May a Christian be a patriot? May a Christian in the United States be a patriot? He may, he should, and in many cases, he must.
The primitive Christians sent mixed signals about patriotism. They were highly skeptical about unbridled patriotism in the pagan Roman Empire. They opposed Christian participation in the military and civil government, though the Bible itself never requires this separatist approach. Yet many of these patristic Christians loved the Roman Empire, and they lamented its decline and collapse. Indeed, they patterned the governing structure of the Western church after the Empire: the Pope was the new emperor, for example, and the church in the fourth century became in its structure a replacement for the Roman Empire. (In this way, an accident of history became a norm for the church until this very day.)
The Anabaptists of later times, however, followed the separatist path. The churches of the magisterial Reformation deviate from it, on the other hand. They hold that civil government is a ministry that God established and that under certain conditions Christians may — even must — support it.
The passionate and tearful flag-waving today in tandem with the revival of patriotic songs about the good ole US of A (most verses are conspicuously left unsung) is unsettling to many devout Christians, and ridiculed by the Far Left and many libertarians, a curious co-belligerency indeed.
The Biblical Record
But what does the Bible say?
When Jesus was asked whether it were lawful to pay taxes to the idolatrous Roman Empire, He replied: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk. 12:17). In other words, each — God and the civil magistrate (the state) — has his rightful due. We are always obligated to God first, but we are also obligated to the civil government, even an evil one; and the Roman Empire certainly was evil. If there is a conflict between the stipulations that God and the civil government impose, the early Christians knew who had unquestionable precedence: “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Ac. 5:29). God comes first, and we obey the civil magistrate when he does not conflict with what God requires of us in the Bible.
What is Patriotism?
Where does this leave patriotism? It all depends. If patriotism is love of one’s country, it depends on the nature of that country. Most nations today are tied to a land and a race, though somewhat less so than 100 years ago. This is true of Europe and Asia. Patriotism is bound up in “blood and soil.” Italians, Russians, Chinese, and Indians love their nation, its race(s), its location, and its history. If they are Christians, they can legitimately appreciate the providence of God in their nation’s history and admire their nation to the extent that it follows — or followed — God’s truth.
Compounding matters, however, is the fact that most nations are tied up intimately with civil governments (though it doesn’t have to be this way): to speak of the nation of France implies not just the French people, but the political state that governs French territory. This is the problem of patriotism. You love your country, but you may mistrust your civil government. Still, you can love and appreciate your country and its heritage as a precious gift from God.
This is true even of Christian citizens in very evil regimes. Christian North Koreans can be patriotic, even though they despise their atheistic, idolatrous civil government. Korea has a great heritage and great customs and many great people. Christian North Koreans can be patriotic on that basis, if no other.
Our Unique United States
The United States poses a unique problem. It does not easily follow the pattern of nations noted above. Blood and soil mean much less here than ideas. Not race or place, but ideas, have always been at the root of what it means to be an American.
In this, it is helpful to note a striking Biblical teaching:
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; 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 Saviour…. (1 Tim. 2:1-3)
This Bible text does not prescribe the ideal civil government, of course, but the minimal features of a civil government acceptable to Christians committed to living and spreading their Faith.
It means: pray that the civil magistrate leaves you alone so you can train your children in the Faith and you can live to please God and your church can preach the gospel. When Paul wrote this, the despotic Roman Empire was not in the habit of acting so honorably, and it got worse as time went by. So our Christian forebears in the early church sorely needed this prayer.
But the United States is a very different case. The U. S., it just so happens, was founded largely to fulfill just the sort of pro-liberty, non-interventionist role the Bible envisions. The Founders, whatever their flaws, were to the man, dogged defenders of religious liberty. Although some of them were influenced by a conservative Enlightenment rationalism, most were professing Christians (see the extensive evidence presented in M. E. Bradford’s Religion and the Framers). This is why they did not establish a national church — they did not want to disturb the various states’ established Christian churches. This is why they produced a federal Constitution, which elaborately checked sinful men’s insatiable lust for power, including the sinners who happened to be politicians. This is why they drafted a Bill of Rights, which jealously guarded religious liberty. This is why they wrote that one of the nation’s great objectives is “to provide for the common defense.” As Eric Hoffer once said, this nation was founded by people who basically wanted to be left alone. This just happens to be the sort of civil government the Bible demands we pray for.
