when patriotism becomes a problem

An idol is a glory cul de sac. Any thing, when properly understood and used, can become an avenue for bringing glory to our Creator. The things of the natural world can lead us to the worship of God, or as Paul reminds us in Romans 1, tainted by our sin they can become objects of worship themselves. This is how idolatry works. The glory stops at the created thing instead of the Creator.

This time every year there are lively discussions about the Christian’s and the Church’s approach to patriotism. In fact, today is the one-year anniversary of this post. It’s worth a read. The question I want to address in this post is that: “Is patriotism idolatry?”

Let me first say, that patriotism is often idolatrous. If you are a Christian and you aren’t seriously weirded out by stuff like this, send me an email and convince me I’m wrong.

No, patriotism can and often is idolatrous. It becomes idolatrous when we glory in our nation and not our God. It becomes idolatrous when we cede worship time to telling the story of the flag and not the cross. It becomes idolatrous when we eagerly await a savior from Washington instead of heaven. It becomes idolatrous when we seem to be prouder our national citizenship than our heavenly citizenship. It becomes idolatrous when a nation becomes the standard of goodness and righteousness. I could go on.

This is the type of patriotism often labeled (correctly in my opinion) nationalism. This is also the type of patriotism that is the natural byproduct of secularism. I know that some of you might roll your eyes at the number of times I’ve quoted Neuhaus recently, but that’s only because he’s so good. Here’s what he said about patriotism and the naked public square:

If we are determined to keep the public square naked, we do well to resist the idea of patriotism. In the naked public square, patriotism poses a great threat; it cannot be checked or kept within limits because there is no transcendent reference by which to hold it in critical tension. Patriotism alone cannot help but lead to nationalistic hubris.

When religion is banished from the public square, there are no transcendent principles that inform and guide our relationship with our nation. In other words, when there is nothing higher than the state, patriotism cannot avoid eventually giving way to nationalism. Nationalism and secularism will often go hand in hand. Churches and Christians that surrender their principles to nationalism are actually behaving like the secularists that they abhor.

But I would argue that nationalism is not the only danger of a naked public square. Related to nationalism is tribalism. If nationalism is the idolatrous love for a national identity, tribalism is the idolatrous love for a niche identity separated from the whole. Nationalists have a blind love for their nation. Tribalists often have a blind animus. Nationalists see their nation as the source of all good in the world. Tribalists see their nation as the source of most of the world’s problems. The tribalist sighs at the patriot waving the flag. She instead prefers the identifying marks of her marginal tribe.

Whether one is a nationalist or a tribalist often depends one whether or not your preferred team is currently in power. “Yes We Can” after all is the Left’s way of saying “Make America Great Again.” There’s not much that can turn a person into a weeping prophet quite like losing an election. But the point is that both nationalists and tribalists are drinking from the same secular fountain. They have both lost sight of transcendence and have succumbed to idolatry.

I believe not only that patriotism is not necessarily idolatrous, I also believe that patriotism is appropriate for a Christian and for churches. After all, your nation is just the large, diverse assembly of your neighbors (many of whom don’t fit your tribe). It seems like a Christian thing to love and want the best for your neighbors. There is no wisdom or righteousness in not wanting God to bless America. Certain Christians are bashful about saying “God bless America” because to their ears it sounds either exclusionary or arrogant or both. But patriotism need not say God bless only America. Is there a good reason why we wouldn’t want God to bless this nation? I would also say that to deny God’s blessing on this nation might demonstrate more arrogance than the person who acknowledges that whatever good has come from this American experiment is ultimately from the blessing of God.

But if patriotism is appropriate for a Christian and for churches, then it must be a patriotism that is guided and shaped by a higher allegiance. To a patriot, the nation is never ultimate which is the only way that a nation can truly be loved. Patriots don’t only celebrate their nation or fight for their nation. They also challenge, rebuke, and weep for their nation. Some of the greatest patriots in Israel were the prophets who didn’t hate their nation, but they also didn’t simply wave the flag when the nation had turned to evil. Instead, they called the people to account and pointed them to higher principles. The only way to be a patriot is to be a disciple first.


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