Should Christians Be Patriotic?

Once upon a time, not too long ago, you would be hard pressed to find a Christian who wondered what the answer to this question was. Love for one’s own nation was a Christian duty, rooted deeply in rich biblical Christian theology. Today however, many in the Western Church dismiss patriotism as a form of idolatry and sin. This error has caused many Christians to take an incredibly passive approach towards their nation. Out of fear of slipping into some form of nationalistic idolatry, they have slipped into the equally dangerous waters of lack of concern, lack of empathy, and lack of Christian hope for their nation.

Their feelings are not altogether unjustified, for indeed many Christians have made the mistake of loving their country more than their Savior. When modern Christians who reject patriotism appeal to 1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul,” or Philippians 3:20 which reminds us that “our citizenship is in heaven,” they are not wrong. These verses, and others like it, remind us that our primary identity will never be found in the institutions of this world; my primary identity is in Christ and my eternal inheritance with him.

But my citizenship in heaven does not mean that I am to show no allegiance to earthly institutions. As a husband, I show allegiance and love to my wife and kids because of my love to Christ. As a member in my Church, I show allegiance and love to my church family because we are knit together by the Holy Spirit. And as a member of community, a state, or a nation, I show allegiance and love to that collective out of my love for Christ, and my desire to see Christ honored within those spaces.

The Fifth Commandment & the Westminster Catechism
The simplest place to begin the discussion is in the Moral Law, also known as the 10 Commandments. These 10 Commandments are still a Christian’s moral obligations today under the New Covenant. As sinners saved by grace, we do not obey these commands out of an effort to earn God’s approval, rather out of a place of already being fully approved by God through the finished work of Christ, we delight in honoring his commands over our life. The fifth commandment reads as follows

“Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” Exodus 20:12

The Westminster Larger Catechism contains eleven short questions and answers dedicated to explaining the meaning and practical application of the fifth commandment in a believer’s life. I have included four of them below.

Q. 124. Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?
A. By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age, and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.

Q. 125. Why are superiors styled Father and Mother?
A. Superiors are styled Father and Mother, both to teach them in all duties towards their inferiors, like natural parents, to express love and tenderness to them, according to their several relations; and to work inferiors to a greater willingness and cheerfulness in performing their duties to their superiors, as to their parents.

Q. 127. What is the honour that inferiors owe to their superiors?
A. The honour which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behaviour; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defence, and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honour to them and to their government.

Q. 128. What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?
The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections, cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonour to them and their government.

A few lessons and implications stand out from these catechism questions. First, it was common practice for believers in previous generations to be trained in the proper way they ought to relate to their country. It was considered part of their moral duty dictated to us in the fifth commandment. As an implication of the fifth commandment, our nation is to be viewed as a kind of father to a person, to whom respect and love is due. Just as we honor and love our father, we ought to honor and love our nation. Second, prayers were to be made regularly for those in governing positions within a nation, in order that God’s ultimate authority over that nation might be displayed and experienced by each person living within its borders. Third, there is a limit to our “obedience” towards a nation. We are to love and honor the “lawful” commands of a nation. We are to cherish their “lawful” counsels and commands. In other words, patriotism does not mean blind obedience to unlawful leaders or rules.

The great reformer Heinrich Bullinger wrote (see lengthier quote and article here), “Now touching the country wherein every one is born and brought up; every man doth well esteem of it, love it, wish to advance it; every man doth deck it with his virtue and prowess; every one doth help it with all sorts of benefits, stoutly defending it, and valiantly fighting for it, if need be, to save it from violent robbers.”

This means that a Japanese person ought to love their country Japan, a Turkish person ought to love Turkey, an English person ought to love England, and an American person ought to love America. Does this mean that Christians are not part of a global community in such a way that we can not also love other nations? Of course not, we can love and desire all nations to flourish underneath the Lordship of Christ. In fact, we might even say that our brotherhood in Christ that crosses geo-political borders is in many ways far more deep and profound than any national shared heritage. Nevertheless, God in his sovereignty has selected when and where each of us would be born. And it is towards those communities that each of us are called to lovingly engage, seek the welfare of, pray for, and honor.

But what about the evils done by a nation? Do the scars of a nations past, forbid us from patriotically cherishing our nation? No more than the scars of a families past forbid them from loving and cherishing their family. It is possible for Germans today, to love Germany and all of its fascinating rich culture and history, while at the same time denouncing the scars of Nazism and World War II. It is possible for Russians to love Russia, to celebrate Russian heritage and culture while confessing the tragic sins and crimes of generations past that led to the deaths of millions. In the same way, Americans can cherish and love all that is good in America, while acknowledging the scars of our past and present.

Loving America
So, can American Christians celebrate their country on the Fourth of July? Yes! America, with all of its flaws is truly an incredible nation. No, America is not the promised land. But it is a great land! As we set off fireworks on the fourth of July we can confidently say that God, in his infinite kindness, has sustained this nation. Is America’s constitutional republic the only proper way to run a government? No. But you will be hard pressed to find a system on this planet that is better. Are all of America’s values Christian and to be celebrated? No, of course not! There is enough vice in this country to keep every Christian busy with God’s work sharing the love of Christ with those in need for many years to come. Yet, many of America’s core values are in fact Biblical and were rooted in Christians thinking Christianly about how to order this republic. In his sovereignty, God raised this nation up from roots running deep in the soil of a Puritan love of God. That love of God persisted for generations in this country, which is why Christianity has flourished as it has. It is why Churches and theological institutions were built. It is why thousands upon thousands of missionaries have been sent out. It is why so much charity has been given both internally to those in need, and to other nations around the world, and so much more.

As I reflect on what my own prayers have been for this nation, I am convinced that this nation is in desperate need of true Christian revival. While we can speak of the scars of our nation’s history, we can also increasingly speak of much of the foolishness of our nations present. Part of patriotically loving America today, as a Christian, is praying fervently that God would bring about a true revival of the hearts of the people of our nation. Just as honoring an earthly parent might mean praying for them that they would come to know Christ and joyfully submit to Him, so can we pray for our nation, that the people of our nation would come to know Jesus and joyfully submit to him. We can pray fervently that laws would be reformed into alignment with His Word. And that Jesus would get the glory. That is how we love this country best.
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