What does it mean to love our country? Is there a difference between patriotism and Christian nationalism? How should Christians navigate the tensions between allegiance to the kingdom of God and their nation, and avoid the dangers of both idolatry and disengagement?
On November 4th, The Trinity Forum held an Online Conversation with theologian and president emeritus of Fuller Seminary Rich Mouw and political theorist and scholar Paul Miller to explore the relationship between Christianity and nation and offer a vision that promotes civic flourishing and responsible citizenship.
Online Conversation | Richard Mouw + Paul Miller | November 4, 2022
Cherie Harder: On behalf of all of us of the Trinity Forum, I’d like to welcome you to today’s Online Conversation with Richard Mouw and Paul Miller on “How to Be a Patriotic Christian.” I’d also like to thank our sponsors, the Pepperdine School of Public Policy, ably led by Pete Peterson, as well as our friends at InterVarsity Press for sponsoring today’s program.
And we’re delighted that so many of you have joined us. I know we have nearly 4,500 people registered, including, I think, close to 200 first-time guests. And those of you joining us from overseas—I believe we have folks from at least 22 different countries that we know of, ranging from Afghanistan to Austria, South Africa to Sri Lanka. So if you haven’t let us know where you’re from, drop us a note in the chat feature. It’s always fun for us to see where you’re tuning in from and just really appreciate the honor of your time and attention.
If you are one of those new folks joining us for the very first time or are otherwise unfamiliar with the work of the Trinity Forum, we work to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought leadership and provide a space where leaders can wrestle with the big questions of life in the context of faith and ultimately come to better know the Author of the answers. And we hope today’s conversation will be a small taste of that for you today.
The topic we’re discussing today is one that often prompts both conflict and controversy as it goes to the deep questions of how we understand and live out our allegiances to both our country and the kingdom of God, how we relate to our neighbors, and how we pursue justice and flourishing within our nation. It’s also one that has often been attended by confusion or uncertainty. While the horrifying events of January 6, when some of those who stormed the Capitol erected crosses and staged prayer sessions, dramatically and grotesquely illustrated the ways that Christian symbols have at times been weaponized and fused to nationalistic ends, on the other hand, many of the ideas or assumptions that can characterize Christian nationalism, at least here in the US—including the fusion of American identity with Christianity, or the belief that the US has a religiously covenantal national history and stands as the new Israel—have relatively widespread acceptance among many people of faith, so much so that they may not even be recognized as nationalistic, much less questioned or debated.
So what is Christian nationalism and how is it different from a robust patriotism? How do we distinguish between living out one’s faith in the public square and instrumentalizing faith for political ends? In short, what does it mean to be a patriotic Christian? To help us wrestle with these questions, I’m delighted to welcome to today’s conversation two guests known for their wisdom as well as their expertise in the areas of both theology and political theory, Dr. Richard Mouw and Dr. Paul Miller.
Richard Mouw is a theologian, philosopher, and the senior research fellow at the Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College and previously served as the president of Fuller Seminary for over 20 years. He’s also served as president at the Association of Theological Schools and has been awarded the Abraham Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reform Theology and Public Life by Princeton Seminary. He’s the author of 20 books, which is incredible, including Uncommon Decency, Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, Pluralisms and Horizons, Praying at Burger King, and his latest book, which we’re looking forward to discussing with him today, How to be a Patriotic Christian.
Joining Rich is Paul Miller. Paul is a professor in the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He’s also a senior fellow with the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council and a research fellow with the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Dr. Miller previously served in the Army, including a tour in Afghanistan, and as an analyst with the CIA and as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the National Security Council staff. He is also the author of a wonderful new work we commend, The Religion of American Greatness, which we’ve invited him here today to discuss as well.
Rich and Paul, welcome. It’s great to see you both.
Richard Mouw: Great to be with you. Yeah.
Paul Miller: Thanks so much for having us to talk together.
Cherie Harder: Absolutely. So one thing I noticed in reading both of your books is you both mention being warned or cautioned against writing them, perhaps because of the controversy. And I wanted to ask you, what led you to write them and to persevere despite the warnings? And, Rich, maybe we can start with you.
Richard Mouw: Well, you know, you get this— You get together with friends and they’ll say, “What are you working on?” “I’m writing a book on how to be a patriotic Christian.” And the person would say, “Wow, be careful.” And the “be careful” warning has a lot to do with the obvious polarization in our culture, that there are people who, if they think I’m going to say anything good about patriotism, worry that I’m going to encourage the wrong kinds of things, the more nationalistic side of things. And there are people who would be more sympathetic to that nationalistic side of things that are going to be afraid that I’m going to kind of call them to be a little less committed to what they’re committed to. And we’re living in a highly polarized culture. What we’re talking about today is not without great controversy out there.
Cherie Harder: Paul?
