I never thought as I was growing up in Sunbury that patriotism would be a controversial topic in churches. However, by the time I attended seminary in the late ‘60s, I discovered that it is. Recently a friend posted on Facebook his concern about any patriotic symbols or expressions because he feared they were idolatry.
Certainly, there is a line that can be crossed in either direction. The Bible teaches us that our ultimate loyalty must be to God, and that when authorities command us to sin, “we must obey God rather than men.” Yet it also teaches that all authority (even that of the Roman Empire) is established by God for good, and that Christians are to pray for and honor those holding public office.
A team of researchers from the University of Chicago 35 years ago did a massive study compiled in the book, Habits of the Heart (still worth reading, and there also was a sequel by the same team). Among other things, they identified a “civil religion” that was operative in American life. It is not inconsistent with the description of GK Chesterton decades earlier that ours is “a nation with the soul of a church” because it was founded on a creed.
The researchers considered “civil religion” a positive thing, but in old-line church circles I have usually heard it considered as a negative, and even as idolatrous (I suspect most of the people doing that never read the book). While it can be idolatrous, I hold to the original understanding: “Civil religion” means nothing more or less than the values that most of us share (or shared), which were felt to originate from a transcendent source (what Jefferson called “Nature’s God”).
“Civil religion” is not Christianity, but it is also not necessarily anti-Christian. Any society needs common beliefs and understandings to hold it together, and we are seeing in our day what happens when those no longer exist. So, replacements are being proposed, which are pretty much articles of faith within competing groups and quickly become idolatries of their own.
Nobody is saved by “civil religion.” It is what we Lutherans might call religion of the Left-Hand Kingdom of God, or maybe better, religion of the First Article of the Creed. It grows out of the Law which God as Creator has placed in the hearts of all people, whether one recognizes its source or not.
Dr. Martin Luther King wisely did not attack the basic values on which America was founded, but called us to account for failing to live by them. That was a key to his success. Most of us, however reluctantly, came to agree that although we claim “all men are created equal,” we were not acting accordingly.
Today we are seeing many fellow citizens realize that people we have honored as key contributors to our history were seriously flawed. That should not surprise Lutherans. All people are sinners, and our history has been driven by flawed and sinful human beings. Yet these flawed people also were able on many occasions to rise above their blind spots and, informed in many ways by biblical values (even when not by biblical faith), they created a wonderful system of government here which has the ability to correct itself as flaws and failures are recognized. And Scripture is clear that hidden beneath the course of history is God at work, often (as Luther quipped) using one scoundrel to punish another.
I simply cannot accept the view that America is so deeply flawed that it needs to be replaced by “something else,” whatever that might be. Nor do I believe that we are the Kingdom of God on Earth. We must hear the voices that claim to be unjustly treated, and examine our actions, words, and attitudes (for instance, the kind of jokes we tell or find amusing). But I wish that reading of Orwell were mandatory throughout our school systems, as well as a study of history that can accentuate the good as well as the bad of those who have preceded us.
We are not more virtuous than those whose statues are being torn down, nor were they necessarily more virtuous than we. They were flawed human beings with very mixed motives, as in moments of honesty we should realize we are. The most constructive approach to history is to see and understand the failures made in the past so that we can examine ourselves and try to discern what we should be changing in our time.
My flag will fly proudly this Fourth of July weekend, and I will even be looking for a more prominent way to display it on my home. My loyalty to the United States does not replace my loyalty to God, but in some ways arises from it. I will not claim that this nation ever has been without fault, but I will cherish the opportunities we have to work to make it better. Patriotism is a way of loving and serving our neighbors. As Christians we appreciate the necessity of authority and structure until Jesus returns, and we will pray and work for the good of all people.
Steve Shipman, STS