The Great American Experiment
We live in a truly amazing — and wildly successful — experiment in civil government that carried on many of the best features of the Christian commonwealth idea of medieval and Reformation Europe — and jettisoned most of their worst features. Ours is a Constitutional democracy and national republic. We believe in a federal expression of majority rule that is hedged in by the guarantees of a constitution that is very hard to change. This allows for peaceful dissent. We have a republic, not a direct democracy. We don’t trust fickle majorities any more than we trust fickle kings and aristocrats. We elect representatives who vote on major issues facing the nation, and we can vote them out of office. This means that, unlike many other countries even today, we don’t need a blood-bathing military coup every time we need political change. We can have peaceful political revolutions. We enjoy wide freedom of religion and freedom of the press. If you think we don’t, try living in Saudi Arabia, Cuba, China or North Korea for a while. In January 2017, Barack Obama walked peacefully out of office. He and his entourage walked away peacefully, without gunfire, because our Constitution provides for peaceful political transitions and, at this point at least, our countrymen still follow the Constitution. Do not take this for granted, because political change in history has usually occurred at the end of a saber or gun barrel. There are big checks on power in this country, because the Founders operated in terms of Christian ethos — men are sinners.
As Christians, all this means that it’s likely that the civil magistrate will leave us alone to believe and practice our Faith, the very thing that the Bible says we should be praying for in a civil magistrate. Sure, there’s some encroachment on our liberties, and increasingly so whenever “progressivism” gets the upper political hand, and we should be vigilant in protecting them. But we have a great Constitution that we can resort to in cases of grievance and a political system that gives recourse to those dissatisfied with the status quo.
This is why an American Christian may — and in my view, must — be a patriot.
Christian patriotism in the United States is necessary because it cultivates and defends the sort of minimal civil government that the Bible requires. We are patriots not because we have a love affair with the United States as such; we are patriots because the principles on which the nation were founded allow Christianity to flourish. The United States is first about ideas, and those ideas are, for the most part, Christian ideas. On this basis, we can join the flag-waving.
The “Religious Right,” the New Whipping Boy
Today we observe a evangelical backlash against “The Religious Right” (RR), and disillusioned evangelical veterans join cause-happy, indignant youngsters in nlamenting the 70’s and 80’s revival of Christian conservative politics that came to the fore in the Reagan and Bush II presidencies. They point to the oversimplifications, acrimonies and hypocrisies of the RR (notably uncritical support of the populist, pompous, and erratic Donald Trump), although these sins are no less evident on the Irreligious Left as they are the RR. The critics could have even more accurately adduced the tendency of the RR to ape the political Left of the 60’s in seeing in politics the salvation of culture. For the RR, politics is the chief antidote to pervasive abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and so on. For the 60’s Leftists, politics was the chief antidote to racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia. The diseases are different, but the antidote is the same — bigger government. The new-school evangelical critics of the RR are more inclined to agree with the 60’s Leftists — the problem is not big government, you see, as long as it’s suppressing racism, sexism, capitalism, and homophobia and not abortion, homosexuality, and pornography. One thinks immediately of Sojourners, but other shining examples come to mind.
Interestingly, this eruption of evangelical indignation against the RR is not, for the most part, undertaken by evangelicals noted for their zealous commitment to Biblical authority. These critics are not chiding the RR for its failure in pressing Biblical norms of justice in politics but precisely for the fact that they pressed those norms. In short, they are not making a case for a non-conservative Biblical social order; they don’t want a Biblical, or even distinctively Christian, social order at all.
The solution to the sins and errors of the RR is not to abandon aggressive Christian politics but rather to purge from it its messianic expectations, its imbalances and its hypocrisies. The evangelical critics, to the extent that they endorse patriotism, generally do not support a Biblically grounded patriotism, which they deem a contradiction of terms. But a Christian can speak of a legitimate patriotism only to the extent that it conforms to Biblical standards, and beyond that, to the extent that a nation is founded on those standards.
A Biblically grounded patriotism surely does not pre-commit us to any action the civil government may take. It pre-commits us to the form of government that protects the liberties of Christians (and others) and stays out of everybody’s way: the Biblical conception of civil government is minimal and limited. The great thing about the United States is that you can loudly criticize Joe Biden (and Donald Trump) and still be a great patriotic American. You can hate abortion and pornography and homosexuality and Hollywood and public education and racism and materialism and Darwinism while wildly waving the Stars and Stripes.
Given these factors, a reflective patriotism is entirely appropriate. It must not be uncritical, of course, and it must judge itself by the standards of the Word of God. As Francis Schaeffer used to say, “We may not wrap the Cross in the flag.” On the other hand, we must remember that the Bible is not perfectionist. A family, a church, and a nation may be less than perfect — far less than perfect — and still deserve our respect and loyalty. Patriotism is allegiance to a country, its ideals, and its citizens.
Christians should defend the nation that defends Christians’ liberty to embrace and propagate their Faith. If that nation is their own, they should be doubly defensive — and grateful.
Hand me another flag.