Happy 4th of July! (And why patriotism isn’t the highest virtue)

[Tomorrow we celebrate Independence Day here in the States, and I am running a post today from my archives. I also recommend you read Laura Droege’s excellent post on her experience at church last Sunday; she describes vividly what can happen when a church loses its way in unbridled patriotism.]


Years ago, soon after I became a Christian, I had a conversation with a youth pastor. The 4th of July was coming up and he said that he thought patriotism was very Godly. I asked, “What about citizens in Nazi Germany?”

“Ummm … so maybe not always,” he said.

I said, “Maybe not even here in the United States.”

Dual Citizenship

Don’t get me wrong. I know I am blessed to live here, and that there are a lot of worse places to live in this world. I’m glad to be here. On top of that, it’s biblical to be under the authority of earthly rulers and act accordingly. (See, for example, Mark 12:13-17, Romans 13:1-7 and Titus 3:1.)

But we should not think that this is the ultimate good. As Jesus told Pilate when facing earthly judgment:

My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place. (John 18:36.)

Paul explained that for those who belong to Jesus, our citizenship too is in heaven with our Savior Jesus. (Philippians 3:20.) That is good news for us all, and it gets even better – if that is possible.

Because did you notice that word “now” in Jesus’ statement to Pilate? “But now,” he said, “my kingdom is from another place.” Jesus qualified his statement because in the future he’s going to bring heaven and earth together into a single kingdom:

The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 11:15.)

So it turns out we can love our earthly home eternally and above all others, because that’s the home Jesus is preparing for us.

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18 Responses to Happy 4th of July! (And why patriotism isn’t the highest virtue)

  1. I agree that “Patriotism is not even close to being the highest virtue”, but I do not think that it means “my country, right or wrong.” Bonhoeffer was a true German patriot during WWII in undermining the Nazi regime as best he could. Likewise, Solzhenitsyn wa a true Russian patriot. Sometimes patriots must oppose their government. Loyalty to a nation is not identical to loyalty to a government. Bad government must be opposed by patriots and good government must be supported.

    I appreciate what is said about the Kingdom of God and where our hearts should be. It just seems like the first paragraph should be thought through a bit more.

    • lauradroege says:

      I find your comment thought-provoking, Brian. I think I agree about Bonhoeffer and Solzhenitsyn being true patriots in fighting their current regime. But what about all the other Germans who believed that they were being “good Germans” by fighting with the Nazi regime against the Allies? Or (worse) thought they were being “good Germans” by reporting Jews and other “enemies of the state”? They, too, would’ve considered themselves patriots. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are about that category of people.

      • Evil, in the name of patriotism, is never justified. Patriotism can be misguided and foolish. Many Germans did not persecute “enemies of the state” necessarily out of a sense of patriotism, but out of a racist ideology.
        I like to retain the distinction between patriotism and nationalism. In short, patriotism means I love my country. Nationalism means I hate yours. Perhaps a bit simplistic but it gets a point across.

    • Tim says:

      I don’t know how to think more about the first paragraph, Brian, It’s just a recital of an actual conversation. The point of using it is to get to the same insights you raised in your comment, though. Thanks for those!

  2. Jeannie says:

    This topic always reminds me of the wonderful scene in Chariots of Fire when Eric Liddell is talking to the big shots about whether he will run in his 100m heat on a Sunday. Grouchy old Lord Cadougan says “In my day it was king first, God second” and the other man says “Yes, and the ‘war to end all wars’ bitterly proved your point.”

  3. lauradroege says:

    Thanks again for the shout-out about my blog post, Tim.

    How interesting that you mention the Nazi government, and that the first comment mentions Bonhoeffer. I was recently talking with my daughters about Bonhoeffer, and how he stood up to Hitler. I also mentioned that the Christian church in Germany didn’t take a stand against the evil Nazi regime and allowed themselves to be manipulated by Hitler, and thus permitted the evil to flourish. Of course, there’s so many different things that contributed to Hitler’s rise to power; there’s also so many reasons why people turn a blind eye to the evil in their midst.

    I’m curious: what did the youth pastor say in response to your statement about the U.S.?

    • Tim says:

      He very honestly said, “I never thought about that.” I can tell you that in the 30 years since then he has thought about it a lot.

  4. Abby says:

    Here’s some quotes from C.S. Lewis that I was telling you about:

    One on duty: (From The Weight of Glory) “He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.”

