A Qualified Patriotism

These thoughts come a bit late after our 4th of July independence celebration (or “Happy America!” as my enthusiastic four-year-old son puts it), but I’ve been both on vacation and mulling these things around the gray matter before committing to pixels.

While on vacation, in a sandy-duned coastal town of northwest Michigan, I attended, wife and offspring in tow, a worship service in the Reformed Church of America following July 4th. In said worship service, the call to worship was decent, given by a gray-crowned gentleman full of faith and gravitas, a balancing contrast to the late-twenty/early-thirty-something pastor who would share the sermon later. What followed is what startled me. We proceeded to open worship with American the Beautiful, a song I like (once or twice a year, anyway) and remember learning in grade school choir along with Home on the Range and other musical Americana. The song in itself is healthily patriotic, praising the abundance and natural beauty of the US, and asking God to shed his grace upon her. If one was to complain about it, perhaps it would be for the line “crown thy good with brotherhood”, if this referred to some sort nationalistic brotherhood that trumped the waters of baptism. But such a complaint would be too fussy, even for me, since we take our oaths in God’s name and put it on our money as we should. There is a constitutioal separation of church and state, not of religion and state (nor can there be). We are hypocrites as a nation, but only hypocrites because we have a  standard to be hypocritical to. This is better than no standard at all.

But what is America the Beautiful, an ode to country, doing in a Christian worship service? I should add that there was no mention in the service of America’s sins, her shortcomings, apostasy from Christ, 49 million dead babies in the name of democratic choice, racism, conspicuous consumption, nothing. So the ode to America really was unqualified praise (need I say worship?) of our country. And this in a relatively conservative (mainline reformed, at least for now) church. I should also add that we didn’t burn any candles or pray to Democracia or anything like that, but I do believe that the song itself was inappropriate and blasphemous, just like a poem about my mother would be if read in the call to worship. Now my mother is worthy of many poems, but I would be dishonoring her if I were to mingle my allegiance to the maker of heaven and earth with my loyalty to her. Get up, she too is human.

This got me thinking. Why is this sort of thing so difficult for people, even Bible-believing Christians, to see? Part of it comes from our failure to understand what worship is. If we believed that in the call to worship, the church was ushered into the presence of God and united with all the saints, it would be hard to dribble out a song to even the most righteous country, never mind America. “Oh, Triune God, Light Inexpressible, Holy, Holy, Holy! Would the four living creatures and 24 elders like to join me in a round of Yankee Doodle Dandy?”

So we miss the Godness of God, his majesty and glory, all of it present and requiring appropriate joy and solemnity in worship, but there is also something else. We miss true patriotism. Of course if we had the former, the latter would likely follow. But true patriotism couldn’t sing America the Beautiful without noting her current state, that freedom and rights used to mean something far different than they mean today, and that at this rate our country won’t make it to its 300th birthday. Too harsh? Jeremiah saw Jerusalem crushed by the Babylonians, and the killing, rape, cannibalism and exile that went with it.

My eyes will flow without ceasing, with respite, until Yahweh from heaven looks down and sees; my eyes cause me grief at the fate of all the daughters of my city.  Lamentations 3:49-51

And Jesus, the greater Jeremiah, wept over the destruction that would come to Jerusalem in 70AD, destroying the temple and reulting in so many crucifixions that Josephus said the crosses looked like a forest. He longed to gather the people under him like a hen her chicks, but they wouldn’t. But both prophets saw the justice of what had been and done and what would be done, respectively. No one truly loves his country who refuses to recognize and resist its sins. Every 4th of July ought to be a reminder that our founding fathers resisted tyranny, and again tyranny is upon us, but this time we have chosen it ourselves. Why is the state so enormous and even republicrats looking to it for salvation? Because it’s hard to find anyone who can see the difference between God and state, and the proper allegiance due to each. To us, Jesus might have said “Whoever loves city or state, county or country more than me cannot be my disciple.” The waters of baptism are thicker than blood and citizenship. This has to be recovered first in the church if we are going to have a beautiful America.

