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Christian faith and patriotism

Christian faith and patriotism

e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service

Christian faith and patriotism

April 11, 2008    News media contact:  Tita Parham*    
800-282-8011     Orlando {0828}

NOTE: A headshot of Whitaker is available at

An e-Review Commentary
By Bishop Timothy W. Whitaker**

The controversy in the presidential campaign about the comments of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (minister of the church Democratic presidential hopeful Senator Barack Obama attends) calls attention to an issue that confronts disciples of Jesus Christ. What should be the attitude of Christians toward patriotism?

For many people, this should be a non-issue. They believe that a person’s religious faith is private. They think Christian faith consists of personal trust in God, prayer, worship, doing acts of charity and service, and preparing for heaven.

That perspective is often shared by both political conservatives and liberals, but essentially it is the idea common in the liberal, modern Western state. The modern Western nations were created in response to the religious wars of Europe, and it seemed necessary to relegate religion to the private sphere. The idea is that society can be sustained when religious beliefs are tolerated so long as they are matters of private opinion and practice.

The problem with the privatization of religion is that it does not take into account the perennial role of religion in providing the social glue of society. Since no religion can be preferred in a modern Western state, there has emerged “civil religion,” in which God in general is evident at public ceremonies without any particular reference to Moses, Jesus or any other figure identified with divine revelation. Often, this civil religion is embraced by Christians who believe God and country are an indissoluble unity.

When Christian faith is fused with the piety of patriotism, there is no room for a Christian protest against the values, ideas or actions of the state, such as a war or unjust economic policies.

Others are motivated by the transcendent dimension that is in religion. Religions are centered in the divine, and the divine has a moral authority that transcends the authority of the state. One can observe how all religions can be the resource for protesting the claims of the state. Recently, the Buddhist monks in Burma led the costly protest against their totalitarian military regime. The Dali Lama is a religious leader who poses a moral threat to Chinese claims on Tibet. Jews, Christians and Muslims have often resisted the state in the name of the sovereign God.

When this transcendent element is grasped in a fanatical fashion, it results in an extreme, and often violent, politics. The religious element in terrorism today may be a demonstration of an extreme interpretation of the transcendent dimension in religion.

When the transcendent dimension in religion is balanced with other elements, then it can function as a basis for a responsible protest against the culture and the state. Jews and Christians often refer to the “prophetic” role of religion in protesting abuses of authority by the state in the tradition of the prophets of Israel.

The Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments stand in the prophetic tradition of the Christian faith. He was trying to be a prophet proclaiming the judgment of God on America because of its moral failings. Unfortunately, his occasional bombastic expressions and unsubstantiated theories distracted from his prophetic message and provided fodder for political controversy.

However, regardless of the political debate going on, this is an opportunity for Christians to engage in a thoughtful understanding of Christians’ attitudes toward patriotism. I offer a brief point for starting such a conversation.

First, a Christian cannot accept the idea that faith is private. Yes, it is certainly personal, but it also has public dimensions. The reason no Christian can reduce faith to the merely private sphere is because the living God is the Creator and Lord of the whole world.

Trusting in the sovereignty of the living God does not require the creation of a theocracy. God is Lord, not the church. The state is a part of God’s providential ordering of creation, and it has its own dignity and responsibility. From the very beginning, Christians have prayed for their rulers and have seen patriotism — the love of country — as an extension of the love of neighbor. So then, it is appropriate for Christians to support activities and organizations that engender a love of country. That is one reason our church endorses scouting programs for youth.

However, the church has its own dignity and responsibilities within every state. The church’s faith ought not be fused with patriotic feelings. Because the church hears the Word of God in Scripture and sacrament, and because it is a distinctive community within society, and because the church in every nation is in fellowship with the church in every other nation, it has a responsibility to witness to the state for peace, justice and moral responsibilities of every nation in international relations. Therefore, along with its prayers for rulers and its encouragement of love of country, the church has a prophetic witness it has to make.

Perhaps this is a season in American history where Christians should focus more on the meaning of citizenship rather than on patriotism. Patriotism is often evoked by politicians to manipulate the church to succumb to the aims of the state. When patriotism is used in this way, it is hard for many Christians to figure out their responsibilities; they feel the call of a higher authority, but they also love their country, and they do not know what to think.

Perhaps we can think more clearly if we think about citizenship rather than patriotism. Citizenship is an almost forgotten idea. It was the concern of the founding fathers, who emphasized both the rights and responsibilities of members of a republic. It is a good category for Christians because it frees us both to claim our membership in the republic and fulfill our responsibility to witness to what is best for the state as we understand it through the eyes of our faith.

We need a good conversation about what it means to be Christian citizens in our country and in every country on earth.


*Parham is managing editor of e-Review Florida United Methodist News Service.
**Whitaker is bishop of the Florida Conference.