GOD, FAMILY, COUNTRY: What is a Christian’s Patriotic Duty? | Steve Berman

Two events have this question at the top of my mind. First, yesterday was the anniversary of 9/11, which in its aftermath witnessed one of the greatest increases in church attendance ever seen in America. It also inaugurated a season of war, where non-Christian “evil-doers” and their enablers were to be purged from the face of the earth, led by a Christian president, leading a “Christian nation” engaged in what many believed to be a holy cause.

Second, the monarchy of England and its considerable constellation of nations around the world has passed from one generation to another for the first time in the lives of three quarters of the world population. One of the titles King Charles III now holds is Defensor Fidei, Defender of the Faith. That faith, specifically, is the Church of England, a state-church that is indissoluble from the sovereign, and therefore England itself.

One of the many things Charles will do in assuming his throne is to dispense with his passport. Queen Elizabeth II did not possess one, and neither will Charles III because he is the sovereign: the head of both state and church. To be a holder of a U.K. passport is to be a subject of the king, and therefore, whether one is a Christian, or an attender of a Church of England congregation, to be subject to the authority of that church. It is literally the duty of members of the Church of England to nourish a patriotism toward the throne, and therefore the faith the sovereign defends.

Many nations around the world do not have a separation of church and state. Of the 56 members of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, a majority of them have Islam as the state religion. One nation, Israel, has Judaism as the state religion. Many European nations retain a state church. Vladimir Putin has used the Russian Orthodox Church as a key driver in his aggressive war against Ukraine.

The United States has no church. Our government is founded upon an assiduously enforced separation of church and state, in which the government is strongly constrained from any interference with religions of any kind. Yet, the United States has a strong Christian tradition. George Washington regularly thanked “divine providence” for a poorly-equipped rebellions’s unlikely victory against the greatest military on earth.

Abraham Lincoln spoke broadly on God and Christianity. Though he was not a member of any denomination, he said “but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or any denomination of Christians in particular.” 

“Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land,” Lincoln included in his first inaugural speech in 1861, “are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty.” It certainly seems that Lincoln believed that devotion to American ideals, and to Christ, were linked in a very real and practical way. 

Of course, slave-owning southerners attended church every week, and shared Lincoln’s sentiment, yet arriving at a completely different conclusion. Linking God, Christ and patriotic devotion to America is a fraught ideal. Historically, the militarization of faith has been the source of many tragic and bloody events.

I am not “woke.” I don’t believe the revisionist history of America. You know, the one that says the pilgrims represented a colonizer-white-patriarchy arriving in a world to be conquered, then setting up their superior technical skills to destroy the indigenous people in a worldwide conspiracy to spread militant Christianity to dominate the world.

The pilgrims were nearly wiped out in their first winter in this land, and only the mercy and compassion of the local tribe saved them. The visitors from the sea were feared, not because they were all-powerful gods carrying muskets, but because they were disease-carrying simpletons, mostly unskilled in the ways of life on this continent (and therefore likely to die if they remained, while killing entire populations of natives). They carried European seeds that would die in Massachusetts soil, and European sicknesses that indigenous people had no immunity to.

The pilgrims were Christians, a sect of the faith that was very much looked upon as heretic in old England. That’s why they came here, as Puritans, to flee England, where they were condemned to prison, or death. As English people, the pilgrims certainly did not consider a patriotic duty to their king and country as integral to their faith. They looked to a higher King.

I am not particularly comfortable with Christian parables that run in a militant stream. Growing up Jewish, that’s not a culture of militancy. Jews argue, with our mouths. To Jews, fists are reserved for punching back. I have no problem with guns in the hands of responsible citizens. I believe that the existence of the potential citizen militia has prevented violent overthrow of our government more than once, the Civil War notwithstanding (that was a political war, driven by political leaders and fueled by money).

I am a proponent of America maintaining a strong military, because there are nations in the world with evil intentions. Guns and military duty are integral to America’s mission in the world—to be a force for basic human dignity and self-determination. While we haven’t always hued to that mission, especially dealing with our own westward expansion and with our continental neighbors, on the whole I’d say we’ve done pretty well.

I’ve written all leading up to a question: Is God, Family, Country a Biblical principle? Do American Christians owe a duty of patriotism to the United States?

Isaiah chapter 8 contains a strong message for those who put too much faith in national power.

11 This is what the Lord says to me with his strong hand upon me, warning me not to follow the way of this people:

12 “Do not call conspiracy
    everything this people calls a conspiracy;
do not fear what they fear,
    and do not dread it.
13 The Lord Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
    he is the one you are to fear,
    he is the one you are to dread.

In Psalm 20, David wrote what is one of the creeds of the ancient kingdom of Israel:

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
    but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.

David was a warrior, but he was also a lover, a sinner, and a dancer. He worshiped with the same zeal with which he wielded a stone or a sword. He trusted God to give him victory, but used violence to achieve it. When David had the opportunity to kill Saul, when the king was pursuing David to kill him, David did not kill Saul. David would not fight his own rebellious son Absalom, who took over the kingdom. Absalom died by the hand of God (his long hair was caught in a tree branch).

