More often than not, what Christians think of as “patriotism” is what God defines as being “idolatry.”
Jesus once said “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21), a radical statement publicly declaring that Caesar and Rome weren’t God, and were so disconnected that they required two separate offerings. While many contemporary Christians use the verse to defend the idea that God is pro-government, or more specifically, their preferred brand of government, Jesus is warning us to avoid such thinking.
Romans 13:1 is also used by people to defend their political allegiances: Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. But all of these texts have a major caveat, where the authors are presupposing that this “submitting” is coinciding—and never contradicting—the supreme call to love God and love others. This becomes obvious by other passages that explicitly say so:
“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matt. 22: 36-40). Christians using Romans 13 as a defense to support their various political viewpoints at the expense of loving others are also ignoring the words of Peter when he tells the apostles, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and the teachings of Jesus himself when he proclaimed “no one can serve two masters” (Matt. 6:24).
Separating king and country is difficult for modern American Christians to comprehend because we incorporate nationalism and patriotism into much of our religion and faith. It’s not uncommon for churches to celebrate the 4th of July, honor military personnel and veterans, adorn flags in their sanctuaries, and incorporate America into songs of worship. But for the very first followers of Jesus, these types of ideals and symbols would be alarming and even considered blasphemous.
The challenge for Christians is to simultaneously honor the virtues of sacrifice and service and freedom without idolizing the sin of nationalism, to celebrate bravery without romanticizing violence, and to realize that our salvation comes from the Prince of Peace and not the wars of men.
Unfortunately, Christians have been historically gullible to nationalistic “Christianity,” and often treat their faith as a civic religion where they can establish a voting bloc and create enough influence to legislate laws, gain wealth, and consolidate power rather than sacrificially serve and love others.
“American Christianity” perverts the life of Jesus, because instead of forgiving enemies the state spends billions of dollars to kill them, and instead of caring for the poor we vilify them, and instead of accepting the foreigner we ban them, and instead of helping the oppressed we further alienate them. While it’s possible to be both an American and a Christian, we must realize that the goals of our country’s government and those of Christ often contradict each other.
A faith hindered by patriotism is highly selective and irrationally loyal according to partisan opinions. Because while certain people swear the president is God-ordained and should be completely respected, these exact same people vehemently opposed previous presidents, and will also deny the legitimacy of governmental laws that allow gay marriage and abortion and gun control. It may claim to worship a man who was tortured to death on a cross, but have no qualms about their government torturing people made in the image of God for the sake of “national security.” And it may publicly criticize those who kneel during a national anthem, but be conspicuously silent about systemic racism.
Maybe the most heart-wrenching part of “nationalistic” Christianity is that it narrowly restricts our faith to those within a very small tribe. The Kingdom of God goes far beyond America, and the family of Christ is made up of countless nationalities, races, and cultures. But the same theological rationalizations for being patriotic and pro-America never seem to apply to Christians living in Syria, Iran, Iraq, Russia, China, and North Korea. Are they also expected to honor and submit to their governing authorities?
All Christians are dual citizens, requiring them to choose which allegiances they’ll ultimately prioritize. Sometimes they must lay down a flag in order to carry a cross.
For the early church, sometimes being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman. So before accusing someone of being unpatriotic, ask which empire they’re serving.
God help us.