Is Patriotism Christian?

Fred Craddock tells of being on an airplane flight during which he visited with a woman who was returning from vacation. She had been to Switzerland, that small country of breath-taking mountainous beauty. She spoke of her marvelous experience and the delightful things she had seen. But time had come from her to return home to western Oklahoma. Once the terrain of the state became visible, she peered out the window intently and lovingly, craning her neck as she gazed down. Though she had just left a land that was fabulously lovelier than her own state by just about any measure, it lacked one attraction Oklahoma had for this woman: the beauty of home.

That attraction, that perception of beauty is the essence of patriotism at its best. This sort of patriotism doesn’t swagger with pride or in any way seek to diminish anyone else’s home. It is noncompetitive. When it moves us to say, “My land is the greatest in the world,” this claim is not mistaken for an objective truth. It is a truth of the heart, much like saying, “My Mom is the best in the world.” It is not as though I have actually had an opportunity to compare her qualities to those of every other mother. The statement is a hyperbole of love. There is no serious expectation that others will agree or even should agree. Healthy patriotism is like that. It is the simple attachment to and love for home. I can find nothing in it that conflicts with Christian devotion.

The sentiment of this kind of patriotism is expresses in the words of the hymn, “A Song of Peace,” often sung to Finlandia by Jean Sibelius. The words of the first two verses are by Lloyd Stone, the third by Georgia Harkness.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a prayer that peace transcends in every place;
and yet I pray for my beloved country —
the reassurance of continued grace:
Lord, help us find our one-ness in the Savior,
in spite of differences of age and race.

Unfortunately, most of what is celebrated as patriotism is not so pure and simple. It is, I believe, much more akin to idolatry. This patriotism is not satisfied with simply loving home. It eagerly offers obeisance to the symbols and slogans of the nation-state and expects others to do the same. Adoration of the American flag, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, singing the National Anthem while standing with standing with hand over heart are all seen as indispensible expressions. Conformity to the rituals of patriotism is viewed as a mark of common decency, not just a matter of personal preference. Those “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales…Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Psalm 40:15, 25).

Rev. Craig Watts is the Senior Minister of Royal Palms Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a member of the DPF Executive Committee and the author of Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State.

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