As we celebrate the Fourth of July, it is a good time to reflect on the proper perspective a Christian should have on his or her nation. In particular, now is the perfect time to reflect on the proper perspective an American Christian should have on the United States of America.
A good place to start is to analyze a popular refrain from Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA in which he declares that he is “proud to be an American.” That statement evokes a lot of emotion in Americans from across the social and political spectrum. Some Americans embrace the sentiment; others reject it.
Which is right? Should an American Christian be proud? Ashamed? Somewhere in-between?
Before answering this question, it is best to ask the proper perspective on “nations” in general. What is a nation? And how should a Christian think biblically about the modern notion of nationality?
What is a nation?
Although there is no consensus definition, political scientist David Koyzis puts it well when he describes a nation as a group of people that claim to be a nation and who include and exclude by their own criteria.
Do nations seem to be a part of God’s good design for the world? In a word, yes.
When God commanded Adam and Eve to be fruitful and multiply, it seems reasonable that he intended for humanity’s growth to be accompanied by institutions such as family, tribe, city, and nation. Nationhood, as a way of organizing communities at the level beyond families or tribes, appears to be natural to humanity and God deals often with people at the national level. Paradigmatically, the Bible everywhere affirms Israel’s existence as a nation with a special role for God blessing all the nations (Genesis 22:18).
Additionally, the Bible’s view of the future involves nations. In Isaiah 60, the prophet lists various national treasures that will still exist in the new heavens and earth. In Revelation 21, the apostle John prophecies that the “kings of the earth will bring their glory” into the New Jerusalem, and that they “will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it” (21:24, 26).
So, God’s creational design is for the world to be filled with nations. However, because of the fall, we also know that no nation is perfect; each nation is full of sinners and, by extension, each nation’s institutions will be to some extent imperfect and unjust. In light of these dual realities of the nations’ creational goodness and fallen corruption, Christians must avoid two errors in the way we relate our own nation.
First, we must reject the kind of internationalism or cosmopolitanism that undermines national identity and its God-given role in peoples’ wellbeing. Nations, as broad collections of smaller communities, serve the common good in creating a sense of solidarity with other people in a given locale to which individuals owe their neighborly love and care.
Unfortunately, sometimes Christians reject even a modest loyalty to, or affection for, their own nation. When asked if they think a nation’s political leaders should give priority to their nation’s citizens over the global community, they answer, “No, equal priority should be given to the global community.” Sometimes this line of reasoning is supported by a misuse of the doctrine of God’s universal love or the call for Christian hospitality.
Other times, we find more atheistic underpinnings in a person’s desire to minimize or weaken the existence of strong nations. The famous French atheist Auguste Comte (1798-1857) is a perfect example.
In his day, Comte tried to found an atheistic religion called, “the religion of humanity” or “humanitarian religion.” In essence, Comte wanted this religion to center around the Christian teaching about loving one’s neighbor, but he wanted it to be stripped of any belief in God or any particular Christian teachings.
Comte believed that human beings could take a great leap forward, morally, if they could get rid of strong forms of religion and strong forms of the nation-state. In other words, he believed evil arises mainly from institutions rather than from the human heart. As Christians, we know that Comte’s reasoning is flawed; although institutions are warped and corrupted, the warping and corruption takes place because of sinful human hearts.
Second, we must avoid idolizing, or deifying, the nation.
One type of national idolatry is an institutionalized form of racism that can be called “ethno-nationalism.” In this instance, members of one ethnic group focus on the unique goodness of their culture and are determined to preserve it for future generations. Both in moderate and extreme varieties, ethno-nationalists maintain a double standard of justice, privileging their own ethnic group over other groups.
We must reject such ethno-nationalism as it is manifested in the personal prejudices of individuals and groups and in warped and corrupted cultural institutions.
Another type of national idolatry is “God and country” nationalism. In America, some citizens have given America’s history a larger-than-life stature in their hearts and minds. Some Americans have spoken of our nation having a God-given “manifest destiny.” Often, God-and-country nationalists apply God’s promises to Israel (e.g. 2 Chronicles 7:14) to the United States. Sometimes, they pledge an almost-uncritical loyalty to the nation.
We must reject God-and-country nationalism. Although surely God has used our nation to do good, we are, and always have been, a deeply flawed nation. It is the Christian church, not the United States, that has a manifest destiny.
A Moderate Patriotism
Therefore, with the Bible, let’s recognize God’s design for the world to have nations. He always intended for there to be something significant in between local communities, on the one hand, and the global “community,” on the other hand. That something significant is the nation and, in the modern world, the “nation-state.”
God intends for the nation to shape the lives of its citizens and to defend its citizen from internal and external threats. He holds nations accountable to the moral law, to set the conditions for its citizens to thrive and flourish. To the extent that a nation fails to provide for the common good, therefore, we must criticize it and work for change. Likewise, to the extent that a nation provides for the common good, we should give it a limited but real affection, loyalty, and gratitude.
Therefore, the Christian church must disciple its members in the Bible’s narrative of the world so that its citizens see their own nation’s history as a small part of a much bigger narrative. Similarly, the church must teach its members to give their ultimate allegiance to Christ and only a secondary and tentative allegiance to other persons or institutions such as the nation.
As Lesslie Newbigin wrote, “It is good to love and serve the nation in which God has set us; we need more, not less true patriotism. But to give absolute commitment to the nation is to go into bondage.”
For that reason, as Christians, we must cultivate a moderate patriotism. We must be grateful for what is good in our nation’s history and appropriately critical for what is bad. We must cultivate a real but limited allegiance while reserving our ultimate allegiance for Christ.