Religion and Government: Patriotism

by Ken Green

Patriotism is defined as “Love for or devotion to one’s country.” Some consider patriotism a form of idolatry. Others wrap the cross in the stars and stripes and make little or no distinction between them. They associate loyalty to their nation with loyalty to God.

Many churches display the American flag alongside a “Christian flag” beside their pulpits. The words “God and Country” are often used together and some seem to consider them synonymous.

But, is it wrong to be a patriot? Proud to be an American? To be thankful for the good gifts, opportunities, freedoms, democracy, and values of our nation and to consider being a citizen a great blessing? To solemnly honor the flag and pledge allegiance to the nation for which it stands? Does the Bible give us any instruction on this?

Primary Allegiance

Ancient Israel belonged to God in a special sense and relationship. Truly, they were an exceptional nation. But Jesus taught them and us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness…” (Matthew 6:33). Israel assumed that their Jewish nation was the kingdom of God. Most of them were repulsed by the idea that a Greek or Ethiopian or slave from Asia Minor could be a citizen in the kingdom of God. But Paul who had been as nationalistic and jingoistic as any of them declared that there is "neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).

John’s vision on Patmos includes this stunning scene of Christians declaring their allegiance to God over and above any allegiance to country: “After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could number, of all nations, tribes, peoples, and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’ ” (Revelation 7: 9-10).

Was Jesus a Patriot?

In a most basic sense, Jesus was a patriot. He loved His nation. The plaintive cry of our Lord as He lamented the lack of faith of His fellow Jews and their impending destruction lends eloquent testimony to this: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem… How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34-35). Later, as He entered Jerusalem for the last time, “… as He drew near, He saw the city and wept over it …” (Luke 19: 41).

Jesus loved His native country, but He was not blind to its faults. The great British journalist, G. K. Chesterton, wrote: “ ‘My country, right or wrong,’ is something no patriot would think of saying…It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’ No doubt if a decent man’s mother took to drink he would share her troubles to the last; but to talk as if he would be in a state of indifference as to whether his mother took to drink or not is certainly not the language of men who know the great mystery” [The Defense].

There are degrees of patriotism. There are right ways and wrong ways to be a patriot. Surely it is appropriate for Christians to love and to be committed to promote and protect their country. But a love of country must not become idolatrous. C.S. Lewis wrote that such devotion "becomes a demon when it becomes a god" [The Four Loves].

Man is inclined to twist the gifts of God into idols that replace Him. Such is true with money, sex, work, food, drink – and country. The Christian’s primary allegiance is to God and His church. This demands that sometimes the Christian must vehemently disagree with his country, even to the point of protesting and/or engaging in civil disobedience.

If one thinks that our country is uniquely God’s country, exalted above all others; that every war waged by our government is God’s war; that our army is God’s army; our cause, God’s cause; and that God is always on our side, he has likely crossed way over the line. One should rather humbly examine and evaluate to determine if we are on God’s side. We should measure right and wrong as God has in His word. We should not romanticize our country — past, present, or future. But we should love her. We should love our country as we love our family — with all their virtues and their vices.

Seeking the Good

It is right to desire the best for our country and community and want to see it prosper in every good way. The Israelites had been forcibly removed from their land and exiled to Babylon, yet Jeremiah wrote: “Build houses and dwell in them; plant gardens and eat their fruit. Take wives and beget sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons and give your daughters to husbands, so that they may bear sons and daughters — that you may be increased there, and not diminished. And seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the Lord for it; for in its peace you will have peace” (Jerermiah 29:5-7). It is the duty of God’s people to seek stability, peace, and prosperity wherever they go.

But we must be ever aware that, whatever our nationality, we are aliens and strangers in this world (I Peter 2:11). While we possess something of a dual citizenship, our primary citizenship is in heaven (Philippians 3:20). We should know that our homeland is of great significance to us, but before our God, “… the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Psalms 40:15, 25).
We may disagree with our national rulers and other government leaders but we should not slander them. The word of our Lord teaches us to honor them if but for the office they hold (Romans 13:1-7) and to pray for them that they will exercise wisdom in their agendas and efforts (I Timothy 2:1-2).

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