Some July 4 thoughts about nationalism and patriotism

Some July 4 thoughts about nationalism and patriotism July 4, 2011

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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  • Amen! Well said!

  • I agree with most of your premise. However, “American Exceptionalism” perhaps would be better defined and understood in the opposite context – that because this is a nation that was founded upon Christian ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (inalienable rights), there is an experience of God’s blessing and prosperity. It is NOT as though God has chosen America or that this nation is more special than others, but that a country which is structured on the principles of divine liberty enjoys the fruits of such.

  • Thanks for a well balanced piece. I am a pastor in a very military oriented piece of the country and have struggled with the fact that God has called me to minister to people who when the government says, “Take that hill,” they have to take the hill WITH NO QUESTIONS ASKED. Yet, I also feel that sometimes (a lot of times?) taking the hill can be unjust or unreasonable. So I, as a non-military person, am allowed to question the government, but the folks I minister to can’t…because they’re in the service.

    So I have struggled to know the wisest way to minister to them at times. I want to be sensitive to the situation. But I also feel it’s my duty as an American…and ESPECIALLY as a Christian to question my government.

    Anyway, thanks for your balanced thoughts.

  • JohnM

    I too worry about what is implied by the symbolism of national flags placed in churches. I recognize uncritical affirmation of everything American as error. However, I want to say as much as I dislike jingoistic American nationalism I don’t like it’s opposite number any better. I don’t know a one word antonym for patriotism, but in this country it’s called America bashing. It is the idea that America is not only not above other nations but is actually much worse than other nations, an objectionable place to live and ever up to no good in the world. America is NOT that any more than America is God’s chosen nation.

    I’m not sure I agree with your patriotism looks foward nationalism looks backward litmus test. Nationalistic dreams can just as easily look forward to a bright future for “us” even if it is at the expense of “them” – manifest destiny and thousand year reichs come to mind. Patriotism can take an honest look at the past without supposing everything done by prior generations was wicked or foolish. Patriotism doesn’t deny what is ugly in the past, but it can see accomplishments to be celebrated and moral examples to be followed.

  • While I don’t think that all “patriotic” songs and icons in churches represent idols or idolatry I do think, like you, that it presents the possibility (and it makes me very uncomfortable). You are right that far too many American Christians equate the Kingdom of Heaven and the US, and more a specific political view of the US.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Thank you for your thoughts, Roger. Happy Independence Day.

    I think modern-day defenders of the “American Exceptionalism” would take issue with your definition. They would, rather than promoting uncritical praise of country, point to God’s guidance in our history despite our attempts to thwart Him. The story of Squanto (even if his was the only example available) makes this theory acceptable to me.

    I certainly agree that uncritical acceptance and defense of the US government and culture is poor form. I’d be against Representative-Democracy and Capitalism if there were something better. But the excesses and abuses that come with these are less than the excesses and abuses that come with others I think mostly because they tend err on the side of giving people more liberty. I’m a big fan of liberty – and I believe that God is as well. Galatians 5:1.

  • Nice reflection. I would, as usual, quibble with one line:

    “Nationalists tend to confuse ‘country’ with ‘government’ and reject as disloyal all criticism of either.”

    I know a lot of people I would consider nationalists who are highly critical of the government, especially when the ruling party is the one they don’t back. They also tend to be highly critical of the court-system when it seems to be pushing laws they disagree with. But you’re right that they look at America’s past and try to justify and rationalize all of her actions. If you replaced the world “government” with the word “military” in the sentence above, I think you would be spot on.

  • Great post!

    Like you, I am thankful to have been born in America and my flag is flying on this July 4th.

    I also think “American exceptionalism” is both wrong and dangerous. Americans are in rebellion against God just like all the other nations of the world. American Christians should see our accomplishments as “doing good to all men” (Gal. 6:10) rather than our historic GDP and military prowess.

    As a military veteran, I honor those who serve our country. But our nation has not always fought just wars. We need to face that fact.

    It bothers me a lot that evangelicals have tried to wrap faith and political party inside an American flag. That is wrong on many levels, not least that it subordinates the cause of Christ to a political philosophy that often lacks the compassion of Christ.

    Dr. Olson, I think you err by calling only criticism of the government patriotic. Sometimes the government does good things and those actions should be supported. But we cannot confuse God’s causes and those of America.

    America is sometimes right and sometimes wrong, and we must fight the wrong. Jesus is Lord at all times, and it is allegiance to his kingdom that must come first.


    • rogereolson

      Oh, well, I agree that we should applaud when our country does good. That’s also patriotic. My main point there was that criticism of government is not unpatriotic as some claim. (What I find interesting is that during a Republican administration SOME Republicans and especially Christian ones claim criticism of the president is wrong, but when a Democrat is in the White House it’s okay. The ones I know justify it by saying he is the Antichrist (or something close to that), so it’s okay to criticize him in spite of their otherwise literalistic reading of Romans 13.

      • Well said! The behavior your describe has bothered me a lot and amounts to hypocrisy of one type that Jesus derided in The Sermon on the Mount.

        There is something about political fervor that causes otherwise sensible Christians to abandon the teachings of Christ. It is really an ugly thing to see.


  • Jason White

    Hi Dr. Olson,

    I am just curious how much your views on nationalism and patriotism are in line with Dr. Boyd’s in his Myth of a Christian Nation?

    • rogereolson

      Greg’s views are deeply influenced by John Howard Yoder. So are mine. However, I do believe in Christians voting in elections, writing letters to the editor, etc. I don’t see anything wrong with Christians attempting to influence the state and society through persuasion. But my most important area of agreement (with Greg and Yoder) is that our citizenship as Christians is first and foremost in God’s kingdom and not any kingdom of man. I might disagree with them about whether it is possible and permissible for Christians to be involved in man’s kingdom up to a point.

  • Well-stated, Roger, thanks!

  • James Comegys

    The distinction between nationalism and patriotism is useful. Also useful would be a further delineation between nationalism and corporate-nationalism or one-world international corporate statism which seeks the destruction of the host nation. Think of American-flag waving shills of an International Corporate-statist Plutocracy which impoverishes America and scoffs at American ideals while co-opting its symbols.

  • Sumana

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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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

  • 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.

  • 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.