Scholar and Reformed thinker Peter Leithart some years ago wrote Defending Constantine, which rebutted the Hauerwas/Yoder critique of empire. It largely defended the first Christian Roman emperor for launching a new political order more just than any predecessor. The book was rightly influential.
Last week Leithart wrote in First Things on “A Better Christian Nationalism,” responding to Christians who confuse America with God’s Kingdom and to their Christian critics who sometimes overreach by altogether disconnecting America from Christianity. He concluded:
No nation will ever become the kingdom of God; no people will ever replace the Church as the people of God. Yet the gospel announces Jesus’s kingship over everything. The Church proclaims the gospel so that the world will acknowledge Jesus. We hope for an America that honors the Church, an America whose manners express the golden rule and the second great commandment, whose laws respect God’s law by protecting the vulnerable, whose arts and entertainments glorify rather than degrade human beings, whose children learn that Scripture and prayer are essential to education. We hope for an America conformed to the reality that Jesus is Lord.
A Church isn’t proclaiming the full biblical gospel unless it calls kings and nations to acknowledge and serve the king of kings. To abandon hope that America—and every other nation—might become Christian is to abandon the gospel.
Supposedly America is awash in Christian Nationalism that conflates America’s founders with the Apostles, America’s founding documents with Scripture, and aspires to restore a mythical Christian America through Religious Right political activism and acquisition of temporal power. This caricature, based on David Barton pseudo-histories and Robert Jeffress cable news outbursts, is based on fragments of fact amid lots of fearful and exaggerated projections.
This week a newspaper ad from the evangelical owners of Hobby Lobby was widely mocked as Christian Nationalism for merely quoting American historical figures about God and the Bible in anticipation of July 4. Church services planning to acknowledge July 4 were also widely warned against idolatry as though any patriotic hymn or flag appearance might substitute America for God.
Doubtless there’s legitimate concern about some forms of Christian hyper patriotism, as Leithart noted. But of late the push-back against Christian patriotism by some Evangelicals may vastly overstate the threat and itself become more problematic. A measured and prudent response to excessive religious fidelity to nation does not disdain nation but should instead model responsible Christian appreciation for the nation under Divine Sovereignty.
Christians everywhere are called to serve and love their nations. Of course the nation cannot be conflated with God’s Kingdom but neither can it be dismissed as outside God’s concern or the concern of His people. Nation states are the primary instruments in today’s world for the pursuit of earthly justice and order, to the extent possible among our fallen race. On what basis should they be disdained?
Elites of the Christian Left have long idealized global governance while demonizing America and Western Civilization. Sometimes they romanticize Third World nation states or revolutionary nationalist movements, like Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime in the 1980s or “Palestine” today.
But now some Evangelical conservative elites are disavowing at least in part any enthusiasm for the American nation. Some are disgusted by Religious Right partisan excesses. Others are more simply despairing of secularizing America as a viable project worthy of Christian support. In keeping with the often absolutist habit of evangelicalism, they rebut the sacralizing of America with disenchantment if not contempt.
Such religious mood swings about America inhibit a healthy, sustainable and historically catholic perspective on Christian regard for nations. Every nation is corrupt and virtuous at the same time. America has been uniquely influenced by Christianity and uniquely and providentially equipped as an often formidable force for good. It’s also always been entirely populated, like all nations, by sinners, some Christian and some not, in various stages of rebellion against God.
As our earthly home, and as an influential force in the world, America should, as Leithart explains, always merit Christian exertions and witness, that it might more closely align with divine purpose. We pray America will be more Christian, affirming each person as image bearer of God. Or as Leithart urges, we hope for a “better Christian nationalism,” fostering a society not of degradation but of golden rule ethics.
And what better time to celebrate and reflect on this aspiration for a more godly and lovely America, than on July 4, which is premised on human equality before the Almighty?