Last summer, I had the privilege of hearing noted author Brian McLaren speak several times at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly. During one of the Q&A sessions, I asked him a question which had been rolling around in my mind for quite some time. “What is the difference between patriotism and nationalism?” McLaren gave his answer, and later posted some more thoughts on social media, which I encourage you to read.
Since I posed that query last June, I’ve lost count of the number of divisive issues that have bubbled up in our nation. I continue to wrestle with the topic. Here are some thoughts. Patriotism is that healthy devotion and loyalty we have for our country. It is natural to feel warmth and gratitude for all those who have gone before us, making our common life rich with blessings. Patriotism freely critiques the State, but does so out of fierce love and respect — a lover’s quarrel.
Nationalism, on the other hand, tends to be narrow and bigoted, an exclusivism that denigrates other nations and people groups. It exalts one’s country to an almost god-like status, equating it with the Kingdom of God. Nationalism never questions officialdom, but simply endorses any and all government action, no matter how heinous or immoral.
Sometimes pastors and churches confuse patriotism and nationalism. If people are pleased with the status quo, they often quote Romans 13:1-7, the Apostle Paul’s admonition to obey those in authority over us. When invoking this passage, the assumption is made that any criticism of the current empire is disobedience to God. Unfortunately, that step moves us dangerously close to deifying our country.
A more careful survey of scripture will reveal that Romans 13 is just one of many postures that God’s faithful may have toward government. In Acts 5, when Peter and others were confronted by a corrupt coalition of Church and State, Peter’s answer was clear: “We must obey God rather than human authority” (Acts 5:2).
In the Book of Revelation (chapters 13, 17 and 18), we see a very unflattering picture of the Roman Empire. No nation-worship here! In fact, we could read St. John’s approach in the Apocalypse as one of “confessional resistance” — resisting the State by subversively (but courageously) worshiping a New Caesar, Jesus Christ.
God’s word seems abundantly clear. Any nation that is above critique is beyond God’s help. So, take a breath, fellow citizens. Not everyone who disagrees with you is unpatriotic. And on the flip side, beware, lest you become guilty of thoughtless allegiance to immoral and unjust policies. Such allegiance is blind nationalism, not healthy patriotism.
Healthy, patriotic dissent is above partisanship and not in the pocket of any political party. Genuine patriotism sees moral inconsistencies on the Right and Left and has the courage to name them. Conversely, authentic love of country will be willing to praise and encourage appropriate ethical policies anywhere they are found along the political spectrum.
I happen to love the Kansas City Royals baseball team. Over the years, I have shared countless thrilling moments with my family and friends, watching the boys in blue. But when a player muffs a ground ball or the front office makes a questionable trade, I reserve the right to complain, criticize and make my opinion known. Such rabble-rousing is not disloyalty; it is loyalty. I have earned the right, precisely because I love the team so dearly. Patriotic Americans have the right — and the responsibility — to complain, protest, critique and express negative opinions. All for the love of country, in order to form a more perfect union.
Doyle Sager is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo.