When I was in second grade, my favorite song in the world was the patriotic power ballad by Lee Greenwood: “God Bless the U.S.A.” I still remember singing it, with a lump in my throat, while reverently cradling my glued-together replica of an F-14 fighter jet.
The lyrics epitomized my second grade existence:
If tomorrow all the things were gone
I worked for all my life
And I had to start again
With just my children and my wife
I’d thank my lucky stars
To be living here today
‘Cause the flag still stands for freedom
And they can’t take that away!
That’s right! Try and take it Commies!
Later, I learned to play it on my saxophone.
And around that same time the Iron Curtain fell.
Coincidence? You tell me.
The point is: I was VERY patriotic.
And in certain ways, I still am. I remain tremendously grateful to those who have sacrificed so that I can live in relative safety and freedom. And I am reminded of what a rare opportunity I’ve had to better myself through education, despite the fact that my family was not wealthy by American standards.
Yet as I grew older I began to grow more wary of certain forms of “patriotism,” and especially as I came to view the Christian gospel differently.
WHEN PATRIOTISM BECOMES IDOLATRY
In short, the problem occurs when patriotism becomes nationalism.
For sake of clarity, Ryan Hamm defines the terms like this:
- Patriotism is simply love of country.
- Nationalism is a love of country at the expense (or disrespect) of others.
What’s more, I’ve come to believe that the idea of a “Christian nationalist” is an oxymoron.
So here’s the question: When exactly does patriotism become nationalism, and what are some clues that Christians can use to recognize when our love of country has become an idol?
- When we fail to see salvation as a change in citizenship.
The contradiction of a “Christian nationalist” is contained within the gospel itself.
To be “in Christ” according to the Scriptures, is to undergo change in primary citizenship.
As Paul argues, “our citizenship is now in heaven” (Php. 3.20). And we exist now as strangers, foreigners, and sojourners in our home countries.
To be sure, this did not change the fact that Paul himself remained a Roman citizen. Yet this identity (as with his Jewishness) was clearly secondary. Thus it is hard to picture him chanting “Roma! Roma! Roma!” while gladiators reenacted Caesar’s Gallic wars.
His primary concern was not to make Rome great again (let’s be honest, Nero was no Octavian), but to serve the King of kings.
- When we get angrier at unpatriotic actions than at ungodly ones.
You can sometimes tell your idols by what makes you really angry.
In recent weeks, the internet has practically overheated over a football player who refused to stand for the national anthem as an act of protest. And while I’m not endorsing this behavior, I can’t help but notice that many Christians seem far angrier over this than over the spate of players who have been busted for serious crimes including rape, child abuse, and domestic battery. Why is that?
The point is not to endorse a lack of national pride, but to issue a word caution: When you get angrier over things that are deemed unpatriotic than over things that are violently ungodly, you’ve got a problem.
- When we feel more kinship with unsaved countrymen than with Christians from around the globe.
While I don’t always agree with John Piper, I think he’s right in this:
Whatever form your patriotism takes, let it be a deep sense that we are more closely bound to brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries, other cultures than we are to our closest unbelieving compatriot or family member in the fatherland or in the neighborhood. That is really crucial … Otherwise, I think our patriotism is drifting over into idolatry.
The issue, once again, is one of primary citizenship.
- When we are blind to the sins of our nation while being acutely aware of those of others.
Every culture and country has uniquely beautiful and uniquely broken aspects.
In America, I’m proud of our general respect for things like freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and democracy. I also celebrate our “can do” mentality, our constitutional design of a balance of power, and our stated belief (not always lived out) that all persons are created equal.
Yet a danger in patriotic pride is that it would overlook the uniquely broken aspects that are there as well. There must be a balance.
On a recent TV show, I watched a correspondent ask a group of political convention-goers to name a time that America was truly great. The responses were hilarious and deeply saddening.
It was amazing how many individuals took us back to the era of slavery or segregation as the time when America was really “nailing it.” To be honest, most of these folks were not intending to condone such acts, but they did portray a startling historical amnesia.
In the end, the solution to patriotism gone wrong is not national negativity but the power of the gospel.
In short, Christians must come to see salvation not just as a change of mind, a change of behavior, or even a change of final destination. In addition, it also a change of primary citizenship.
And (on a lighter note) for those still wondering if a man and his saxophone can change the world, I leave you this, and rest my case.
 Credit for this point goes to a former student, Matt Atwell, as he noted in a post last week.