God and Country
OCTOBER 24, 2019
In 1901, at the height of the British Empire, G.K. Chesterton wrote about his concern for the disordered patriotism he witnessed among his countrymen.
His worry was that many of his stiff-upper-lipped co-inhabitants of Dear Old Blighty confused love of country with loyalty that could be blind to their country’s faults, as if all Englishmen should be like Noah’s sons covering up their father’s shame. Chesterton quipped, “‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’”
Patriotism is a good thing. But patriotism, like all loves, should include healthy criticism. Parents’ love for children may be unconditional, but it includes a necessary desire for growth and change at some times and for caution and preservation at other times. I know my wife loves me, but I also know she prefers me sober to drunk. Moreover, Christians don’t love a country as an end in itself. We belong first to Christ and his Kingdom; but until the Lord returns, we hold two passports. Our heavenly passport is of a much greater value, but the earthly one is important too. Rightly ordered love of place, like love of people, teaches us much about loving God and longing for Heaven. Love of my countrymen and love of our common life together is venerable and useful, if rooted in the ground of our common existence, the one true and living God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Love of country is also valuable in a life of faith as a reminder that Christians are not Utopians. We don’t live nowhere, but somewhere – an imperfect yet loveable place where God has put us, and where we may serve Him. We learn to be citizens of God’s country through participation in the welfare of human countries, which are not equally just or prosperous. We are called to love our place in the world because God does – to tend the earth, to conserve its resources, to build edifying institutions, and to invest in the future with prayer and sweat. There comes from this sacred work both a natural pride in what we and our ancestors before us have built, as well as a wholesome desire to defend it. We rightly venerate the symbols and engage in the rituals that represent this work. As with a club, a branch of the military, a sports team, or a school that we are invested in, we find it perfectly natural to think our country exceptional among others. In the United States, no day presents this enthusiasm, expressed in familiar symbols and rituals, more prominently than Independence Day. I enjoy it all to the full.
Healthy patriotism should also remind Christians that our common life is rooted in a longing for unity and peace only known in Christ. At the heart of our faith is the miracle of Pentecost in Acts 2, the answer to Jesus’s prayer in the Upper Room in John 17, and the timeless challenge of Paul’s pleas in Philippians 2 and Ephesians 4. As Edward Perronet’s hymn puts it, “Let every kindred, every tribe, on this terrestrial ball, to him all majesty ascribe, and crown him Lord of all!” Even we fiercely democratic American Christians are spiritual monarchists. Every nation is potentially praiseworthy when she acknowledges her place beneath the throne of Jesus. Every nation is potentially doing the work of Heaven when she unites disparate peoples in brotherhood. By God’s grace, America at her best is capable of such achievements. The familiar words of the Declaration of Independence leave no room for doubt that such ideals were baked into the American cake from the beginning, even if the founders included some Deists and skeptics, and even if in our sinfulness, Americans have often lost the plot: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Thanks be to God, we get it right sometimes.
On this Independence Day I will fly Old Glory at my house and give thanks for the nation in which I was born and to which I am grateful for many good things. I ask God’s blessings on my country, and I hope for and expect her sober best.