Some July 4 thoughts about nationalism and patriotism

I’ve become increasingly concerned that many American Christians (and perhaps especially evangelicals) confuse patriotism with nationalism to the extent that idolatry lurks close by.

Patriotism is love for one’s country without blinders about its flaws and defects.  Patriotism seeks to actualize the highest and best ideals of one’s country which can sometimes look like disloyalty to nationalists.  Nationalists tend to confuse “country” with “government” and reject as disloyal all criticism of either.  However, criticism of the government can be patriotric.  In fact, in America patriotism should be constructively critical toward government.

Nationalism is patriotism on steroids; it is patriotism degenerated into jingoism and chauvinism.  It is near idolatry of country and often appears in mixing celebration of nation with worship of God.  Patriotism thanks God for the good of one’s country and asks God to “mend its every flaw.”  Patriotism is honest about the country’s failures and urges leaders to push on toward better achievements of its founding ideals.  Nationalism rejects all criticism of country as almost (if not exactly) treason.

Christians ought carefully to avoid nationalism while embracing true patriotism (unless, as is the case with some Anabaptists, even that violates conscience).

An example of nationalism is belief in “American exceptionalism.”  That is the belief that because America is peculiarly God chosen and called it can, as a national state, do virtually anything with a presumption of innocence.  It is not accountable to anyone or anything except God.  The problem, of course, is that nobody has a direct line to God–not the president or the judges of the Supreme Court or any elected or appointed official.  American exceptionalism can be used to  justify all kinds of violations of international norms and standards of decent conduct.  It is most often used to justify violations of just war theory.  Nationalists hold the rest of the world to a different standard than America.

Patriotism regards America as a gift from God and thanks God for it, but it equates “America” with ideals such as freedom of religion, freedom of expression and equal justice for all.  It is realistic in knowing that government and society do not always live up to those ideals.  When patriots wave the flag they are fully aware that it symbolizes and represents wonderful ideals and not every decision and actions government makes.  When nationalists wave the flag they are using it as an idol to sanctify whatever America does.

There may seem to be a fine line between patriotism and nationalism, but actually the line is not so fine at all.  There’s a clear litmus test for distinguishing between them.  Patriotism looks to the future and hopes for and works toward the country’s achievement of its ideals.  Nationalism looks to the past and defends everything the country has ever done as necessarily good and right just because the country did it.  Thus, patriotism loves the country for what it can be; nationalism loves the country for what it has done–regardless 0f morality.  Nationalism exempts country from moral accountability; patriotism holds country morally accountable because it loves it.

An example of nationalism was when an influential pastor and founder of a denomination said on national television (to a news reporter) that anyone who criticized America’s invasion of Iraq was a traitor.  An example of patriotism is when attorney Joseph Welch asked Senator Joe McCarthy publicly “Have you no sense of decency?” at great risk to himself.

Idolatry is such a subtle and seductive force (nobody ever thinks they are engaging in it!) that Christians ought always to be on guard against it.  It is best to steer clear and wide of it.  That’s why I prefer not to have a national flag in any worship space.  While it might not constitute idolatry, it presents that possibility.  Too many people even in Christian churches do treat the national flag as an idol.  One “good Christian man” I know threatened violence to anyone who removed the flag from the church’s sanctuary.

I once accidently attended a “God and Country” church service on the Sunday closest to July 4.  This was the largest church in that state and it was widely known as evangelical even though I would classify it as neo-fundamentalist.  (At least some of its leaders clearly belonged in that category even if the lead pastor did not.)  The entire Sunday morning worship service was given over to militaristic displays of nationalism with color guards marching down the aisles to the orchestra playing the anthems of branches of the military.  All the songs sung were “patriotic hymns.”  I sensed that what was really being worshiped that Sunday morning in that place was not God but country.  God was barely mentioned and then only to sanction the nation’s special status as most favored among all the nations.

I love a good patriotic parade and concert.  I always get a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye when I hear the Star Spangled Banner and see the flag waving in the breeze.  I love my country and thank God I was privileged to be born here.  But none of that means I must uncritically accept whatever its government decides to do or every aspect of its culture and society.  Nor does it mean I must think it is the only God-favored nation on the planet or that it has a unique place in God’s providential plan for history.  Like all human societies it is not “the City of God” but another expression of the “City of Man.”  As a Christian, my primary citizenship is in God’s Kingdom yet to come (but hopefully already being anticipated in the communion of the saints).   My loyalty to country is subordinate to that.  Too many Christians equate the two–country and God’s kingdom.

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  • Sumana

    Well said. I’m not American, but what you said is applicable to all countries everywhere.

  • don bryant

    I am 62 years of age with a background in evangelicalism of the IVCF brand. While I am certainly familiar with “over the top” nationalism in churhes, this is hardly epidemic or even a mild flu in our churches. Most churches are disengaged from the national renewal that has regularly come to our country that spills over from spiritually revived churches. This is a unique American characteristic as part of its national character, whether it be the stoking of liberty that came out of the Whitefield revival, the abolition movement that arose out of northern churches, social reform that arose out of the Second Great Awakening, and civil rights for African Americans that burst out of churches and led by church-immersed figures, etc. The true need of the hour is not the warning of churches that their patriotism might turn to blind nationalism but encouragement to see that their revived character as children of God has deep implications for the political order, as it always has. A changed church is a changed America. Too many overlook this cyclical occurrence and seek the “pure” power of the ballot box. The American church I know is so uncertain and ambivalent about patriotism and nationalism that it is like warning people against diseases long since diminished to the few and the rare. I can’t remember the last time I stepped into a church and concluded either that they were too nationalistic or unthinkingly patriotic.

