Loving God AND Your Country?
July 29, 2013
Earlier this month, I read with interest Rick Phillips's piece on the Fourth of July celebrations in the context of a radically changing America. R.C. Sproul, Jr. also has a piece here which deals with the issue of Christian patriotism. Both are nuanced articles as far as blog posts allow. It is ironic, then, that the usual America right-wing bravado comes not from the Americans, but from the foreigner Liam Goligher who gives his thoughts on the "greatest country on earth". However, as a subject of the United Kingdom (though resident in the US) and as a Christian, one of Rick's points does not really resonate with me. He argues that "We [Americans] must continue to love our country. Nothing would more please or serve the radical secularists than for Christians to jettison their patriotic impulses". It is this idea of loving our country which occasions what follows.
It is always an interesting time of year for a foreigner to be in America. Every Fourth of July, I jest with our church members that the Sunday morning sermon closest to the Fourth will be on Romans 13 - submission to the civil magistrate. People laugh...usually. The obvious historical reasons aside, it is even more interesting for someone from Britain to be in the States on this date because Britain is a peculiarly unpatriotic place - nothing like America in that sense. I don't recall ever seeing Union flags displayed on people's houses, except in peculiar circumstances such as a royal birth or sporting achievement. The view of the armed forces in the UK has been nothing like that in America; it is much more low-key and much less admired, to be quite honest. To be clear, I am not saying that such is a good thing.
Moreover, Britain is itself a nation divided into four countries and four separate identities. When asked where I am from, my answer is Wales, not the UK. Speaking to most people over here, I inevitably have to explain where Wales is located. As an aside, I was once talking to a seminary student, who commented "You're not from around here are you?". I replied "No I'm from Wales". To which he replied, in all seriousness, "Ah, a good Scotsman!" The conversation ended pretty quickly after that. My point is that the UK has multiple identities, with very few Welshmen being willing to accept the moniker "Scottish" and absolutely no Welshman willing to accept the label "English". In spite of a rich and varied history, and maybe because of it, the UK does not have the same level or expressions of patriotism regularly evidenced on this side of the Atlantic.
A further declaration at customs: I live in America, and chose to do so, at least as much one can choose when accepting the call of God. I like America. My wife is American and my children are American - well sort of. I don't think I have any of the pre-disposed antipathy towards America that many Europeans do, which antipathy is usually egged on by a liberal and biased national media. America is, in many ways, a remarkable place, not just for the mix of peoples one rubs shoulders with, but also for the very land itself. The geography of America includes something for everyone - from the frozen wastes of Alaska, to the deserts of the southwest, to the splendid Rockies, to the swamps of the southern bayous, to the beautiful beaches and coastlines. I fully intend on seeing more of this amazing country while I live here.
However, I feel uneasy when I read that Christians should love this country, or any other country for that matter. One might retort, "You're Welsh; you have nothing to be proud of!" A comment unworthy of a reply. Again, someone replies, "You've already admitted you are unpatriotic; you wouldn't understand what it is to be American." Mea culpa. Notwithstanding such objections, I don't see anywhere in Scripture which calls me, or anyone for that matter, to "love our country". Yet this was at the top of the list of Rick's advice on how "Christians must respond as Americans". At the risk of biting the hand that feeds me, so to speak, let me offer a few thoughts about this idea.
"Loving one's country" strikes me as a peculiarly American, and American Christian, thing to say. American patriotism has long been the slave to a rather romantic view of American history. The amalgamation of the faith, or at least, the church with politics, has undoubtedly given rise to the view that somehow, America was once a Christian nation. (Just to be clear, I am not charging Rick with this. I'm not charging him with anything actually, just meditating on his piece). Rick, in fact, makes clear that he views the development of America not in Christian, but theistic, terms. However, the predominant opinion among American Christians is that America was a Christian country, and the way to return it to said Christian roots is to legislate that change (again, I don't think Rick is arguing for this). There are better historians out there than I, but I doubt this romanticized view has ever really been the case. Has America really ever been a Christian country? Is there indeed such a thing in the new covenant era? If there were, one might, as a Christian, be able to stretch to the term "love" for one's country.
In a Christian country we might expect there to be a higher standard of public conduct. We might expect public and private morality championed and a measure of spiritual depth and progress. A Christian may well be able to love such a country. Yet is this the case with America? Are we talking of loving its history: the Fourth of July, revolution from tyrannical independence, etc.? These are good things, but as a Christian can we say we love them? Can the history of this country be loved when much of it is built on the back of ungodly slavery? And what of the Civil War / War of Northern Aggression / War between the States (take your pick) - when more Americans died than any other conflict before or since? Or what of the fifty million or so of the unborn who have been slaughtered here? Are we to love this? Or are we talking about loving its institutions and structures: the Declaration of Independence, the branches of government, the buildings, the pomp and ceremony and history that belongs with them? I can hardly think of any Christian I know who would say they love these things, and with good reason. Or are we talking about loving the people of America? Christian love aside, do we really love the mix of people in the States? The history of race relations in America sets the standard for no country, to be sure. Again, I want to emphasize that I am not charging Rick with saying these things, rather just highlighting serious obstacles to the Christian in fulfilling Rick's counsel to love one's country.
