Westmont Magazine God Bless America: Can Christians Be Too Patriotic?
Long before Sept. 11, Americans have argued over patriotism. Thomas Jefferson wrote, “My affections were first for my country, and then, generally, for mankind.” James Russell Lowell said, “There is something magnificent in having a country to love.” According to Theodore Roosevelt, “The man who loves other countries as much as his own stands on a level with the man who loves other women as much as he loves his wife.” In 1816, Stephen Decatur said, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” One McCarthy-era bumper sticker read: “Americanism — The Only Ism for Me.”
Others have disagreed. One post-Civil War senator said, “Our country, right or wrong. When right, to be kept right; when wrong, to be put right.” Others have been less gentle in their criticism of patriotism. Samuel Johnson said that patriotism is the “last refuge of the scoundrel.” One Civil War-era Republican noted, “Treason is in the air around us everywhere. It goes by the name of patriotism.” The iconoclast Ambrose Bierce called patriotism “combustible rubbish ready to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.” In 1911, Emma Goldman said, “Conceit, arrogance, and egotism are the essentials of patriotism.” Ten years ago, author Barbara Ehrenreich wrote, “No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.”
Even after the terrorist attacks and the continued assault of anthrax, people are uncomfortable with the political correctness patriotism implies. Some school administrators are reinstituting the Pledge of Allegiance. Others are requiring the singing not only of the national anthem, but also of “God Bless America,” “God Bless the USA,” and armed forces songs. One school has patriotic Wednesdays. Some teachers and parents object to such efforts as shameless indoctrination.
These are important issues for Christians to consider. We do live in two kingdoms: one earthly, one heavenly. Also, our world is shrinking. As Americans, we are called to be world Christians. This means not only doing justice beyond our own borders, but viewing the church in global terms.
Furthermore, we Americans readily participate in what has been called civil religion, which is used as the handmaiden of politics and public life. The liberal use of God in public discourse may happen because public figures believe in God. But it is also expected of them. Presidents, regardless of party and personal faith, typically end speeches with “and God bless America.” Even non-believers eagerly participated in the National Day of Mourning and Prayer the Friday following the attacks. We find comfort in the easy, undemanding and inclusive nature of civil religion.
Do not get me wrong. I am a patriot. We displayed our flag for one month following the attacks, until the president said flags could resume their full-staff position. I say the pledge more often than most, thanks to my weekly Rotary Club meetings.
But I have always been an ambivalent patriot. Events influencing me include Vietnam, the late 1960s rally on the Washington Mall criticizing the critics of the war, display of the bumper sticker, “America: Love It or Leave It,” and those worshipping the flag, not just revering it. Maybe my education as a political scientist has also contributed: We study not only national ideals but also national shortcomings, policy successes and failures, and victories and losses. We study it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
My question today is simply this: Can Christians be too patriotic? Can patriotism in fact be un-Christian? As with so many things, it is a matter of degree. I believe that patriotism is un-Christian when:
• it is a substitute for critical thinking
We are called to be prophetic witnesses to the state, not priests in loyal service to it. My country right or wrong short-circuits our God-given ability to think.
• it boils down complex reality into simplistic, bipolar paradigms such as us and them, good and evil
When we call others evil and they call us the great Satan, it is difficult to engage in anything but war. In our current situation, it becomes difficult to engage Arab moderates and Muslim centrists. It also fosters xenophobia here at home.
• it presumes that America is God’s new chosen nation and that Americans are God’s chosen people
Since the Bible predates America, it cannot be a scriptural notion. Therefore, it must be extra-scriptural and examined critically as such. We Christians need to be very careful when we use biblical passages allegorically.
• it Americanizes the idea of blessing
Implying that Americans are blessed by God simply for being Americans cheapens the biblical concept of blessing and often equates it with material prosperity. What about those Christians living and often suffering in other lands? Are we blessed by God and they are not? What about the dirt-poor Pentecostals I met in Ukraine who in Soviet times suffered because of their faith? Are we blessed by God and they are not? The lyrics of “God Bless America” are not statements of fact. They are, in fact, a prayer. In 1938, that is what Irving Berlin had in mind.
How do I consider my own identity as both a Christian and an American? Simply put, I am a Christian who values the privileges and responsibilities that come with my American citizenship. Do I think, feel, and act like an American? That question has become less important to me over time. What’s more important is that I think, feel, and act as Christ-like as I can. Inevitably, this has meant that I sometimes feel a tension between being a Christian and being an American.
Our college catalog states that one of the things that makes Westmont distinctive is encouraging students to be world Christians. I teach international politics, and I take very seriously my job of encouraging students to develop an interest in global affairs.
More specifically, I want students to learn that loving your neighbor as yourself is a commandment that applies to every human being regardless of national identity, gender, age, religion or ethnicity.
When we begin to take that commandment seriously, it can transform our hearts, our minds and our priorities.
,p>Can Christians become too patriotic? I think Dr. Lawrence has already given some helpful answers to that question. I’d like to suggest an antidote to excessive patriotism is becoming a global Christian.
This doesn’t mean giving up your American citizenship. I think it means:
• working against all negative expressions of nationalism
There is a small gap between feeling a sense of national pride and believing that America is at the apex of all that is best in the world. As both citizens and Christians, we need to be critical of xenophobic tendencies (the dislike or fear of other nationalities). We should discourage an us-versus-them mentality that scapegoats other nation-states and views our country and cultural traditions as always superior. We should care about the needs of others, even when others live far from our borders.
Why? Because arrogance, pride and self-righteousness make it hard to be in Christ’s image. But, from a pragmatic standpoint as well, we should recognize that American engagement in the world needs to take into account the interests of others. Self-righteousness, even among friends and allies, can become tiresome and unproductive.
