The Faithful Patriot
By Jennifer Patterson
a man in uniform standing in front of a monument

Hundreds of thousands of white headstones in Arlington National Cemetery memorialize American military service and sacrifice dating back to the Civil War. Section 60 of the cemetery calls on our most recent memories. Toward the east side of the section are graves of United States military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Washington, D.C. residents like me know that here each Memorial Day, families and friends gather around a gravesite instead of a backyard grill. Multiple generations in groups of five, ten, and more bring lawn chairs and blankets to stay a while in the shadow of their recently fallen loved ones. The lives of these families have been wrapped up, deeply and painfully, in the unfolding history of our country.

Christians should invite participation in the good of common life through patriotism characterized by gratitude, stewardship, and neighbor love.

These scenes in Section 60 are among the most poignant observances of a patriotic holiday anywhere in the country. They embody the duty–in whatever form it comes to each of us as citizens–to be a living link between our shared past and our corporate commitments for the future.

In the introduction to his American history volume, “Land of Hope,” Wilfred McClay describes citizenship as “a vivid and enduring sense of one’s full membership” in “the story of one’s own country.” Patriotism is the love born of such citizenship. Patriotism is active affection arising from an abiding awareness of belonging to the shared life of a people and place.

That participation in the ongoing welfare of our common life is expressed in taking responsibility for the continuity—and, when needed, the development or reform—of the principles, institutions, and habits that maintain liberty ordered for good. Today, that sense of belonging eludes too many Americans. Christians should invite participation in the good of common life through patriotism characterized by gratitude, stewardship, and neighbor love.

Patriotic Affections

For Christians, patriotism follows from our first love. To love God is to love his word and his works. God’s word directs Christians to respect, heed, give thanks for, and pray for civil authority (Romans 13:1–7; 1 Peter 2:13–14, 17; Titus 3:1–2; 1 Timothy 2:2). Scripture also teaches us to love our neighbors (Leviticus 19:18; Mark 12:31; Romans 13:9; James 2:8), whose earthly good is secured by a temporal government ordained by God to punish evildoers and uphold what is right (1 Peter 2:14). Patriotism is a grateful response to God’s common grace expressed through government generally and his providence in placing us in this civil society particularly.

As God’s word directs us toward patriotic attachment, so does his work. God’s work in creation culminated in the directive to his image-bearers to fill the earth and to develop the vast potential of creation so that it would display more facets of his glorious handiwork (Genesis 1:28). This is the charge to form culture, through which humanity would diversify throughout the world and show forth the “many-splendored richness” of the image of God, as the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck wrote. Patriotism celebrates God’s intention for the cultural development of creation’s potential, and the ways that has found expression in our time and place through a shared history.

Christians are indeed called “aliens”, “strangers”, and “sojourners” in this world (Hebrews 11:13; I Peter 2:11). Yet even in exile God’s people are to “seek the welfare of the city” in which they reside (Jeremiah 29:7). In fact, longing for a better country (Hebrews 11:16) should cause us to better love our country here and now. The early church father Augustine wrote his masterpiece “City of God” to show how Christian citizens could help Rome see that securing temporal goods required recognizing that human allegiance was owed to a power beyond itself. Like those early Christians, we love our country best when we do not love it ultimately.

At the same time, our love of country should run deep enough to invest time and energy in helping to organize life together as a political community. That participation can include all kinds of callings that contribute to civic life. Christian citizens, by recognizing God’s moral order and abiding purposes in creation, have insights essential to good governance. For example, God designed the world to abound with possibility, so much so that pursuing the Genesis 1:28 cultural mandate requires a division of labor among family, church, business, science, arts, and many other associations.

Government respects the diverse forms of human community emerging from the created order when it maintains the conditions in which all of these institutions and efforts can thrive. For its part, the government’s unique task is to provide a just public order under law in keeping with the created moral order. We love our country well when we seek to organize public life and policy in ways that reflect the reality of how God has made the world for flourishing.

Hopeful Critique

When it comes to U.S. history, McClay observes that “nothing about America better defines its distinctive character than the ubiquity of hope.” Americans have a “sense that the way things are initially given to us cannot be the final word about them, that we can never settle for that.”