  • David M. Gustafson

    Yes, the evangelical church in America has a new liturgical year that includes: Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas (replacing the time of Advent), Easter, Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. (And even Memorial Day services are confused with Veterans Day.) I know of worship pastors who can barely distinguish Civil Religion from Christian faith.

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  • David

    As an expat (interesting name, that) currently living in France, I’ve gained a perspective on my country that I don’t know if I would have seen, staying strictly within its borders. While practical only for a small minority, I wish that every American, especially the Christians, had a chance to live for a significant stretch of time outside of the US. I’d fully agree with your perspective, though I might send it even further in that I believe that our loyalty is first of all to our heavenly citizenship but that our earthly loyalties need to flow from obedience to our heavenly loyalties and not necessarily from our earthly circumstances (i.e. where we or our parents were born). But, heck, if the Christians in America could just get that heavenly citizenship trumps earthly citizenship, I’d be thrilled and the country and the world would be vastly better off!

    • William Herrin

      You seem like a Globalist? No borders country person? You are right about our loyalty is first to our heavenly God but where you are born gives you the freedom to send the missionaries to the furthest corners of the world, what other country sends even a third of the missionaries that America does? Check out the on the British lost of faith today.

  • David

    Oops…that should read:
    “I fully agree with your perspective” and not
    “I’d fully agree with your perspective”

  • Jonna

    I find this to be a total misunderstanding of the Christian population. It is the Christians who realize that the nation has become a sinful, dangerous place for the unborn, elderly, poor, and disenfranchised. The current leaders of the country want its citizens to believe otherwise, but evidence of change is happening through more vocal conservative voices, like those found in the tea party (mostly made of Christians). The church is flawed and has trouble. Absolutely. But I believe the number of Christians who have the nationalist point of view are the minority. I believe the church (which I am blessed to be a part of) wants God to “mend our every flaw.” We long and ache for a country that remembers it’s greatness. We can be proud of America’s greatness without being arrogant. It’s realizing that the Lord Almighty has given us a land of freedom and liberty, a country that is strong and compassionate towards others. America is the greatest nation in the world, and I am so blessed and proud to live here. It is my love for America that makes me angry at its problems and want to change them, not look blindly past them.

    • rogereolson

      I find a contradictory attitude among most conservatives. Let a liberal criticize America and they cry “treason!” But they feel perfectly free to criticize America–under the cloak of criticizing the federal government currently in power. Strangely, though, their voices weren’t heard when another administration was in power.

      • Stephen Nichols

        Dr. Olson,

        I’ve ready many of your articles at SEA and so I was excited when I came across your blog. However, I think comments like this are beneath you. I don’t know your political persuasion (although I’m guessing it’s not “conservative”); but generalizations like this are no more than cheap shots. Hopefully you understand what I mean.

        In other posts such as these, ones that would be considered more opinion rather than discussing theology or scripture directly, you tend to dismiss those who disagree with you, either directly by saying simply they are wrong or indirectly such as you did with Jonna by lumping them into a group and then denigrating the entire group.

        I know you are a teacher. Do you address your students the same way? I think many of these people who are voicing their disagreements are doing so because they desire to hear what you have to say. They have beliefs that differ from yours, or their reading of scripture has led them in a different way, and they are curious as to how you would address their differences. Maybe I am giving them too much credit; but I don’t think your blog is the kind that people would read and comment on without having a respect and familiarity for your other work. So I have felt a deep disappointment in the way you have dismissed and disregarded them. I think you have missed another opportunity to teach.

        I don’t know if I expected more or if I’m making too much of this; but after reading several posts, I felt grieved, if that is the right word, that Christians would talk to each other in such a way. I love debating and arguing as much as anyone (probably more); but these kinds of comments just do not feel right to me.

        As I said earlier, I was very excited when I first came across your blog and, while I will continue to read your articles and books, I’m not sure if I can continue to read your blog.

        Thank you.

        Stephen Nichols

  • Jim Jacobson

    I am not sure your definition of “American exceptionalism” is entirely accurate. The idea that adherents believe America can “do virtually anything with a presumption of innocence” is a significant stretch from “is qualitatively different from other nations.”

    • rogereolson

      What do they mean by “qualitatively different?” What is the cash value of that? And why are they the same people who want the U.S. NOT to abide by international laws and rules of conduct?

      • William Herrin

        Who sets these International Laws and rules of conduct? If you review the country membership that sets these Global Citizen laws you won’t be pleased by the character and morals of these United Nation countries who dictate their views over our founding fathers. Do some reasearch on who and what organizations are behind this, I bet you it’s not a God First type of person.

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  • William Herrin

    Name another country that puts God first for the most part like the United States of America does? I’ll have a long wait because in some ways you are right on and in many others you are way off. We are an exceptional country ONLY because GOD has given us his grace and we can lose that grace but he knows the heart of each of us. And HOW CAN YOU lump everyone into your narrow categories? How can you ole great wise one say your thoughts are the only right one. I don’t know who you are but those men and women who died so we can have our FREEDOM of Religion and you mock the church service that honored them for one Sunday out of the whole year?

    • Ben S

      Whether it’s 1 Sunday a year or 52, Church is to honour God. Yes, honour your soldiers if you wish, as we Australians do, but make a separate non-church service. Church is for God so this would count as idolatry.

      There are plenty of countries that claim to put God first. Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iran… Of course, their God is false and they serve a God of theocracy. It seems that some Christians believe that our faith should work in the same way. But from what I can see, there is the nation and then there is the Kingdom of God. We are aliens on this earth and citizens of heaven, though we are called to submit to and honour our authorities and ‘king’ where possible. I love my country like you love yours because of the freedoms and relative levels of justice. But I don’t see any concept in the Bible of a ‘Christian nation’. But of course that is a large scale debate right there.

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