One Sunday morning in college, I attended church with an Austrian friend who hadn't been to many American churches. So after the service, I asked him what he thought of the experience.
"It was fine," he said. I could tell something was troubling him. So I pressed him a bit. Finally he said, "Why was there an American flag by the pulpit?"
Good question. Honestly, though, I hadn't even noticed. Every summer in Vacation Bible School, we pledged our allegiance to the American flag, then the Christian flag, then the Bible. Our church's second largest weekend celebration—after Christmas—was the Fourth of July. Why wouldn't there be an American flag in the sanctuary?
But for him—and I would later discover, for many Christians who are not Americans—the presence of the flag in the sanctuary signals too close a relationship between Christian faith and American patriotism. Is there a danger for Christians, who are citizens of the kingdom of heaven, in putting too much hope in, or having too much affection for, any earthly kingdom?
There are degrees of patriotism. At minimum, the word denotes love, devotion, and a commitment to protect one's country. Surely this is appropriate for all citizens. However, displaying a flag in a worship service implies that there is something inherently Christian about patriotism. And that is a disputed point.
God and Country as Allies
Evangelist Billy Sunday said, "Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms, and hell and traitors are synonymous." Many Christians see God's goals and the country's goals as one and the same. Therefore, it is not just a civic duty to love and support America, it is also a Christian duty.
People who hold this view take seriously Paul's teaching on the Christian's relationship to civil government in Romans 13. "Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities," Paul writes, "for there is no authority except that which God has established" (v. 1). Any rebellion or dissent against the government is "rebelling against what God has instituted" (v. 2). The relationship between rulers and citizens seems clear in Romans. The ruler is "God's servant for your good" (v. 4). Thus, to be unpatriotic is to oppose God.
This extreme point of view fails to take into account the historical context of Paul's letter to the Romans and reads into it certain American assumptions. Romans 13 makes a lot of sense in American society. Here we enjoy the Constitutional separation of church and state, which means the government doesn't meddle in religious affairs. We elect our officials to serve us—to do us good. And we can easily think of these civil servants as "God's servants," especially if they are Christians themselves. In fact, we can easily think of our nation as essentially Christian.
This feeling was particularly strong in America from the early 1920s and into the Cold War, when the global threat was communism. Evangelist Billy Graham explained during the historic Los Angeles crusade that put him on the map that the only way America could oppose communism was if it first experienced spiritual revival. But the trouble with linking patriotism and faith too closely is it can lead us to believe that the essence of being a good Christian is being a good citizen. The focus of our discipleship then becomes not spiritual but national, and we begin to view the nation as God's primary way of accomplishing his goals.
Things were quite different in the Roman Empire when Paul wrote the Book of Romans. In Romans 13, Paul was referring to Roman authorities that were not friendly to Christianity. Paul had Roman citizenship, but very few people did. Those who didn't enjoyed few rights. By the beginning of the second century, the Christian community experienced explosive growth, and the Romans were concerned that this sect needed to be stopped.
Polycarp, a disciple of John, is the best-known martyr of this period. Because he was an elderly and saintly man, the soldiers who arrested him wanted to give him a way out of his death penalty. So they told him all he had to do to escape death was declare, "Caesar is lord." But Polycarp refused: "Eighty-six years I have served Christ, and he never did me any wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?" In other words, Polycarp knew that the New Testament commands that we submit to rulers, whether or not they protect our right to worship as we choose. Paul was arguing that Christians must submit to rulers, even when it costs us our life, even when those rulers oppose God's plan.
God and Country as Enemies
On the other end of the spectrum, there are those who feel that Jesus' ministry was primarily a model of resistance to the values and aspirations of the Roman Empire. Jesus' commands to "turn the other cheek" and "go the extra mile" were given in the context of Roman occupation. Soldiers denigrated the Jews by slapping them or by conscripting them to carry their loads. Those who hold to this view argue that Jesus was encouraging nonviolent resistance to the powers that be. Instead of fighting them with swords, Jesus directed his countrymen to overthrow the Romans by refusing to participate in the violence they supported. By extension, Christians are supposed to follow Jesus' example by resisting imperial tendencies, including the power, violence, and injustice on which they depend. According to this perspective, Jesus was establishing a counter-empire: the kingdom of God.
