For God or Country (Wrestling the Angel of Patriotism)

Eagle and American Flag Photo by Pam "Bubbels" Roth, Creative Commons

Photo by Pam “Bubbels” Roth, Creative Commons

Sometimes I wonder if it’s possible to be a good patriotic American and a genuine Christian at once.  This isn’t an idle thought, or some kind of “blame America first” catchphrase.  It’s a genuine worry I have.

I’ve always believed that America is essentially good (though far from perfect) and that patriotism was a good thing.  I still do, for the most part.  But now I wonder if these two things – America and the Kingdom of Heaven – are not competing goods.

Part of me wants to say “no.”  Jesus said that no man can serve two masters. [Matthew 6:24]  And I’ve already talked about how America is not, and never has been righteous (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3).  I can’t vote for Romney or Obama, not so long as they both support drone strikes against civilians.  For all the religious political posturing, America seems more like Rome than Jerusalem.

We do not care for the poor like we should.  The gap between the rich and poor grows.  And the mortgage crisis shows how easily the average person can be taken advantage of by unscrupulous creditors (I was a Realtor a few years back, and let me tell you, that can be an ugly field.  Finding an ethical Realtor and mortgage broker is vital, and not always easy.  I mean, really?  Approving someone for a mortgage that costs half their monthly income?  What ethical planet are you from?)

Politicians preach about Sodom, but forget what the Sin of Sodom was: Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had arrogance, abundant food and careless ease, but she did not help the poor and needy.”  That’s right: Sodom’s sin was lack of hospitality, not caring for the poor, living too richly while those around them suffered [Ezekiel 16:49].  Forget homosexuality: that’s America to the core.

On the Other Hand…

Part of me wants to say “yes.”  Part of me says that Granddaddy was both.  He fought in World War II.  He started and sustained two small businesses, on of which still employs several people in our hometown, fifty years later (thanks in large part to my Dad, who’s managed it for about 25 years).

Granddaddy was always patriotic.  He put flags on the graves on Memorial Day.  He was a proud veteran, and he modeled quiet, civic patriotism.  He was also far and away a better Christian than I am.

He spent a lot of time in prayer (time I either waste online or spend writing about my feelings *smirk*).  He was a Gideon, and active in prison ministry.  Was he perfect?  Of course not.  But he was fundamentally good, and he gave God the glory.

Was Granddaddy’s America better than the one I live in now?  Nostalgia tempts me to say “yes.”  Certainly, much of his life was lived in simpler times.  The amount of information, the access to information, was less, and even entertainment came in such limited streams that you could stand around drinking coffee and talk about TV shows and actually have people know what you mean, without having to Google it (Honey Boo-Boo?  That sounds like a bee with a scraped knee, but apparently it’s a reality TV show).

But better?  We’ve been through this (Part 1Part 2, and Part 3).  World War II was a just war if there ever was one, but America still bombed Dresden, killing 25,000 civilians, America firebombed Tokyo, killing at least 100,000 and leaving 1 million homeless, roughly as many as the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and more than the bombing of Nagasaki.

These massive bombing campaigns may or may not have been necessary to win the war, but they led to massive civilian deaths.  Our ongoing drone strikes are less destructive by a couple of orders of magnitude, but they’re also unnecessary and unjustifiable.

On the home front, racial segregation was an ongoing struggle.  I have a relatively objective account that Granddaddy was about as non-racist as a white man could be at the time and still live in Mississippi (told by a friend who left Mississippi in the 1950’s in protest of the racist atmosphere).  But the atmosphere affected everyone who stayed.

So, if my grandfather was able to balance love for a deeply flawed nation with faithful service to God, why can’t I?

Maybe the times really have changed.  Maybe there is no political party I can get behind (drone strikes on civilians are a deal-breaker, as is torture).  Granddaddy voted Republican as long as I can remember, but the party was very different back then.  When he was alive, I voted Republican, and did it with a clear conscience.  This year?  I don’t know who I’ll vote for, but it will be in protest.

Maybe I’m just not trying hard enough.  Maybe loving America has nothing to do with being able to vote for a Presidential candidate in good conscience.  Maybe part of loving America is calling it as it is, not worshiping it as it claims to be.

Maybe I can only love America correctly if I first love God correctly.  If I turn my loyalties away from my own self (whether self-preservation, self-interest, or just self-introspection) and turn them to God’s Kingdom, maybe I’ll be able to love America like God does – fully aware of its flaws, with no blind jingoism, with no excuses, just grace.

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