Can you be patriotic and a Christian?

Today I was at a civic-oriented lunch function. As a part of the lunch we said the Pledge of Allegiance and sang God Bless America. And as I stood among the crowd I was taken with, and moved by, the passion with which the audience participated in these patriotic displays (they were an older crowd). I watched the emotions rise in my own soul and I thought about my love of this country and its history.

I can talk with some authority about Thomas Jefferson. I can give you a guided tour of the Gettysburg battlefield. I can be moved to tears thinking of my grandfather, wounded in France, when I hear about World War II. I can even inflict a Civil Rights tour on my family during the summer of 2010.

I've read biographies about George Washington, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, JFK, and Bobby Kennedy. I've spend hours on Revolutionary and Civil War battlefields. I've taken my family to Washington DC and stood in line to look at the Bill of Rights. I've cried at the Vietnam Memorial. Colonial Williamsburg is one of my favorites places to visit.

But as I stood there today, with those familiar feelings swelling, a little voice whispered in my head: Can you be patriotic and a be Christian?

For many Christians, that might seem to have been an odd question, a very strange thing to have asked oneself. But for many of us, this question, and the worry it expresses, isn't strange at all. In fact, it just might be the most important question a Christian could ask himself or herself.

As I drove away from the lunch I began to think about what it means to be patriotic. For my own part it involves a feeling of affection combined with a sense of pride. And if I'm honest, I do feel affection and pride for the United States. To be clear, that affection and pride is tempered with a lot of shame and sadness. I think America is very, very flawed. But all things being equal, I feel pride and affection. But it's also important to me to make room for the patriotism of citizens from other nations. I fully expect others to feel affection and pride for their own land and history. I want to celebrate and rejoice in the patriotism of others. This is why I love the Olympics. I love the opening ceremony, the nations walking in waving their flags and the show put on by the host country celebrating their culture, heritage, and people. I love an inclusive patriotism. Which I don't think is very different from feeling pride and affection for a lot of things in life: Your hometown, your state, your Alma mater, your faith tradition, your ethnic background.

But there is a twofold danger in this pride and affection. First, it can tempt you into idolatry. You begin to confuse your love of country with your love of God. The two become conflated, with disastrous results. So that's the vertical temptation. The second, more horizontal, temptation is when your affection and pride creates a division of affections, an in-group bias that sows the seeds of social division and war.

I'm not telling you anything new in all this. But the question I was struggling with this afternoon was how I should deal with my patriotic feelings. Are they healthy or a slippery slope? Are they temptations similar to lust? Should I try to eliminate patriotic feelings in my heart? Or should I simply keep a close watch on them, indulging only moderation? Is patriotism like heroin or marijuana? Can you dabble a bit or is it safer to just stay away altogether? How addictive and dangerous is this substance?

I have no answers. Just a lot of questions after a lunch where we sang God Bless America.

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4 thoughts on “Can you be patriotic and a Christian?”

  1. Have you seen G K Chesterton's discussion of patriotism:

    I find it a really helpful way of thinking about what a healthy patriotism is.

  2. I find G. K. Chesterton to be an excellent source on this problem, since he was both a deeply Christian and a deeply patriotic man. I'd also suggest checking out his "The Patriotic Idea" essay.
    I found it here (though I'm not sure of how accurate the online reproduction is)

    Personally, I feel no such conflict between my Christianity and my Patriotism. (maybe because I'm not an American?)
    Maybe that might have something to do with how I don't think Faith has anything to do with allegiance to Christ, at all.

  3. This is a well thought out and written post qb. Thank you. However, you could have made your points without calling Aric's post toxic and strident. Pesonally, I found it neither. Maybe, I misread your first sentence.

  4. I think it is important to think of patriotism as it has informed moral judgment and reasoning historically. Patriotism can always exist as a virtue theory ("we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal") on paper, but not see how they actually propel certain types of social habits (you can hold all men to be created equal but still own slaves and hold women to be second class humans). We can say that "patriotism" is the conceptual super structure housing human equality and political freedom by why not make Kantian imperatives or cosmopolitanism (ie. Martha Nussbaum) a better sociological framework (and a larger one) for exercising these values?

    I think of three kingdom virtues that are not bolstered (personally and individually) by historically patriotic tendencies. Does patriotism make it more likely or more difficult to "forgive your enemies and bless those that persecute you" and not to "avenge evil for evil but to return evil with good?" Or does it (patriotism) make it more easy to treat your enemies viciously in the name of other moral goods (e.g. "protecting your loved ones")? --"Blessed are those who mourn." Does patriotism make it easier or more difficult to mourn over moral travesty and tragedy? Does patriotism make the violence of Hiroshima/Nagasaki or carpet bombing citizens in a metropolitan area something that we should lament, or something we are more likely to justify? Something more general to acknowledge is that Jesus locates himself within a prophetic tradition a tradition that he, as he points out repeatedly, criticizes the power structures of Israel, are rejected, and only later (long after their rejection) are exalted and remembered sanctimoniously. Does patriotism encourage a prophetic critique of one's own people and systems, or stifle the possibility of criticizing one's own people and larger society?

    Everyone will, of course, answer these questions differently.

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