This perspective has this in its favor: it takes seriously the fact that the first Christian declaration of faith—"Jesus is Lord!"—had political overtones and consequences. As was mentioned above, to claim that Jesus, and not Caesar, was lord was an act of sedition and treason (Acts 17:7). The Romans were none too pleased by Christian language about "King" Jesus who had a "kingdom" in heaven. The Jewish leaders played into this when they wanted the Romans to put Jesus to death: "Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar" (John 19:12).
Like the other extreme, the major weakness of this perspective is that it makes too much of the nation. Instead of the nation being God's primary partner, the nation becomes God's primary enemy. Again, one's Christian faithfulness is based on his or her posture toward the nation. To be a good Christian is to work for social justice, equality, and liberty, and to resist the abuses of capitalism and nationalism. This can easily reduce the faith to only social reform.
Finding the Middle
Despite the fact that both of these positions make their case from Scripture, the Bible does not answer all of our questions about the appropriate relationship between Christian faith and patriotism. On the one hand, the Scriptures are clear that we are to honor those in authority in our country (Rom. 13). But this doesn't have as much to do with politics as with the general principle that Christians are to show honor and respect to those in positions of authority. "Give to everyone what you owe them," Paul explains. "If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor" (Rom. 13:7). This is common theme in the New Testament (Matt. 22:15-22; Mark 12:13-17; Luke 20:20-26; Titus 3:1 ; 1 Peter 2:13-14, 17).
It is also appropriate—and Christian—to want the best for your country, to want to see it prosper. When the prophet Jeremiah was writing, the Israelites had been forcibly removed from Jerusalem and taken as hostages to Babylon by enemy soldiers. Nevertheless, God encouraged the people to make themselves at home. "Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters …. Increase in number there; do not decrease" (Jer. 29:5-6). Not only should they improve themselves, but they should also "seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper" (Jer. 29:7). In other words, it is the duty of the people of God to seek stability, peace, and prosperity wherever they go. This includes supporting the nation in which we live.
All of this, though, is balanced by the awareness that we are aliens and strangers in this land (James 1:1; 1 Pet. 2:11). We are commanded to honor and support our civil rulers, and we are called to seek the prosperity of the city, state, and nation in which we dwell. But we must always remember that "our citizenship is in heaven" (Phil. 3:20). Sometimes this will result in conflict with the governing authorities. Many first-century Roman civic festivals and celebrations were dedicated to Roman deities. Some even worshiped the emperor as a god. But Christians refused to venerate the emperor as divine. The first Christians refused to participate in these celebrations. As a result they gained a reputation for being atheists (because they didn't believe in the Roman gods) and potential traitors. As committed as they were to honoring the authorities, their citizenship and loyalties were not ultimately Roman.
Those of us who live in America should certainly be grateful. David Gushee has pointed out that because gratitude is an important Christian quality, we do well to show our thankfulness to God for the opportunity to live in a free and prosperous nation. But we have to be careful not to give full and unqualified allegiance to anyone but Jesus Christ. The Jewish officials responsible for the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus blasphemed when they claimed they had no king but Caesar (John 19:15). Indeed they had—Jesus was supposed to be their king! We must be careful not to make the same mistake.
We must also be Christian in our engagement with and conversation about our leaders. We need not agree with them. But it is clearly unchristian to slander them, even if we do so—perhaps especially if we do so—in the name of patriotism. We must honor them in our language, and we must commit to pray for them (1 Tim. 2:1-2). We pray for wisdom, insight, and courage as they guide the nation "for our good." And we pray that America, under their leadership, will prosper, "because if it prospers, you too will prosper."
Brandon O'Brien is an editor at large with Leadership Journal.
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