On Memorial Day we take time to remember the sacrifices made by those who have served and currently served in the United States military, especially those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. It is right that we should do so. This commemoration is intended to be neither overly sentimental nor falsely patriotic to the point of ultra-nationalism. More than that, Christians too can meaningfully participate in these kinds of commemorations, even though we must also recognize that our ultimate citizenship is in God’s Kingdom. In this blog I would like to take this opportunity to talk about one of the two issues that arise when one seriously and deeply reflects on Memorial Day–war and nationalism. The first is of course an event, an undertaking, the second a kind of ideology. Both however are fraught with philosophical and theological implications. Nationalism or patriotism is the main topic of this blog.
On Memorial Day and Independence Day as well as other times Americans “feel” a sense of national solidarity, a part of a nation distinct from other nations. We often take great pride in being Americans and we consider the United States to be an exceptional nation. This “feeling” may be by virtue of the common culture, language, or institutions. And it arises in different individuals in varying degrees. For some, it is an intensely felt sense of belonging and pride, even for some few, a feeling of superiority. Scholars will sometimes make a distinction here between patriotism and nationalism, viewing the former as acceptable or even admirable to a point, but seeing the latter as a bit extreme if not potentially dangerous. Nationalism is even classified with ideologies in some books on ideology–”isms.” So how are Christians to think about this issue of patriotism or nationalism?
In our own day, many consider even a slight patriotic feeling to be undesirable, at the least, a sign of someone behind the times. Critics of patriotism sometimes turn out to be advocates of globalism and cosmopolitanism. They consider themselves to be citizens of the world. The United States has no particular virtue and may exhibit many undesirable characteristics. It may be too prideful of its place in the world, they believe. They may see America as aggressive and meddling. They may also focus on the various “national sins” of the United States, sometimes past issues–slavery, the treatment of women, etc. For whatever reason, the critics oppose patriotism.
But let’s consider. The United States has been especially graced with a form of government whose institutions have produced a remarkable combination of freedom and stability within the bounds of relative external virtue. This is not to say America was founded explicitly as a Christian nation, but the principles underlying the Founding documents and the thought of the Founders have been designed with ideas in mind that were without doubt drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Adherence to these principles caused the Founders to design a government that governed but that also “governed the governors.” The freedom created along with the associated limits and the encouragement of individual virtue have led to flourishing of this nation in terms of its economic prosperity and its political and legal stability. This is indeed exceptional in the world. Many nations have tried to emulate the United States but have fallen short, I argue, precisely because they adopted one or a few of the Founding principles, but not all of them. They may, for example, embrace democracy but not a constitutional system that places limits on governed and governors. Thus democracy degenerates to mob rule or tyranny by the majority.
We have every reason to praise these attributes of the nation. But we also have every obligation to acknowledge these exceptional characteristics as from God as an undeserved gift to a people not chosen by God but nevertheless blessed. Patriotism is a legitimate outgrowth of this recognition. It should not be denigrated but embraced. But of course it has to be seen in its proper place. Our particular blessed state is not because we are as individuals innately superior to other people in the world. Nor is it because our leaders have always made wise and just decisions. Even given the parameters that constrain abuses of power and wrong actions, we have collectively (by virtue of the decisions of those in authority) engaged in certain actions we cannot condone. Its is not “America right or wrong.” We don’t turn a blind eye. But given that perfectionism in government is impossible, unless one believes in utopianism or a temporal heaven on earth, we have enjoyed a remarkably happy existence in the last 230 years. A proper pride is in order–the kind spoken of in Romans 12 exhorting us not to think ourselves more highly than we ought.
But if this “humble patriotism” gets out of its bounds, trouble is sure to follow. We have only to look as nations such as Germany before World Wars I and II, or France in the Napoleonic era, or other examples where nationalism became the driving concept and led to all sorts of excessive claims about one’s ethnicity, culture and nationality. We can see even in America from time to time some seeds of this attitude in some groups. It may be manifested in different ways, but one example is the idea that one’s people in a national sense are peculiarly chosen by God for a world mission–perhaps to “civilize the world” as defined by the particular culture of one’s own nation. For Germans this led to the enslavement of other peoples and eventually their extermination. Superiority becomes idolatry and that leads to all sorts of acts that express a sense of god-like status. Nationally, since ancient Israel, there is no chosen people. And nationalism in its most virulent form asserts that very thing–against God.
So let’s commemorate Memorial Day as we should, thanking God for His manifest blessings. And let’s celebrate Independence Day, thanking God for the wisdom He gave to a few men in a far off time. But let us remember God first, who alone is the one whose providence does all these beneficial things. It is to Him we owe our blessed state, not to any inherent superiority in ourselves. It is to God we owe thanksgiving for the institutions that He has by His grace to our Founders caused indirectly to be established and yes, even emulated. “Our God, our help in ages past our hope for years to come….”