The appeal to patriotism seems almost ubiquitous. We even have an expression to describe the abuse of the patriotic sentiment. “Wrapping yourself in the flag” is to a political argument what “claiming the moral high ground” is to an ethical issue. It implies that opposition to anything of the nation is less patriotic, even disloyal.
Criticism of one’s country is not necessarily unpatriotic. Only God is beyond criticism. If we believe in sin, then we must expose it even on a national level. Patriotism shouldn’t be a blind love of country that accepts evil. Christ exposed hypocrisy and false religion in the religious establishment of His day and twice drove from God’s temple those who violated its sanctity. Paul pronounced a curse on those in the church who perverted the gospel, citing a higher standard, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I yet pleased men, I should not be the servant of Christ” (Gal. 1:10).
God Bless America
“God Bless America” is, both as a slogan and a song, problematic for the Christian patriot. It goes beyond the expression of love and pride in America; it is a prayer to the Creator and Judge of all. Certainly, God has blessed the United States of America. Its founding is unique in human and Christian history, and it represents the high-water mark of human liberty and the defeat of absolutist monarchies in the West, an important milestone for the furthering of God’s Kingdom.
To pray “God Bless America” today, however, begs the question “why”? Exactly what about America do we ask God to bless? Is it America’s entertainment culture, educational system, court system, political, economic or diplomatic policies which deserve God’s blessing? Ought not we first to cry the prayer, “God be merciful to America”? We cannot expect God’s blessing on America without acknowledging its deviation from faithfulness to Him. If repentance does not come before blessing, judgment likely will.
Patriotism refers to a love of one’s home, land, and people. The word comes from the Greek patrios, of one’s father. To be patriotic is as natural and godly as to love one’s father, one’s very origin. But unquestioning patriotism becomes idolatrous. All of our loyalties must be governed by the higher standard of faithfulness to God. The instruction of the law and the prophets in the Old Testament was always focused on the personal requirement to covenant faithfulness, never to blind loyalty to the king as the representative of the nation. Much of the work of the prophets, in fact, was critical of the kings of Israel and Judah for their failures, their sins that invited the judgment of God. The prophets, out of concern for the people and the nation, never hesitated to point out the sin of either.
Christ also taught a limited obedience to the civil magistrate: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk.12:17). Our Lord did not require us to give the state everything it demanded. When confronted with a choice of obedience to Christ’s commission or the demands of civil magistrates, Peter and the apostles responded, “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Ac. 5:29). The loyalty of the Christian to his country or his government is always subject to his faithfulness to God’s law and government.
Why Pray for Civil Magistrates?
Paul exhorted the young minister Timothy to pray for all civil authorities, “that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior...” (1 Tim. 2:2-3). This represents the limited nature of what the Christian seeks from his government. The desire to “lead a peaceable life” implies protection from evildoers within and without. It is reflected in the U. S. Constitution’s aim to “insure domestic tranquility” and “provide for the common defense.”
To live in “godliness and honesty” was a desire to be left alone to serve God in faithfulness. The freedom from government intrusion that the U. S. Constitution sought to codify was a similar desire to live in “godliness and honesty” but was then, thanks to the progression of Christian liberty in the West, no longer a freedom from the law, but under it. The Constitution’s purpose was not just that the people of the United States be left alone but that their form of government itself would “establish justice” and “secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” Paul’s prayer was, in effect, codified in the preamble to the U. S. Constitution.
When men’s loyalties have no transcendent character, they necessarily become immanent. If we have no faith in God, our patriotism is merely loyalty to a nation, an ethnicity, a government, or a person or party that claims to embody the essence of the nation. A patriotism that focuses on a land or people can become chauvinistic or racist. In more modern times, nations have been identified by their borders and their governments. This led to fascist nationalism in Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany. It is, of course, easier to detect the mote in another’s eye, than the beam in our own. It is also easier to see the excesses of patriotic fervor in nations other than our own.
In America, patriotism has had a different emphasis than in many other nations. American patriotism has always focused less on its land and people than on ideas and ideals. Even the geographic expansion of the United States across the continent was about the “manifest destiny” of the nation. America was known for its vision as a new kind of nation.
The Puritans described their beginning in New England as “a city set on a hill” to which people would be drawn. It was not a government on “Capitol Hill.” The Puritans had a firm belief in original sin, so their desire was to limit the power of civil magistrates in order to limit their abuse of power.
A critical part of the American system is the mistrust of the civil power because of man’s sin nature. The Declaration of Independence is a list of abuses of power and illegal usurpations of power by George III. The Articles of Confederation provided for an extremely limited central government. The Constitution enumerated limited powers and reserved all others to the people and the states. The Bill of Rights, which some saw as redundant, was passed as an additional guarantee of those rights and the limited power of the national government. In denying power to government, all these documents were critical of human nature and placed impediments to government activism. For such negativity, we can be grateful. Those Constitutional limitations which remain are all that keeps us from totalitarianism in the name “of the people.” The patriot who loves the ideals of liberty and limited government must be critical of those who would take away liberties and centralize power in the name of disaster relief, the war on terror, or any other pretext. Powers lost to government are not easily regained.
The Christian Patriot
To be a Christian patriot in fact requires us to be critical of acts done by the United States that are illegal in terms of the Constitution or unjust or immoral in terms of the higher law of God. A Christian patriot is one who is faithful to his country in terms of a prior faithfulness to God. Christians ought to be both the most vocal supporters of the ideals that made America great and the most outspoken critics of its failures. Party loyalty often pulls us down in this regard. The activities of our government must not be judged in terms of their political expediency but in terms of their moral legitimacy.
The Christian must recognize the priority of his citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Our Lord said, “But seek ye first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness...” (Mt. 6:33). Righteousness means God’s justice. Our first loyalty must be to the Kingdom of God and His justice, which is only found through submission to His law-word.
The systemic change America needs first is not in its politics or laws, but in the faith of its people. The part of our system that still works as intended is the ability of the people to change its leadership and laws. The mechanism of republican government is still intact. The problem is in us. We are a statist people, comfortable with statist solutions. This must change. We cannot judge righteously if we are ourselves unrighteous. Before we ask, presumptuously, “God Bless America,” we need to pray “Revive Us Again.”
In defending the need for critical patriotism, we must note that criticism alone is not enough. This is the weakness of conspiracy thinking. Too often, it sees our problems as the sin of a few rather than the sin in all. Conspiracy theories tend all too often to point to the evil work of a limited number of people. By implication, the rest of society is merely ignorant or deceived.
Conspiracy theories are often very complex in their telling, but too simplistic in their assessment of the problem. Conspiracies do exist; they always have. Christ was Himself a subject of a conspiracy (Jn. 11:47-54). Scripture makes clear, however, that even these evil men and their designs were in the providence of God (Ac. 2:23; 4:26-28). Conspiracy theories too often emphasize the evil of the few as the controlling force of history. Christians must see events in terms of the evil in all men (hence the need for a limitation on all human power) and the Sovereign power of God. All men in Adam are conspirators against God and His righteousness; Christians are called to obedience to God and His governing law-word.
Our loyalty to the Kingdom of God and His Christ must always temper our earthly loyalties and duties. That higher loyalty involves a bond of faith in that which is greater than even the noblest American ideals and a love to a people that is stronger than mere ethnicity or common heritage. Faithfulness to our citizenship to the Kingdom of God means we must, at times, be critical of the baser tendencies of the state and politics.