This drive to develop and reform resonates with the cultural mandate, and it has thrived in a political order that has allowed the human spirit to flourish and to develop creation’s potential in remarkable ways. Religious liberty recognizes human responsibility to respond to God. Economic freedom makes room for the creative use of resources to serve human needs and cultivate the earth. Self-governing society depends on personal responsibility and neighbor love. We should celebrate and pass on a commitment to sustain this order in ways that permit divine image-bearers to pursue God’s purposes for temporal life and beyond.

But our country has not always upheld its noble principles. As McClay notes, when a “land of hope” falls short of its ideals, it sets itself up for “searing criticism.” Rightly so, for injustice in law can hold deep sway, distorting citizens’ moral compasses and corrupting the character of a culture while reaping suffering. The treatment of enslaved persons as property was a refusal to recognize the imago Dei in them, as well as an abdication of the image-bearing responsibility of those complicit in it. Such failures are also a part of our story that must be taught and addressed.

A history-teaching friend used to say that we should educate about the story of the United States, “warts and all, but not all warts.” Failures would indeed seem hopeless without an understanding of the merits that allow renewal. We need to know this country’s high ideals to be able to identify its shortcomings. We need to understand civic tools for reform to be able to correct those failures. We need to be familiar with models of courageous reformers to be emboldened ourselves.

Where our political order does not reflect the way that God has made the world for wholeness and flourishing, we too should seek reform. Failures should be confronted by reclaiming, after the example of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the “promissory note” inherent in the principles of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. They are promises meant to be kept, not abandoned.

The failures in American history call for action, not contempt. The late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former U.S. senator and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, once said, “Am I embarrassed to speak for a less-than-perfect democracy? Not one bit. Find me a better one. Do I suppose there are societies which are free of sin? No, I don’t.” He believed democratic societies were “incomparably the most hopeful set of human relations the world has.” Moynihan was by no means complacent about social relations, but he was hopeful.

In our contemporary context, critique should lead to constructive action, not cynicism. Cynicism is pessimistic fatalism that distrusts the goodness of God’s work in providence and common grace. Our responsibility is to act for good within our sphere of influence, to pray, and to trust God for the results. Sober-eyed realism about human nature is essential, but cynicism is a sin.

Patriotic Gratitude, Stewardship, and Neighbor Love

Patriotism comes from the Latin word for father. That familial root provides a helpful analogy. A family fares best when the shared history and hopes of its members lead them to express gratitude and take responsibility for their family’s welfare and character. In civic life, that kind of shared sense of belonging and responsibility is expressed in gratitude, stewardship and neighbor love.

Patriotic gratitude recognizes the many blessings we enjoy in this country. Too often we can take for granted these benefits, as well as those who served and sacrificed to secure them. We should thank God for his provision through the government for our temporal peace and security. We should be grateful for those who serve in public office. How we talk about government and public officials—even when sharply critiquing them—should not depart from this fundamental posture of gratitude for the means through which God has provided for our good (1 Timothy 2:2; Romans 13:4-6).

Gratitude is not complacency. Patriotic stewardship demands that we address government failures to maintain a just rule of law in which human beings made in God’s image can thrive and develop creation’s potential. A world prone to sin needs Christians citizens and officeholders engaged in hopeful pursuit of reform. Those called to law enforcement and military service put themselves in harm’s way on behalf of us all. A diversity of gifts equips us for these various vocations, which we should honor. Whatever our respective callings, belonging brings responsibility for our shared welfare.

Patriotic neighbor love should spur us to spread that sense of belonging. Each new generation needs the civic knowledge from which patriotic gratitude and stewardship grow. We should especially work to extend love to our neighbors who lack a sense of belonging, whether as a result of true hardships producing hopelessness or false messages producing disenchantment. In addition, how we talk about politics – even when sharply disagreeing – should not obfuscate the fact that we are communicating with neighbors with whom we share a common life. Our welfare is bound up with one another and requires mutual agency to sustain it.

These habits of gratitude, stewardship, and neighbor love begin humbly at home. As C.S. Lewis observed when writing about patriotism in “The Four Loves,” love of home is a love of familiarity. But that particularity teaches us something universal. Just as we love home, so we should expect that people throughout the world love home. Our own distinctive affections for family, community, and country are the seed of amity toward all humanity. In this way, patriotism produces practical wisdom and theological insight about the tension between two profound created realities: our individual uniqueness and our universal commonality as human beings made in the image of God.

Jennifer A. Patterson is director for The Institute for Theology and Public Life at Reformed Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C., and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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