estranged family members and polarized and antagonistic church members accessible and gracious again. In fact, I’m already planning to order copies of this book for my many colleagues, who have been hit hard by political dissension in their congregations over the past few years.
“…Mouw takes the reader gently into the places where wars are waged…”
Having said that, I now feel a proper trepidation as I offer critical engagement with this work from a scholar known for his nuanced understanding and charitable critique of the ideas of others. It is the tone, more than the content, of the following paragraphs that will reveal whether I have learned what Mouw intends to teach.
As a pastor in Washington DC, nothing brings out the “mama bear” faster and fiercer than generalized antipathy toward “the government,” most recently popularized by frenzied chants of “Drain the Swamp!” However, any biologist can tell you that a swamp is actually a complex ecosystem, housing and supporting various interconnected life-systems. Many of those responsible for managing and maintaining these life-giving systems in Washington DC fill out the pews in churches like mine on Sunday mornings. Just like a Christian farmer or business owner might feel called to their work, the FDA scientists, DOJ lawyers, DOT mathematicians and even staffers on Capitol Hill are called to their work with a deep sense of Christian vocation. It is demoralizing when the church and school communities that raised them now participate in the very name-calling that undercuts their often quiet, yet meaningful, contributions to the common good. And so it was with a loud “Yes! THANK YOU!” (in a public place no less) that I read Mouw’s defense of God’s people—my people—here in Washington DC.
- Richard Mouw writes, “Flippant references to ‘government bureaucracies’ and ‘the deep state’ do not do justice to their contributions to our lives. The thousands of hardworking civil servants compose the infrastructure of the important workings of government.” (81)
“Just like a Christian farmer or business owner might feel called to their work, the FDA scientists, DOJ lawyers, DOT mathematicians, and even staffers on Capitol Hill are called to their work with a deep sense of Christian vocation.”
Although this defense of government work challenges the typical small government conservative, I wonder whether those who align more toward the political and theological left will find themselves equally challenged by Mouw’s arguments. The title of the book will be an obstacle to scramble over for those who have already ceded “Patriotic Christianity” to the “Christian Nationalist” wing of evangelical Christianity. Mouw teases these concepts apart in the book and, in doing so, may bring politically conservative thinkers back to our shared tables—but where might similar work need to be done in welcoming Christianity’s left political flank?
Along these lines, Mouw defines nation as “a community of people who experience some kind of unity, based on shared memories of our collective past and some cultural practices and loyalties we have in common.”1 Mouw suggests that such national sentiment can be found during the National Anthem before the ball game, or at a local gathering of the Cub Scouts. No doubt such expressions and experiences bind us together, but assertions of “shared memories of our collective past” may lead us to ask, “Which memories?” For example, is this collective past primarily anchored in 1619 or 1776? How do we learn to tell both aspects as one shared story?
Mouw addresses this concern well in his chapter on civil religion—the use of religious language and story to shape and tell the story of our county— which has been used nationally and globally to deny certain memories and experience in service of a narrative that is, by definition, neither shared nor collective. Mouw goes on to show how this was used powerfully by civil rights leaders in the 1960s, concluding, “civil religion at its best also points us to future possibilities for correcting the mistakes of our past and present.”2
“… when wielded with principled humility, civil religion has been used to lament the past, challenge the present, and change the future.”
It seems, then, that the use of civil religion in the public square is a precarious thing. It is a tool we are far too likely to use to create and praise heroes, mythologizing a half-truth. However, when wielded with principled humility, civil religion has been used to lament the past, challenge the present, and change the future. This is a feature which humility must include the conviction that we will never bring the Kingdom of God to earth by our actions, but that we may yet find and name startling glimpses and whispers of the transcendent values of God in, around and through our past and present, and in our hope for the future.
One such glimpse of the apostle-poet John’s apocalypse from my own life comes from time spent as an American citizen living abroad. At least once a year in the International Churches of my childhood, we would have a parade of national flags in our sanctuary. People dressed in the traditional regalia of their own country. I contributed a pair of blue jeans and Chuck Taylors, while around me fluttered the regal silks and colors of saris, barongs and dashikis. With dozens of colorful flags up front, we sang of the church’s one foundation; we confessed one Lord, one faith and one baptism, and we celebrated a foretaste of John’s vision of “every language, tribe, language and people.” Because I am all for national flags in the sanctuary this way, I am more skeptical than Mouw about the permissibility of just one lonely flag placed, or one patriotic hymn sung in the context of American worship.
“With dozens of colorful flags up front, we sang of the church’s one foundation; we confessed one Lord, one faith and one baptism…”
It is unfair to ask one book to do the work of all possible books on a subject, but it is also a compliment to the scholar when his work generates the possibility of more and further conversation. In that vein, having grown up overseas, I know we need international voices if we are ever to see ourselves clearly; to see ourselves from the outside in. Mouw invites the beginning of this work by his reflection on worship in a Chinese context, which, only made me hungry for a further collection of essays by public theologians, pastors and Christians with a political vocation from around the world reflecting on what it means to be a patriotic Christian. This, more than anything, might provide a helpful corrective to claims of persecution in the North American church context and free American Christians to see the place for thoughtful critique in expressions of love for country.
While we have room to grow in fostering “love of country as love of neighbor,” and I fear there is daunting work ahead of the evangelical church in North America when it comes to divesting ourselves of unholy alliances with Christian nationalism, there should be nothing stopping us from starting the journey, especially with Richard Mouw and his new book serving as gracious companion and guide along the early stretches of the trail. If you are ready to restart the conversation, or perhaps even repair some of the partisan alienation that has crept into our homes and churches over the past few years, you have no better place to start than here.