My inaugural foray on this site–calling on Evangelicals to remember that nations are a kind of thing that can keep people out–inspired comments querying whether national sovereignty is actually a Christian idea. Some commenters asked this question honestly, others rhetorically. To this latter group, a sovereignty which flexes its power to deport outsiders is deeply inconsistent with Christian charity and biblical morality.
Since then, this forum has housed some excellent reflections on patriotism and national identity. Mr. McCracken provided a stirring apology for moderate patriotism, then Mr. Simpson busted out a little patristic action in reminding us that a Christian’s most fundamental political reflection is Kurios Iesous.
To these I would add a single thought: Belonging to a country, while not an ultimate identity, is one piece of information about a man. That is why Richard John Neuhaus once said that he expected to meet God as an American.
Admittedly, that is a statement that can easily be misunderstood. It is not intended as a boast or as a claim on God’s favorable judgment. It is a simple statement of fact. Among all the things I am or have been or hope to be, I am undeniably an American. It is not the most important thing, but it is an inescapable thing. Nor, even were I so inclined, should I try to escape it. It is a pervasive and indelible part of what is called one’s “identity.”
And because there really is such a thing as an American, there also exists a subset of mankind who are “Not American.” Both categories are populated with fearful and wonderfully made divine image bearers, but the bonds of national identity attach only to the former.
That is okay because patriotism is like familial affection. Just like it would be quite odd for a man to tell you that his children are less talented than average, it would be strange for him to fail to praise the special charms of his own country.
Let us imagine the Smiths and the Joneses–two Christian households living right next door to one another. They go to the same church and their kids dig in the same sandbox. Hospitality abounds. Most nights one of the Jones children is at the Smith’s dinner table and vice versa. All in all, very Norman Rockwell (dare we say Thomas Kinkade?).
But all of this closeness will not eradicate the two families’ separate identities. Mr. Smith may look out for one of the little Joneses, but he will stay up all night worrying about the little Smiths. That natural affection–though redeemed–does not extend to the neighbor to the same extent.
And all of this charity does not give little Johnny Smith the right to waltz into the Jones’ house uninvited. It is in their separateness that one family can extend hospitality to the other. Elsewise, we’d call it adoption. Or some kind of hippy commune thing.
The parallel between family-love and country-love is the gist of American Founder Benjamin Rush’s theoretical argument for patriotic sentiment:
Patriotism is as much a virtue as justice, and is as necessary for the support of societies as natural affection is for the support of families. The Amor Patriae is both a moral and a religious duty. It comprehends not only the love of our neighbors but of millions of our fellow creatures, not only of the present but of future generations.
Dr. Rush continued by rattling off a litany of examples of this trait from both the Old and New Testaments.
This virtue we find constitutes a part of the first characters in history. The holy men of old, in proportion as they possessed a religious were endowed with a public spirit. What did not Moses forsake and suffer for his countrymen! What shining examples of Patriotism do we behold in Joshua, Samuel, Maccabeus, and all the illustrious princes, captains, and prophets amongst the Jews! St. Paul almost wishes himself accursed for his countrymen and kinsmen after the flesh. Even our Savior himself gives a sanction to this virtue. He confined his miracles and gospel at first to his own country.
Even if one quibbles with whether Matt. 15:21-28 or Rom. 9:3 teach the ethical virtue of patriotism, Dr. Rush’s parallel to natural affection is the strongest point. Mr. Smith would be worse than an infidel (1 Tim 5:8) were he to not acquit his duties to his own household. An American should do the same to his fellowcountrymen.