There’s been quite a bit of talk lately about what constitutes patriotism, nationalism, and good citizenship. I suppose any one person could be all three, but they’re not necessarily the same thing.
I love Christ and I love America in distinct and vastly unequal ways of course. That is, I love Jesus in an altogether different way than I love my country. In trying to sort these loves out, the terms patriotism and nationalism come up.
Patriots versus Nationalists
It should be obvious that there are degrees of these. That is, there’s a spectrum for love of country depending on one’s view. On one end is a passive form of patriotism and on the other extreme is a rabid form. And of course there’s lots of space in between. The same goes for nationalism. There’s a mild version versus a hyper-nationalist variety that stormed the capitol on January 6th.
Patriotism is the love of one’s country. Christians should recognize that patriotism is good because all of God’s creation is good and we are mandated to appreciate our particular place in it. Our affection and loyalty to a specific part of God’s creation helps us do the good work of cultivating and improving the place we happen to live. We Americans can and should love the United States, while at the same time work to improve it by critiquing it and working for justice in our beloved country.
George Orwell contrasted the two in terms of aggressive vs. defensive attitudes. Nationalism, he said, is about power and nationalists want to acquire as much power and prestige as possible for their nation. He went on to claim that while nationalism is aggressive, patriotism is defensive. It is a devotion to one’s country but has no wish to impose it on others.
Patriots bear no ill thoughts about others or engage in hostile actions towards them. It’s when one’s patriotism becomes unbridled and causes one to look down on others and act badly towards them. That is nationalism. It’s a matter of semantics I suppose. Though I can’t claim Orwell’s definitions are correct, I see merit in them.
And then there’s a brand of nationalism that some people are calling “Christian Nationalism.”
Definitions will vary, but my view is that Christian Nationalism is the heretical belief that the God of the Bible especially favors the United States over other nations. Christian nationalists believe that America has a unique relationship with God and has been “chosen” by him to carry out a special mission on earth. They think our nation is defined by our “Anglo-Protestant” heritage and that we will lose our identity and our freedom if we don’t preserve our cultural inheritance.
The Bible says followers of Jesus are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). Christian Nationalists tend to think that this describes America as a national identity. Not so.
I’ll grant that God did at one time sanction a form of what one might loosely call “nationalism.” It was the 1500 years or so between the time Moses transcribed the Law and when Jesus began preaching the Kingdom of God. The theocracy of ancient Israel (to be distinguished from the modern day state of Israel) could have been in some ways thought of as nationalistic in its most positive sense. But since Jesus came and brought heaven’s kingdom, while national pride is legit and even recommended, National-ISM is neither legit nor recommended in Scripture for any nation, America included.
The toxic repercussions of the extreme version of Christian Nationalism are many. Paul D. Miller says it’s “an ideology held overwhelmingly by white Americans, and it thus tends to exacerbate racial and ethnic cleavages.” The most obvious example of this was when the Southern states used Christianity as a prop to support slavery and Jim Crow segregation. Today, many advocate for immigration restrictions specifically to prevent a change to American religious and ethnic demographics or any sort of shift in American culture. Some on the extreme of hyper-nationalism argue that American Christians need to prepare for an armed conflict with fellow Americans in order to preserve our country’s identity, an argument that juiced the January 6th insurrection at the capitol.
Paul D. Miller again: “Christian nationalism is taking the name of Christ as a fig leaf to cover its political program, treating the message of Jesus as a tool of political propaganda and the church as the handmaiden and cheerleader of the state.”
During the 2016 presidential race, then candidate Donald Trump said, “We will respect and defend Christian Americans.” Not such a bad thought until he went on to repeatedly preach, “Christianity will have power.” That is Christian nationalism in a nutshell, advocating for Christian power rather than Christian principle. His agenda (whether or not he actually cared about Christians or their faith) struck a deep chord among many white evangelicals at the time, whose decades long hope was for Christian’s to be in power.
It is our Christian duty to be obedient to God and to be good citizens of whatever country we happen to inhabit at the time. It’s the conflation of the two that becomes problematic. It’s dangerous when we assume that the special place we individuals have in the heart of God also applies to Americans as a nation. It’s even worse when we view our Christianity through the lens of the American experiment or when we prioritize our earthly citizenship over our heavenly one.
For instance, “Christians” have been polled with questions like: “Does your faith in God and the Bible impact your opinion on social issues like immigration reform or environmental challenges or race relations or economic equity of opportunity among all Americans?” I don’t have the results before me of the recent poll using these questions, but the vast majority who said their Christianity or their Bibles said nothing about such social issues appalled me!
There was another poll asking Evangelicals to rate their Christian identity versus their American identity. In other words, “Which is more important to you––being Christian or American?”
As you can see from the image at the top almost 9 in 10 White Evangelicals said that being an American takes precedence over following Jesus! I can’t even wrap my head around that! How does one claim to follow Christ when, with impunity, they put nation above their devotion to him? Jesus was adamant about us putting him first and foremost even over our own lives and loved ones:
“Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” John 12:25
“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.” Luke 14:26
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Luke 16:13
If you choose an affection and patriotic-type love for your country and its citizens, so be it. But love and serve the Lord with abandon and sacrificially love and serve your neighbors (wherever they come from and whatever their race, class, or culture). May your citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) determine how you practice your citizenship on earth.
Have you seen the previous post called “Is America Divinely Favored?”