As the love of nation is losing its favor in American evangelicalism, the “Christian identity” and the “national identity” are increasingly juxtaposed as if fundamentally opposed, in conflict, or at least necessarily in tension. I argue here that, when each is properly understood, they are complementary. There is no tension in principle with one identifying as a “Christian American”.
The Natural Family
It is helpful to begin with a familiar society, the Christian family.
Imagine a decent non-Christian family. It is a loving family. The husband and wife love one another. They forgive one another when one wrongs the other. They have disciplined children. They are good citizens, neighbors, and employees. Their family practices are familiar to ours: they eat dinner together, watch movies together, talk with each other about the world, laugh together, etc. This is a real family, despite not being Christian. It is not a pseudo-family or a false family. It meets all the fundamental requirements of family.
Now let’s say that the whole family becomes Christian. What happens to the family? Let’s begin with what doesn’t happen. Christianity does not undermine or destroy what made it a family. It remains a society of husband, wife and children, and they continue to do many of the things they did before. Christianity does not change the nature of family as to its fundamental properties, for the addition of redemptive grace into creation does not destroy what God established at creation. Grace does not destroy nature. Hence, the definition of family prior to grace remains the same after the addition of grace.
But what does happens to the family? Grace restores what the family ought to have done according to nature, and it adds distinctively Christian practices. This family now prays to God in Christ; they worship God as a family in Christ; they forgive one another in Christ; they discipline their children in Christ; and they work as if for Christ. They also attend public worship as a family. In short, this family has corrected what was deficient and added to their lives various Christian practices.
This family has become a Christian family. The Christian aspects are adjectival with regard to the natural family. Notice that the addition of Christianity perfected but did not constitute the family as a family. Grace did not alter or change the fundamental or essential properties of a family as a family. A Christian family is a natural family modified with Christian practices. Grace has assumed the natural family and has completed it.
The Christian American
Just as the “Christian” of the Christian family is complementary to the natural family, it is also in principle complementary to one’s nationality. To show this, I argue that nations arise naturally from human sociability, which means that nations are natural; and for this reason, Christianity complements and completes, but does not destroy, nationality.
Even if Adam had not fallen, a diversity of nations would have naturally arisen, and this is a consequence of at least two factors: human natural sociability and localized (or limited) social knowledge. Put simply, humans come together and form particular and distinct civil communities for mutual advantages, and one advantage is the diversity of gifts in community that enables individuals to live well, something they could not achieve as solitary individuals or families.1
As people relate to one another, social practices develop that help people cooperate with each other in peace, harmony, and mutual aid—creating mutual understanding and rules and manners for collective coordination. But since humans interact at the local and personal levels, culture is delimited within a locality, and so we come to know and embody only the social knowledge (or culture) within that locality. In other words, the rules of social interaction and understanding and cultural practices2 develop locally, not globally. Though there would be interaction and cultural borrowing between peoples, this occurs only within a limited range. It is inevitable, as communication across great distances is limited or impossible, that a diversity of cultural traditions would arise. These many nations, each being good, with their variegated practices would together exhibit the glory and wisdom of their Creator.
This view is not innovative. The New England Puritan minister Samuel Willard, for example, stated:
It is rational to conclude, that as the world had began to be peopled, there would of necessity have been a multiplying of civil societies, and these distinct, for the upholding of civil commerce and amity. They are therefore in a great error, who tell us, that so many kingdoms or commonwealths as there are in the world, so many testimonies of divine displeasure.3
Augustine affirmed that the Gospel does not end the nation or the diversity of nations:
Difference of nations [gentium] or condition or sex is indeed taken away by the unity of faith, but it remains in the conduct (or manner) of mortal life, and this order must be preserved in the journey of this life.4
Calvin likewise states:
Regarding our eternal salvation it is true that one must not distinguish between man and woman, or between king and a shepherd, or between a German and a Frenchman. Regarding policy however…our Lord Jesus Christ did not come to mix up nature, or to abolish what belongs to the preservation of decency and peace among us.5
Given my reasoning and these authorities, it is safe to conclude that the formation of nations is natural and good. Humans are by design nation-forming creatures; they are even nation lovers, for as Calvin said, “Delightful to everyone is his native soil, and it is also delightful to dwell among one’s own people.”6 The love of nation is also tied to place or land on which the nation dwells: “The sweetness of their native soil grips nearly all those who have been devoted to it,” says Calvin.7
Since grace does not destroy the natural, grace does not destroy earthly nationality, for it is natural. Christianity corrects particular deficiencies in nations and it perfects or completes them with distinctively Christian practices. Indeed, Christianity even assumes nations as that which it modifies and completes. But my purpose here is not to defend the idea of Christian nation (which I have here).