6 Comments A Qualified Patriotism

  1. Rachel

    Patriotism always makes me feel very uncomfortable. I remember I was very surprised to hear American christian friends use the word in a positive way. For me it is always linked to the French Revolution (as an anti-christian movement) and to nazi germany. “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles” has made a lasting impression in my countries history, and eventhough I still believe patriotism does exist in the Netherlands, it is more subtle then the American or the French version. And well…to be honest…we are such a small country that even too much patriotism would make everybody laugh!

    Growing up I always thought Americans were pretty much the same way we were, but I have discovered that there are cultural barrieres that sometimes make it hard to understand one another, with patriotism being one of them. I am glad to read you feel a little uncomfortable with it as well.

    It is one of the good things about going to a church that during services only uses a psalter and a few hymns directly based on the bible. Although we do sing the first and sixth stanza of our national anthem on the birthday of our queen. (after the service of course) But that is almost a hymn in itself, like stanza 6:

    My shield and reliance
    are you, o God my Lord.
    It is you on whom I want to rely,
    never leave me again.
    [Grant] that I may remain brave,
    your servant for always,
    and [may] defeat the tyranny,
    which pierces my heart

    Which is kind of weired for a country that’s is become more and more post christian every day.

  2. jwowen

    Patriotism corrupted is nationalism, and that is what the Nazis, Sean Hannity (American conservative), and “my country right or wrong” people advocate. I think a healthy patriotism is gratitude for one’s country and a qualified loyalty to it. It’s that same loyalty that would cause one to stand against its evils and work for reform, whereas nationalism (like all idolatry) destroys what it “loves”.

  3. Rachel

    I think it is at least partly a language problem. In Dutch the word “nationalisme” is the neutral one, not “patriotism”. I think we probably agree when we don’t use the words, and only talk about the meaning behind it.

    Apart from that I still think there is a cultural problem too. In the Netherlands it is not done to call oneself a patriot or a nationalist. That doesn’t mean there is no patriotism. It is just more subtle. That makes it for us sometimes hard to understand Americans. A cultural barrière I guess. Even though I am aware of it, I still found it awkward to see American flags everywhere I came, phrases like ‘God bless America’ etc. I have the same problem in France though. Doesn’t mean you guys are necessarily doing anything wrong though. But with my cultural background it just makes me feel a tiny bit uncomfortable and I have to keep reminding myself you guys don’t mean it the way we would mean it if we were in the Netherlands.

  4. butaud

    I also think it’s important to remember the distinction that Chesterton made (I believe it was in Orthodoxy, but it could have been The Everlasting Man, or something else entirely) between a rational and an irrational love for one’s country. Some people love their country simply because it is their country, because love is something we owe to our country. Others love their country because they think that it is powerful, or wealthy, or righteous, or what have you. (These two kinds of love don’t have to be mutually exclusive.) If we love our country “irrationally”, then we will be willing to see the areas where it needs improvement. We will love it in spite of those, but we will do what we can to fix those areas. If we love it “rationally”, and there are flaws in our country, then we must either love our country less or blind ourselves to the flaws.

    The problem with Nazi Germany (and with “my country right or wrong” Americans) is not that they loved their country too much, but that they loved it in the wrong way. We ought to love our country like a mother loves her child – our love should be unshakeable while at the same time constantly trying to improve its object. So the Nazis loved Germany like modern parents too often love their children – by acting as though everything the loved one does is good. We must love our country like good parents; we should be the least tolerant of its flaws because we want what is best for it, which is not often what it desires.

  5. jwowen

    Right, Butaud, if you make a country (or anything else) an ultimate thing, a god, you can’t criticize or improve it, only bow down. The other extreme is to despise it like Bill Ayers, trampling the flag, or like Obama, and trample the Constitution.

  6. Bian

    Praise God for answered peryar and congratulations!! I know Anne from Beaverton Foursquare church though a bible study we attended together must be 3 or 4 years ago and it is at that time that I learned of her acquiring of this church building and the uncertainty of what was to become of it . well low and behold the answer is clear . a church of course : D

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