Citizenship Confusion: Memorial Day, Kevin DeYoung, and How to be Patriotic
Last week Kevin DeYoung wrote a thoughtful post for The Gospel Coalition entitled Thinking Theologically About Memorial Day. In it, he makes five statements about how we should think theologically about our citizenship:
1. Being a Christian does not remove ethnic and national identities.
2. Patriotism, like other earthly “prides,” can be a virtue or vice.
3. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.
4. God’s people are not tied to any one nation.
5. All this leads to one final point: while patriotism can be good, the church is not a good place for patriotism.
I found most of the DeYoung’s comments to be helpful and sound. Churches would do well to pay attention particularly to his final point, wherein he notes that even if we believe that patriotism can be a good virtue, the national anthem does not belong in the church. That said I did disagree with him at points when he pushed back against those who believe that Christians should not be patriotic or have allegiance to their nation:
“I find it strange that while it is fashionable to love your city, be proud of your city, and talk about transforming your city, it is, for some of the same people, quite gauche to love your country, be proud of your country, and talk about transforming your country.”
“In some parts of the church, every hint of patriotism makes you a jingoistic idolater. You are allowed to love every country except your own.”
“If you read all that the New Testament says about governing authorities in places like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, you see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties. The church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state.”
I will freely admit that I have fallen into the error of internally condemning those who take delight in singing the national anthem or saying the Pledge of Allegiance, so DeYoung is right to warn against this position. However, I do believe that where the church is currently at in America, the emphasis ought to be on encouraging Christians to question their relationship to the country, since an unquestioned allegiance and patriotism seems to be a far bigger problem in churches than an unbiblical law against national loyalty and pride.
Aside from my disagreement with the emphasis he puts on defending patriotism, I also think that DeYoung overlooks a few essential realities about loyalty to our governnment. He finds it “strange” that it is fashionable to love your city but not your country, but I don’t think this distinction should be strange at all. For starters, in most situations it is much much easier to transform a city than it is a country, and a nation is much more capable of committing grand acts of violence or evil than a city. A nation can demand that you sacrifice your life for an unjust cause, a city can’t. The national, systemic problems which produce poverty and oppression are very hard to address; at the city level, systemic problems can be quite manageable. Whereas cities do not typically demand our loyalty, define our identity (although some do), or elevate themselves as the god of a civic religion, the nation does. What this means is that is often much more reasonable and appropriate to love your city than it is to love your country.
It is also important to note that Jesus, Paul, and Peter command us to obey and show respect to our governing authorities, but it is not clear that we “see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties,” as DeYoung claims. In fact, depending on your definition, it is quite possible to be disloyal to your country by opposing its policies and laws while still obeying those laws and respecting the authorities. Some people might find it disloyal to read the leaked documents from Wikileaks or to oppose certain military actions, but so long as Christians remain obedient and respectful, there is nothing wrong with being disloyal; by this definition of “loyalty” disloyalty might be the norm. In other words, while the biblical text does not exclude the possibility of “compatible loyalties,” neither does it present it as the “normal situation.”
In general, I highly recommend reading DeYoung’s post. It is thoughtful and important. I am happy to see that conservative, Christian leaders are standing up against uncritical nationalism and civic religion. Although I believe that DeYoung could have done more to emphasize the dangers of patriotism in our current church culture, I am glad that he wrote a fairly balanced article.