What does it mean to love one’s country? If the powers that be are ordained by God, does that mean we should not criticize them? What about expressions of patriotism in our church worship? What about using religious language in celebrating national holidays? Is civil religion a bad thing? Join Scott and Sean for this discussion with Rich Mouw around his new book How to be a Patriotic Christian.

Richard Mouw is President Emeritus and Senior Professor of Faith and Public Life at Fuller Seminary, and Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute for the Study of Religion and Politics at Calvin College. He is the author of more than 20 books including Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World.

Episode Transcript

Scott Rae: What does it mean to love one's country? If the powers that be are ordained by God, does that mean we shouldn't criticize them? What about expressions of patriotism in our church worship using religious language and celebrating national holidays? Is civil religion a bad thing or on balance a good thing? We'll be answering these questions and more with our guest, Dr. Rich Mouw, and his book, How To Be a Patriotic Christian. I'm your host, Scott Rae.

Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host, Sean McDowell.

Scott Rae: This is "Think Biblically", a podcast from Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University. Rich, thanks so much for being with us. Loved your book. Your subtitle is "Love of Country as Love of Neighbor". Tell us a little bit more about how you connect those two things explicitly.

Richard Mouw: Yeah, thank you. Thank you. Well, there's a sense in which our country is full of neighbors, and so it's the idea of neighbor love and what it means to love our neighbor. I think it certainly applies to our neighbor in its collectivity and as a nation, for example. And I do think that we ought to love our country. My sense is that the Bible calls us to nurture those relationships in which the Lord has placed us, and so obviously I'm going to love the United States more than I love Bolivia or Nicaragua, because it's my country. I actually use a little bit of this at the beginning of the book, just as I'm going to feel about my family differently than I feel like all the other families of the Earth.

Sean McDowell: Sure.

Richard Mouw: There's a very special relationship that each of us has to his or her own country, and I do think that it has to be a loving relationship, because the Bible commands us to love our neighbors and we certainly need to do that in terms of the collectivity of our neighbors.

Sean McDowell: Rich, I'm really curious, you have been writing and speaking for a number of years, so why personally for you did you write this book, and does it have something to do with our current polarized culture that prompted you additionally to focus on patriotism and what it means?

Richard Mouw: Yeah, no question that it has to do with where we are during the run-up to the last election campaign, and indeed after that campaign. After the election, I talked to a lot of pastors groups and talked to a lot of church groups, mainly virtually, and the whole idea of how do we show Christian love to people with whom we disagree has been a really big topic on the minds of people active in the life of the church. It's really tied in with how we feel about our country.

There's another aspect of it too. I'm a child of the sixties. I did a lot of protesting during the 1960s on secular university campuses when I was working on my PhD. I was an opponent at the time of the Vietnam War. I was concerned about civil rights and was very active in those kinds of things. I had a lot of struggles with patriotism at the time, because patriotic people would say to me, "Hey, if you don't like it, leave it. Love it or leave it," that kind of thing. And yet I was very concerned to show that I was in a lover's quarrel with my country on a couple of things and that it did not in any way extend to all of the basic things that I care about and that I love about the United States of America. So I wanted to get clear about that in my own mind. As you guys know, we often start writing in order to clarify our own thinking.

Sean McDowell: Exactly.

Scott Rae: Hear, hear.

Richard Mouw: This was a book that helped me clarify my own thinking.

Scott Rae: So Rich, in what sense do you believe that the United States is unique or exceptional?

Richard Mouw: Well, the obvious sense that I just said. It's unique to me because it's my country. I do think the United States is a great country. I think that in many ways we have dealt with issues of human freedom, of toleration, of pluralism. Father Richard Neuhaus always liked to talk about the great American experiment. We don't think so much of the Welsh experiment or the Belgian experiment. The United States came on the scene to try to do something new, and it is a model for other nations.

Your folks are familiar with the kinds of seminars and at-homes that the Amundsens put on. And I remember the Yale scholar, the late and much missed Lamin Sanneh, talking about being raised in his African country, in a Gambia that had just recently attained independent status from its colonial days. And he said, "As school children we read and discussed and memorized parts of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. And we also talked about and memorized the prologue to the American Constitution, that 'in order to form a more perfect union' and what does it mean for us in our country to form a perfect union?" We have had an influence among the nations that has been unique I think, and we've done a lot of good things in all of that.

Scott Rae: Quick follow-up on that, Rich. Is there any sense in which you believe that the United States is unique or exceptional in a theological sense?

Richard Mouw: Well, to whom much is given, much is required, and I do think God has given the United States of America a lot. I don't know that it is more than God has given to Great Britain or to some other countries on the face of the Earth, but I do think that just the fact that we have gained influence in God's providence among the nations, that we have marvelous opportunities and we have very important obligations, I think. So I would not want to say that we have a favored status, that God loves us more than God loves people in Nicaragua, but I do think as a nation we have a role among the nations that's pretty important. And I think that's empirically demonstrable.

