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Patriotism, Race, and the Credit of Love

Patriotism, Race, and the Credit of Love

By Peter C. Meilaender

These are not easy times for Christian patriots—or perhaps for Christians who would like to be patriots, or who simply wonder about patriotism’s moral credentials. The increasing polarization of American politics, which has been growing for some time but became particularly vitriolic following the election of President Donald Trump in 2016, has replaced many of our familiar political debates with a new, central fault line: the significance of the nation and of national culture. Debates over trade, immigration, foreign policy, and values increasingly turn on this issue.

A similar trend is visible in almost all Western liberal democracies. The ongoing wave of “national populism” that has been reshaping political parties across the West not infrequently shades off into forms of political sentiment and rhetoric that leave many Christians, even those who are proud of their country and who feel patriotism’s pull, uneasy. Legitimate concern over mass immigration and a desire to secure the nation’s borders sometimes take on a tone of nativist hostility toward foreigners or callousness toward the plight of those fleeing dreadful circumstances. Appropriate worry about globalization’s impact on the American working and middle classes veers into protectionism or attacks on free trade and the market economy. A proper insistence that the American government should prioritize American interests flirts with isolationism and an unwillingness to engage with our allies abroad on national security, climate change, and other issues.

And then, of course, there is race. Since the murder of George Floyd, race has dominated American public discourse as no other issue has. In discussions of policing, voting rights, education, free speech, and even pandemic response, race has become an inescapable pivot on which political debate turns. And for Christians pondering their relationship to their country, race—in particular, full inclusion of Black Americans—has become a special problem. From slavery, to the unfulfilled promise of Reconstruction, to decades of segregation and Jim Crow, Black Americans have suffered severe oppression that is blatantly incompatible with the country’s stated ideals. Only Native Americans have suffered comparably at the hands of American citizens. One need not unqualifiedly endorse contemporary accusations of systemic racial injustice in American society or its political institutions in order to concede that our long legacy of racial division is not yet fully overcome and to recognize that our Black fellow citizens continue to feel the sting of less than full equality even today.

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