“America is not God’s nation. Let me make this clear… America is not the new Israel, nor is it a Christian nation. What the Old Testament does do is critiques the massive wave of Christian support for America’s unbridled militarism. Such alligance is misplaced; such support is unbiblical…..Seing America’s military strength as the hope of the world is an affront to God’s rule over the world. Its idolatry.” – Preston Sprinkle in Fight
Nationalism and Patriotism are quite different things. Growing up I didn’t understand this whatsoever. I vividly remember 9/11. I was in 8th grade when it happened. I remember the types of conversation I had with my friends in the days ensuing the tragedy. “If I were 18 I would join the army and kill those idiots.” “We have to pay them back.” “How dare they do this to America, don’t they know who we are!” There was a surge in nationalism during those days. People blindly turned to war as the solution (or revenge) for what had happened. Pay back through violence is how we made ourselves feel better for what had happened to us. I was one of those people who blindly followed along.
It wasn’t until my senior year of college that I really figured out my view of a Christian’s relationship to the government. Somehow I had picked up a Lutheran(ish) 2 Kingdoms view of politics.
The Kingdom of the State was one thing, and the Kingdom of God was another. Certain things belonged to Caesar and certain things belonged to King Jesus. As Christian I was a citizen of the State but also a citizen of God’s kingdom. This lead me to say things such as “As an American I support the war in Iraq, but as Christian I don’t.” Or “As a citizen I support torture for the sake of America’s safety, but as a Christian I believe it is wrong.” That was typical of my views…. “As an American I_________, but as a Christian I ___________.” It was only when I began to dive into the Gospels and theology of the Kingdom, mainly through N.T. Wright that my views began to change. I began to see how ridiculous it was to hold a position as an American and hold the opposite position as a Christian. It was during this period, and my time at Fuller under Glen Stassen that I began to submit my political views to Jesus and the way of the Kingdom. My views became integrated. And then I realized that I could still love my country, but not support the things it does. I could be patriotic without being nationalistic.
Here is how Richard Mouw spells out the difference between the two in an essay titled “Patriotism”:
I had serious doubts about the war in Vietnam in my youth, and this was not a popular stance to take in the evangelical world in those days. Evangelical Christians were often super patriotic. “My country, right or wrong” was one their rallying cries.
I had real theological problems with that attitude. That kind of patriotism struck me as boarding on idolatry. The worship – or near-worship – of a nation is a serious problem from a biblical perspective…. Absolute loyalty is something that only God deserves from us.
There is nothing wrong with Patriotism… Indeed it can be a very healthy thing. The Bible often uses the word “honor” in describing what Christians should cultivate in their dealings with the nations in which they live. That’s the same word that is applied in the 10 commandments to our parental relations: “Honor your father and mother.” The link between parents and nation is a good one to think about. There is a natural connection. “Patriotism” comes from the word for “father.” We often speak of our “fatherland” or our “motherland.”
There is nothing wrong with feeling sentimental about our parents… When a mother gets a card from a son that says “You are the Greatest Mom in the World,” she has every right to simply enjoy the compliment… the hyperbole is OK. We all understand that is going on. And we all know that any woman who took the claim literally could be dangerous.
For similar reasons, there is nothing inappropriate as such in thinking of my own country as the Greatest Nation in the World. Sentimental hyperbole is one of the ways we express important affections. But there is a special danger when we say such things of our country. Nations have a tendency to believe that they really ARE the greatest. And nations, especially powerful nations like the United States, have lots of guns and bombs in their possession. Whey they start backing up their belief in their own greatness by using these bombs and guns against other nations, they can become a serious threat.” (Praying at Burger King pg. 116-119)
Mouw’s observation that “patriotism” comes from the same root as “father” is very insightful. We honor our mothers and fathers, but we do not obey when they ask us to do things that contradict what our Heavenly Father requires from us.
Nationalism is blind obedience and support of our nation rooted in the belief that our nation is the “greatest nation in the world.” Patriotism can say that we are “the greatest nation in the world,” however patriotism doesn’t really believe that we are the “greatest nation in the world.” Patriotism honors and cares for one’s nation in the same way one honors and cares for one’s mother and father.
Patriotism is what we are called to as Christians. It’s biblical. Nationalism, on the other hand is idolatry.
To say “As an American I_________, but as a Christian I ___________,” is nationalistic. It’s idolatrous. It’s believing that certain things belong to Caesar and other things belong to King Jesus. It fails to recognize that they only true king and ruler is Jesus. It fails to express the fact that our allegiance belongs to Jesus alone.