• cultivating an appreciation for the diversity of God’s creation in all its forms: male and female, social, cultural, religious and political
Doing so will likely transform our values and priorities. Traveling to other lands and studying and experiencing other cultures will often help us realize our own limitations and failings. In short, it can make us humble, teachable, and appreciative.
Contrary to what some scholars or citizens might suggest, this does not mean that we have to believe that all cultural practices are good. But it does suggest that before we can criticize another tradition as oppressive or evil, we have much homework to do as citizens, social scientists, theologians and philosophers.
• learning about the world in which we live
We have to view the study of current affairs as an indispensable part of learning to appreciate the diversity of creation.
• caring about injustice in whatever form it takes, wherever it may exist, whether in Rwanda, Palestine, New York, or Afghanistan
It means that we weep at the loss of life wherever it may occur, not just when it occurs on our soil or to our citizens. It means that we recognize Sept. 11 as part of a larger contemporary problem of violence, poverty and suffering that exists around the globe.
It also means that we are obligated to think about the tension between state sovereignty and human rights so we do not blindly support intervention for any reason. But neither should we passively allow tragedy to happen even if it is affecting them and not us.
If we care about injustice as a biblical concern, it will lead to our active involvement in correcting injustice.
• becoming a reconciler
We should use our citizenship as Americans to work for a global community where terrorism, poverty, exploitation and violence become less common phenomena and where peacemaking, justice and reconciliation are seen as the only long-term solutions to international conflict.
• admitting that your first loyalty is to Christ, not to your nation
National identity is but one small part of a person’s identity. For many, it is not even central. As Christians, we need to be wary of conflating nationalism and Christianity.
• praying for our enemies
There are many more items that could be added, but this list gives you an idea of how to become a world Christian in seven easy steps. Well, maybe it isn’t so easy, but it is certainly important!
Can I be a world Christian and a patriot? Yes, but being a patriot does not mean that you become jingoistic or arrogant.
It means that you see both the weaknesses and strengths of being an American; it means that you are seeking justice in the international community as much as in your local or national context. And, it most likely means that you realize that terms like justice, human rights, and freedom are contested concepts. International dialogue on these issues is important for long-term collaboration.
Daniel Terris wrote in the Los Angeles Times that Americans worry that something essential to the American character will be lost if we dilute our national feeling with too much commitment to the international. Global citizenship and patriotism need not compete. One is bound to enrich the other.
How does this apply to the current crisis? That’s a question for you to ponder.
If the question is, “Can Christians be too patriotic?,” the answer is, “Of course.” It’s better to ask, “How patriotic should we be?”
One of my favorite sayings is, “Truth out of balance leads to heresy,” and I think it applies to this situation.
When they brought the coin to Jesus and asked if they should pay the tax, he said, “Whose image is on the coin?” When the answer was, “Caesar’s,” he replied, “Then render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.”
The point Jesus makes is that we are created in God’s image. While we can and should pay our taxes, our fundamental allegiance is to the Lord, not any nation-state.
Is that because states are evil? Paul says in Romans 13, “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist are established by God.” Peter advises, “Honor all men; love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king” (I Peter 2:17).
While God tells us to honor the state, Christians can become unbalanced when they see the United States as uniquely Christian or as the new Israel, created by God’s divine hand to be a Christian nation. There is real danger here, partly because we can be disappointed.
I remember when Jimmy Carter ran for president and proclaimed that he was a born-again Christian. It energized evangelicals to have a politician use the words of evangelical Christianity, and he was elected with broad evangelical support. But once he was in office and did things that disappointed evangelicals, he was toppled from his pedestal.
I think we can do that with the United States as well. We are a fallen and sinful people. Even if evangelicals held all public offices, they would still sin. You can’t put your full trust in government. We don’t always get it right on political matters. We don’t have answers to political issues in the scriptures, at least not conclusively.
In addition, Christianity has become primarily non-Western and non-white. Making a direct tie between the United States and Christianity is therefore problematic.
When Jerry Falwell went on television and said that we deserved 9-11, that God did it to us because of sins such as feminism and homosexuality, it was somewhat mortifying. We must keep the truth in balance.
On the other hand, I think there is a place for honoring the United States. Cultural relativism is a shrine that many worship at but that almost no one actually believes. Do cultural relativists really think the slavery culture in the United States is the same as the post-slavery culture? Are pre- and post-apartheid South Africa equivalent?
Every culture has its weaknesses, its sins, and its failing, but they differ dramatically. I think the Christian faith can impact the culture and make a difference, and I believe that has happened here.
The United States is a blessing in many ways. It’s fallen, and we can never be blind to its sins. But we shouldn’t forget the blessings we have because of the United States.
There are extremes on both sides. How quick are we to believe that the United States does evil things? In an interview posted on the Internet, political activist Noam Chomsky reflects on the U.S. response to 9-11. He seems to detect sinister motives behind everything the government does, including providing food to people in Afghanistan. That’s not my natural reaction, and it seems out of balance.
I do see a place for a unified American response to the attacks. There’s an old Arab proverb, “An army of sheep led by a lion will defeat an army of lions led by a sheep.” Did our tepid response to previous acts of terrorism encourage the lion Osama bin Laden to send his sheep against us? Did he think we lacked the resolve to respond back? It’s a dangerous message for us to send.
Should we respond by war or by law? Chomsky says the United States deliberately chose the usefully ambiguous word “war” instead of “crime,” which requires a response guided by evidence and principles. He said, “Jonathan Swift would be speechless.” But Swift said, “Laws are like cobwebs which may catch small flies but let wasps and hornets through.” Is bin Laden a small fly or a wasp?