Friday, May 25, 2012

Patriotism, Religion, and the Building of American Community

With Memorial Day upon us and Independence Day following close behind, my thoughts have turned to the value of patriotism.

I confess that in years past I have spent quite a bit of time pondering patriotism’s too frequent mutation, under the influence of fear, arrogance, and xenophobia, into nationalism and jingoism. I confess furthermore that I am still troubled by those who talk and act as if the United States is always automatically better and more correct in any scenario that is played out under any circumstances with any nation and as if anyone who offers a criticism of an American policy or program is, if not an enemy of the state, at least unpatriotic.

I confess also that in years past I have spent quite a bit of time fretting over the too often uncritically reflected upon connection that many people seem to make between Christian commitment and patriotic allegiance and particularly over the marriage of convenience between far right wing Christianity and far right wing politics. I confess furthermore that I am still troubled by those who talk and act as if somehow pledging allegiance to the American flag and pledging allegiance to the Christian flag are two sides of the same coin.

But I’m not thinking about those things this year—well, not much, anyway.

Instead I’m thinking about the valuable and healthy role that patriotism can and should play in forming, preserving, and enriching a sense of community among Americans.

“Patriotism” as I define it is a healthy love for, respect for, and devotion to one’s homeland, whether it is one’s homeland by birth or by adoption, and to its people, its traditions, and its principles, and a commitment to protect it, to defend it, and to work with all other citizens to make it even better.

Now, as a Christian (and I think I can safely assume I would say this if I came from another faith tradition) I must add that my commitment to love and to serve my God and to have my life formed by my Scriptures is prior to and more important than and thus must inform and can even sometimes limit the ways in which I can serve and support my country. It’s simply a matter of putting first things first and as a Christian my primary allegiance is to my Lord and all my other allegiances, including my allegiance to my country and even to my family, exist under and are shaped by that primary allegiance.

One of the great principles upon which the United States is founded is the principle of religious liberty; in this nation people are free to practice their religion (or to practice no religion) and are free from being compelled to support an established or state religion. I think that is a good and healthy thing, which I am sure the Founding Fathers would be relieved to hear. I furthermore think that it is a principle around which we should rally and which we should all, irrespective of our religious traditions and convictions, defend.

But one of the side effects of our tradition of religious liberty and the resulting tremendous religious diversity in the United States is that our religious traditions and convictions often become lines of division and debate and even of antagonism. There is nothing wrong with the practice of apologetics and all Americans should certainly have the freedom to make their case and to speak their minds so long as we are respectful and civil about it. Let’s face it, though—most of us do in fact think that there is something a little more valuable and “right” in our faith tradition than there is in other traditions or in no tradition; otherwise, we wouldn’t stay in it. I, for example, am a Christian and I truly believe that the ultimate and at the same time most accessible (a tension I just have to live with) revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. I would very much like to see absolutely everybody absolutely everywhere become a disciple of Jesus.

But that is not going to happen here in America or anywhere else. Moreover, all American Christians are never going to interpret or practice their Christian faith in the same way.

Therefore, practicing ecumenism is very difficult. Perhaps to our shame but nevertheless understandably given the way things are, holding truly ecumenical Christian worship services or sharing in truly ecumenical Christian ministry efforts—and by “truly ecumenical” I mean services or efforts at which any Christian group or individual would be fully welcomed and fully included and fully appreciated—is difficult, given the differences in worship and doctrine and practice that divide us. Certainly, then, holding truly ecumenical—with no requirement or expectation that the participants be Christian—worship services or ministry efforts is even more difficult.

For the record, I’d be more than willing to try it in either or both ways—“Christian ecumenical” or just “ecumenical”—but I recognize the difficulties. While it is true that God is one and while it is true that people of all religious traditions probably should be willing and able to come together to worship that one true God, it is simply the case that our different beliefs and convictions and practices make it hard.

In the United States of America, then, building over-arching community around religion, even around the worship of the one true God, is a non-starter.

So here I return to patriotism—did you remember that this is a post about patriotism?—and to the valuable and healthy role that patriotism can and should play in forming, preserving, and enriching a sense of community among Americans.

The bottom line is that we have at least a chance to be unified behind our common allegiance to the United States and to the principles on which the nation is built.

It is not—or at least is should not be—difficult for us to see that we best celebrate our American freedoms or remember our American history or embrace our American heritage when we do so not as Christian Americans or Jewish Americans or Muslim Americans or Buddhist Americans or Atheist Americans but rather as Americans who happen to be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Buddhist or Atheist.

It is our common allegiance to America that can and should bring Americans together and create American community.

I know that some will say that this is idolatry, the putting of America in the place of God, but I deny that. I say again that for a person of faith his or her commitment to God must come first. I also say that where ecumenical progress can be made it should be made. But I also say again that our heritage of religious liberty and the fact of religious diversity make it impossible for religion—even faith in the one true God who, I would say, is most fully revealed in his Son Jesus Christ—to be the basis for American community.

The creating of such community is the most important role that true patriotism can play.

(This post originally appeared in 2011 on my blog On the Jericho Road.)

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