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“Unashamedly a Christian nation.” Those were the words heard through the speakers on the Fourth of July boat cruise I was on in the Potomac River, overlooking the nation’s capital. But is patriotism really a Christian virtue? This has been debated in America ever since John Winthrop desired the Puritans of New England to be a ‘city upon a hill’ and a ‘new Israel’. In light of this, I think it may be necessary to redefine patriotism. The kind of patriotism that has led some Americans to view the U.S. as an exceptionally Christian nation should not be a virtue, nor should it be one that assumes a blind allegiance to the state in all of its endeavors. Instead, patriotism should be rooted in submission to the true authority of Jesus Christ, who commands a more just society based on truth.
What does this mean for Americans in 2013? Christians on one extreme see patriotism in comparison to God as totally insignificant while the other extreme elevates devotion to the state at the same level as their allegiance to God or even above. Where is the balance? The Center for Public Justice’s Guideline on Citizenship states that “Responsible citizenship includes not only abiding by the law, paying taxes, and enjoying the benefits of law-abiding behavior, but also helping to shape the political community to conform to the demands of justice.” Not only are Christians commanded to render what is due to the state in terms of taxes, revenue, respect, and honor (Romans 13:7), but they are also called to steward this office of government and work with the state towards the norm of public justice for all citizens.
Additionally CPJ’s Guideline on Government spells out that “the proper exercise of governmental authority…must include the legal recognition and impartial protection of human rights and responsibilities, both individual and institutional." Government cannot and should not govern all sectors of morality. Other institutions such as the family and the church also have roles in dealing with morality. This is particularly a problem for those on the other extreme who do view America as a Christian nation. Governing morality explicitly implies a moral high ground. This cannot exist if the United States is to have a truly pluralistic society.
Furthermore, citizens of the United States (and thankfully many other states) enjoy the freedoms and the rights to exercise their faith, to express their religious beliefs, and to peaceably assemble and worship as they see fit. Recognizing this as an individual, however, does not simply make someone a patriot. Patriot citizens must demand and pursue these freedoms and justice for all people. Religious freedom is an amazing opportunity that many take for granted. These rights, however, do not give a people the moral high ground of proclaiming a new chosen nation. They are not a license for inaction.
Additionally God institutes earthly authorities for mankind’s benefit and for the purpose of seeking justice. This ought to be done in conjunction with the citizenry who should not abstain from political community, but rather engage in the lively discussions and opportunities they have to pursue justice. Call it a neo-patriotism—of sorts. Christ told the Pharisees to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” in regards to taxes. He viewed the Roman Empire as a legitimate authority, but at the same time he did not compromise speaking the truth with his submission to authority. When asked by Pontius Pilate if he was a king, Jesus said yes, even though this could be seen as usurping the Roman rule (John 18:37). Christ recognized Roman rule, but paid his ultimate allegiance to God the Father as citizens and saints today are also called to do. Christ displayed a model of patriotism when he remarked to Pilate that he would not have any authority unless it was given to him from above. This subtle yet definitive remark recognizes Pilate’s position of authority, but it also underlies where true authority derives from.
Many people hesitate when Christian citizens express their patriotic support of the United States. I can empathize with this cautious perspective when there are Christians that view America as a “city on a hill.” This conviction is skewed in its direction away from the God whom we owe ultimate allegiance, but I can also identify with the appreciation that these people have for the freedoms we are afforded.
“Unashamedly a Christian nation?” I think our history, despite many of our triumphs, would speak otherwise—and it is okay to admit this. Some Christians may think that recognizing the mistakes of the past is useless, irrelevant and shows weakness. But it is through recognizing our weaknesses and deficiencies that injustice is exposed and corrected. Perhaps the words of the Pledge of Allegiance offer a better framework: “One nation under God.” This simple phrase offers a dose of humility in recognizing God’s lordship over this nation and others. The liberties this country affords are precious, but they are in stark comparison to the freedom that comes from living under the Gospel and sharing in Christ’s call to pursue justice.
-Michael Jansen is a senior at Dordt College seeking a B.A. in political science.