This weekend marked the Fourth of July, Independence Day in the United States. As many of you probably did, the kids and I spent it at home this year. We celebrated by eating hamburgers and talking about our country’s history a bit. We enjoyed watching people down our street light fireworks, but spent much of our time indoors with our pets, hugging them and assuring them that the booms they heard weren’t the end of the world!
As we cuddled our little furry friends, I was reminded of the time someone asked me, “Pastor, do you believe in patriotism?” I’m always a little suspicious when someone asks about “belief” in such a way. Things tend to be real, true, and important whether I believe in them or not. I don’t think the entire universe centers around the things I carry in my head.
I think the question was well-meant nonetheless. Since the topic is timely this week, I’ll share how I answered. As you’ll see, I think the ideals of patriotism and faith are similar, just not in the exact way we’ve been taught!
I do support patriotism in the deepest, root sense. The word comes from the Latin patros, or “father”. The idea is that we’re all of one father, of the same lineage. At its best, patriotism evokes a sense of community bigger than any of us. It’s meant to encompass the ideals that we hold to as universal, even though we express those ideals in individual ways.
Any person of faith will see the immediate parallel. We gather around God, who is bigger than any of us. God’s word inspires us and creates community that’s both bigger and better than the sum of its parts. Were the world ideal, patriotism and faith would overlap perfectly, as our civic life and spiritual life became seamless.
The world is far from ideal, of course. That’s why we need concepts like “separation of church and state”. In an imperfect world, concerned more with individualism and power than community, we end up needing protection from each other even as we live together.
Just as ideal faith and patriotism parallel, so do the less-ideal versions. Patriotism loses its vigor when it becomes self-referential. Theoretically, patriotism isn’t supposed to inspire you about your country, but about what your country stands for and does. It’s a lens through which we view the good that we do collectively as a nation.
Patriotism is supposed to remind us about important concepts like freedom, the sanctity of each human being, and the right to live together in relative peace. These things are acted out through our country, but they are not exactly the same as our country.
Too often, our vision falls short. We latch our eyes onto a flag, building, or person and say supporting them is patriotic without bothering to look beyond to what the symbols are support to evoke in us.
When we do this, the meaning of the word shifts. True patriotism calls something good when it evokes great ideals, but demands a course correction when it doesn’t. Cheap patriotism calls things good simply because they exist. This kind of patriotism demands that we revere the flag because it’s the flag instead of what it rallies us towards. Whomever holds—or invokes—the flag is deemed right, even if their actions don’t line up with the ideals upon which the flag was erected.
This kind of patriotism is harmful. It falls prey to manipulation by the powerful and well-indoctrinated. It victimizes the vulnerable, then marginalizes any who would object by terming them, “unpatriotic” and ungrateful.
Before we get too smug about identifying this trap, we must admit that the communities of faith fall all too easily into this mode of thinking when discussing faith. The church is meant to point beyond itself towards the God who inspires us all. All too often churches become good at pointing people to themselves and not much more. The greater being exists to serve the needs of the church, rather than the church to serve the greater Being.
When this happens, we slip away from, “We do this because it holds to a higher, holy ideal” into, “This is holy and ideal because the church is doing it.” This is no better in the sacred realm than it is in the secular. Abuses of power and person thrive in an environment where the central claim is, “Anyone in a position of authority is automatically right.” We’ve all seen the harm this can cause.
We’d do well to remember that whether we’re trying to be faithful or patriotic, we should focus on the higher ideals that faith and patriotism are leading us towards more than championing faith and patriotism as ideals in themselves. It’d make no sense to say a book was authoritative because it was made of words or a television show was automatically great just because it was broadcast. It doesn’t make much sense to say that faith and patriotism are true just because they exist either. Look at the fruits that come out of them and how they shape the surrounding community. Then you’ll know whether the ideal is worth subscribing to or not.