Should Christians Love Their Country?
September 2, 2013
In a provocative article published on reformation21.org on July 2, Rick Phillips offered some thoughts on the meaning of Christian patriotism in an America that is changing rapidly. Phillips eschewed any identification of America with the kingdom of God, framing his reflections within the context of the two kingdoms doctrine.
While our 'two kingdoms' citizenship always warrants biblical reflection, the situation facing Christians in America today demands special wisdom and grace. Throughout our lifetime, there have been two competing Americas, one theistic and the other atheistic; one which more or less respects our Christian heritage and upholds general biblical values, and one which aggressively opposes biblical morality and a godly outlook on life... With the assistance of a radically motivated media establishment, pagan America has made steady gains during each of the last several decades.
Phillips goes on to offer suggestions regarding how Christians should faithfully continue loving their country in the midst of this culture war. Among four points of suggestion are the following two:
We must continue to love our country. Nothing would more please or serve the radical secularists than for Christians to jettison their patriotic impulses.We must joyfully love our neighbors and serve our communities, including those who vigorously oppose us in the culture war... By all means, there must be no violence, personal abuse, or vindictive spirit in the Christian defense of our national heritage. Our calling as Christian Americans is to 'overcome evil with good' (Rom 12:21), even if our virtues are slanderously labeled as hate.
Phillips's encouragement to Christians to love their country, ensuring that their political and cultural engagement is saturated with the virtues of Christ, is very much needed in our time, although I am no advocate of the culture war mindset.
Not long after Phillips's piece appeared Matt Holst wrote a response raising several pertinent questions. Holst seems to share Phillips's general two kingdoms outlook, as well as his judgment that America is in serious moral decline (though Holst rightly clarifies that America has never been the godly Christian nation it is often thought to have been). Yet he questions Phillips's call for Christians to love their country.
I feel uneasy when I read that Christians should love this country, or any other country for that matter... I don't see anywhere in Scripture which calls me, or anyone for that matter, to 'love our country'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?
These last two questions are the all-important ones, of course. Christian ethicists like to distinguish between two kinds of love. The first kind of love, often labeled by the Greek term 'eros' because it is the form of love that is so prominent in Plato's philosophy, emphasizes attraction to or desire for something good. According to this definition something must deserve my love if I am legitimately to love it. We might call this Platonic love.
The second kind of love is often called by the Greek term 'agape' because it is the form of love that is so prominent in the New Testament. This kind of love emphasizes a regard or concern for an other's well-being that is not necessarily deserved; indeed, it appears most prominently when precisely the opposite is deserved. This is the sort of love that is in view when scripture declares that "God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son ..." (John 3:16). It is similarly in view when we are called to love our enemies, thus becoming like our heavenly Father, who does good both to the just and to the unjust (Matthew 5:43-48). This is what we might call Christian love.
In his response to Phillips, however, Holst speaks almost entirely of the first kind of love. This is evident from his repeated suggestions that the historical or moral record of America must be worthy of Christians' love if we are going to love our country. For instance, Holst writes,
'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... 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 the term 'love' for one's country. (emphasis added)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? (emphasis added)
It is quite obvious from these statements that Holst has the Platonic form of love in view. If Christians are to love America, in this view, it must deserve our love by being a Christian country, a country that meets certain moral standards. Yet America, as its history demonstrates, obviously doesn't meet such criteria.
But at one brief moment in his article Holst seems to acknowledge that perhaps there is, after all, a legitimate kind of love for one's country. Unfortunately, he drops it off with three short words, only to get back to the Platonic form of love he's had in view all along.
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...just highlighting serious obstacles to the Christian in fulfilling Rick's counsel to love one's country.
But why is "Christian love aside"? Isn't that the whole question under discussion here? Holst has asked the question well: What are we to love and what kind of love are we to show? Holst does an excellent job demonstrating the sense in which we should not love our country. America is not a Christian nation and does not merit the sort of blind patriotism that often flies under the slogan 'God and country.' I heartily appreciate Holst's aversion to naive understandings of America's Christian heritage and his insistence that in the new covenant era there cannot be, in its most meaningful sense, a Christian nation. I also agree that Christians are under no obligation to be patriotic in the sense that this term is usually understood (i.e., with reference to the pageantry, symbolism, and myth of America). But I fear he goes too far in rejecting the term love altogether.
Toward the end of the article Holst again shifts toward a more Christian perspective, but only to conclude with an assertion that I find a little surprising.
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 honor, 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...I simply don't see in Scripture that the Christian is called to love his country. Yes, he is to submit, yield obedience, give honor, even die for one's country in armed conflict. But love I do not see.
This conclusion surprises me because it seems to me that scripture commands us to love our country, in at least some sense (i.e., as a people), in precisely the same place that it commands us "to submit, yield obedience, give honor." In Romans 13:7-8, toward the end of the classic New Testament text on Christians' obligations toward governing authorities, the Apostle Paul writes,
Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. Owe no one anything, except to love each other; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
We often stop reading at verse 7 and don't read verse 8 because many of our Bibles place a subtitle there, as if a new section is beginning. But given Paul's repeated and intentional use of the verb 'to owe' it is obvious that this is a mistake. What Paul is telling us is that we owe taxes, revenue, respect, honor, and obedience precisely because this is what love demands. Indeed, if love did not call us to fulfill these obligations, we would not owe them at all. Paul is teaching us to view our obligations toward government and (as Holst seems willing to extend the scope of the passage) country as the expression of Christian love appropriate to this context. Even as we serve our country, in other words, we demonstrate the love of Christ.
Why does this matter? Insofar as America is turning increasingly away from the heritage of Christendom, and insofar as we do experience moral decline, our temptation as Christians will be to withhold our love for our country. One sees this all the time in the bitter reactions of some conservative Christians to President Obama. Because we have often confused our nationalistic patriotism for Christian love, then, when we believe we have lost the reason for our nationalistic patriotism, it will fall away with nothing but bitterness to replace it. The appropriate response here is not to jettison love, however, but to form our love according to the commandment of Christ.
In the days of the pagan Roman Empire the church father Origen argued for various reasons - including the demands of pagan military ritual - that Christians should not serve as Roman soldiers. When Christians were accused on this basis of undermining the Roman Empire, Origen responded by declaring that Christians' prayers for the empire would do far more for its welfare than any number of soldiers or military victories. His response communicated just what Christians need to demonstrate today. We do love our country - indeed, we love it earnestly. That's why we fulfill our responsibilities to it even as we point our people to the only hope for human salvation: our Lord Jesus Christ.
Matthew J. Tuininga is a doctoral candidate in Ethics and Society at Emory University, currently writing his dissertation on John Calvin's two kingdoms doctrine. He is a licensed exhorter in the United Reformed Churches of North America and he blogs at www.matthewtuininga.wordpress.com.