But I don't like the idea, as you can imagine, that we are God's favorite nation, that we are above criticism because God is working through us and in special ways and we ought not to in any way criticize the way God is working through us. No, I don't think it's theological in that sense.

Sean McDowell: That's an important balance that you talk about, that we can love our country, but that doesn't mean ignoring its sins and its mistakes. In fact, if we love it, we should talk about those. I think that's a really helpful point. One of the other points you do is you draw a distinction between a nation and a state. Can you tell us what that difference is and why it's important to understand?

Richard Mouw: Yeah. Well, thank you. I began thinking of this a couple years ago, because a nation is a peoplehood, and a state is a kind of pattern of administration, patterns of governing. As I've mentioned in my book, before I started writing the book, I went through all of the patriotic songs and said, when we talk about loving America, what do we love? And I came up with three categories. One is natural wonders, purple mountains majesties, fruited planes, rocks and rills, all of those things. And then there is a lot to love about, and we are blessed in having wonderful natural wonders and national parks that are set aside for that.

Secondly, we have some things that we love in our history. There are some wonderful things in our history. And then thirdly, ideals of freedom and liberty and law and the like. When we sing those songs, nobody would ever think to write a patriotic song about the Department of Motor Vehicles or about the local zoning board. Those are the mechanistic instruments of governing that are very important, but that's not what we're loyal to. That's not what we love.

And so it's very important that we have that sense of peoplehood, and that sense of peoplehood has to be preserved in distinct in significant ways. We've been losing a lot of that. We've had these writings in recent years, Robert Putnam from Harvard and his book "Bowling Alone", saying that bowling alone, that has to do with the fact that more people bowl than ever, but fewer people bowl on bowling teams, and so bowling is not the social teamwork things that it once was. That's bad for bowling alleys, because they make a lot of their money on pizza and beer and Coke and all the rest. And so bowling alone is a loss of what he calls social capital.

PTA meetings have been more sparse than they used to be. The Rotary Club, the scouting movement and the like. We've lost some of those bonds that we had that bring us together with other citizens, neighborhood associations and all the rest. And those are very important to the life of a nation and to our peoplehood. And that's where I also think civil religion is important. It's a good thing that we get together and we hear, say, a president talk about that our job as a people is not to have God on our side, but our assignment is to be on God's side, to do God's work.

Sean McDowell: Amen.

Scott Rae: Hear, hear. Now, Rich, one of the things I so appreciate about your book is that you tackle a number of the central passages of scripture that speak to our relationship to government. In fact, one of the ones that I think was most helpful is when you explain what Jesus meant when he said, "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's." How do you understand those particular words of Jesus?

Richard Mouw: That we have to be sure that what we give to Caesar, Caesar has a right to, and Caesar is not God. In fact, Jesus was sort of toying with his audience at that point, because it was a whole series of things where they were trying to trip him up. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar? And then Jesus says, "Well show me a coin." And they show him a coin, and he says, "Whose picture is that?" "Well, it's Caesar." "Well, render onto Caesar that which is Caesar's."

But the fact that Caesar puts his picture on gold doesn't mean that gold belongs to Caesar. Gold belongs to God, and so whatever we owe to Caesar has limits in the light of what we really owe to God, and we don't owe to Caesar ultimate loyalty on critical obedience. Now, "Caesar" there is a way of talking about our government. We're not a monarchy, so what we owe to the United States as Christians has to be understood in terms of what a government has a right to ask of us in the light of what God requires of us as his disciples.

Sean McDowell: You've got another interesting take on some passages in the Bible, Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, which talk about submission to the government, honoring the emperor, and also the idea of Acts 4:25, where we are to obey God rather than men or human rulers. Talk about how you see those passages and how it relates to this larger question of patriotism.

Richard Mouw: Well, I do think, and the word "honor" comes through clearly in 1 Peter 2, that the apostle gives four commands in one verse. We're to fear the Lord. That's "phobeo," fear, phobia. We are to agape love the church. That's a very intense kind of love. But we are to honor the emperor or honor the government, but we're also to honor all human beings. And so what we owe to the government, we also owe to our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings. And it isn't to fear the Lord. It isn't absolute. And that Romans 13, which is a wonderful passage, I agree with it. The apostle Paul was certainly speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit there.

