A Reflection on Christian Patriotism
Throughout my college years I experienced a religious awakening of sorts. Having recently involved myself in a local church and young adult ministry, I was beginning to grow in my faith and see the world in a more Christian way. This development of faith, in my life, was preceded by a more robust understanding of civic life, political spaces, and politics more generally. For me, government and politics was a place for people of diverse backgrounds and views to come together in order to effect change. Perhaps I was–and still am–a bit naïve. Despite this, my catechesis into the Christian tradition created new tensions between my understanding of citizenship and my Christian worldview. I was often struck wondering how to appropriately love my country, while remaining faithful to the Kingdom of God.
For many, this tension does not exist. Remaining faithful to the Kingdom of God, in fact, requires loyalty to the United States, the display of national symbols, and often a full Republican ballot. Things have never been this easy for me. Certainly I am thankful for the many privileges afforded because of my historical and geographic location in the United States of America, and as a result I respect and honor the sacrifices that many have made to preserve those privileges. However, I struggle to look at the current makeup of the United States–given our legacy of white supremacy, mass incarceration, treatment of Native Americans, children, and refugees–and offer the unconditional endorsement that I see many of my brothers and sisters giving.
Such a perceived tension begs the question of whether patriotism truly requires such an unconditional endorsement, and how those Christians still concerned with virtue might go about loving country while speaking prophetically regarding the evils therein. David French, a conservative writer with the National Review, recently commented on the President’s attacks against MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, and made the now scandalous argument that morality still matters.1 While I disagree with French on many issues, his illustration in the article is correct; citizenship demands the intellectual and public honesty necessary to hail moral victories while simultaneously criticizing moral failures.
Wendell Berry extends a similar argument to a vision for patriotism, arguing that a nation’s “citizens must love their land with a knowing, intelligent, sustaining, and protective love. They must not, for any price, destroy its beauty, its health, or its productivity. And they must not allow their patriotism to be degraded to a mere loyalty to symbols or any present set of officials.”2 For Berry, patriotism requires a much broader view of what is good and just in order for patriotic citizens to hold their country to that standard. I agree. Patriotism thus requires a vision for what can be, rather than a re-writing of history for what we wish had been.
Romans 13:1-7 seems to make the case for Christian appreciation of civil government as Paul points out that those very governments are instituted by and subject to God. Moreover, passages directing prayer and respect for governing authorities, such as 1 Timothy 2:1-2 and 1 Peter 2:17, suggest that Christians ought to seek and cultivate a healthy relationship with the nations in which they reside. However, these commands are always made with the particular end in mind of honoring God and obeying God’s commandments. Therefore, an appropriately Christian relationship to nation and government must always maintain a telos beyond that nation and government itself.
Christian theologian and ethicist Stanley Hauerwas argues that any politics that does not take seriously the necessity of cultivating just individuals will find itself unable to create just communities. As with most times, Hauerwas is worth quoting,
In the interest of securing more equitable forms of justice possible in our society, Christians have failed to challenge the moral presuppositions of our polity and society. Nowhere is the effect of this seen more powerfully than in the Christian acquiescence to the liberal assumption that a just polity is possible without the people being just. We simply accepted the assumption that politics is about the distribution of desires, irrespective of the content of those desires, and any consideration of the development of virtuous people as a political issue seems an inexcusable intrusion into our personal liberty.3
With the question of Christian patriotism in mind, love of country, for Hauerwas, would then require just individuals to push their communities and nation toward justice rather than simply the maintenance of a nation state able to secure personal liberty. Patriotism, then, for the Christian begins with a recognition that there is an end beyond the state itself, that virtue is worth pursuing regardless of national identity or geopolitical positioning. As Christians we should find what is wrong with our nation, we do so for the sake of bettering our communities and living out a commitment to the Kingdom of God.
Patriotism can be good, and must include a consideration of what US citizenship has afforded people like me while also remembering the people who are and have been excluded from that same vision. This is not to take away from our nation’s accomplishments, but instead to commit to working for a future where life is better for my neighbor. If we allow white supremacy, unjust war, and genocide to go forgotten and unrecognized then we risk missing the patriotic task at hand, which is forming our nation and communities into the loving character of Christ.“View
2. Wendell Berry, “A Citizen’s Response,” in Citizenship Papers (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2003), 1-16 .
3. Stanley Hauerwas, A Community of Character: Toward a Constructive Christian Social Ethic (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981), 73.