Paul Miller: Yeah. So I think I received some of the similar warnings or had a similar sense that the subject is very controversial. But everything I’ve written, I think, in my life, I write almost out of a sense of compulsion. I feel that if we don’t share these messages, then who will? And in a moment like ours, we need the courage to speak out if we feel so moved. And, you know, for me, I write what I wish I could read, but I couldn’t find. And I wanted a good explanation for our political moment, our political crisis. I looked around and found I didn’t quite understand what was going on in my own country. And that’s what led to this book.
Cherie Harder: So as we start off, this is a subject that has certainly generated perhaps more heat than light, and terms themselves have been disputed. And the term “Christian nationalism” has been thrown around a lot, and I think [it] is both loaded and fuzzy. So, Paul, maybe you can start us off by simply defining what is Christian nationalism.
Paul Miller: That’s a great question. And by the way, in the chat box, please continue to let us know if we’re not quite loud enough. I’ll try to speak a bit clearer. What is Christian nationalism? The whole ballgame there is defining our terms right. And I find so often when I talk to people about nationalism, what I think might be dangerous or wrong, the first response is, “What’s wrong with loving my country?” And I want to say, “Nothing!” And that’s not what nationalism is. Nationalism I want to distinguish from patriotism. And nationalism is really an argument about how we define our country, not so much whether or not we love our country. Nationalism is a way of thinking about our country’s borders, about who’s in and who’s out, who counts as a real member of our nation and who isn’t. Nationalism defines our country by a specific cultural heritage, in this case, a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage for America. That’s what nationalism is. And you can define it or not define it that way and still love your country or not love your country. So patriotism, nationalism are different things. But I’d love to hear, Rich, how you understand the difference.
Richard Mouw: Well, I think I [take] just a slightly different angle. Nationalism is an “ism” about the nation, and if we take the “ism” part off of it—there’s a wonderful little book that I highly recommend by a Harvard historian, Jill Lepore, called This America: The Case for the Nation. It’s a very short book, but she talks about, you know, in the past, there was a lot of good stuff about loving a nation. Aristotle, for example, argued that being a citizen and loving the nation is the highest form of friendship, he said. And Plato and others, they talked a lot about nations. A nation is a peoplehood. It’s a sense of belonging to each other within borders and with a common history, with stories that we celebrate with. And so there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a part of a nation. But the “ism” part of it gets very dangerous. And that’s really what you’re getting at, Paul, is the near idolatry superimposing on what may otherwise be a legitimate love of my nation and kind of absolutizing it, or saying God cares more about my nation than it cares about any other nation. And furthermore, he’s not very critical of our nation either. He kind of likes the way we do things. That’s the unhealthy stuff that you and your book have explored in marvelous detail.
Cherie Harder: I want to pick up on that idolatry, a theme that you raised, in just a second. But, Rich, one thing I’d love to hear more from you about is, I thought you made a very interesting distinction between nationalism and patriotism that I’d like to hear you talk more about, in essentially distinguishing between the nation and the state. And you mention a term you called “civic kinship” in helping this distinction. Would love to hear you talk about that.
Richard Mouw: Thank you. I mean, when people fall in love with America, they’re not falling in love with the Department of Motor Vehicles or with a zoning commission. I went through all of the patriotic songs before I wrote my book, and I found that the patriotic songs basically express a love of America in three areas. We love the natural wonders of our purple mountains majesty, rocks and [inaudible], just the stuff we love that we go to national parks to see, for example. Secondly, stories of the past. And I grew up in school where every day we sang “land of the pilgrim’s pride.” Now, there are some issues that we need to talk about there, but America has been a place where people have fled religious persecution and have come here to try out some new things. And there are stories about that that we can celebrate. The third thing, we talk about ideals: liberty and law. Freedom. “Let freedom ring.” These are the kinds of things that Dr. King did such wonderful oratory with. So that’s good stuff. And it’s okay to love. And furthermore, it’s okay to love the nation, the people, that providentially you have been planted in, you know. I mean, there’s a Sri Lankan person watching this as a Christian. And I want to say I know very little about Sri Lanka, and I can’t say that I love it, but I hope that person loves Sri Lanka because it’s a good thing to love one’s country. And I love America because this is the country that has birthed me and has formed me in many ways. But then we need to look about when does that love go beyond just natural love of your own to something that can really be displeasing to God?
Cherie Harder: You know, Paul, Rich just brought up a little bit earlier idolatry, and that’s something that you have talked about quite a bit in your book. And I think at one point you said that nationalism is itself a kind of idolatry. And the link is— there’s a strong link between both it and idolatry and it and oppression, and would be interested in what you see as constituting that link.
Paul Miller: Yeah. I want to affirm first what Rich said about the creed, the story, and the natural beauty of the United States. These are great things to love and be grateful for, and they constitute the things that our natural bonds of affection should attach to. But they are so good that there’s a temptation to attach to them too strongly. Augustine talks about ordering our loves properly, and to the extent that anything is really good, it can also be really tempting. And because I think America is, in fact, so great, it means it is so tempting to idolize America because, you know, it’s just one of the greatest things. And as C.S. Lewis said, “When the love of nation becomes a god, it becomes a demon.” Anything we idolize becomes destructive, and it can be destructive individually of our spiritual lives, but when you idolize a nation, that nation can be unbelievably destructive.