But he says that we are to honor, we are to obey government, honor those who are an authority over us and to obey them. They're there to reward those who do good and to punish those who do evil. And that's right. That's a very important task of government. The problem is that we do have governments, and a clear example there is Nazi Germany, I think Putin's Russia right now, where a general pattern in the life of a nation is that they're rewarding those who do evil and they're punishing those who do good. When the Bible says that governments are ordained of God, we might say that Putin is violating his ordination vows, just doing the opposite of the proper form of government. So that Romans 13 isn't simply telling Christians how they ought to view government, but they're also telling governments how they ought to view themselves in the light of God's will for government.

And so I think honor is a very important thing, that we ought to pray for government. I love that passage in Jeremiah, where the people of Israel have been carted off into a wicked pagan society and they're saying, "How do we sing the Lord's song here in this wicked city of Babylon?" And then Jeremiah comes to them and says, "Hey folks, here's the deal. You are to plant vineyards and eat the produce of the vineyards. You're to build houses and live in them." He's saying, "You know, got to settle in here. It's not going to be over very quickly. Marry off your sons and daughters and multiply in the land." And then he says this: "And seek the welfare." And the word there is "shalom." "Seek the shalom of the city in which I've placed you in exile and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its shalom you will find your shalom." And as you guys know, that word "shalom" is like flourishing. Seek the God-ordained flourishing for human life and for collective life.

Scott Rae: Yeah. Rich, I know you've traveled to Washington, DC on lots of occasions. I've been there a handful of times, and I admit that there's a lot that I see in DC that is really inspiring. I love the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument and the Capitol. But I also find it somewhat depressing when I look at the vastness of the size of the government buildings in DC. Some of these buildings, as you know, take up two or three city blocks. And when I realize the vastness of our federal government, I find I'm so overwhelmed by that sometimes. I wonder, in your view, what does the Bible have to say about the proper scope and size of government?

Richard Mouw: I don't know that it says a lot on the subject. My sense is that government in the light of the scriptures has a positive assignment from God. In Psalm 72, "And a good government will have policies that will be like the rain falling upon the newly mowed grass," that there's a nurturing side of government. That's very important. The government ought to promote things that help human beings to flourish, so obviously to reward those who do good and punish those who do evil. Government does have the sword that it does not bear in vain, all of that kind of thing.

But when people say to me, "Government is too big," and I'm not arguing with you on that, because I have the same sense, but we really need to get down into the details of that. What does that mean? My daughter-in-law is the curator at the Clinton Presidential Library, Little Rock, and she works for the National Archives. I'm glad that there's a National Archives, and it's huge. I mean, in Washington, the Smithsonian and all of that, that's all a part of the National Archives, and I'm glad that there's all that stuff. I'm glad that there are national parks like Yellowstone and the like. I'm glad that there's a Department of Motor Vehicles. I'm glad that there's a Social Security Administration.

So when people say, "Oh, government's way too big, we got to cut back," I want to know what they're thinking of when they say that, because we really need to get into very specific kinds of things. I think the things that I've just mentioned are a part of the nurturing task of government, to maintain a collective memory through archiving documents, to maintain natural beauties that we can enjoy, to maintain decent automobile policies and the like. I think part of that is just simply talking about it rather than getting carried away with a rhetoric of government is too big or it's better to have no government than one that pushes us around too much.

Sean McDowell: I'd be really curious to hear your thoughts on patriotic songs, symbols, and celebrations in the worship service within the church, because clearly there's division on this. Some people think it's a way of honoring our government, being thankful for what we have in America. Others would say it's an unhealthy and even unbiblical merging of our country and politics potentially with our faith. Where do you stand and why?

Richard Mouw: Well, I tell you, I take a very pragmatic view of that, really. I mean, I know people, I'm going to use an example of a pastor, he says, "I hate these days. I dread it when Memorial Day comes, and then when that's over with, I got to deal with 4th of July." But to sing some of those songs, "God shed His grace on thee," "God mend thine every flaw," there are good things in those patriotic songs. And let's face it, they're going to be there anyway. A pastor can get up and say, "I don't want to do a Veteran's Day acknowledgement anymore. I don't want to sing patriotic songs in church. And by the way, get that flag out of here." But what they're going to get out of there is the pastor.

And so I want to say, if your church does have a flag in it, it might be good on a certain Sunday for the pastor to say, "Hey, let's look at that flag. What does that mean to you? It tells me some things about where we are, and that's a good thing. It's a reminder that we're gathered here as Christian citizens of this nation, pledging our absolute obedience to the God of the Bible," and using it as a show and tell, as an object, and to say, "Isn't it wonderful that we just sang that song, 'God mend thine every flaw,' that we're not called to be uncritical citizens. We're called to be citizens who pray for grace, unmerited favor toward a nation that does have flaws, flaws in the way it's treated some people in the past and the flaws of the ways in which we go about our business these days." And so I want to say much of that has to do with taking on the teaching ministry of the church, as opposed to just either being in favor of flags in church or against flags in church.

