Today is July 4th, the celebration of American independence. It’s a time to gather with friends and family and blow things up. Our family purchased our fireworks a full week in advance. We are ready for nightfall, so we can light up the sky.
Around this time some Christians ask: Is it OK to be patriotic? Can I be both a Christian and a patriot? Can I celebrate national holidays like the fourth of July?
These are great questions because they bring up topics of faith, nationalism, civic responsibility, and the gospel. Before we move forward, we need to define what we mean by “patriotic.”
What do you mean by “patriotic”?
I have discovered Christians use this descriptive term in different ways. Some think of patriotism as the banner-waving assumption that America is #1, a chauvinistic conviction that America is better than all other nations. For some Christians this may or may not be rooted in the misplaced belief that America is somehow God’s favorite nation. Others think of patriotism as a general love of country, an appreciation for those who serve either in the military or the public sector. This kind of patriotism for some Christians is based in a love of neighbor and a sense of pride in their hometowns.
I’m much more comfortable in defining patriotism from this second perspective. If by “patriotic” you mean pride of place and love of people in that place, then yes, I would say it is OK as a Christian to be patriotic.If patriotic means love of people in a place, I'd say it is OK as a Christian to be patriotic. Click To Tweet
Eugene Peterson, in Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places writes:
Everything that the Creator God does in forming us humans is done in place. It follows from this that since we are his creatures and can hardly escape the conditions of our making, for us everything that has to do with God is also in place. All living is local: this land, this neighborhood, these trees and streets and houses, this work, these people.
To have a love and sense of pride in the place you live is a good God-given response to creation. There is a sacredness in the place where we live.
As followers of Jesus, it is OK for us to be patriotic. It is natural for us to have pride of place and love of people, but patriotism left unchecked can lead to a misplaced affection and the idolatry of nationalism. fourfour
According to LifeWay Research, in a recent survey of 1,000 pastors nation-wide, 53% of pastors (more than half!) agreed that their congregation sometimes seems to love America more than God. Any time the people of God love anything more than God, bad things happen.
Do you recall the time when Jesus commanded us to hate our moms and dads?
Jesus had grown in popularity. He had been preaching the gospel of the kingdom and healing the sick. Crowds of people began following Jesus. On one occasion he stopped to address the crowd directly saying:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple….So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26,27,33 ESV)
Following Jesus requires a renunciation, a breaking away of all attachments, in order to follow him. We can take this teaching and replace “father and mother” with “country in which you live.” In this way, we can hear Jesus say to us: If anyone comes to me and does not hate the country in which you life, you cannot be my disciple. Just as in the case of family, this hate is not literal. It just means our love for America is so far below our love for Jesus that to the outside observer it may look like hate. We do not actually hate America. Rather we subordinate our love for country well below our love for God running the risk that it may indeed appear to be hate.Our love for America is so far below our love for Jesus, to the outsider it may look like hate. Click To Tweet
It’s OK to be patriotic but…
Remember God loves all the nations of the earth
Here is where the idolatry of nationalism begins to take root and produce its bitter fruit, when we think America is somehow God’s favorite nation, as if God has granted the US the “Most Favored Nation” status. Under the sway of nationalism, we give into the ugly side of patriotism where we are filled with thoughts like: my country right or wrong; my country is far superior than those poor third world nations; God has blessed our nation so we can help the rest of the world figure out how to do things right. When we convince ourselves that America is at the center of God’s activity, we lose site that Jesus is Lord of the whole earth and the King of all nations, which was the Jewish expectation all along. Consider just a few verses:
- For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. (Psalm 47:7-8 ESV)
- The LORD looks down from heaven; he sees all the children of man; from where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds. (Psalm 33:13-15 ESV)
- The king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a false hope for salvation, and by its great might it cannot rescue. (Psalm 33:16-17 ESV)
Why does Jesus bring God’s salvation to the world? Because God loves the whole world, all the children of man and the nations of the earth.
God doesn’t have a favorite nation. He loves them all, rules them all, and wants to save them all—America too.God doesn’t have a favorite nation. He loves all, rules all, wants to save all—America too. Click To Tweet
Don’t confuse of America of today with Israel of the Bible.
When you are reading the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, and you are reading about Israel, resist the temptation to imagine America as a kind of Israel. If you give into this temptation, then you will wrongly try to apply the promises given to ancient Israel to modern America. This phenomenon is quite common and serves as the prime example of how nationalism can distort our faith and mislead our understanding of Scripture.
The clearest example of the mistaken case of America-as-Israel is in a poor reading of 2 Chronicles 7:14:
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14 ESV)
I cannot recall the number of times I heard that verse quoted in the context of prayer for the United States. This verse is not talking about America. The “people who are called by my name” are not Americans. These words were given to Solomon after the completion and dedication of the temple for the chosen people, the people of ancient Israel. If we try to apply this promise to present-day America, it gives root to all sorts of goofy ideas about forcing Americans to pray or imposing prayer in the public square so that God will do something.
When reading through the Scripture, I find it better to think of America as Egypt or Babylon or Rome. This word of encouragement is not to villainize America or to create literally hate for America, but that we might be able to see a stark contrast between the Jesus Way and the American Way.
Don’t forget to pray for your nation.
Continue to express your pride of place and your love for people, but do not forget to pray for this place you love. Pray for your neighbors. Pray for you literal neighbors and those in your community who can easily be overlooked: the poor, the homeless, the immigrant, the displaced, and the disabled. Pray for leaders at all levels of government: city, county, state, and federal. Pray for teachers: those who serve our children by teaching in public schools, private schools, and at home. Pray for first responders: police, firefighters, and EMTs. And pray for soldiers, both those who are currently in harm’s way and those veterans who are still carrying the wounds of war. Pray from a position of humility that flows from a deep appreciation for place and a love for people.
Here is a prayer you can pray. It is a prayer I wrote using the “Prayer to the Crucified Christ” from The Book of Common Prayer:
My hope is not: America is here! My hope is: Jesus is here! Click To Tweet
Prayer for America
(adapted from Prayer to the Crucified Christ )
Lord Jesus you stretched out your arms of love upon the hard wood of the cross that everyone in this country, and around the world, might come within the reach of your saving embrace.
You are the Savior of our friends and neighbors living here and throughout the United States. Remember the poor, the weak and vulnerable among us. We pray for civic leaders, teachers, first responders, and those carrying the wounds of war. Come and save them, heal them, and lead them by your Spirit.
And so clothe us in your Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you, the God and King of all nations, for the honor of your name. Amen.
You can listen to the sermon version of this article here: “It’s OK to be Patriotic But…” by Derek Vreeland.