And in my book, I try to spell out more philosophically how the ideas of nationalism will lead, I think, intrinsically, they will always lead to some form or other of oppression or illiberalism. At the very least, even benign nationalist regimes treat certain citizens inhospitably. They treat them like second-class citizens. They say to some group of citizens, “You’re not really one of us because you don’t conform to this preferred cultural template”—in this case an Anglo-Protestant or Judeo-Christian cultural template. If you’re not that, you’re not a real American. “Over here we got the real Americans.” Just by saying that it creates an inhospitable environment for some subgroup of Americans. And of course, we all know in American history there’s plenty of examples of how that inhospitality has become far worse than a mere— than just saying so.
Cherie Harder: You know, actually just sort of picking up on that, you mentioned sort of the Anglo-Protestant template, and often Christian nationalism is used as a term almost to describe an overlay of an infusion of American identity with being white, Christian, or native-born or in some cases a support for old hierarchies, a way to kind of prop that up. But at the same time, there have been other studies showing that Christian nationalism isn’t limited to the Anglo-Protestants. It can extend far beyond that. So, Paul, maybe we can start with you and then go to Rich. What role does race play in Christian nationalism?
Paul Miller: Yeah, that’s a really tough and complicated but important question. Some people just ask straight out, “Is Christian nationalism racist? Is it definitionally racist?” And I want to be very particular, very careful, in how I choose my words here. If you listen to what Christian nationalists say, if you just take at face value their ideological claims, they’re not saying overtly racist things the way many Americans did 60 or 70 or 80 years ago. So this is progress, right? They’re not making overtly racist claims. It’s also true that there’s a strong covariance between Christian nationalist attitudes and a set of other racial attitudes that are distinct from the mean. What I mean is, if you look at public opinion polling, for example, you ask an average American, “What do you think about immigration?” and they say one thing. You look at a Christian nationalist’s answer about immigration, and it’s sort of an outlier favoring greater immigration restrictions. You ask them as well about police brutality. You ask them as well about racial diversity, DEI issues. Ask them about gun control. On issue after issue, those who self-identify as Christian nationalists, they also hold sort of outlier views on a range of racialized issues, law and order and crime and so forth. And so I observed that and I say that coincidence is certainly there, despite the fact that, again, overtly we don’t hear the racialized rhetoric.
Cherie Harder: You know, Rich, would love to hear your thoughts on that. And I’ll ladle another question on top of it, which is, has to do with the tribalism that’s been sort of implied by some of what we’ve talked about, because tribalism right now, it’s certainly waxing, but it also seems in many ways inevitable because we are wired for belonging and community. So would also love to hear you talk about what you see as the distinction between a healthy longing for community and belonging, along with a patriotic love of country and an unhealthy or oppressive tribalism.
Richard Mouw: Thank you. Well, you know, I mean, we have some great stuff to work with in America and the United States. That wonderful statement that God has endowed, the Creator has “endowed people with certain inalienable rights,” and that we want to “form a more perfect union” and “all men are created equal.” And of course, at the start, we didn’t really think that that included women. We certainly didn’t think that included Blacks slaves or that it included native peoples. In fact, we didn’t even think in the earliest years that it included Jews, that it included Quakers and the like. But the story of the American Experiment, [inaudible] used to call it the American experiment, there’s been an ever-widening understanding, at least among many, of who those “all human beings” are. And that’s a good thing. But when things get rough, we tend to retreat into, as you said, tribalism. And I think the internet has fostered that a bit, that we tend to go to those sites that are of our own tribe and that we’re insensitive to opening up the table.
I’ll say this real quickly, but couple of months ago, I was interviewed by a journalist from The Economist, and he said to me, “Here’s a question I’d like to hear you answer. Why is it that Mormons in public life are a lot nicer than evangelicals?” That’s an interesting question. And the answer that I gave, and we followed through on this and agreed on this, is that we evangelical types, we Calvinist evangelicals, we once felt like we owned the table. We had to decide who got in. Mormons have never owned the table. And today they took the table away from us—”they” meaning the secularists and others. We don’t own the table anymore. Mormons are more contentious to want to be a part of the table, to be theirs. I was on a thing two nights ago with a rabbi and a Muslim scholar, and the Muslim scholar was wonderful. And basically he was saying, “We want to be a part of the table. We want a place at the table. We believe in pluralism. We believe in justice.” But the danger is that we will not hear those voices because we define them out of existence or at least define them out of our hearing, our range of hearing. But I have to hear what Paul has to say about that.
