God and country. The words are commonly used together, as if they’re natural companions. But are they always? Do Christianity and patriotism go together? Or do they sometimes come into conflict?
It’s a question I’m thinking about (not for the first time) as I write on Independence Day. It’s typically a day of celebration, and as an American, I have a lot to celebrate. (More about that later.) But there are right ways and wrong ways to celebrate — and right and wrong ways to be patriotic.
There are forms of patriotism (“nationalism” may be a better word) that are lazy at best and idolatrous at worst. If you think your country is uniquely God’s country, set above all others, you may well have strayed into that territory. Likewise if you assume that, in every war waged by your government, its army is God’s army and its cause is God’s cause. Beware of developing a cocky assurance that God is always on our side, rather than humbly examining, on a case-by-case basis, whether we (that is, our rulers) are on God’s side.
Another way to go wrong is to assume a complacent attitude that your country is eternally blessed. It’s one thing to say we’ve been blessed: We should do that. It’s another to expect that will continue. Politicians of both parties routinely say things like “America’s best days are ahead of her.” Christians have no reason to believe that. The same God who blesses nations also judges them. And our actions (or failures to act) over the long term have consequences.
Christians should measure right and wrong as God does in His Word. By that standard, we shouldn’t romanticize our country — past, present or future. We can, however, love it. We love it like we love our families, with all their virtues and their vices: We’re happy about its virtues, sad about its vices, but we don’t love it less for the latter. Our love is unconditional. That’s why we want it to be the best it can be.
That kind of patriotism leaves lots of room to celebrate much of our national heritage. In fact, looking back and honoring those things can be a step toward regaining them when they’ve been lost. In America, our heritage includes strong Christian foundations and a form of limited government that was rooted in Christian understanding of original sin (see, e.g., “Founding Faith: Christians in America” and “The Wall That Never Was“). We’ve lost quite a bit of both, and the Founders would be the first to say it’s no accident: As several of them warned, when our religious and moral foundations erode, so does our capacity for self-government.
Another thing we can celebrate about our past is its sense of the purpose of freedom. Modern Americans tend to think of freedom as an end in and of itself: It doesn’t matter what you do with your life, just that you’re free to do it. Earlier generations thought less in terms of rights than of responsibilities. You had obligations to God, family and community to live virtuously. Not everyone did so, but few if any claimed personal autonomy was the highest good. Freedom was a blessing: It was to be used well.
Things like this are what healthy Christian patriotism celebrates. It’s not so much proud of them as it is thankful for them. It wants to see them preserved or, as the case may be, restored. And while it may find moments of pleasure in feel-good stuff — fireworks and brass bands — its main purpose is to see that the country uses its blessings well.