Nothing provides quite as interesting a look into the intersections of Christian faith and patriotism in America as attending a chapel service on a military installation. As a military brat, I’ve been to my fair share. I’ve lived on Air Force bases for a substantial portion of my life, I’ve been to more military ceremonies than I can count, and I’ve heard the preaching of many a chaplain on a Sunday morning. My identity as an American has always mattered, particularly when my dad was deployed overseas to a dangerous region of the world or when my family struggled to find meaning in yet another cross-country relocation. But my parental influences in this department were somewhat mixed—while my dad’s service greatly impacted our daily lives, the lingering influences of my mom’s side of the family remained. My mom was a missionary kid, and both of her sisters grew up to become international missionaries with their families. As a kid (and even now), I found the combination of these influences has produced some tension. One side of my family finds very little of their identity in their home country, while another side takes great pride in it.Rightly ordering our loves allows for patriotism and love of country, but it prevents nationalism and idolization of country.
For Christians, this tension is a well-known one. Many Christian traditions in America practice a faith laced with patriotism and defined by “American values,” while many others find their greatest identity in shared traditions of churches on the other side of the world. Many American Christians struggle with discerning how their patriotism should operate when followers of Christ are called to work for the advancement of a Kingdom greater than any earthly nation. Is America such a “Christian nation” that our loyalty to our God and our country are fundamentally compatible? Or are we to disavow all earthly allegiances, including nationality, in favor of a different kind of citizenship all together?
A chaplain at a recent chapel I attended said this in prayer: “Lord, we know that our service to our country and our service to you do not contradict or conflict.” While it was a well-intentioned nod to that day’s observance of Memorial Day, the statement struck me as dangerous. I have no doubt offered some form of “service” to my nation throughout the course of my life—I have moved across the country multiple times (including once before my senior year of high school), and I have endured the absence of my father for varying periods of time during those particularly rocky teenage years. I haven’t served my country anywhere near to the extent that my father has. But even I can truthfully say that there have been instances where my service to country and my service to God produced some tension. It might be easier to think of examples when my father’s two services might force a choice between loyalties, but even civilians will face circumstances that require such a choice. Our nation will ask for support for values our God condemns, our civic institutions will ask for an allegiance that trumps all others, and our desire to protect and provide for our fellow citizens will come in conflict with our desire to care for the global church.
These tensions—these instances where loyalties rub up against each other and allegiances fight for dominance—are powerful reminders that placing our “services” in hierarchical order remains important. In Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, James K. A. Smith powerfully articulates the ways that nationalistic liturgies teach citizens to prioritize their allegiance to country above all else. Activities like saying the pledge of allegiance in schoolrooms daily, singing the National anthem before important cultural events like athletic competitions, and consuming patriotic (and often militaristic) films and TV shows all teach powerful and physical lessons about the supremacy of national loyalty. None of these “rituals” are inherently negative, but their pervasiveness and repetition can work together in powerful ways to communicate and inscribe certain values. The ease with which American Christians can find their faith and nationalism aligning is the very reason for concern. Even the slightest of potential conflicts is cause for ensuring that values are placed in an appropriate hierarchy. An earthly nation and a heavenly Kingdom will not always share the same goals. This disparity can be seen in many different instances, but the ongoing debate about the refugee crisis in Syria and elsewhere provides a powerful example. The Christian’s loyalty to country may require the protection of citizens be prioritized above the well-being of refugees, while loyalty to the global church may require welcoming refugees into countries, towns, and homes. In a world of constant international conflict, we will increasingly be asked to prioritize military superiority, cultural dominance, and national identity. In other words, we will be asked to make our country our first love.
C. S. Lewis famously said, “In so far as I learn to love my earthly dearest at the expense of God and instead of God, I shall be moving towards the state in which I shall not love my earthly dearest at all. When first things are put first, second things are not suppressed but increased.” Lewis so eloquently explained a foundational truth of the gospel: that loving things rightly means loving them in the right order. When we prioritize national loyalty above loyalty to God, we are not loving our country rightly, and both our love of God and country will suffer. Regardless of whether we face particular instances in which our loyalties conflict, prioritizing them remains important. Our love of country gives rise to militarism and racism when it is not subordinate to a greater love of our God and His people. We can easily find ourselves valuing competition and conquest above compassion and selflessness when our ultimate allegiance is to our country instead of to the Kingdom of God. To borrow the language of Augustine, our loves will be disordered, neither one receiving love the way it was intended to.
Rightly ordering our loves allows for patriotism and love of country, but it prevents nationalism and idolization of country. These loves and loyalties only become sinful when they become disordered—prioritized or valued too highly than they deserve. A disordered love requires putting on some blinders; loving any imperfect earthly thing as we were meant to love a perfect God necessitates ignoring its sins and failures. In America, this disordered love has caused many Christians to sweep a multitude of sins under the rug: slavery, gender inequality, or unjust war. Violence and discrimination have been ignored in the name of national unity and pride. Disordered love will always result in idolatry—placing what was never meant to be worshipped in a place of uncritical praise.
Rightly ordering our loves doesn’t require total abandonment of other loves, but it does require proper prioritization. A country rightly loved will result in better civic engagement: Instead of racism or discrimination, Christians can fight for just policies and international engagement. Instead of ultimate loyalty to certain leaders or political ideas, Christians can pray for guidance from a higher ruler. Instead of letting fear drive reactionary policies, Christians can find security in an omnipotent God and advocate for policies with the wisdom only He can provide. When Christians love their country and their God rightly, they can be far better citizens of both earthly nations and the Kingdom of Heaven.
I will continue to find myself in many chapel pews—a place of military and religious significance. They’re places of odd intersection, yet their very existence speaks volumes about the humans that use them: Even in a place that signifies military strength and national identity, there remains a great need for something greater and more powerful. Sitting in a chapel pew will always be an exercise in ordering loves: recognizing the supremacy of the Kingdom of God, while loving the broken and messy nation He is sovereign over.
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