Paul Miller: I think this idea, this image, of owning the table is exactly right. You know, Christian nationalism is often more evident as an attitude than a policy program. It’s kind of a stance of possessiveness, a proprietary attitude towards America. You know, “We Christians should be on top. We’re the first citizens, the guardians, the architects. And so we kind of deserve pride of place in the public square.” And there are a few policy implications that sometimes flow from that. But that attitude, I think, is at the root of a lot of Christian nationalism. And I think, you know, if I was to offer one short critique, I don’t know that it’s consistent with the golden rule. If we are to do unto others, we ought to welcome everyone at the table as a co-equal owner of the table and not act or believe or give off the impression that we’re the owners or the rightful owners or the inheritors of the table. So I think that’s well put, Rich.
Richard Mouw: And just because you asked us at the beginning, Cherie, we’ve often had racial criteria for who belongs at the table as well. And African Americans have a lot to complain about. I think the indigenous peoples, native peoples of America have even been kept further away from the table, and the table is legislated against them as well.
Cherie Harder: Paul, I’ll start with you with this question. Where does this set of Christian nationalist beliefs come from? What are its theological or political origins?
Paul Miller: Well, there’s a lot of different ways I could go with that. The political origins— look, nationalism is successful. It’s popular. People like it. It’s sort of psychologically successful. People want to feel a part of something larger than themselves. And for 200 years, politicians know this. And so they make nationalist appeals, populist, demagogic appeals. And because it’s so successful, politicians keep using it. We’ve seen an upsurge of nationalism recently, I think, because of all the cultural change and the tumult and the economic crises of the past, I’d say, about 20 years. Because of that change, there are people who just really want— they have a felt need to reassert a traditional sense of what it means to be an American. They want to reassert, “Hey, look, this is who we are” and who we are is the traditional Christian America. So that might be a good political explanation for where it comes from. Theologically, I mean, if it is indeed idolatrous, then theologically it comes from the sinful human heart. They make other theological claims, and if that’s where you want to go, we can talk about that. But that would be my answer about politically where nationalism comes from.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So we’ll take just a few more questions before we turn it over to questions from our audience. But, Rich, one of the things that really struck me in reading your work is you talk in terms of responding to a growing Christian nationalism, and you urge your readers to, in your words, “do the work of contemplation and cultivate compassion as an essential part of being a patriotic Christian.” What do contemplation and compassion have to do with faithful civic engagement?
Richard Mouw: Yeah, sure. You know, I got that compassion notion from one of my heroes, Simone Weil, who was a wonderful French intellectual, raised in a secular Jewish context, but was embraced by Christ and died much too young. But she really struggled with her attitude toward France. She’d been a Marxist earlier before she came to know Christ, and she was quite critical of French life, French policies, and the like. Then she said finally she discovered that in addition to the patriotism of pomp and circumstance, there’s a patriotism of compassion, a compassionate love of one’s country. And I like that. And I want to say, too, I think that if we’re going to really get into the discussions of what’s wrong with nationalism, we need to have a measure of compassion toward people who are caught up in that as well, so that we’re not just angrily denouncing them. I mean, some of us have to have that kind of teaching ministry.
But the contemplation I think I got from John Calvin who said the idea of neighbor includes everyone in the world who was created by, in the image of God. And people we’ve never met. And even our enemies. Our sinful tendency is not to do this, but we must see every human being as they are in God’s sight. God sees them as created in God’s own image. And Jesus loved enemies. So there’s a way of seeing other people that is a contemplative thing, and that is if there’s a person that—one of my favorite lines is from Saint Therese of Lisieux who said, you know, I’m in this monastery or convent, and there’s this nun who I really can’t stand. But I decided to see her as a divine work of art and recognizing that the artist wants me to appreciate her as a divine work of art. And she said, I was able to see her in different ways, in new ways, when I thought what did the artist have in mind in creating that person? So it’s something like art appreciation, which takes some work, but it’s taking into account the intentions of the artist, the intentions of the Creator, as well.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Paul, one of the things I wanted to ask you about is, on one hand, you quoted George Orwell saying that “patriotism is the best inoculation against the dangers of nationalism.” And I wanted to hear your thoughts on that. But sort of combine that with, you talk a lot about gratitude. And I thought that was really quite fascinating. We’ve hosted psychiatrist Curt Thompson before who has talked about how gratitude and fear are often incompatible. But there’s challenges to that notion as well, in that, on one hand, there is a lot of fear, which gratitude could presumably help drive out. But there’s also a legitimate critique of injustices that have happened and that continue to happen. And in some ways, gratitude could be seen as an excuse almost for inaction. So I would love to hear you talk a little bit about what does gratitude have to do with patriotism as a way of showing a new way out of Christian nationalism?
Paul Miller: Yeah. I think it’s important to root our patriotism more in gratitude than in pride. You know, it is very common to say “proud to be an American.” I always thought that was kind of odd because I didn’t choose it. And it’s strange to take pride in something I had nothing to do with. But I’m grateful. I’m grateful that I’m an American. And I’m grateful for many specific things. Again, Rich, you mentioned the natural beauty of America and our creed of liberty and equality. I’m very grateful for those things. And I’m grateful just for the sense of home. I think all of us associate—in my case, I’m an Oregonian, and I love the Pacific Northwest, and I’m grateful that I got to live my childhood years there. And so every time I go there, I get that feeling that we all get when we go home again. And I’m deeply grateful.