Scott Rae: Yeah, that's helpful. Rich, one final question for you. In the midst of our polarized culture, especially as we approach election years, what encouragement or admonition would you give to the Christian community in the midst of our polarized culture and politics?

Richard Mouw: I think, this will sound trivial, but we need to find safe places to talk to each other and not to identify each other in terms of how we voted. I'd rather to get beneath the surface. In my book, I quote this wonderful line from the Christmas carol, "The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight." And political life is full of hopes and fears.

I was on National Public Radio one time debating a gay activist, and we went at it, we disagreed about things, but finally I said, "Just let me put the pause button on here. Wouldn't it be great if you and I," talking to my debate partner there, "if you and I could just shut the door and your people aren't listening to cheer you on and my people aren't listening to cheer me on, and we just talked? You know what I wish we could talk about? I wish that I could ask you, what is it about me as an evangelical Christian that you find so distressing in your fellow citizens? And then you can ask me, what is it about what my partner and I want out of life that you find so threatening to our ability to live together in the same country?"

So that we get beneath the surface there of he's gay and I'm not, and really talk about the things that motivate us in these advocacies. And he said, "That's wonderful." He said, "I wish we could talk about that." Well, this was a national NPR program. There came a point where they opened it up to phone calls, and the first phone call was a person who said, "I don't know why you've got this Mouw on there. Tomorrow are you going to have a slave owner defending slavery?"

Scott Rae: Ooh, ouch.

Sean McDowell: Wow.

Richard Mouw: My gay counterpart said, "Let me handle this," and he said to the caller, "You ought to be ashamed of yourself. He's talking to us about things that we really need to discuss together if we're really going to get along in this country, and that kind of put-down is just totally inappropriate." Well, we're pointing there to hopes and fears that I think are so important. And as Christians, as I look at people who voted differently than I did, I disagree with some of their policy views and why they voted the way they did, but their grandparents, who are like I am, my wife and I, we're concerned about how our grandkids have been being raised in this country and what kind of schools kids are going to go to. I mean, those are legitimate fears, and we need to be talking about that.

And furthermore, we need to find ways of talking. If I say to you, "Why'd you vote for Trump?" well, you're immediately on the defense. But I've said to you, "I know you vote for Trump, but help me to understand that better. Is this what you would say about why it was important to vote for him?" And you're asking them to test you out to see whether you're really understanding where they're coming from. And I think that's a very important way of trying to get around things in the Christian community, where we can begin to talk to each other about these things from our hearts. Our hearts are the censors of our hopes and fears, and that's so important to be able to get at these days. And typically the conversations, you're immediately putting someone on the defense.

I'll just mention, one thing that I learned from Young Life people, I once heard them say, "If you want to know what a 15-year-old teenage girl believes about God, don't say to her, 'What do you believe about God?' because she's going to be put on the spot and she's going to, 'Ooh, I'm not quite sure. I don't want to sound stupid about this.' But if you ask her, 'What do your friends believe about God?' suddenly she's going to become an amateur social psychologist [Sean and Scott laughing] and you're going to find out about what she really believes." And we need to find things like that to help people really talk, as opposed to putting them on the defense. "Why do you believe that?" That really doesn't work very well.

Scott Rae: That's such a helpful insight, especially about the need to have a solid understanding of someone as sort of a precondition to moving forward with any substantive discussion. We have an informal rule around Biola here when we are engaged in difficult conversations. We're not allowed to critique one another until we have restated their position back to them to their satisfaction.

Richard Mouw: That's right.

Scott Rae: And we think that's a pretty good rule that gets us started in the right direction.

Richard Mouw: That's wonderful. And the underlying assumption there is that you're really trying to learn from that. You're not trying to win an argument or put a put-down, but you're trying to understand where that person is, what's going on in that person's life, what in their journey has led them to certain kind of viewpoints and the like?

Scott Rae: Hear, hear. Well, it's not exactly for the faint of heart, I will say. It takes courage to do that. That's one thing Sean and I have appreciated about you all the years, that you've modeled this so well yourself, and engaging with people who think differently and doing it with respect and with gentleness, but also with insight and truthfulness too. So Rich, thanks so much for being with us. I want to commend to our listeners your book, "How To Be a Patriotic Christian", subtitle "Love of Country as Love of Neighbor".

Richard Mouw: Thank you so much. I've enjoyed this conversation, and blessings to you.

Scott Rae: This has been an episode of the podcast "Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture". "Think Biblically" podcast is brought to you by Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, offering programs in Southern California and online, including our master's in the Institute for Spiritual Formation. Visit biola.edu/talbot in order to learn more. If you enjoyed today's conversation with Dr. Rich Mouw, give us a rating on your podcast app, and please share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.