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 people—and 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 is—sometimes—a wordless local fireworks display down at the high school, which teaches us (I guess) that America can really do some spectacular explosives displays.
The church has a complicated task in relation to patriotism, and this collapse of any public space for patriotic displays makes that task all the harder. We need to be able to say "yes, but" to patriotism. Yes, we love our country, but we do not fully belong here or in any earthly land. Yes, we want our nation to flourish, but every human being and human community is equally precious in God's sight. Yes, we value our nation's ideals, but they are not the same thing as the message of the kingdom. Yes, God blesses America, but he blesses other nations, too.
Despite these concerns, it still seems to me that people who do not know how to demonstrate an appropriate fealty to their nation are not well positioned to learn how to transcend that loyalty for a higher one.
Copyright © 2006 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Gushee recently wrote
The Middle East's Death Wish—and Ours | We say "everyone wants peace," but we also want to see our enemies destroyed.
David P. Gushee is Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University. His books include Only Human: Christian Reflections on the Journey Toward Wholeness, Getting Marriage Right, and he is coauthor of Kingdom Ethics Following Jesus in a Contemporary Context. His columns for Christianity Today include:
Crash | What our harrowing experience taught me about human nature. (May 1, 2006)
The Truth About Deceit | Most lies are pitiful attempts to protect our pride. (March 20, 2006)
Our Missing Moral Compass | Christianity is more than an event, an experience, or a set of beliefs. (Nov. 14, 2005)
Bill's Big Career Move | How do we make important family decisions? (Jan. 10, 2006)
Our Independence Day coverage included:
The Faith of Our Founders | Scholar says diversity of belief did not obliterate consensus on key issues. (July 3, 2006)
Beyond Yellow Ribbons | Become a blessing to a military family. A Christianity Today editorial (June 30, 2006)
Where Atrocity Is Normal | Understanding Christian soldiers who have seen the horrors of war. (June 30, 2006)
Veteran Ministry | How churches can help soldiers and their families readjust after combat. (June 30, 2006)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.