That kind of gratitude should lead to, I think, help us with two things. One is willing the good of that for which you’re grateful, right? When you love your country, it’s not a passive love or a complacent love where you just take all the blessings and eat them up as a consumer. Rather, you want to give back and you want to do better. That’s what helps us hold our country accountable if it does bad things, because then we recognize, “wait, wait, wait, our country is doing something that doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel like home, doesn’t feel like the thing I fell in love with.” And so I want to challenge my country to do better. I’m going to will it to will its own good. And so that should, I think, challenge that passivity that you suggested. But that is also how we guard against nationalism, right? Nationalism sometimes is this kind of “my country, right or wrong,” but my country. And a grateful patriotism that wills the good of the country will also stand against your own government if it does a bad thing, right? Patriotic Germans in the thirties should be against their government, like Bonhoeffer. And that’s the case whenever your country maybe stands for something that is unjust. The patriotic thing is to work against that.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. Well, as you might imagine, there have been a bunch of different questions that have come in. And just as a reminder, for those of you watching, you can not only ask a question, but you can also “like” a question. And that helps give us an idea of what some of the most popular questions are. So our first question comes from Grace Graves, who asks, “In the conversation surrounding Christian nationalism, there seems to occasionally be a conflation of historic Christian views with Christian nationalism. How do we best parse those out?” And, Rich, I want to throw that one to you.
Richard Mouw: Well, I’m not quite sure what she means by historic Christian views, but there’s just no question that Christian nationalism has drawn on historic Christian ideas, including biblical ideas. “We have to render under Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” “The powers that be are ordained of God.” And then those historic ideas are often used to reinforce a refusal to be critical of one’s country. And the idea of sometimes people superimpose what God did with Israel in the Old Testament onto the United States. There was a chosen nation. There was a special people through whom God would show God’s purposes to the nations of ancient times. But the United States doesn’t have that war. There’s only one chosen people in the Bible, and that’s Israel. And then the church, the body of Christ, drawn from every tribe and tongue and nation of the earth, becomes a kind of chosen people. And so if we want chosen peoplehood, we’ve got to think of our fellow Christians in North Korea, our fellow Christians in Sri Lanka, our fellow Christians in the gold mines of South Africa and sense solidarity with them. So there’s an inevitable—and I think this is where we really need to be getting at the identity issue in our worship and our Christian formation—that Revelation 5, that great hymn, that the lamb has through his blood gathered together a people from every tribe and tongue and nation on the earth. And he has made us into a kingdom of chosen people and together we are to do it as well.
Cherie Harder: So our next question comes from Kyle Hammerson, and Kyle asks, “What does it look like to value and care for a specific political community, like the USA, while also seeking the welfare of political communities beyond our own?” Paul?
Paul Miller: Yeah. So I’m reminded of a comment by Paul Ramsey, who’s a Methodist ethicist of the mid-20th century, and he said something to this effect, that we should always pray and hope and seek that our country’s interests aligns with the interests of the world as a whole. And he was making that argument in the context of just war theory. But I think it applies generally. We want our country— it’s good to love our country. It’s good to work for our country’s good and welfare and prosperity. We want our country’s interests to serve the interests of everyone. So it’s not a self-centered, selfish, or a costly national interest, but rather one that is consonant with, consistent with, the broader community of nations. And I think that we have done a decent job of trying that over the past, I’d say 80 years or so, particularly with likeminded countries that also aspire to uphold a form of order, liberty, or a free society. We have created a community of nations with them that is where we kind of share interests. And that’s the community of nations right now standing with Ukraine against Russia. And that’s a profound testament to how well we have aligned our interest with many other countries, with sort of the free nations of the world. And so we should keep doing that.
Cherie Harder: That’s great. So a question from Colin Tomakawa, and, Colin, apologies for mangling your name there. “Willie James Jennings has a view that who we are as a people is connected to the land God has placed us in. Most of us in North America are no longer in our native land, and we don’t have that particular cultural connection. How do you think this impacts our sense of nation and home?” Rich, I’ll toss that one to you.
Richard Mouw: Yeah, well, you know, Paul talks about being grateful for being raised in Oregon, but this may not sound like the same kind of thing, but I’m grateful for having been raised in northern New Jersey. But that’s a long story. But I haven’t been back there in a long time. And we’re much more mobile these days and extended family doesn’t—we’re not in touch with all of those landedness, familial ties that often define the way we experience our country. And that means that the love of America has to be—and I think Willie, my former student, Willie Jennings, is right about all of that—but then landedness doesn’t have the same meaning as it was even 50 or 100 years ago. And so we need to find ways of loving the land in different ways than simply being on the land or a certain part of the land. And we have a lot of work to do that. And I think the church can help us to do those kinds of things, but I’m not sure we’re doing a very good job of it.
