Church or State? The Fourth of July Dilemma
Every Fourth of July, my Facebook is dotted with two types of posts: pictures of patriotic church services and warnings about patriotic church services. The photo above is the church I grew up in; you can tell which side of the divide it falls on. The idea of God and country as the two most honorable causes a man can serve is, I hope, already familiar to you, because I intend to focus on the other side’s argument.
The argument goes something like this: our first allegiance is to God, and the gathering of his people to worship is a time to focus solely on him and his glory. It is not a time to exalt temporal things; it is a time to appreciate eternal things. Because when we mix up eternal and temporal things, when we confuse politics with religion, bad things happen. We begin to justify political attacks in the name of religion and condone religious travesties for the cause of politics. Many fear, citing the recent election and the recent religious liberty legislation, that this has already happened.
I agree that this mixing up of the temporal and the eternal is a very real and important danger, but I think the danger is coming from another quarter. In order to explain what I mean, I need to bring in another temporal relationship: marriage. This is an earthly relationship – it ends when we die – that nevertheless commands a great deal of loyalty and passion. Men have killed and died over it. Marital love seems to be open to many of the same dangers as patriotism.
But of course, as any experienced Christian couple will tell you, earthly love once submitted to heavenly love is amplified, not quenched. It’s not an either-or; it’s a glorious both-and. We celebrate the earthly things – whether that be loyalty to family, home, or country – as part of our celebration of the goodness of God, and we love them all the more for it. We can pledge allegiance to our country in church for the same reason we vow fidelity to our spouses in church: because this loyalty does not compete with our Christianity; it rather stems from it. That is the wonderful thing about love – the more you give, the more you have to give.
Now, no country is perfect, any more than any marriage is perfect. Some are abusive; some need to be gotten rid of or rebelled against. But intrinsically, having a home is a good thing. We as specific individuals were meant to live with specific relationships and attachments, not only to certain people but to certain places. We are meant to love the temporal things temporally, just as we are made to love the eternal things eternally, and that temporal love is good and right.
I used to think we should only love the eternal things, but I came to see that this was an over-simplified, overly-Platonist way of thinking. There is, in fact, a supreme, changeless, perfect, infinite goodness, and He has a name, and He is meant to be loved above all else. But the world is not made up of one perfect good, with the rest as useless idols; it is made up of a great variety of second-order good things God made for us to enjoy: different personalities, preferences, talents, and so on. A mannequin is the same all the way through; a man is a series of incredibly complex and startlingly different systems. Equal is not identical: we were meant to have different and equally good things that work together in harmony, not to have all the same thing. That would be a dull world; even colleges tell us that they want a well-rounded student body rather than well-rounded students who are ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’
On a related note, to say that we live in the greatest country in the world is not to disparage other countries, any more than your friend’s Facebook post that he has the best wife in the world is meant to insult other women. It is an expression of a particular relationship that is by its nature non-comparable because it is non-transferable. Because it is so particular, because it is contextualized, not claiming to be eternal or universal, it allows us to love to the full extent such a love can sustain without losing our perspective.
The problem, then, comes exactly when we want to compartmentalize and so to de-contextualize, to disconnect our feelings toward our country from religion. It is exactly when a couple separates their love for one another from their love of God that they begin to idolize it and, in the end, destroy it. And in the same way, once you take love of country out of its proper context, one of two things happens: either you have to stop loving your country, or you have to start loving it improperly, giving it more than its due.
In my experience, even the distinction between these two options collapses in the end, because we will all have loyalty to some political or social entity. We are political animals; it’s in our nature. If we are not devoted to the actual country, we will become inordinately attached to our idea of what the country ought to be. And this sort of attachment is dangerous, because there is no reality to check its zeal.
The most basic, and most healthy, form of patriotism stems not from vague ideas about social policies, but from a love of hearth and home. In the end, if we want to stop nationalism, we need patriotism. The only thing that can overcome an improper love of country is a proper love of country. And a proper love of country may and should take its place with all other proper loves at the altar of God.
Photo credit: Manuel Orozco