In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance’s powerful memoir, we meet an amazing character: Mamaw. Vance’s grandmother, Mamaw is simultaneously the fiercest and most supportive person in his young life. She’s equal parts endearing and terrifying. Mamaw read her Bible every night, but wasn’t afraid to grab a gun and aim it at the center mass of anyone who threatened her family. She’s fascinating, to put it mildly. Vance, in naming her deepest commitments, describes her thus: “Mamaw always had two gods: Jesus Christ and the United States of America. I was no different, and neither was anyone else I knew.”
Throughout history, Christians have had a variety of different relationships with governing authorities. In many times and places (including today), Christians find themselves oppressed by state power. On occasion, the church has been formally tied to governmental authority (think early Medieval Europe, or the late Roman Empire). Even when not in power directly, at times Christians find that they can and do support the state, while in other contexts Christians must oppose the state. This diversity of approach is represented in Scripture; government, when it is serving its God-given purpose, is something like the portrayal in Romans 13. The emperor “does not bear the sword in vain” but is an agent of justice.
On the other hand, when government is in full rebellion against God, when Caesar is truly evil and the state is failing in its purpose, it is under judgment like the Beast of Revelation 13. This is why, in some circumstances, Christian fidelity might look like (relative) support of the state or (relative) opposition to the state. Amid the complexities of actual history, this is clearly a scale, not a binary – and in most situations there are some things the church can support and others she must resist in various ways.
The description of Mawmaw’s priorities reminds me of the important distinction between nationalism and patriotism. A Christian can be a patriot, and locate themselves anywhere on that scale. Nationalism is a different animal, though, and one that really is not a Christian option. Here is the best definition I’ve seen of the difference:
Patriotism is fundamental to liberty because pride in one’s nation-state, and a willingness to defend it if necessary, is the basis of national independence. Patriotism is the courage of national self-determination.
By contrast, nationalism is patriotism transformed into a sentiment of superiority and aggression toward other countries. Nationalism is the poisonous idea that one’s country is superior to somebody else’s. Nationalism is intrinsically a cause of war and imperialism.
The first option is open to, but not required, of Christians. Augustine describes persuasively in City of God how bonds of affection naturally develop between an individual and the geography and culture in which they live, no matter how secondary such bonds are to a Christian’s identification with the Heavenly CIty.
Nationalism, however, is antithetical to the gospel because it fails to locate pride of place in a proper order of loyalties. To put it simply, insofar as the nationalist’s love of country rivals or is greater than their love of God, it becomes a form of idolatry. The patriot, on the other hand, might be able to recognize the kind of failure of vocation described in Revelation 13, having properly sifted their love of country through the sieve of the gospel. Nationalism can only ever be blind.
I learned the phrase “chastened patriot” from one of my intellectual heroes, the late University of Chicago public intellectual Jean Bethke Elsthain. It was her way of expressing an Augustinian conviction which holds together both the need for the good order provided by government and the finitude found in even the best organizational scheme that humans can concoct.
I’m not sure if Vance’s Mawmaw was a chastened patriot or not, but she is described like many Christians I’ve known, particularly in the US South: their religiosity and their love of country are almost one in the same. They might tell you that God is first in their life, but in truth, July 4 might be, for their family, an equally important holiday to Easter. In terms of identity, they will tear up for Lee Greenwood before they will Isaac Watts. Of course, Mawmaw’s faith, like that of so many other adherents to civil religion, is classic American Protestantism: it has almost nothing to do with the Christian community.
As a response to the sort of undiluted nationalism of the Mawmaws out there, many Christians (especially since last year’s election) have rediscovered their Anabaptist streak, looking for any chance to oppose the powers that be. This – while necessary, as examples like Barmen, Romero, Bonhoeffer, and King make clear – can become another form of idolatry, if taken too far. All governments stand under God’s judgment. Our job as Christians is not, first, to make history turn out right. Let us be known, first, for whose we are, not what we stand against.
To wrap up our Christian identity in either supporting or opposing Caesar gives him far too much credit. Stick to Jesus. Let him, not your love for or hatred of any Caesar, be your guide.