A genuinely Christian patriotism has important qualifications.
Exuberant centennial celebrations for the Statue of Liberty this Independence Day raise an important question: What is a proper Christian patriotism for U.S. citizens who love both their God and their country?
History provides one straightforward answer. There we see how natural it is for people to cherish their own lands. Just as obvious is the way this love broadens out into loyalty to their political symbols and structures.
The Scriptures seem to take for granted this attachment to our native places. It was second nature for Old Testament writers to identify Israelites by tribe, thus testifying to bonds of both geography and history. The Bible also explicitly mandates loyalty to political institutions. God has established the ruling powers (Rom. 13:1–7). Prayer should be offered for heads of state and other civic officials (1 Tim. 2:1–2). Caesar deserves his due (Mark 12:17).
So of course American Christians can justifiably be patriotic. It is the path of nature, and it accords with Scripture. But the question about patriotism in America is more complicated than the question about patriotism in general. Throughout its history our nation has enjoyed the presence of many influential groups of Christians. For over 300 years believers have tried in various ways to construct their public and private lives in accord with Scripture. And many of these efforts have been successful, at least in the eyes of those who made the effort. Furthermore, the claim is often heard that American structures of government and patterns of economic organization approximate the norms set forth in the Bible.
In light of this conspicuous Christian presence in American history, some believers have concluded that the story of our land is in some sense an extension of the history of salvation. Since the Puritans felt that God had established a special covenant with their New World settlement, it is felt that the United States continues as a nation in special covenant with God. Since the United States won its independence from Britain against great odds, God must have providentially intervened in that conflict on the side of “his people,” the Americans. And so today some believe we are an anointed land set apart by a divine plan.
For Christians who hold such views, patriotic loyalty to America is more than the common affection that all peoples exercise toward their native lands. It is divine worship as well as national loyalty.
Parenthetically, it should be noted that some Christians overseas and a small group in America hold an exactly opposite opinion. The United States is not a paragon of righteousness, but a fountain of hypocrisy and selfishness. In moral terms, it is an individualistic, capitalistic equivalent to statist communism. The pious language of God and country only masks a lust for wealth, self-interest, and security. Believers holding this view feel that the record of America at home and abroad has been most shameful at precisely those points where the Scriptures speak most clearly with injunctions to care for the weak, the outcast, the slave, the persecuted. With such a vision, the only true Christian patriotism is one that calls America to repent of its sins and its idolatrous self-exaltation.
Both these views—the more common assumption about America’s providential uniqueness, and the less frequent claim about its exceptional evil—force us to go further in clarifying the nature of a proper patriotism for Christians today. For that clarification, two questions are relevant.
First, is America unique in the economy of God? Though the answer here may call us to re-examine cherished readings of national history, the Bible is clear. Only one nation in the history of the world has enjoyed unique divine favor—Old Testament Israel. And it enjoyed its special status in order to prepare the entire world for the reception of God’s saving grace. Since the full revelation of God’s glory in Christ, “God’s country” has been made up of the Christians “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9).
No nation, including the United States, can be God’s “new Israel.” Much else may be said about the relative good and evil accomplished by America. But it is in fact idolatry to think that our nation has received those special dispensations Scripture declares God has reserved for the church.
The consequences of this are plain. Patriotic loyalties—whether to “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” or to Mother Russia, or to this or that People’s Republic—must always be subordinate to a Christian’s first loyalty. That highest patriotic loyalty belongs to the blood-bought “nation” of the redeemed.
The New Testament is clear that Christians owe political loyalty to their properly constituted governments. At the same time, however, that loyalty is subordinate to other loyalties.
The apostles use much stronger language to describe loyalty to the church (Gal. 3:27–28), to humanity in general (Acts 17:26), and even to the family (1 Tim. 4:8) than they do for loyalty to country. However important our loyalty to government, nation, economic system, or particular culture might be, that loyalty may never compromise our higher loyalties to the communion of saints, the universal scope of humanity, or (under normal circumstances) our families.
The second question in clarifying a proper American patriotism for Christians is more complicated: Might we not still conclude that the governmental structures and history of some nations come closer to embodying biblical principles than that of others? In asking this, let us admit that the United States is not messianic, that its history is not a part of the history of salvation. Let us also admit that our first loyalties on earth are to the church for which Christ died, and to humanity.
If we can say yes to our second question, a Christian note may be appropriate for American patriotism. Abraham Lincoln’s phrases might still, in some sense, be true, that America is “the last, best hope of the earth” and her people the “almost chosen people.”
It is important to recognize, however, that when we reach such a conclusion, we are not standing on the statements of Scripture. We are working with inferences. We are reading the signs of the times, not resting on “thus saith the Lord.”
Nonetheless, if we make some very important qualifications, it is possible to affirm a kind of Christian patriotism for America. And it is appropriate to pray for special national wisdom to use wisely the wealth, power, and inherited political principles that God has given the nation.
Americans have played a large role in the modern missionary movement, which has brought the gospel to millions around the world. At their best, the nation’s traditions of democratic liberty comport well with biblical teachings on the dignity of all people under God. In living memory, the United States was the key factor in liberating Europe and Asia from the tyranny of the Axis powers. And many people overseas still look, with considerable justice, to America as a promised land of economic, political, and religious freedom. For these and other reasons, American believers can thank God for his special hand of blessing on this land.
At the same time, qualifications of this statement are important. First, the conclusion that God has blessed America in unusual ways cannot be based primarily on the nation’s military might or its material prosperity. In Scripture, national strength resided with the Babylonians more spectacularly than it ever did with the Hebrews. And the simple equation of divine blessing and material prosperity is an especially precarious mistake for those who confess a religion of the Cross.
Second, an acknowledgment of God’s blessing on the land must not blind us to the crimes against humanity carried out by our nation. The record includes the effective genocide of Native Americans, and the enslavement of blacks (including man stealing, family destruction, and dehumanization so explicitly condemned in Scripture). It also includes the recent promotion of materialistic consumerism, the Dresden-type fire bombings of World War II, atrocities against civilians in the Vietnam conflict, and more. Whatever we may conclude about divine blessing on the United States, we may never forget the scandals for which our nation is responsible.
Finally, a Christian affirmation of the providential history of the United States must be willing to consider alternative deductions from Scripture and references from history. Mennonites and some other Christians believe that biblical teaching rules out any sort of “Christian patriotism.” Even the best states, in such a view, can do no more than restrain evil; and their use of coercive violence is wrong.
On a different level, black Christians who still experience the destructive effects of slavery and systematic national discrimination may not come to the same conclusions about God and the nation as their white fellow citizens. They may argue that a biblical assessment of history shows the United States to be as exploitative as other societies.
Christians must tolerate, and even encourage, such divergent applications of scriptural standards to America. Even if we disagree, they remind us of the inferential nature of conclusions about God and the nation. And they are necessary for recalling where our ultimate loyalties lie.
Much more could be said to define precisely the nature of divine blessing upon the United States and to qualify the ways we are to understand it. For this Fourth of July, it will be enough for American Christians to love their land with a godly love, one that gives thanks for the progress of the gospel here, and for the nation’s historic commitments to responsible freedom under God. But it should also be a love that is realistic about the country’s past, and faithful to the teachings of Scripture.
MARK NOLL, Contributing Editor
Dr. Noll is professor of history, Wheaton College (Ill.).
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