What's Right About Patriotism
My father used to display a crisp American flag outside of our house. That flag flew not just on holidays, but on every day of the year. He never told us why he flew the Stars and Stripes. It was not because he was obviously patriotic. Sure, he had served in the Korean War, but the experience sounded mainly harrowing. As an analyst for Congress, he was involved in the hurly-burly of public debate on major policy issues. He respected how our country's democratic system works. He was not sentimental about our nation. But he flew that flag every day.
Is it theologically appropriate for Christians to be patriotic? Does it compromise our citizenship in Christ's kingdom to wave the banner of loyalty to an earthly kingdom?
As with so many other issues, American Christians seem hopelessly divided.
On the Christian Right are many of that dwindling number of Americans who are happy to proclaim their love for this country and to wave the flag proudly as a symbol of that love. Meanwhile, on the Christian Left there is an emphasis on the international loyalties of Christ's peopleand also some trenchant critiques of our nation's behavior. So the Right bashes the Left for its internationalism and critical spirit, while the Left skewers the Right for its confused consecration of national life.
Philosopher Jeffrey Stout says that piety is the virtue associated with gratitude toward the sources of one's existence. Love of country can, in this sense, be seen as a form of piety. We wave the flag in gratitude for the nation in which we live and move and have our being, the geographic source and arena of our existence. Asking someone to avoid patriotism because it compromises Christian faith is like asking them to avoid demonstrating affection to their parents because that, too, can compromise their Christian faith.
Abandoning patriotism can be a rejection of our embodiment as particular human beings in a particular context. It can mark a dismissal of the kinds of natural ties that root us to family, place, and time. I am here, not there; from these parents, not those parents; living in this era, not another one. I am not a free-floating spirit but an embodied person, rooted somewhere rather than nowhere. Patriotism simply says "thank you" for, and to, the particular national community in which our bodies have been placed.
Stepping Outside Ourselves
Thoughtful and usually progressive-minded Christians have expended much effort to steer us away from such patriotic sentiments. There are good reasons for this, many of them rooted in the grotesque horrors created by the exaggerated nationalism of the 20th century. It is hard for any student of modern history not to think at least a bit about goose-stepping Nazi brownshirts whenever patriotism is mentioned.
Despite occasional feints in this direction during our nation's most desperate and fearful moments, nationalism of this type does not seem to be a serious threat today. Far more common is the inability to muster any kind of loyalty to any community outside the self and those few relationships that gratify the self.
Reinhold Niebuhr got it right in the early 1930s when he acknowledged that patriotism at least has the virtue of taking the self outside of itself to a broader community. Patriotism may be national egoism, as he called it, but it is an improvement over purely personal egoism, which can see no concern greater than the self.
It is deeply uncomfortable from a theological perspective that in many parts of our nation, the only place in which one can experience any substantive evocation of patriotism is the local Christian congregation. Other kinds of public celebrations of national loyalty have generally collapsed. What remains issometimesa wordless local fireworks display down at the high school, which teaches us (I guess) that America can really do some spectacular explosives displays.
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