Confession: I have a terrible problem of talking, and sometimes walking, in my sleep. It’s an old family trait that I’m carrying on, much to my family’s sometimes dismay. Last night, Maria woke me as I was standing upright in the bed, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. When she told me about it the next day, I mused that maybe my subconscious was just celebrating the Fourth of July weekend, and that if anyone ever questions my patriotism I can just say, “I literally pledge allegiance to that flag in my sleep.”
By the time you read this, the Fourth of July celebrations in the United States will be over, and my dog Waylon will have recuperated from his nervous frenzy over the sound of fireworks in our neighborhood. Whether you’re an American or not, this is as good a time as any to think about what it means to have a patriotism that is shaped by the gospel, rather than one that is armed against it.
For all human beings, there’s a temptation to over-react to the last bad thing, to try to stay so far away from the last disaster that one runs headlong into an equal and opposite disaster on the other side. The same could be true here.
Most of us have seen the sorts of “Christian” services that are indistinguishable from a patriotic display on the national mall, just with prayers interspersed between the flags and songs. And, sadly, most of us have seen people re-work some of what they claimed to be their deepest convictions, not because they changed their minds by study of Scripture, but because one set of politicians won and another set lost. That’s dispiriting, and is leaving a wreckage of cynicism in its wake. I don’t deny any of that, and I’ve written and spoken about it constantly. But most people who read this newsletter don’t fall into that temptation. Some might even come (rightly) to see the rejection of this sort of civil religion as implying that one must choose between the kingdom of God and love of country. This would be a mistake.
The gospel is not a means to an end. The gospel is not a tool to excite nationalistic passions or to form social bonds or to teach civics. The gospel is the announcement that God has raised the crucified Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavenly places as the rightful ruler of the cosmos. Every other allegiance, then, is subordinate to his lordship. The follower of Jesus, then, is to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Matt. 6:33). Jesus’ words here contrasted the kingdom of God not with Baal worship or strip clubs, but with food and clothing. The teaching is not that seeking the kingdom leads to naked Christians on a starvation diet. As a matter of fact, Jesus teaches us to pray by showing us to ask, first, for the coming of the kingdom (Matt. 6:10) and then, immediately after that, to ask for daily bread (Matt. 6:11). The issue, in this case, is not either/or, but priority. Seek first the kingdom of God, and all the other things will be added to you.
Love of one’s country is a good thing—just as honoring father and mother is a good thing, just as cherishing one’s spouse or children is a good thing. And yet, any one of those things can refuse to be subordinate goods, and can insist instead on being ultimate goods. That’s when they become idols. That’s, obviously, a spiritual problem for the ones drawn to the idolatry. But what we sometimes miss is that putting the kingdom first actually enables us to love these things better.
I was surprised several years ago, in talking with cohabiting couples, about the reasons they would give for not marrying. I expected them to answer that question with a defiant cliché from some 1970s sexual revolution slogan about not needing a piece of paper to verify their love or about how marriage was slavery or some other nonsense. I found almost no one, though, who would say that. Most of the time they didn’t express a low view of marriage at all, but a very high one—higher, in fact, than the Bible teaches. Many of these people would talk about how they knew that there was their one soul-mate out there, who could meet all their physical, emotional, and sometimes even spiritual needs. This view of marriage doesn’t lead to happiness, but to exactly where it led to with these couples—to the replacing of the goodness of marriage with a chase for a mirage. The happiest couples are those who can give themselves to their marriage, who can love each other, but who love Jesus more.
The same is true of parenting. Some of you may have been the pinnacle of your parents’ lives—all their hopes and dreams pinned on you. No one can live up to such expectations, though, and it leads ultimately to resentment. The best parents are those who love their children, but who do not expect their children to be worthy of worship. That enables these children to be themselves, to make some mistakes, and to live their lives without carrying the weight of being the ultimate vindication of their parents’ expectations.
You can love your parents best if you’re not crushed when you find that they make some mistakes, that they fail sometimes. You have a Father God who will never fail you, which means you can bear with those earthly echoes of that fatherhood who sometimes will fail. Those failures don’t mean they can’t be loved, just that they are not God.
Putting these good things second actually helps us to love them more. I can have loyalty to my country if it is a secondary loyalty, not an ultimate loyalty. If my country becomes my ultimate identity, or my politics my ultimate vocation, then I will, in time, grow to hate my country because every idol, sooner or later, is seen to be too weak to do what’s asked of it (Isa. 46:1-2).
But, with the kingdom first in our affections and in our self-identity, we can show gratitude for our country, and can serve her, willing both to criticize her missteps as well as to valorize her achievements. We can truly love the land in which we live, precisely because we know that our citizenship here is temporary (Phil. 3:20).
You can sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” better if you love “Amazing Grace” more. You can be an American best if you are not an American first.