Cherie Harder: The next question comes from Jason Tee, and it’s addressed to you, Paul. He says that, “Paul mentioned at one point in the conversation that Christian nationalists are self-identified. But is that really the case or is it more that there are Christians who would decline the title but might embody some of the characteristics? And are not many of those in the crosshairs of being labeled Christian nationalists simply because they claim the title of Christian and engage in the public square on issues that don’t align with the secular left?”
Paul Miller: So this is part of the definitional problem. When I mentioned self-identified, that was in reference to some public-opinion polling where people were asked questions about Christianity and America and then other questions. So that was for that polling sample. Right now there are people openly embracing the label “Christian nationalist” and writing books, making the case for Christian nationalism. It’s strange, about a year ago, I received the critique regularly that Christian nationalism isn’t a real thing. Nobody calls themselves that. And yet here we are, where people are pretty openly embracing the label. You’re right. There are some critics, I’d say, sort of to the left who use the label Christian nationalism to refer to any Christian political activity. That’s an inappropriate definition. It’s not in line with a standard scholarly understanding of nationalism, Christian or not. And that’s an unhelpful way of using the term. I think it does have a definite meaning about defining America as a Christian nation and looking to the government to keep it that way. That’s Christian nationalism in a nutshell. We can be Christians and advocate for justice, be politically involved. We can be pro-life, pro-religious liberty, and that’s not Christian nationalism. If your heart attitude doesn’t reflect that possessiveness, if you’re not trying to impose a sectarian or discriminatory public morality on people, then you’re not a Christian nationalist just because you’re a Christian who’s also politically engaged.
Cherie Harder: So a question from Eric Burrows-Stone, and, Rich, I’ll throw this one to you. Eric writes, “I’m increasingly convinced that the push for Christian nationalism is grounded in the final gasp of Western Christendom as secularism progresses. And I’ve suggested that it’s a failure to engage our nation and culture in a properly Christian manner, namely evangelism and mission. Do you have any thoughts regarding this?”
Richard Mouw: Well, I’m certainly in favor of evangelism and mission, and I do think that this is such an important context historically for us to be talking about what it really means to be a people, a people who honor the authority of God over all of life. And in that way, to oppose that secularism. We have a lot of good work to do on that. And I do think, I want to say, I think in many ways, Paul, I say compassion toward Christian nationalists. I think there is an element of grieving that leads people to Christian nationalism. This sense they have taken away my country and I do not know where they have laid it. What’s going to happen to my grandkids out there in this culture that I don’t understand anymore? And in response to these voices that I can’t really grasp what they’re getting at. Much of that is ill-informed, not very well informed, and the like. But I do think we need to take the reality that there are a lot of people who are grieving of something about America that has been lost. And I think we need to work at trying to show them that God still loves America and that God loves the America of new things as well, of new citizens, of new challenges, of new engagements, new stories that have to be told about our past. And I do think that there is a compassionate, even grief-addressing element in all of that. And I worry that—not you, Paul—but I worry that a lot of people who are condemning Christian nationalism aren’t really looking at the human realities that people are struggling with these days in trying to understand post-Christian America.
Cherie Harder: You know, our next question comes from Don Morgan, and it reflects some of the concerns that you mentioned, Rich. Don asked, “If we lose our democracy, what should be the Christian response?” Paul, you want to take a swing at that?
Paul Miller: Yeah. Well, look, to answer the question as stated, we should absolutely fight for our democracy. I referenced the golden rule earlier, and I kind of think of democracy as the political outworking of the golden rule. I think our Constitution is a good and just system of government—you know, not perfectly just, certainly needs some improvement—but we should fight to save it and we should work to keep it. Perhaps behind that question there might be another one, which is if we lose our Christian heritage, will we lose our democracy? And there I would give you a slightly different answer. And I want to actually provide some reassurance—some, I hope, some hope—and say that Christianity and democracy, while they were historically connected—you know, democracy arising within largely Christian societies—it’s proven to be very successful in spreading around the world in other cultural contexts. So I don’t think we need to be afraid as American Christians that we’re going to somehow lose our democracy if our culture changes too much. People come here from all over the world because they like our democracy and they’re not going to tear it down once they get here. So again, perhaps that was the premise behind the question. I just want to offer some reassurance. I’m pretty comfortable, or not comfortable, I’m relatively confident about the long-term prospects for American democracy, although we certainly have our challenges in the near term.
Cherie Harder: Rich, you’re nodding. Did you have other thoughts to add?
Richard Mouw: Well, yeah. I agree with everything that Paul was saying there. I do worry about those short-term challenges, though, which we may experience in a week, even, if elections cannot be decided because people challenge whether or not they were legitimate elections and can go years denying that someone actually won the election when all of the traditional democratic ways of ascertaining election victories have been established. I do worry about that. And I think the real challenges to democracy are often very, very basic ones of what happens in polling booths and what happens when results are announced. And these are things we need to be working on, too. But I’m sure Paul agrees with me on that.
