It might seem shocking to some people that a concept like “nationalism” or “patriotism” would be controversial in America. However, when a country is as politically polarized as ours, everything seems controversial. A nation that is splitting apart into hostile and warring factions is going to argue about even the most basic ideas.
These controversies intrude not only into family discussions around the Thanksgiving table but also into many church discussions in the Sunday school classroom. After all, Christians in America are Americans, too.
Is it wrong for Christians to love their country? Can they be patriotic? Are such sentiments a manifestation of idolatry or, at best, a worldly attachment to a temporal entity?
Of course, before we decide whether or not it is appropriate for a Christian to engage in it, we should make sure we understand what “it” is.
The word patriotism has a long etymological history, dating back to the Roman republic. However, its current usage is fairly simple, meaning “love for or devotion to one’s country” (Merriam-Webster).
Nationalism is a bit more complex. The word includes the idea of patriotism but begins with something even deeper: “a sense of national consciousness” (Merriam-Webster). In order to love one’s country, there first has to exist a something to love. There has to be a sense of “we” that is distinct from a sense of “them” – i.e., the people who aren’t “we.”
Now that we have the basics down, let’s examine the key questions. In this process, I’m going to start small and work my way up to the concept of nationalism.
The way we are
Humans are social beings. Not only were we created for relationship with God, we were created to relate to other human beings as an expression of that primary affiliation. After creating Adam, God said in Genesis 2, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him” (vs. 18).
Of course, the creation of Eve not only doubled the number of people on earth, it established an entirely new dynamic; the more individuals that were added to the human race, the more complex that dynamic became. Think of it this way: A single man shipwrecked on a deserted island is different than two men being shipwrecked. With two, suddenly it matters who makes decisions affecting, say, the supply of rainwater or food. Questions arise over issues like ownership of property or division of labor. And when one woman is added…well, you get the idea.
So it is no surprise that, as communities of people in human history became larger, the complexity of relationships grew. Where customs might have sufficed when a group was small, laws became necessary when the group was large. The patriarch of a family might give way to a chieftain, in turn giving way to a king ruling through a bureaucracy. Etc.
Now, inside these larger communities, there is a natural affinity for those with whom we are the closest. The tendency for most people is to give to those for whom we have a natural bond. This is why Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46-47). Jesus understood that the human tendency is to be generous to family and friends. This is not evil; it is natural. This closeness is the glue that holds societies together. Love and compassion create a potent union between a husband and wife; the natural love between parents and children creates a powerful bond unifying the family; strong families produce vibrant communities; these larger groups generate a stable and thriving nation.
No sane Christian asks the question, “Is it OK to love my family?” God designed us to love them. The teachings of Jesus assume that this is the way things naturally are, such as when He states that even the wicked “know how to give good gifts to [their] children” (Luke 11:13). This natural love is expressed by devotion, loyalty, and sacrifice.
The Christian is called to make sure he or she excels in this kind of love. For example, in the famous marriage passage in Ephesians 5: 25-33, husbands are commanded to “love their own wives as their own bodies.” This love is expressed when the husband “nourishes and cherishes” his wife; he is to sacrifice for her “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”
The Bible takes this responsibility so seriously that Paul says, “[I]f anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Drawing a larger circle
In the same way, then, why would someone suggest that it is wrong to love one’s nation? Isn’t a nation merely an aggregate of thousands of families that naturally love each other? I am called to love my neighbor as myself (Mark 12:31). Do I draw the line in my neighborhood only, or expand it to include my nation?
What does that love look like? Surely, it would include the vision and hard work necessary to better my nation and make it prosperous! If we were talking about building a business, would we even question such work? We would expect the founder of a business to have a vision, build it to last, protect it, and make it profitable. A business is a heart-and-soul endeavor, expressing the creativity God has placed in those fashioned in His image.
This is not idolatry. In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), for example, there is no rebuke of the servants that invested well and prospered the master’s business. In fact, the opposite is true. These faithful servants were praised. So why is that different from Christians loving their nation and trying to build it the best they can? Are we not to glorify God in everything we do (1 Corinthians 10:31), at school, work, in marriage, family – and beyond? If love for family includes devotion, loyalty, and sacrifice, why shouldn’t it also include love for nation?
The Bible makes clear that love for the people that make up someone’s nation is just as normal and natural as love for family. David showed concern for the spiritual life of his countrymen, whom he calls “my people” (Psalm 59:11). The prophet Jeremiah mourns the fate of his countrymen as well, saying, “Behold, listen! The cry of the daughter of my people from a distant land” (Jeremiah 8:19).
Who can forget the powerful sentiments expressed by the apostle Paul, lamenting the rejection of Christ by unbelieving Jews: “I have great sorrow and unceasing grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed, separated from Christ for the sake of my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh, who are Israelites” (Romans 9:2-4). Paul did not think it a strange thing that his own heart broke for his “kinsmen according to the flesh,” nor that he would have sacrificed himself for their sake if he could have brought them to Christ.
We are on solid biblical ground to assert that it is normal, natural, and pleasing to God that we love our country and the people in it and that we seek the benefit of those who live in it.
Biblical limitations and expansions
However, there are two additional, very important biblical considerations to take into account.
First, God has set limits to human affection, prohibiting the exaltation of natural love to a place that supersedes love for Him.
I said earlier that, not only were we created for relationship with God, we were created for relationships with other human beings as an expression of that primary affiliation. That is the proper order of things; reversing it is idolatry.
In fact, Jesus made this a test of true discipleship, because natural bonds of love and devotion can tempt the Christian to spiritual infidelity. He said, “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37). The person who loves family more than Christ will eventually abandon Him; the person who loves Christ more than family will remain faithful, even when faced with family betrayal and death (vv. 21, 34-36).
The same is true for love of country. The Christian must always love God enough to refuse complicity with national and cultural evil. How many white Christians, rather than standing against the evil of Jim Crow laws, instead embraced the wickedness of racism in the South? How many Christians in Germany embraced the hell-inspired nationalism of Nazism, rather than reject it because of devotion to Jesus?
Second, God has called the Christian to go beyond the smaller circle of natural love to the unlimited circle of supernatural love.
While there is nothing wrong – and everything right – with love for family and friends, this is to be enlarged in the Christian life by an ever-expanding generosity. Such love serves as an expression of God’s love. After all, divine blessing is motivated by unmerited grace. You don’t have to be a part of the “insider” group to receive from God.
Jesus said the Father “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5: 45).
Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 5:46-47, that if Christians only love those who are close to them, “what reward do you have?” Unbelievers love those inside the smaller circle. If you only do the same, “what more are you doing than others?” What’s so supernatural about your life if you restrict your love to family and friends? What evidence is there that God indwells you?
There’s even more. Jesus challenges His people to bless the people in the larger circle without thought of repayment! He said: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, otherwise they may also invite you in return and that will be your repayment. But when you give a reception, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, since they do not have the means to repay you; for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (Luke 14:12-14).
Expanding this to our discussion of love of country, I think this means the Christian should consider helping even those outside the borders of their own nation. Certainly, this includes the preaching of the gospel in obedience to the Great Commission, but wouldn’t it also include giving aid to work that meets physical needs as well? I think it absolutely does.
It would be strange to hear a Christian insist that we should not love our country, as it becomes clear in the New Testament that the love that characterizes the life of the Christian is not to have limits. That limitless circle would, by definition, include our nation – and beyond.