One’s membership and participation in a nation—which involves the inculcation of that nation’s customs, manners, social expectations, rules of collective action, etc.,8 and one’s distinctively Christian practices are therefore not necessarily at odds, in tension, contradictory, or in competition. Rather they are in principle complementary. If one is an American and a Christian, he is a Christian American. His membership in his nation is essential to his earthly life, for it is the set of relations upon which he has a decent, peaceful and advantageous earthly life. His Christianity, while essential for heavenly life, is not essential for earthly life. The addition of grace does not replace the natural basis of nations. Like the Christian family, one’s distinctively Christian practices modify and add to his civic, national life, but do not destroy or undermine the fundamental principles of nations, nor challenge the necessity that one belongs to a nation. Along these lines, Franciscus Junius writes,
For to the extent that we may be Christians, we do not cease being humans, but we are Christian human beings. So also we must state that therefore we are bound by Christian laws, not that we are consequently released from human ones. For grace perfects nature; grace does not, however, abolish it.9
There is therefore no tension in principle between one’s Christianity and one’s nationality. If you consider yourself part of the “American nation” and you are a Christian, then you ought to call yourself a Christian American.10
Imagine a decent non-Christian American who is a good neighbor, loving spouse and parent, hardworking employee or fair employer, pays his taxes, mows his lawn, and all the rest. In the particularities of his earthly concerns (e.g., American society, politics, and economy), manners, way of life, language, etc. he is an American. What happens when he becomes a Christian? The deficiencies in his life are corrected, which makes him an even better citizen and neighbor. But he adds Christian practices to his life, such as prayer to God in Christ, evangelism to his family and co-workers, and the attendance of public worship. But again these are all modifications or additions. He is still an American, for he continues with a similar way of life. Indeed, most of the daily, mundane practices of his life remain the same. He doesn’t change the way he butters his toast in the morning or his preferred shampoo. If he’s a janitor, he doesn’t acquire some supernatural insight on how to plunge toilets or mop the halls. After all, as Calvin said, “piety and spiritual doctrine do not confer a knowledge of human arts.”11 He furthermore has no need in principle to reject his pre-Christian gratitude for people and institutions that provided him his earthly advantages, security, and sense of belonging. Rather he now praises God in Christ for this common grace. This man is a Christian American, for his earthly life is fundamentally American modified with Christian practices.
Some might argue that the church as institution is an alternative earthly (quasi-civil) society. Elsewhere (here and here) I’ve explained in detail why the ecclesiastical society (or the institutional church) is not a civil community and therefore not necessarily, nor ideally, an order and administration in tension or in competition with or foreign to the civil realm. As Junius states, “the political administration [is] a human order appointed by God to men for a civil society of human things….[and] the ecclesiastical administration is nothing but a divine order appointed to the faithful for a holy communion of holy things.”12 Though each supports the other, each administration is appointed for different objects – one for things concerning this life and the other for things concerning eternal life. The ecclesiastical does not and cannot provide what the civil provides. It cannot provide the basic services and advantageous arrangements for earthly life (e.g., a fire department and the market for the exchange of goods).13 So the church as institution cannot meet the marks of a civil society.14
Another objection concerns Christianity as an addition to earthly life. Some see this as devaluing Christianity’s role in people everyday life. We should recognize first that by “Christian” I mean the practices resulting from the addition of redemptive grace. The natural is also Christian, if by “Christian” we refer to everything created by the true God – the God of Christianity. All things are Christian in this sense of the word, even what is natural. But in this essay I refer to what is what is adventitious to creation. Second, the perfective can be the principal part of something. For example, what is remarkable about a restored classic car is not the make and model of the car, but the features of the car that perfected it (e.g., shiny paint job). Another example is something as simple as table manners: though the fundamental purpose of eating is sustenance, we perfect the event of eating with manners, conversation, and community. We elevate the meal with these practices and expectations, and consequently this elevation becomes to our minds the chief objects of concern for and in the event.15
So what is perfective can also be the chief or principal part of something. The “Christian” of the Christian American, while additional and perfective, can be and, given my argument above, is the principal part of the individual, even in earthly life.
