At the risk of Bauder overload, we offer here two posts from the archive on the subject of patriotism—in honor of election day. (These posts appeared at SI on July 6 and 9 of 2005 but did not make it back into the article database after “the crash of 2006.”) The original discussion of part one may be read here. Part two here.
During late June or early July, American Christians bedeck their churches with red, white, and blue. They lift their voices in hymns of praise to their nation. They repeat a solemn, public vow, pledging their allegiance to the government represented by the flag of the United States. Their chests swell and their eyes moisten with thoughts of the greatness of their nation—for their nation is great. Gauged by the combination of military might, distributed wealth, and human political freedom, it is unparalleled in human history.
At such moments, we Americans need to remember two things. First, greatness is not identical with goodness. Second, if America is great, we are not the ones who made it great. We can take no credit. What we have received is given to us as a gift and a stewardship. It is up to us to do the right things with it.
The inclusion of patriotic exercises as part of American worship perplexes and even annoys Christians throughout the rest of the world (beginning with our immediate neighbors to the north and the south). Some question the value of patriotism in general; others simply object to expressions of nationalism in church. In turn, Americans often find these objections puzzling and sometimes off-putting.
Should Christians be patriotic at all? If so, then should they carry their patriotism into their churches? I would like to offer tentative answers to these questions—tentative because I am an American and I share most of the American sensibilities. Therefore, my answers will hardly qualify as impartial. The questions, however, are important and should not simply be dismissed.
My answers will reflect Baptist rather than Anabaptist assumptions. First, I shall assume that governments are an aspect of God’s common grace, that they are not intrinsically sinful or demonic, and that Christians are biblically permitted to involve themselves in civil affairs. Second, I shall assume that wars are not universally and invariably unjust, that the waging of just war is one of the legitimate functions of a government, and that Christians are permitted to render military service in the cause of a just war. This essay is not the place to defend those propositions. I state them merely to be transparent about my presuppositions.
Patriotism comes in two forms. The first is equivalent to Jingoism. It is a xenophobic form of nationalism that sees in one’s own country the summum bonum. It advances the interests of one’s nation by encroaching upon the legitimate interests of other nations. It is smug, often arrogant, and sometimes rapacious. This form of patriotism is, in effect, idolatry.
Needless to say, this form of patriotism has no place in the life of a Christian. Christians can be susceptible to it, however. They may infer God’s approval from the prosperity or military success of their nation. They may identify their national interests with those of the Kingdom of God. They may even assume that the strength of their nation constitutes some form of divine authorization to interfere in the affairs of other sovereign nations. Each of these attitudes expresses a false and idolatrous patriotism.
There is another form of patriotism, however. It recognizes that each citizen receives a patrimony from the fatherland (the term is deliberate: both patriot and patrimony are related to the Greek term for father). With the patrimony comes (at minimum) a debt of gratitude. The recognition of this debt and appropriate expression of gratitude are akin to honoring one’s parents. Appropriate expressions of gratitude include respect for the nation’s symbols, concern for the nation’s wellbeing, and a willingness to defend the interests of the nation insofar as that can be done justly.
Therefore, not every species of patriotism is sinful. Indeed, at least one form of patriotism is an aspect of piety. To recognize one’s indebtedness to one’s homeland and civilization is more than permissible. It is implied by the fifth commandment. All Christians, whether American or Zimbabwean, Argentinean or Zambian, owe this gratitude to their native lands.
Indeed, they owe this form of patriotism, not simply to their nation, but to their section and their community as well. One of the calamities of modern mobility is the erosion of the sense of section and community. Vestiges of this sense do remain, however, in the speaking of regional dialects and the honoring of regional symbols. Such practices should be encouraged, not hindered.
I have argued that patriotism is not always and unavoidably idolatrous. I have further suggested that some forms of patriotism are actually virtuous. Even with respect to those forms, however, certain cautions must be raised.
The first caution is that one’s country—even one’s nation—is not identical to the state. The state is the specific regime that governs a nation at a given time. In most forms of government, the nation is subject to the state. In republics and democracies, the people of the nation may participate in shaping the state. But the state is never under the direct control of the entire nation.
Therefore, legitimate patriotism does not obligate a citizen to endorse or to defend every policy of the state. Patriots may love their countries while opposing and perhaps fearing their governments. If the state is sufficiently destructive of the nation, true patriots may even seek to topple it. For example, many Romanians who loved their nation were willing to overthrow the bloodthirsty dictator Ceausescu, given a chance. This distinction is absolutely crucial for Christian patriotism. It means that Christian patriots should be able to oppose injustices on the part of the state, even while retaining the ordinate measure of affection and loyalty for their nation.
The second caution is that even legitimate and virtuous patriotism may become idolatrous. The human heart can fabricate idols out of nearly anything, including one’s country. Many tempters will try to induce patriots to elevate loyalty to nation above loyalty to God, to right, or to justice. Christians are not immune from this temptation, and Americans who envision the United States as a Christian nation may be the most susceptible of all. To worship one’s country is a disservice both to God and to the nation.
