Today on the radio while listening to an interview with a guy who recently wrote a book about flags (guess which station I was listening to), I heard something that struck me. The author, discussing the power of flags as symbols and the rising tide of nationalism around the world, made an important distinction between nationalism and patriotism. “Patriotism,” he said, “is loving one’s own and having respect for others. Nationalism, on the other hand, is loving one’s own but having contempt for others.” This isn’t the first time I’ve considered the differences between the two concepts, but I really liked the way he put it, and in the context of the country’s political climate and that of the world at large, it seemed particularly apt. America, like pretty much every country ever, has always had a nationalist streak running through it that has been expressed in various distasteful ways, usually disguised as the more virtuous patriotism.
But, rather than spending much time railing on nationalism, the dangers of which are well-known, I’d like to suggest a third route, a kind of patriotism that I think truly embodies who we are as both Americans and Christians. In my first post, I talked about my agnosticism (agnostic theism, to be clear), but despite my mind being Schrodinger’s cat box when it comes to my belief in god, my commitment to basic principles of Christianity remains unfazed. More on that, eventually, but that’s simply to preface my suggestion. Patriotism is certainly vastly preferable to nationalism, which to my mind is tied for first place as the most devastatingly evil and anti-Christian ideology of the modern world. However, patriotism in the sense of loving one’s own while respecting others does not meet the standard set by Christ himself. Simply respecting people from other countries and faiths and ethnic groups and whatever boundaries separate us from the “other” is not enough. Christ commanded us to love them.
To love the “other” is one of the most difficult parts of being human, perfectly and pointedly illustrated in my favorite parable, the story of the Good Samaritan. Among the many remarkable aspects of that story is the feature of otherness. The Samaritan, of course, is the most obvious outsider, from a sect reviled and cast out by the Jews. But to the Samaritan, it was the Jewish man dying by the roadside who was the outsider, from a group that despised his own, a man to whom he owed nothing, not even ethno-religious solidarity. But, demonstrating true Christlike love, the Samaritan looked beyond the artificial (from a spiritual viewpoint) barriers of genealogy and history and religion and did everything in his power to help a man that for all he knew considered his kind the scum of the earth. That’s part of the power of the parable.
Patriotism is laudable. Americans, Canadians, Europeans, and anyone who lives in a democracy with basic freedoms is living in a historical anomaly and should be incredibly grateful. But nationality isn’t merit based, and it certainly confers no preference in the eyes of God, despite what we might tell ourselves. There are no borders among children of God, and Christlike charity may begin at home, but it certainly doesn’t end at foreign shores. Overcoming the biological and psychological barriers that prevent us from conferring the love we have for those familiar to us to those who are utterly foreign to us, perhaps even hateful toward us, is one of the most difficult things about being a Christian. It goes against human nature in a very visceral way (there’s a reason it’s sometimes called the Monkeysphere). But it’s what Christ asks of each of us. It is a goal that we are commanded to strive for, to have a love of God and of all men. To love those we’ve never met, to clothe our enemies, to do good to those who spitefully use us. There are no exceptions. Enemies of the state, though they may be, Christ has commanded us to love them.
The Church has emphasized this in recent years, to its enormous credit and political risk, and my experience is that we as a people do a pretty solid job here. There’s still a sizeable minority within the Church, though, that has bought deeply into the growing Know Nothing fanaticism of America First, the thirst for war with other countries, the toxic political culture that is creating virtual ideological ethnic groups among people in America and across the Western world.*
It can be frustrating to see politics and faith constantly conflated, with one often substituting for the other. Nationalism, including nationalism under a facade of patriotism, has no place in a Christian church or a nominally Christian country. Furthermore, common patriotism is not enough, either. We as Christians have to take it one step further in this Westphalian patchwork world we live in. Love of country is laudable, but we should be working toward more than respect for other nations, but toward a perfect Christlike love to every single one of God’s children on Earth (including nationalists in and outside of the Church, I’d add). I do a terrible job at this myself, but I am really trying. How this plays out in the real world of international politics is tricky, but how it should play out in our hearts is clear.
I feel incredibly blessed to be American. Without trying to come off as pretentious, I’ve seen a lot of the world. I know how good we have it. I believe deeply in America as a city on a hill, and I think that many times in our short history we have, as a nation, given selflessly of ourselves and our people to better the world around us. American Exceptionalism, to me, means more than being exempt from the rules that govern international politics or the ability to buck the norms of the rest of the world (though, I don’t think that’s always or even usually a bad thing). It also means being a beacon of a different kind of patriotism, a Christian patriotism that says “we don’t just respect you, we love you and we want to help you better yourselves even as we strive every day to better ourselves.”
I’m a patriot, I’m a Christian, and I’m doing my best to be both despite sometimes trying conditions. Happy Fourth of July to everybody out there. Let’s remember today as the day that America declared not just independence from Great Britain, but also declared that a country and a people can be more than the sum of its borders and interests, a day when we launched the most ambitious national project for the betterment of mankind in all of human history. We’re not perfect yet, but we’re trying, and I hope we’ll never give up.
* This is not meant as a statement of my politics on one or the other side of the aisle, and certainly not as a spiritual condemnation of one side. If you want to see me rant about those from either of the major political groupings in the Church, I can, and probably will. This merely happens to relevant to the post at hand.