Cherie Harder: So we’ve had a number of questions going back to definitions. So since that’s such an important part of distinguishing between nationalism and patriotism, it’s probably good to revisit that. So Mark Roberts sort of asks what’s behind your definitions, what authorizes them, saying, “I’m not convinced that patriotism and nationalism must be distinguished. Both can be despised as ‘isms.'” And somewhat relatedly, a Holly Gainsale asked, “Could you please define illiberalism? What does it mean? And how did this term come to be?” So, Paul, maybe we can start with you and then go to Rich.
Paul Miller: Yeah. So let me say my definition of Christian nationalism again; I think I maybe actually failed to capture it the very first time. I think Christian nationalism is when somebody says, “America is a Christian nation and the government should keep it that way. The government has a role in keeping it that way.” It’s the political program of ensuring a Christian culture in the future. That’s really the hard core of Christian nationalism. It’s not the opposite of patriotism. These things can overlap. You can be both a patriot and a nationalist, and you can be neither. But they are distinct. You can be a patriot without being a nationalist. You can love your country without believing that it has to be defined by a certain specific cultural heritage that the government has to uphold and maintain. And that’s just that feeling of gratitude and willing the good of your country. That’s the hard core of patriotism.
As for patriotism being an “ism,” that’s why I stressed the virtue of gratitude. I think that’s a biblical virtue. I think that we are to be grateful, thankful. We’re to be thankful for the gifts we’ve been given. And one of them is membership in a community and a society and the good things about this particular society, like the natural beauty, like the creed equality and liberty. That’s a biblical virtue. I think I choose to call it patriotism because it’s thankful for this particular patria, this country. And so I think it’s an appropriate use of the term. Shall I do “illiberalism” or do you want me to wait on that?
Cherie Harder: Go for it and we’ll turn to Rich.
Paul Miller: Yeah. So in my book, I regularly say that nationalism is illiberal. I just mean it’s inconsistent with classical liberalism. When I say liberalism, I don’t mean the Democratic Party. I don’t mean the political left. I mean classical 18th-century, John Locke liberalism, the philosophy of the American founders. Illiberalism is the opposite of all that. I think that nationalism is inconsistent with the ideals of the American founders. If you look at what they said about the creed, about what it means to be an American, nationalists I think get it wrong, and their ideology would lead eventually, if they implemented it, into some very different directions than what the founders would have intended.
Cherie Harder: Rich?
Richard Mouw: You know, in my book, I began by pointing out, and Paul actually pulled this non-English phrase out: patria. Patriotism or being patriotic is to love the fatherland or the motherland. We use a lot of language that’s rooted in familial relationships in talking about that. And I like to point to some of the parallels there, you know. I love my parents. No longer alive, but I’m grateful for them. Why? Because they’re my parents. And the kid down the block, she loved her parents. And I didn’t want to fight over that. I mean, it’s natural for someone to love their parents. Now, we also recognize that families can be dysfunctional. And most of us don’t grow up being uncritically loyal to a family. We’ve experienced the pains of dysfunctional familial relationships. And I want to say in the love of the father and the love of the motherland, the love of the nation of peoplehood, the human family has gathered within certain borders. We should be willing to feel the pain of dysfunctional things, abuse, and want legislation to guard against that, just as we would in family relationships as well.
And I think “illiberal,” as Paul has pointed out, is a lack of charity, it’s a lack of hospitality toward the needs and concerns of other people. And I think that idea of hospitality as opening up spaces for others and allowing them to occupy spaces in our consciousness so that it’s not just compassion, but it’s also empathy, empathy for those who are the children of slaves, empathy for those who live on reservations, and empathy for those who worry about raising their grandkids in this culture. There’s a lot of legitimate stuff to be empathetic about in all of that.
Cherie Harder: We’ll take one more question from Greg Christian. And Greg says, “Philippians 3:20 starts ‘but our citizenship is in heaven.’ Do we humans start down a slippery slope when we start identifying with a country more than heaven? If so, how do we avoid that slope? And how does the love of country fit into the context of citizenship in heaven?” Paul, maybe we can start with you.
Paul Miller: Yeah, well, right there in your question, you say “when we start to identify with a country more than heaven.” And that’s the answer. That’s when it becomes bad. Again, I go back to Augustine. All loves can be good if they are rightly ordered. And our love of God is first. And our citizenship in the kingdom of heaven is first. Nested within that, if we keep it subordinate, of course we have many other subordinate lesser natural loves, like the love of family and, yes, the love of country and the love of neighborhood and community and sports teams and everything. You know, Jesus was asked about family. He said, “If you don’t hate your father and mother and come after me—” And we don’t read that literally. We understand we are supposed to love our mother and father. We’re supposed to honor them. The Ten Commandments say so. Jesus is making a point about relative loves. We are supposed to love and follow him above all. But after that love, subordinate to it, nested within it, if we keep them rightly aligned, we can and should cultivate our natural loves for family, community, and homeland as well.