It is therefore ok to be a Christian American. There is nothing wrong in principle with celebrating your nation’s founding and its achievements and having feelings of solidarity with its past, its land, and its people. Having an earthly and temporal nation is a gift of God, and there is no necessary tension between this sort of solidarity and the transcendent and spiritual solidarity you have with all true Christians around the earth. Those who insist that one must put his “Christian identity” first over his “national identity” have usually made a categorical mistake. The former is not an alternative for the latter. The former assumes, corrects and modifies but does not replace the latter; and in affirming nations, the Gospel recognizes nations as a good – as something worthy of conservation. It is not sub-Christian to seek the conservation and even the greatness of one’s nation.
1. Reformed political theorist Johann Althusius writes: “God distributed his gifts unevenly among men. He did not give all things to one person, but some to one and some to others, so that you have need for my gifts and I for yours. And so was born, as it were, the need for communicating necessary and useful things, which communication was not possible except in social and political life. God, therefore, willed that each needs the service and aid of others in order that friendship would bind all together, and no one would consider another to be valueless [floccipenderet]…. Since God himself endowed each being with a natural capacity [naturam facultatem] to maintain itself and to resist whatever is contrary to it, so far as necessary to its welfare, and since dispersed men are not able to exercise this capacity, the instinct for living together and establishing civil society was given to them….It follows that no man is able to live well and happily to himself…. For this reason it is evident that the commonwealth, or civil society, exists by nature, and that man is by nature a civil animal who strives eagerly for association.” (Politica 1.26)
2. Althusius writes, “For citizens enjoy the same laws (leges), the same religion, and the same language, speech, judgment under the law, discipline, customs, money, measures, weights, and so forth. They enjoy these not in such manner that each is like himself alone, but that all are like each other.” Cicero writes in De Officiis (I.17) of the “degrees of relationship among men” (I.17). He writes, “there is a nearer relation [than “the tie of common humanity”] of race, nation, and language [eiusdem gentis, nationis, linguae or “same people, tribe, and tongue”], which brings men into very close community of feeling. It is a still more intimate bond to belong to the same city; for the inhabitants of a city have in common among themselves forum, temples, public walks, streets, laws, rights, courts, modes and places of voting, beside companionships and intimacies, engagements and contracts, of many with many.” Cicero recognizes the natural intimacy, shared affections, and common bond that arise when sharing an interconnected place, way of life and common heritage and genealogy.
4. Augutsine, from commentary on Galatians (on 3:28,29) My translation of “Differentia ista vel Gentium, vel conditionis, vel sexus, iam quidem ablata est ab unitate fidei, sed manet in conversatione mortali; eiusque ordinem in huius vitae itinere servandum esse.”
5. Calvin, from a sermon on 1Cor. 11:2-3. (See here).
8. As Augustine said, “[Civic] manners, laws, and institutions…all tend to one and the same end of earthly peace.” Calvin said, “let us carefully observe that when a custom is good – that is, when it is based on reason – we must acquiesce to it.” (See here).
12. Franciscus Junius in Ecclesiastici Sive De Natura et Administrationibus Ecclesiae Dei, 186-187. (see here).
14. If the church were an alternative civil society, it would be entirely parasitic on the natural civil society, for only the natural civil society can sufficiently arrange for the basic earthly needs of people. (See here for a more thorough examination of this issue).
15. This is also true in Reformed doctrine, which classically affirmed the idea of “original righteousness” – the perfective feature of unfallen man that enabled perfect obedience to God (which was lost at the fall). As Francis Turretin said, “By the divine image, we do not understand generally whatever gifts upright man received from God or specially certain remains of it existing in the mind and heart of man after the fall. Rather we understand it strictly of the principal part of that image which consisted of holiness and wisdom (usually termed original righteousness).” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 9.8.3).