Moreover, one should not confuse economic and military triumph with Christianity or indeed what makes a nation great (or the "greatest nation on earth"). I have the utmost respect for the American military, and in another life, would have loved to serve in the military. The greatness of a country, and thus its "loveableness" is surely not linked to the number of nuclear weapons or Stealth fighters it possesses.
So when I read that a Christian is to love his country, I'm left a little bit confused. What exactly am I to love? Presidents? Congressmen? Hills, valleys streams, lakes (I have no difficulty loving them)? The people? The armed forces? Government? I wonder if Rick's advice, which I regularly find beneficial and prudent, has, on this matter, slipped into an amorphous Americanity - a more subtle form of "God and Country" which is so prevalent in certain areas of the church. Such is the kind of Christianity which has the American flag on one side of the pulpit and the Christian flag (wherever that came from?) on the other. America, like every other Western nation has had a remarkable yet chequered history - morally, economically and militarily. What are we to love, and what kind of love are we to show?
Moreover, I believe Rick expresses this somewhat rose-tinted view of American history when he writes that "the blueprint of the pagan conquest of America was discovered in the 1973 Roe vs Wade decision". I beg to differ. Not wishing to minimize the atrocity that Roe vs Wade was and continues to be, the blueprint for secularization and paganisation of America was etched very firmly on the hearts of all unbelieving men, from the founders to our latest President. To cite Roe vs Wade as the blueprint tends to portray America, prior to 1973, as somehow closer to God and Christianity than post-legalized abortion America. It was not. The seed and, indeed, the fruit of this wickedness was manifested, both officially and informally, long before Roe vs Wade. The Supreme Court's decision was not the catalyst nor indeed the blueprint of the moral decline of the nation; it was the result. Granted it was a particularly horrendous and heinous result, but what was evidenced in that decision was not a formal departure from Christian morality. Rather it was just another manifestation of that departure already blossoming in the hearts of many Americans, long before 1973.
Rick's four point analysis of the cultural landscape is accurate and thought provoking. We do face an explicitly anti-Christian force determined to paganise America. There is mounting evidence that this administration will use its powers illegitimately to further its goals. Pagan America does not seek tolerance of all views but victory of its own. Surely the coming years will bring further encroachments upon Christian and civil freedom. Sproul Jr. adds to this when he writes "But while the government countenances it, and in some instances even finances it, it is Americans, 1.2 million moms, and 1.2 million boyfriends/fathers/husbands that murder their babies each year. And it is a voting majority of citizens that continues to permit this. My country is made up of people who think abortion, sodomy, theft, and aggressive war are all good things that the state should support." So much for the greatest country on earth.
However, when has this decline in public and private standards not been present? Students of history and politics can well attest that this has been an ongoing activity of government for decades and even centuries. Indeed, democratically elected governments are in the business of legislating their way over the opposition's way. Again, Roe vs Wade was a result, not a catalyst. Moreover, true and sincere Christians have rarely held the balance of power in America or anywhere else for that matter. Yes, the unbelieving heart may, by the virtues of common grace, be restricted from a full-blown assault on the Christian faith. However, by degree, every group of elected leaders in American history have, in some way, assaulted the "values" of Christians. No matter how good they are, it is in in the very nature of democratically-elected governments to do so.
My point is simple: when has there ever been a government which has refrained from opposing the church? More to the point, we should not be surprised by this opposition! Ungodliness always seeks to lord itself over others, especially Christians (John 15:18). That is not to say there have not been "good" politicians, or ones to whom I, as an individual, would give my support. My own view is that, in the balance of these matters, America, complex nation though it is, has not and cannot be a "Christian nation". In this respect, there seems to be little to "love" about any nation in this age. This is my issue with Rick's particular counsel on this matter, and Liam's overstatement of America's greatness. As one church member recently said to me, as she self-diagnosed a problem she had with the re-election of President Obama: "I'm too used to thinking like an American and not like a Christian." I wonder if this is true for too many of us, both Americans and foreigners living in America?
Loving something is a very powerful idea. Love is defined and shaped after God's love for us; indeed, we do not know love outside of God's love. God is love himself and any human love, whether believing or unbelieving, follows God in this respect. The Biblical pattern for one's relationship to his country seems more aimed at respect and honour, than love. In rendering to Caesar what belongs to him, we submit to God's will in that He put in place the powers that be. Yet love does not seem to enter into this paradigm: indeed Abraham's love was not for the earthly realm but the heavenly one (Heb 11:10). I simply don't see in Scripture that the Christian is called to love his country. Yes, he is to submit, yield obedience, give honour, even die for one's country in armed conflict. But love I do not see.
In conclusion, I fully concur with Rick that we must speak out boldly on Christian matters even at the risk of ridicule and persecution; we must love our neighbours and communities, demonstrating the grace of God. We must support godly leaders and we cannot violate God's Word. We must be Christ-like and not worldly. We must be in prayer for all these matters and we must indeed rise up with godly zeal in taking the gospel to all men. This is the work of the Christian. To love one's country - especially, though not exclusively - in the current moral and political climate, is not only increasingly difficult, but possibly a burden none of us were intended to bear.
Rev. Matthew Holst is the pastor Geneva Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Woodstock, Georgia.