Cherie Harder: Rich.
Richard Mouw: Yeah, you know, I think there are some key biblical texts that address this directly, but I won’t get into all of it. But there’s a wonderful verse in 1 Peter 2 where he’s talking about living as exiles in a place, but loving the gentile, loving those who are our fellow citizens. And then the Apostle gives these four mandates that we are to fear the Lord because he is our true ruler, our true king, and we’re to apage-love the church because these are our fellow citizens in the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And I owe that to people in my own congregation. But I owe that to people in North Korea and in other parts of the world. And then he says, about the broader community in which we live, we need to honor the government. And then, secondly, he says we’re to honor all human beings. And I think these are the two citizenships. In the kingdom of Jesus Christ we’re to fear the Lord. Phobeo is the Greek word there. And we’re to agape-love, self-sacrificing love, for our brothers and sisters in Christ. But there is an honor, and honor there in the Greek really talks about [having] regard for the well being [of others], wanting them to flourish. I want our government to flourish, but I want our citizens to flourish. And if our government isn’t helping our citizens to flourish, then they’re messing up the sense of what it means to be the citizenship that I want to exercise. But our true identity—and this is so important to be emphasizing—our true identity is that we belong to Jesus Christ, who alone is the Lord of all things.
Cherie Harder: Thank you, Rich and Paul. And in just a moment, I want to ask each of you to give a last word. But before that, a few things to share with you. Immediately after we conclude, we’ll be sending around an online feedback form. We’d love to have your input. We read all of these. We try to incorporate many of your suggestions in an attempt to make these programs ever more valuable to you. And as a small incentive or as a thank you for your taking the time to do so, we’d love to send you a code for a free download of a Trinity Forum Reading of your choice. There are several authors we have reading titles about, whether it’s Simone Weil or Martin Luther King Jr’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” that you can avail yourself of, as well as “City of God” by Augustine, “Children of Light, Children of Darkness” by Reinhold Niebuhr or “Democracy in America,” all of which pertain to our conversation today. So please send us your feedback.
In addition, we’ll be sending around tomorrow an email with a link to today’s conversation, lightly edited for brevity and would love for you to share it with your friends. Start a conversation and the like. These are big questions, and there’s been a lot of controversy and a lot of confusion around them, and we hope this will be a useful resource to you as you do your own thinking through some of these questions and some of these conversations.
In addition, we’d love to invite all of you watching us to join the Trinity Forum Society, which is the community of people who help make the mission of the Trinity Forum to cultivate, curate, and promote the best of Christian thought leadership possible. There are many benefits to being a Trinity Forum Society member, including a subscription to our quarterly Readings, a subscription to our daily “What We’re Reading” curated news feed, and as a special incentive for those of you joining today or with your gift of $100 or more, we will send you a signed copy of both Rich Mouw’s book How to Be a Patriotic Christian and Paul Miller’s work The Religion of American Greatness. So hope you will avail yourself of that invitation and that we’ll have the joy of welcoming you into the Trinity Forum Society.
Next week we will be announcing more December offerings in terms of our Online Conversations, including one that’s already scheduled for December 9th with Kelly Kapic on the blessings of limitations. And in addition, we want to alert you to the fact that we will be hosting one of our first online reading groups on November 16th at 8:30 p.m. Eastern Time on our fall Reading “The Loss of the University” by Wendell Berry. That’s limited to 20 people. So sign up now. We just announced it yesterday. There should be a link in the chat feature where you can sign up for that program or several others.
Finally, as we close out our time together, as promised, Rich and Paul, I wanted to offer each of you the last word. Paul, maybe we can start with you.
Paul Miller: Let’s hear the last word from Frederick Douglass, whom I read quite a bit of his work, his speeches, for my book. And he has many famous lines and famous speeches. But in one of them, I believe this is in the 1852 July 4th address, after cataloging America’s sins and calling it to account, he then says, “I do not despair of my country.” And that is an important reminder. Even at that low point, soon before the Civil War, when the nation was tearing itself apart, he could say, “I do not despair of my country.” And if he did not despair, neither should we.
Cherie Harder: Rich.
Richard Mouw: I talked about patriotic songs, and one of my favorites is “America the Beautiful.” It talks about amber waves of grain and all the rest, but that wonderful line where it says, “God shed his grace on me.” And as individual sinners, we understand that our only hope is God’s sovereign grace, totally undeserved. With that, God can reach down and do new things in our lives because God is gracious. And America can also. We need to pray that God will shed God’s grace on the United States of America. And that includes this prayer: “God mend thine every flaw.” That we want the grace of God to deal with the flaws so that America can continue to be a beautiful nation. And I would just hope that—and those of you in other countries as well—to pray for God’s grace and what’s happening in your countries, and also that that grace can mend the flaws. Even the deepest flaws of the human condition are not beyond the power of God’s redeeming grace. Thank you all.
Cherie Harder: Rich and Paul, thank you so much.