    One from the Screwtape Letters: “I had not forgotten my promise to consider whether we should make the patient an extreme patriot or an extreme pacifist. All extremes except extreme devotion to the Enemy [That is, God], are to be encouraged. Whichever he adopts, your main task will be the same. Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion. Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part. Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “Cause,” in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war effort or of pacifism.”

    Last one, on Nationalism: (From The Four Loves) ” Patriotism… is not a sentiment but a belief: a firm, even prosaic belief that our own nation, in sober fact, has long been, and still is markedly superior to all others. I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity–he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar–“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend a villain, only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”

    Thought you’d enjoy that last one. He really didn’t mince words.

    • Tim says:

      Abby, those are excellent, and I am so glad you took the time to find them and share them here. Lewis didn’t mince words, but he sure sliced and diced foolish and dangerous ideas with relish.

  5. I often ponder what Paul would think about the idea of Christians in government (earthly). Because while he exploited his citizenship at times, he clearly separated the Church from the earthly powers. And to rebel against the powers, even the evil ones, would be to rebel against the authorities God set up. But as an citizen of the States, it is engrained in me that to rebel against authority is right, when the powers are wrong. Sorry, I’m mixing two thoughts here.
    1) Could Paul have ever foreseen a time when “Christians”, real or simply stated, ruled the country? We have never elected an “atheist” President. It is that important to us that the person filling that job at least fake a claim to faith. I doubt Paul could have imagined the day where Christianity was a check-box for power.
    2) Is there ever a time to fight the powers, from a New Testament, Christian sect of Judaism, first century perspective? From a worldly or even humanist perspective there certainly is. From a Maccabean Judaism perspective there is. But the founder of the Christian faith, Christ, and many of the followers (including Peter who put down the sword, Simon the zealot, and Saul the murderer turned Paul the apostle) died by the hands of the government. If anyone had a case against the government, it was them! And I haven’t come across anything where Jesus, Peter, Paul, or any other early Christian writer/martyr says to rise up against the evil government.

    Good post, Tim. I agree that while our citizenship may be dual, it is primarily based in Christ.

    • Tim says:

      I like the way you went about “mixing two thoughts here”, Charlie. I think Paul would be very surprised, and he wouldn’t have to come to modern times for the shocking news that the ruler professed Christ. Constantine’s declaration of faith would have blown Paul’s socks off.

      • Agreed. I wonder if Constantine’s questionable (at best) Christianity is really as far in the past for us. Too often we haven’t just blended dangerous things like patriotism to faith, but rather heavily bound them together. One often becomes a requirement for the other, and you don’t “have to be” a good Christian to be a good patriot…

      • And if Paul’s wearing socks, the real question is what kind of socks are they? I have a feeling they are argyle.

        • Tim says:

          That’s what I wear with my Bermuda shorts, leather strap sandals and Hawaiian shirt. Under my black muumuu, of course.

  6. Ruth says:

    Laughed out loud at that one, what a sight you would be! You could add a sweat band, a backwards baseball cap, fingerless gloves and a large gaudy carry bag with conflicting patterns…Vogue would just snap you up…..lol. Be still my beating heart…!

  7. Hester says:

    I didn’t see this post till today. The actual service this past Sunday at my LCMS church didn’t include much about 4th of July except a little bit in the sermon, but the bulletin cover was disappointing because it had this verse printed on it:

    For what great nation is there that has God so near to it, as the Lord our God is to us, for whatever reason we may call upon Him? (Deuteronomy 4:7)

    In the background picture were a steeple and an American flag. So the message is, basically, that God is closer to America than to every other country on earth. Which is not only just wrong, it’s monumentally arrogant. So bigtime fail points to whoever picked the bulletin cover. It made me kinda mad inside, but luckily the actual service wasn’t like that at all.

    I once played a hymn, when I subbed on the organ around a national holiday (don’t remember which one) at a UCC church, in which the message of the last verse was basically, “I love my country, but I also recognize that there are people in other countries who love theirs as much as I love mine.” It was also (if I recall correctly) not written from an American perspective, but could be sung in any country with the emphasis intact. I found it refreshing and I wish I could remember the name. All I can remember now is that it was to the tune of Be Still, My Soul.

    • Tim says:

      That hymn sounds wonderful, Hester, while that bulletin cover sounds atrocious. It completely misses the difference in God’s relationship with Old Covenant Israel and the relationship he has with the nations under the New Covenant. Hate when bad theology makes it’s way onto the cover of a church bulletin!

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