For most of the articles I write, I believe I’m standing on the foundation of clear Scriptural teaching and giving a “Thus saith the Lord.” But, occasionally, I’m simply sharing my working thought process as I try to gain an understanding of a complex issue. This article falls firmly in the latter camp. I might be totally off the mark here. But here’s what’s been on my mind regarding patriotism and the Christian.
As a kid and into my young adulthood, I was extremely patriotic. I wore USA t-shirts, read up on America’s heritage of faith and liberty, and loved discussing and debating our nation’s merits. Like so many (especially in my age bracket), I reached a stage of disillusionment through the Bush and Obama years, unsure of so much of what was being done in Washington D.C.
And, as I tried to reconcile my faith with a country devolving so quickly in so many ways, I grew less patriotic. I saw how patriotism can influence one’s faith and identity in negative ways, making for American Christians rather than Christian Americans. So, for the last several years, I’ve downplayed my personal patriotism and cautioned Christians on making an idol out of the country.
These do seem to be the two basic camps, though there are numerous shades of each. There are the very patriotic Christians who believe God has given us this country and we should love and support it. And there are those who believe “This world is not my home” means being cautious of tying oneself to worldly allegiances, such as national identity.
Now, I’m growing more convinced that patriotism, rightly ordered, not only can be part of a Christian’s life, but should be. A few considerations.
Idolatrous patriotism must be avoided.
Love of country does not outrank love of God and His kingdom, nor should the two be on equal footing. Every year footage of First Baptist Dallas’ “Freedom Sunday” service goes viral, in which they dedicate their Sunday worship to singing patriotic hymns, waving flags, shooting fireworks, honoring the military, and listening to a politically-driven message by a prominent guest speaker from the political world. It should not be hard for us to say that that’s not okay.
Even if we don’t go that far, we must guard against that kind of thinking in our own ways. The American flag doesn’t have a place at the front of our worship auditoriums. We don’t need to be singing “America the Beautiful” in the assembly dedicated to worshiping God and remembering the body and blood of Jesus. You might love your best friend and think he’s a great guy. But if his birthday falls on the same day as your wedding anniversary, the choice shouldn’t be hard as to which one you’re going to celebrate that day. In the same sense, we can love our country. But we’re not going to give it Jesus’ day.
The Bible should set the boundaries of our patriotism.
To be patriotic does not mean endorsing all of the negatives associated with one’s country. We do not need to pretend America has been perfect in the past, nor do we need to pretend it is incapable of great wrongs today. Slavery and segregation were bad. Roe v. Wade is bad. The starvation of people in places like Yemen and Libya through disastrous wars and foreign policy is bad. Pride month is bad. There is much that should not be embraced or approved by the Christian. It’s awful hard to be proud of a country where abortion is the law of the land, where our nation’s embassies fly LGBT pride flags, and where godlessness seems to rule the day.
What is patriotism, then?
It’s important to remember that patriotism is love of country, not love of government. We love our country always, and our government when it deserves it, as Twain wrote. Instead, patriotism is a love of our countrymen, a sense of brotherhood for those with whom we share a heritage and with whom God has seen fit to place us in geographical proximity. And while there is a danger on one side of going too far and ending up in idolatrous patriotism, there’s a tendency on the other side to go too far and view any patriotism as idolatrous. That’s just not so. Good, healthy patriotism is an application of principles from God’s own Word.
Patriotism is loving one’s neighbor.
Nations and nationalities have not been eliminated from God’s plans, but rather they factored in heavily in Revelation (both positively and negatively). Jesus mourned over the people of Jerusalem specifically (Matthew 23:37). Paul said he’d trade his own soul’s salvation for the salvation of “his kinsmen in the flesh” (Romans 9:3). Far less importantly, but still not insignificantly, the great thinkers through the ages like Augustine, Aquinas, Chesterton, and Lewis have all endorsed patriotism as a part of one’s identity as God’s children and duty to love those around us.
It’s alright to identify oneself with one’s country and one’s countrymen and love each of them. Yes, God has called us to love all people, but the opportunity to love our neighbor is still greatest among those of our own country. The example often trotted out is that we are to love all people the same, whether our fellow Americans or somebody from even an enemy country, such as an Iraqi. That’s true. But it’s far easier to claim a love for the hypothetical, nameless, faceless, Iraqi or North Korean than it is to love the people around us in deed and truth. Loving our neighbors and “working for the good of the city in which we are exiles” (to paraphrase Jeremiah 29:7) is part of God’s plan for His people.
Patriotism is honoring one’s father and mother.
The nation you are born in is part of your root system, and every single person has a root system of some form. None of us are an island. The individualism of our day may be the #1 thing that has led people away from patriotism, but such individualism is not healthy. We are not all atomized individuals on a globe of 8 billion people. We are parts of involuntary groupings, such as our families, our nations, our tongues, and voluntary groupings, such as our churches, our workplaces, our schools, and our places of hobbies and recreation. We have roots.
And the roots we have were planted by people who wanted to be a part of the nation we’re in. At some point, someone in your lineage decided to come here because they thought it was best for your family. Or, sadly, in the case of some they were brought here by force – but even the families who came here in such bad circumstances made roots here by doing the hard work of fighting for unity.
To deny such roots is to turn our nose up at the life our parents and grandparents worked for. It is to detach ourselves from the bonds we have with those who came before us and those who will come after us. It is to disavow mother and father.
Patriotism is gratitude.
The catalyst for this article actually came from scrolling through Twitter and seeing these two tweets.
There’s a marked difference between those two images (and no, it’s not about race). Look at them for a second and ask yourself, based on feel alone: which one of these feels more right? Gut feeling is not a final answer to anything. But sometimes when it hits strongly enough it’s time to ask why. And that’s how this article came about. Why does this spur the reaction it does? Put briefly, it’s a matter of gratitude.
I am sure Ms. Berry has a number of grievances against the United States. In fact, likely everybody does, though they differ in substance and are perhaps in varying degrees of severity and urgency. However, the opportunities have been made available to her to train and compete and use her talents at the very highest level in the world. And, she is at least in theory competing for the opportunity to represent her country. She wants the good afforded to her by these opportunities – a trip to Tokyo to compete, the training facilities, the equipment sponsorships, and the other USOC amenities – all without the “negative” of the flag and the national anthem. There’s really no other way to view it but as ingratitude.
On the other hand, the Italian soccer team, noted for their boisterous renditions of their national anthem before every game, show a great pride in representing Italy. They are competing for the honor of the land of their fathers. In our individualized, atomized world, that sounds like a bad thing. But that view is almost unprecedented before our day.
You take pride in your heritage, not because you think you’re better than everyone else, or because you don’t care about other people. But because it is your heritage. You’re thankful for your family, for your neighbors, for your countrymen, for your culture. Hyper-individualism, and its anti-patriotic manifestation, is little more than ingratitude.
Christians, though, are called to be a grateful people. God put each of us in the countries we are in for a reason. He gave us the families we have for a reason, along with the governments He has placed over us, and the neighbors He has placed around us. It is a godly trait to be thankful for His hand in each of those things. Even if He did so through undesirable circumstances and used evil means (like the slave trade, for example) to accomplish good ends, we can say as Joseph did “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20). In all things, give thanks.
So, this weekend, I believe I’m beginning to recover a little of my patriotism. I’ll say I love my country, and I’m proud to be an American. That doesn’t mean I love or endorse what the government does. It doesn’t mean I wish for the ill of other countries. It means I love my neighbors, I’m proud of my forefathers who saw fit to get on the boat and come here, and I’m thankful God placed me where He has.