In Psalm 2, God’s disdain for the plans of nations and their leaders is clear.

 Why do the nations conspire
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
    against the Lord and against his anointed, saying,
“Let us break their chains
    and throw off their shackles.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
    the Lord scoffs at them.
He rebukes them in his anger
    and terrifies them in his wrath, saying,
“I have installed my king
    on Zion, my holy mountain.”

Christians around the world, being humans, would like to imagine themselves as “his anointed,” and the others as “the nations.” But God does not see it that way. God has proclaimed himself alone as king, in the person of Jesus Christ. A Christian owes devotion to Christ alone, and through Christ, love for family, and for country, flows.

I believe God created man, and gave us a need for community, which encompasses communication (language), art, culture, song, and the genetic links of family. We may not like the people in our family, but we are devoted to them against external threats who do not share our bonds. We may not agree or like fellow Americans in our neighborhood, but if others from a distant land showed up to dominate us, we would fight shoulder to shoulder with them against the common enemy.

We in Georgia may call people in San Francisco “woke” or people in Portland, Oregon may call us redneck or ultra-MAGA, but in an event like 9/11, we are all Americans. After 9/11, the entire western world reacted to protect America. NATO, for its first and (so far) only time, activated Article 5, to defend U.S. airspace. Queen Elizabeth, on September 13, 2001, ordered the Coldstream Guards to play the Star Spangled Banner at the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, instead of the requisite God Save the Queen. Defensor Fidei of the Church of England, which American ancestors fled for their lives, honored America in our grief.

Americans now join the nations of the former British Empire around the world in grief for Queen Elizabeth, despite our distaste for state religions and monarchs. We share a common heritage, language, and many cultural touchpoints (the coffee versus tea division aside). We feel a duty to honor our compatriots with compassion and love.

The biblical duty of a Christian is to be salt and light. This is manifest in love. In Jesus’ final prayers before he was called to the anguish of the cross, he said in John 13:35, By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Patriotism is the love of country, which is little more than the feelings of duty we have for those who are like us, in concentric rings: family, community, nation. But Christians are but pilgrims in the mortal world. Being “in Christ” means being part of a kingdom that is not of this world—a heavenly kingdom that we do not have power to bring here and neither do we have power to enter or cause others to enter. The only one who has that power is Christ.

It is through Christ that we enter His Kingdom, and it is through Christ’s return that His Kingdom will come to earth. We owe no greater allegiance to anyone on earth than to the one who created heaven and earth. The tugs of devotion we feel to family and country are part of our natural man; the divine gives us liberty to transcend those in defense of the innocent, the widow, and the spiritually bound in places beyond our community.

“God, family, country,” is not a biblical principle. It is to God alone we owe our freedom and allegiance. Our family and country are present needs, and as Christians we should fulfill our duty to them as we do in other ways, by voting, paying taxes, offering our skills in leadership and politics, or business, providing services, and producing goods. We must oppose tyranny, even when it is our nation taking up the rod of a tyrant.

Retired Lt. Gen. Michel Flynn has been traveling to churches as part of a “Reawakening America” tour. He offers a mix of aggressive military talk and active prayer. I have no doubt Flynn believes his faith is genuine. He also believes a lot of other conspiracies as the prophet Isaiah warned against and I quoted above. The faith of Gen. Flynn is uncomfortably close to the faith of Vladimir Putin, and it is just as dangerous. Those faith leaders who fly the Stars & Stripes, promote political MAGA, while turning God into a rallying cry for political and military power are leading people away from the true roots of our faith.

There is no holy war, crusade or worldwide cleansing of evil that America is somehow anointed to pursue. That kind of patriotism leads away from the love Christ commanded. Draw your own conclusions on some of the wars past and present that perhaps Christians have been too enthusiastic to attribute to God’s will. America’s might may be the fruit of years of prayer and devotion by our faithful Christians and our love spread around the world. But don’t be fooled into thinking it’s some mandate from God or special dispensation to bring His kingdom through our might. Our might is nothing to God.

Don’t follow Flynn’s faith. It feels good, but it’s ultimately bankrupt and leads to corruption.

America is special precisely because we have largely avoided the mistake of wrapping God’s sovereignty with our flag; we made religious freedom from government (not government freedom from religion, mind you) a cornerstone of our basic governing law. The best way for Christianity in America to corrupt itself and decline is to attack that cornerstone, especially with a militant strain of Christian duty to country. It’s a good time to stop using “God, Family, Country” as a rallying cry.

The best patriotism an American Christian can show is to devote oneself to prayer, love, and kindness. This, of all things, is what makes America great. Flying the flag, singing the anthem, and wearing a uniform are proper symbols of a devotion to country, but remember, God is not in those symbols. It is always a mistake—the same one the Church of England made that led the pilgrims to flee in 1620—to mix the sovereignty of a state with the will of God.

Follow Steve on Twitter @stevengberman.

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