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How to love America on the Fourth of July without falling into Christian nationalism

Michael Mays, left, of Cockeysville, Md., and Samuel Koch, of Reisterstown, Md., watch the firework display during the Baltimore County Independence Extravaganza in Cockeysville on Wednesday. (Julio Cortez/AP)

“This is the only one in your size.” The saleslady at the mall handed my daughter a stars-and-strips decorated swimsuit.

As the daughter of political writers, my 11-year-old sometimes hears adult conversations about tough topics. Earlier that day, she overheard President Trump had referred to immigrants from various African nations, Haiti, El Salvador as “people from s------- countries.” Since Naomi joined our family through an Ethiopian adoption, she was upset.

When she saw the patriotic swimsuit later that day, she asked, “Is this okay, since we don’t like Trump?”

The question stung. My husband and I are raising our children to be Americans: We have an American flag on our porch and such a deep love for this nation that my husband quit his desk job, put on a uniform and went to war in 2008. But patriotism and nationalism have been unhealthily conflated in the age of Trump.

Should she buy red, white and blue clothing? The black saleslady looked down at the floor, the suit and the question hanging in the air among us.

With the Fourth of July here, some Christians will invariably attend a patriotic church service and wrestle with their faith and nation. The term “nationalism” carries with it ominous echoes of blood and soil, unsuitable for a nation composed of people from many different ethnicities and many different soils. I prefer the term “patriotism” as a description of the love for the specific idea that binds us together across profound differences.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, patriotism asks “only to be let alone. It becomes militant only to protect what it loves. In any mind that has a pennyworth of imagination it produces a good attitude towards foreigners. How can I love my home without coming to realise that other men, no less rightly, love theirs? Once you have realised that Frenchmen like cafe complet just as we like bacon and eggs — why good luck to them and let them have it. The last thing we want is to make everywhere else just like our own home. It would not be home unless it were different.”

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One of our best qualities about America is we can transcend mere nationalism, because we are composed of people from different soils. This Sunday, it is great for Christians to show gratitude for a country that respects our liberty, but we should also extend incredible love and courtesy to people who differ from us.

How should Christian Americans treat others? This is an important question in an age where our humanitarian crisis at the border is denigrated and mocked by evangelical Trump-supporting leaders.

Jesus set a high standard when he said to “do to others what you would have them do to you.” This is more than a clever heuristic but is a gauge by which we can determine our actions: treat others the way you would like to be treated. The Founders, who were informed by the Christian faith, understood this. When the Constitution was first adopted, they worried a heavy-handed federal government might not always respect its citizens. In response, they added amendments.

Would you yourself want to be able to speak out against the government on issues that are important to you? Do you want to be able to worship freely? Would you like the ability to defend yourself and your family? Would you want the government rifling through your things without probable cause of wrong doing? If you were in trouble, wouldn’t you want a fair trial without cruel punishment or excessive bail?

Of course. Though this principle will not fit on a red hat, the great thing about America is that the Bill of Rights could be considered simply the “Golden Rule” in constitutional amendment form.

Though America has not been perfect — far from it — our nation’s founding aspirations have inched us closer to equality and regard for all people. President Theodore Roosevelt put it best when he said, “We want to make our children feel that the mere fact of being Americans makes them better off . . . This is not to blind us at all to our own shortcomings; we ought steadily to try to correct them.”

We do not have to gloss over the problems of our nation to appreciate the virtuous audacity of the American experiment. “How does a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower somehow defeat a global superpower?” a character in Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical “Hamilton” asks. What a privilege to be a part of this ongoing, developing story. What a responsibility to leave it better than we found it.

I did not answer my daughter’s question eloquently at the mall. I said something about how being a patriot means a healthy skepticism of our leaders to hold them accountable. We bought the suit. On the Fourth of July somewhere in Tennessee, an Ethiopian immigrant will be proudly wearing red, white and blue while swimming with her fellow Americans in a muddy lake. As it should be.

This year, Christians have the privilege and responsibility to be governed by a higher authority than our president, to listen to evangelical leaders who do not mock the tenets of the gospel and to decry unfair policies.

Only by doing so will our patriotism necessarily include the acknowledgment that we are “in” our nation, not “of it.”

Nancy French is a best-selling author.