". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13

Commentary

Rightly Ordered Patriotism Is Not Christian Nationalism

July 4, 2024

Over the last few years, the term “Christian nationalism” has received outsized attention in American political discourse. Although the phrase was bandied about before the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol back in 2021, the last few years have witnessed a torrent of opinion pieces, books, round table discussions, and even professionally produced documentaries about the topic. Though the debate now seems to be tapering off, recent developments in Oklahoma and Louisiana have triggered a new round of opinion pieces about the dangers of theocracy.

Although the Christian blogsphere does not need another piece on Christian nationalism, it is worthwhile to think about rightly ordered patriotism as Americans celebrate Independence Day, and particularly the extent to which love of country should animate believers. Among competing conceptions of what it means to be a Christian patriot, there are a few definitions and principles to keep in mind.

First, nationalism can be defined as “loyalty and devotion to a nation.” A strong identification with one’s nation and its interests signify a commitment to nationalism. In common parlance, nationalism and patriotism are synonymous.

Second, although a broadly agreed-upon definition of Christian nationalism does not exist, the term is commonly used in reference to a person conflating their Christian and American identities. Christian nationalism views one’s Christian and American identities as one and the same; a person’s American identity is inextricable from their Christian one. Christian nationalism considers being a “good American” and a “good Christian” as synonymous.

With these definitions in mind, recent headlines alleging that Christian nationalism is making headway deserve a closer look. Notably, much progressive handwringing has been directed at Louisiana Governor Jeff Landry for signing a law requiring the display of the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms. For example, New York Magazine recently published a piece about the new law, warning, “Why display the Ten Commandments? Likely for several reasons, but among the most compelling is a thirst for sectarianism.” The author went on to argue, “Christian nationalists are looking to score points against their foes — and win an ideological war in the process. If America is a Christian nation, nobody else truly belongs. …That’s a lesson Louisiana Republicans hope to impart to Americans as children.”

Despite detractors ascribing nefarious intentions to Louisiana lawmakers, the law itself does not establish a state church or seek to require subscription to the Ten Commandments. In fact, the law simply requires a display of the biblical passage with a context statement explaining that the Ten Commandments have been a “prominent part of American public education for almost three centuries.”

Far from a subversive attempt to impose theocracy, lawmakers are simply acknowledging a universally recognized truth about the influence of the Bible on the American founding. Ironically, the kerfuffle over the law underscores the need for it, as many opponents, through their criticism, reveal a lack of historical awareness regarding the Bible’s influence and the guiding convictions of the Founders.

Thus, it is important for American Christians to understand that much of the discussion about Christian nationalism is much ado about nothing. But even as believers are beginning to see how “Christian nationalism” has been weaponized to discourage them from engaging in the public square, what is a proper way to think about patriotism?

The Christian principle of subsidiarity teaches that human flourishing subsides most fully at the family, the basic unit where responsibility and power is exercised. Thus, a biblical worldview attaches great importance to families. In terms of how society is structured, conservative Christians have recognized that beyond the family, additional layers of authority exist. Significantly, authorities at local levels may rightly demand allegiance.

As Yuval Levin has noted, conservative Christians have long accepted and appreciated that between the individual and nation state there are “protective layers that create a layered society with a lot of institutions between the individual and the state.” Notably, although each level of authority merits obedience, the claim for loyalty diminishes the farther abstracted from the family.

Stemming from these considerations, American Christians can acknowledge that although the claim of the state is qualified, there are responsibilities and obligations that every citizen owes the state. Furthermore, as the state fulfills its God-given mandate to promote good and restrain evil, Christian citizens receive a variety of common grace blessings that result from godly governance. Good laws provide the conditions for human flourishing, and when this happens, Christians should be grateful.

In short, out of gratitude to God for the gift of good government, Christians should embrace a measured patriotism defined as a love for the ideals and values of one’s country. Although not perfect, the United States has arguably been one of the greatest forces for good in world history. Whether it has been supporting democracy around the globe, championing human rights, providing billions of dollars in economic and humanitarian aid, or exporting life-saving technologies, America has been at the forefront of improving the quality of life for many around the world. American advancements in medicine, technology, and science have lifted countless people out of poverty, created cures for diseases, and expanded human knowledge in fields ranging from microbiology to astronomy. James 1:7 reminds us that every good gift comes from God, and American Christians should praise God for how He has used our nation to help those beyond our shores.

As historian Thomas Kidd notes, while Christian nationalism (properly defined) is misguided, “measured patriotism still seems appropriate, and somewhat unavoidable for most Christians.” Within proper bounds, if directed toward morally good ends, patriotism should be encouraged. It is appropriate for Americans to feel love and affection for the honorable things their country has stood for and done. Seeking the welfare of one’s city or nation (Jer. 29:7) is a practical way for Christians to obey the commandment of loving one’s neighbor (Mk. 12:31).

As we celebrate Independence Day, there are many reasons for Americans to be grateful. Although it may not be in vogue in some circles to celebrate America, citizens of this country enjoy wide-ranging freedoms that are still the envy of the world. We should never take these freedoms for granted.

David Closson is Director of the Center for Biblical Worldview at Family Research Council.