A third caution is a bit more practical in nature. Love of one’s country is no excuse for discourtesy. Other countries also have their own codes by which they measure politeness. We do well to learn and to abide by those codes when we travel abroad and when we entertain travelers at home. Christian grace is not compatible with rudeness. If we make mistakes (and we shall), a humble and teachable demeanor will go a long way toward smoothing ruffled feathers. Most of the world’s people are eager to welcome us if we are willing to try to understand their cultures and respect their sensibilities.
America is a great nation, but it is not the only great nation. Depending upon the standard of measurement, it may not even be the greatest. We are not disloyal to America if we recognize and enjoy what is great in other countries.
Subject to limitations and defined correctly, patriotism is a virtue that Christians ought to manifest. We do owe something to our homeland, and recognition of that debt is one part of piety. To what extent, however, should we use our churches and worship services as centers for the fostering and expression of patriotic sentiment? That question will be addressed in the next essay.
Patriots come in more than one variety. Some patriots honor their nation more than they honor God. That kind of patriotism is arrogant, idolatrous, and immoral. Other patriots, however, are motivated by a sense of gratitude at the patrimony they have received from their homeland. They display their gratitude in ordinate ways, remembering that every nation, like every person, is finite and flawed. Such patriotism is not only permissible; it is probably implied by the fifth commandment.
Let me identify myself as a patriot of the second sort. The citizens of the United States are constituted as a people by an idea. This idea has been established and articulated in the founding documents of their republic (the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights) and in other significant statements (the Mayflower Compact, Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Association, the Federalist Papers, the Gettysburg Address). This idea involves the rule of law, limited government, separation of powers, guarantees of important freedoms, and individual responsibility and accountability. I believe that the constitutional republic of the United States is almost as close as one can get to an ideal government of, by, and for sinful people. I love the idea and honor the symbols that represent it: the National Anthem, the Fourth of July, the flag. I wear the uniform in the auxiliary of one of the nation’s armed services. And yes, I pledge allegiance to the flag.
Let me say it plainly: I love these United States. What factors should help us decide whether to honor and celebrate the United States (or any other nation) in our church services?
First, the church is not the United States. It does not exist by virtue of the authority or protection of the United States. The church neither seeks permission from nor trembles under the prohibition of any government. The church takes its orders from Christ. Its worship must be characterized by absolute, unconditioned, single-minded loyalty to Him alone. Devotion to Christ (understood in terms of faith, hope, and love) relativizes absolutely all human loyalties. Christians can never rightly pledge unconditioned allegiance to anyone or anything other than Christ Himself.
The church in this world is an outpost or colony. It exists among worldly governments, but it has no part with them. When we enter the church (i.e., when we assemble with a true congregation of Christ), we no longer occupy the ground of any worldly nation. We now inhabit a small, anticipatory outpost of the New Jerusalem.
Within the political and social arrangements of this world, Christians are aliens and wayfarers. True, in a temporal sense they do remain citizens of the nation in which they are born, but their primary and eternal citizenship is in the New Nation into which they have been born again. They are simultaneously citizens of a Heavenly Kingdom, awaiting its inauguration, and citizens of some present earthly nation. While certain duties do arise from their earthly citizenship, these must always be subordinated to and critiqued by the obligations of heavenly citizenship.
We ought to draw a distinction at this point between the role of the individual Christian and the role of the church. Individual Christians are really (though secondarily) citizens of earthly nations. They are involved in the affairs of their earthly countries, and they owe definite obligations to those countries. Ceteris paribus, they may rightly participate in civil affairs, vote, express political opinions, serve in the military, and hold office. The church, however, is not connected to any temporal order. It is not a political entity but a spiritual one. Its government, mission, authority, counsel, and relationships are spiritual. It has no right to address political issues, express political opinions, or endorse political candidates.
All of this suggests that displays of patriotism, while sometimes appropriate for Christian individuals in everyday life, are ill-advised for the assembled church. Nowhere does the New Testament authorize the celebration of national identity as any part of the church’s mission or responsibility. The church of the New Testament transcends all earthly national identifications. The moment that we celebrate the symbols of one nation in church, we risk excluding or offending Christians of other nations and thereby become respecters of persons. Incidentally, this can also happen between different parts of the same nation, as when American churches in the North thoughtlessly sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” which is highly offensive to many Southerners.
Should not the United States be accorded some special privilege, however, because of its Christian heritage? If this argument was ever legitimate, it has certainly become less so in recent decades. To cite only one example, the United States has authorized more than thirty years of abortion on demand. The specter of millions of legally butchered babies haunts the United States and has become an indelible aspect of our national heritage. The penumbra of this holocaust darkens every celebration of American identity.