THE LIMITS OF PATRIOTISM

QUESTION: I am becoming more and more pessimistic about the way things are going here in the United States. With ruinous economic policies, increasing governmental intrusion and control, and Supreme Court decisions supporting immoral behavior, I’m not sure what to do. I want to be a loyal American citizen and a Christian. Does this allow or require me to be in rebellion against my government? Should I continue to pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States? Should I stand when the national anthem is played?

ANSWER: Such ambiguous feelings are nothing new. Christians have been asking these questions for decades here in the U.S., and for much longer in other countries. I first wrote on the subject of patriotism over 30 years ago, in the wake of Viet Nam, Roe v. Wade, and Watergate. More recently we have experienced Afghanistan, a Supreme Court decision legitimizing gay marriage, and being spied on by our government.

Despite such things, we want to be patriots. The Oxford English Dictionary defines patriotism as “love of, or zealous devotion to one’s own country.” Most of us have experienced such emotions while singing the national anthem, or saying the pledge of allegiance with our hands over our hearts, or singing such songs as this:
You’re a grand old flag; you’re a high-flying flag,
And forever in peace may you wave!
You’re the emblem of the land I love—
The home of the free and the brave!

But recent events have caused many to have second thoughts about patriotism. Can a Christian be a patriot? Should we feel guilty for loving our country? What should be our relation to our nation? The key to finding the right answers to such questions is to make a clear distinction between our NATION or COUNTRY (i.e., the land and its people), and our nation’s GOVERNMENT (e.g., Congress, courts, and politicians).

I. THE CHRISTIAN AND HIS GOVERNMENT

The Bible gives us specific instructions about our relation to government. It tells us to obey the laws of the land (Rom. 13:1-5) and to fulfill other civil duties such as paying taxes (Rom. 13:6-7) and praying for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:1-2). Thus it is definitely our patriotic and spiritual duty to support our government in these ways.

But the question arises, is this obligation ABSOLUTE? Must we support every decision of our government and obey its every order, without question? The answer is emphatically NO! Human government is a legitimate authority, but not an absolute authority (see Matt. 22:21). God and His will are our only absolute. If a conflict arises between civil law and God’s will, our obligation is clear: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). This means there is a limit to civil obedience. If a law requires us to do something that is contrary to God’s will, then we simply must DISOBEY that law (just as Daniel did in Dan. 6).

This is a definite limit upon our patriotism. Generally speaking, we must respect and support our government, but we do not have to agree with everything it does. We do not have to support its every decision. Indeed, when our government goes astray, we actually should oppose it, expressing our disagreement and calling it back to the right way. It may be argued that speaking out against government when it is doing wrong is patriotism in its truest sense.

II. THE CHRISTIAN AND HIS COUNTRY

Now we must remember the distinction between our government and our COUNTRY. These are not identical, and are not necessarily tied together. Our attitude toward the country we live in—its heritage, its land, its peoples—may be quite different from our attitude toward our government. Allegiance to our “fatherland” does not require us to support a particular government that may be in power at any given time.

This is a point all Americans need to see. Even when we are not in favor of a current administration, or when we are opposed to certain policies in Washington, we can still be loyal Americans. We can sing our national anthem, say the pledge of allegiance, and salute the flag. These gestures symbolize our love for our COUNTRY, not necessarily for its government.

Does this mean that a Christian might even subscribe to the principle of “my country, right or wrong”? If we take this to mean that we must always support our government, no matter what policies it follows and decisions it makes, then this principle is false. That would be what is called civil religion, which is a form of idolatry. On the other hand, this principle has no meaning when applied to one’s country, since countries as such are neither “right” nor “wrong.” They just are what they are. In our country we sing of “America the Beautiful,” with its spacious skies and purple mountain majesties. It is definitely proper to love this country, and to want it to prosper and persevere DESPITE whatever government may be in control.

But even here there is a limit to our patriotism. Though our country and its government are two distinct entities, neither one can be the object of our ABSOLUTE loyalty. We may love America dearly, but we must always be willing to sacrifice it for the sake of the Kingdom of God, “for our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). For instance, we must not become so attached to our homeland that we are not willing to leave it to serve God elsewhere.

One more thing should be kept in mind. We have seen that our relation to our government (those in civil authority) is a matter of divine command. God has ORDERED us to submit to such authority (Rom. 13:1-2), even where we do not agree, except where a law would require us to sin. But our relation to our country is a different matter. It is not wrong to love our homeland, but the fact is that the Bible does not REQUIRE us to do so. It is not an obligation; it is a matter of opinion or choice. In many ways patriotism toward our country is a sentimental or emotional thing. Thus if someone does not feel any particular attachment to his or her country, that is his or her prerogative. We are free to move elsewhere, or to tolerate where we are as we await the new heavens and new earth.

[This essay incorporates material from my article, “The Limits of Patriotism,” in THE LOOKOUT, July 4, 1982.]

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THE LIMITS OF PATRIOTISM — 8 Comments

  1. Thanks a lot Dr. Jack Cottrell for the enlightening message! This clear presentation of God’s righteous perspective on patriotism will end the long discourses of other religious sectors who insist it is unChristian even just to exercise our right of suffrage and post comments on political issues…. God bless everyone! Can you also give us DR. JACK COTTRELL BIBLICAL EXPLANATIONS on the topics trinity, Marianism or belief that Mary intercedes prayers to God the Father as what Roman Catholics believers do and the Roman Catholics belief the Pope is the vicar of Christ.

  2. Very good thoughts on the problem . Our responsability to our nation is to be informed , vote ,& lead if we can . I recomend to get involved with local governments ( run for office ) at the city ,county , state levels . Our paticpation is needed for balance . Not all can do it , but thoses who can should . The inherent Christian principles of integrity are so needed today & what is currently missing in our problems . Thank you Jack for the article .

  3. Thanks once again Jack for the concise explanation of a Biblical view of patriotism. I’m teach a 6 week series on “The Purpose of Government” and this would make an excellent hand out. May I have your permission to use it as such? Thanks again and God bless you both.
    Gary Morris

  4. Dr. Cottrell,

    Thanks for a simple and straightforward answer to a question that must be at the forefront of a lot of American minds today. As a Christian, an American, and a member of the Armed Forces I ponder this question a lot. While I love my country and it’s ideals, and will gladly fight and die for them, supporting our current government (all levels, not just the executive), has become very hard.

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