This is 4th of July weekend. It is a time for family get-togethers, picnics and fireworks. It is also a time for us to express our patriotism as good Americans. In many American churches, “God Bless America” will be sung. For serious people this weekend raises serious questions. How do we prioritize faith and patriotism? Do we try to balance the two? Is one more dominating than the other? Can we be good people of faith and good American citizens simultaneously? What comes first in our lives and practices? What is the relationship of faith and patriotism?
Many good people would say we need to balance the two. From a Judeo-Christian perspective this is a misunderstanding of faith in God. Faith and patriotism stand in tension with each other. It goes back to the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods.” Martin Luther in his Small Catechism defined this as, “We should fear, love and trust in God above all things.” In itself, there is nothing wrong with patriotism until it takes priority over our faith in God, or when we see the two as equal. We can be good people of faith and good American citizens simultaneously as long as we prioritize God. To prioritize country first is idolatry.
In recent years nationalism has risen in our country. Nationalism is the identification of our own nation as superior to all others. This is a form of idolatry. The same is true of the concept of American exceptionalism, that the United States is inherently better than any other nation and every other nation. Don’t misunderstand. There are many good things about our country. But there are also many areas where we fall far short. We are still struggling with the effects of America’s original sin – slavery. We are still struggling with white privilege and its effects. Although we say in the pledge to the flag “with liberty and justice for all,” that is still only aspirational. We are far from that being reality. We still have significant work to do.
We need to deal with the immorality of income inequality. It is obscene for us to be arguing over raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, while the median CEO pay rose to $12.4 million (Wall Street Journal, May 17, 2019) and it has only increased since then. We must as a society address the roots of poverty and homelessness in our country. We must address the unequal justice system based on skin color. We must address the long-standing inequality between men and women. People of faith should lead our country in addressing these issues. Far too often churches and people of faith have stood on the wrong side of history and on the right side of the status quo.
People of faith should lead our country to a more perfect union. People of faith should not be hesitant to call out inequalities. People of faith should question authority and exercise freedom responsibly. People of faith should tackle tough questions and not shy away from difficult answers. People of faith should stand with those who are suffering from past injustices. When we do those things we are not only people of good faith, we are also patriotic. God bless America when and where it is right. And may God empower us to initiative change wherever it is wrong.
The Rev. Glen VanderKloot is the retired pastor of Faith Lutheran Church, where he had served since 1989.
This article originally appeared on State Journal-Register: Faith and patriotism or faith vs. patriotism