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Review by W.L. Prehn
Richard Mouw of Calvin University speaks for many of us when he laments the deep political divisions between Americans and the increasingly public disagreements over politics and public policy, among committed Christians especially. As we begin another presidential election year, and one likely to be as divisive as any in American history, Mouw’s book is a practical ministry to us all. What is the correct way for Christians to be patriotic? How might Christians on both and every side of the political spectrum affirm each other’s patriotism, even if we cannot affirm the other’s view about a particular law or policy?
Mouw believes patriotism is a good, even God-given, thing, but love of country must include compassion. While practicing charity to all and affirming the human dignity of all are core values of the gospel, Mouw asks us to stop and consider that another’s political views are usually motivated by deep “hopes and fears.” If we stop to listen to another person about his hopes and fears, we will at least understand where he is coming from in his politics.
Mouw finds Simone Weil a perfect example of good patriotism. In The Need for Roots (1949), Weil holds up compassion for one’s fellow citizen instead of prideful, “pomp and glory” patriotism. In a most significant passage, Mouw writes that Weil helped her fellow French citizens see how they “must be solidly grounded in an honest grasp of the facts about the nation.” It goes without saying that Americans are grappling with many facts about our nation that are neither sweet nor inspiring. These facts apply to citizens in every political party. But it is our duty to face them and to pray for compassion for those on every side of an “issue.”
For the citizen as voter, elected persons do not only embody the voter’s values but are means to an end: the voter’s vision of the good life. Addressing Christians in this book, Mouw wants to find the happy medium between an exclusive Christian nationalism and a patriotism built on religious agnosticism. America is becoming only more of a melting pot, but “one nation under God” does not require that one person’s views are lockstep the same as another’s. Magnanimity is rare in our time, but Mouw is hopeful we can develop this virtue.
A dyed-in-the-wool democratic republican and a committed Christian, Mouw understands that truth — whether philosophical or political — cannot be won without debate, disagreement, challenge, struggle, and even strife. (A survey of Christian history shows that such debate and contest is also true of the development — or at least the reception — of Christian doctrine.) In any case, such a dynamic situation is exactly how the federal government of the United States was set up to function.
Truth is a large thing. What individual can know it all? Moreover, an assumption crucial to the mechanism of our republican government is that “men are not angels” (Federalist 51). Tainted by sin, we therefore assume that no single person or party can be relied on to deliver the truth. Mouw therefore takes it for granted that “spiritual and theological wrestling” is our Christian duty. A great and glorious blessing came from Jacob/Israel’s contest with the angel (Gen. 32). Mouw reminds us that Jacob “engaged in the match in order to be blessed.” If we find ourselves in a place where there is no debate and no wrestling, we are likely in the place called hell.
Mouw offers good tips for our political wrestling. We must do “the work of contemplation,” which means looking for Jesus in everyone we meet. We must “cultivate compassion,” whether racial, ethnic, gender-oriented, social, economic, and political. We must “go deep in the quest for rootedness,” which means seeing ourselves not as Americans alone but part of a transnational Christian movement transcending nation-state and patriotism in the narrowest sense.
Our fundamental identity is in Christ, now and always. And it must be God in Whom we trust. Jesus “speaks to the deepest hopes of the human spirit.” Even in politics — and perhaps especially in politics — “the God who sheds his grace on each of us individually sent his son into the world to take on the hopes and fears of nations and peoples. To be assured of that in the deep places of our hearts is what should inspire us to keep wrestling with what it means to be patriotic Christians.”
The Rev. Dr. W.L. Prehn is a principal of Dudley & Prehn Educational Consultants.