July 4 is one of the most iconic holidays in America. Marked by festivities such as barbecues, baseball, and fireworks, it is a holiday where individuals celebrate their identity and freedoms as Americans. What is more, exuberant patriotism is not only encouraged, it is expected.
But in this hyper partisan age, the meaning of patriotism is hotly contested. To some, patriotism means a desire to “Make America Great Again.” To others, it means being part of “the Resistance” to oppose an abrasive and controversy-prone President. Yet, patriotism does not mean partisanship. It extends far deeper than political ideology.
At its core, patriotism is the open demonstration of admiration and affection for the values, practices, and places of one’s homeland. The Roman philosopher Seneca notes that “men love their country, not because it is great, but because it is their own.” The individual finds meaning and community by having citizenship in the collective body of the nation-state, and this in turn creates a sense of love and loyalty for the greater national community. And when this community is under hostile threat, the individual may be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the collective good.
The American strain of patriotism, however, is unique. It includes a strong inclination to go beyond a temporal sense of belonging and community and strays into the realm of the metaphysical. Consequently, the excessive form of American patriotism tends to not only celebrate America as a physical place home to the values outlined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, it is also disposed to portraying the country as “a shining city on a hill,” a “beacon of democracy,” and “the leader of the free world.” This transcendental view of America represents a new and better way of life for humanity. In its most potent and condensed form, this view, formally known as American Civil Religion, serves the dual purpose of providing a unifying vision and purpose for society while providing a higher purpose for the individual.
At Integras, we identified two two primary responses to this Civil Religion within American Christianity: Redemption and Revision. The Redemptionist view seeks to redeem American Civil Religion by infusing it with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Since the United States is a representative republic, Christians are afforded the special opportunity to enact cultural and political change that advances the Gospel both domestically and internationally. Because government is designed “to punish those who do evil and praise those who do good” (1 Peter 2:14), the Christian ought to be intimately involved in the political process and engaged in the defense of American values.
The Revisionist holds a starkly different view of American Civil Religion. Observing the bitter partisan strife and the Machiavellian maneuverings of particular political and religious leaders, the Revisionist responds with aversion and disdain. This view considers arguments of “Christian Patriotism” as mere cover to justify an individual’s lust for power. Moreover, it argues that since Christians are so mired in political controversy, the Gospel is obscured. To correct these problems, the Revisionist contends that Christian Patriotism should be altogether rejected and the Christian ought to refrain from political controversies completely. The Christian should instead hold fast to the principle of being “in the world but not of the world” and “so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Romans 12:18). To this end, the Christian should be solely focused upon sharing the Gospel and loving others.
Despite the well-meaning intentions of both the Redemptionist and the Revisionist viewpoints, each possesses an incomplete understanding of Christianity’s proper role in the public square.
Twentieth Century political philosopher and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr poignantly describes the role of the Church in the public square when he writes:
“Martyr, prophet, and statesman may each in his own way be servant of the Kingdom. Without the martyr we might live under the illusion that the kingdom of Caesar is the Kingdom of Christ in embryo and forget that there is a fundamental contradiction between the two kingdoms. Without the successful prophet, whose moral indictments effect actual changes in the world, we might forget that each moment of human history faces actual and realizable higher possibilities. Without the statesman, who uses power to correct the injustices of power, we might allow the vision of the Kingdom of Christ to become a luxury of those who can afford to acquiesce in present injustice because they do not suffer from it.”
It is from this Niebuhrian understanding of martyr, prophet, statesman that the Christian may begin to discern the fundamental problems with the Redemptionist and Revisionist positions. While the Redemptionist elevates the example of the martyr and the statesman, the Revisionist admires the witness of the martyr and the prophet. Because of the failure of both views to fully value the contributions of all three—martyr, prophet, and statesman—there is a dangerous tendency for these positions to veer into extremes.
An ironic paradox emerges due to the inability of the Redemptionist to value the prophet. Niebuhr writes that “[t]he first duty of Christian faith is to preserve a certain distance between the sanctities of faith and the ambiguities of politics. This is to say that it is the duty of the Christian in politics to have no particular ‘Christian politics.’” Without the prophet to hold cultural and political leaders to a higher moral standard, the Redemptionist runs the risk of accommodating and supporting political behaviors and beliefs which run contrary to the Christian faith. Often, these accommodations are defended dubiously as “the end justifies the means.” But the failure to support and heed the warnings of the prophet over time obscures the very need for the martyr. Thus, the Redemptionist falls to the temptation that the kingdom of Caesar is the Kingdom of Christ in embryo. In the end, the great irony of the Redemptionist view is that it becomes the very thing it initially opposes: a secular religion idolizing the state.
On the other hand, by failing to value the statesman, the Revisionist is an unwitting accomplice to tragedy. Implicit within the Revisionist view is the belief that, in the words of Niebuhr in Christianity and Power Politics, “if only men loved one another, all the complex, and sometimes horrible, realities of the political order could be dispensed with.” However, Niebuhr notes that this belief fails to account for the fundamental depravity and sinfulness of humanity, meaning that “justice can be achieved only by a certain degree of coercion on the one hand, and by resistance to coercion and tyranny on the other hand.”
Niebuhr goes on to explain that “[t]he refusal to recognize that sin introduces an element of conflict invariably means that a morally perverse preference is given to tyranny over anarchy.” Niebuhr concludes his argument with the profound reminder that “[Tyranny] is peace, but it is a peace which has nothing to do with the peace of the Kingdom of God.” Without the statesman to confront the evils of tyranny and injustice, the Revisionist view consequently descends into a hollow sentimentalism that is completely detached from the realities of actual human suffering.
Martyr, prophet, statesman, each play an integral part in developing a better understanding of Christian Patriotism.
As C.S. Lewis notes in The Four Loves, while a demonic overvaluation of patriotic love does indeed produce evil acts, patriotic love is not inherently evil, as Christ Himself expressed sorrow over Jerusalem’s future woes. Thus, the American Christian may express admiration of America and thankfulness for the blessings she provides.
Indeed, the Christian ought to express gratitude for the rights and opportunities granted to the American Church. The First Amendment alone—through its guarantees of freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion—provides a platform for the prophet to speak truth to power and enables the statesman to correct injustices.
Yet, it is the martyr who, by enduring cultural and political persecution for the sake of Gospel, provides the solemn reminder that despite a patriotic allegiance to one’s country, the American Christian’s ultimate allegiance belongs to the Kingdom of God. Through such a humble understanding of the need for the martyr, the prophet, and the statesman, it is possible to discern the true meaning of Christian Patriotism.