When love of Nation becomes idolatry

Thursday, March 9, 2017 6:06 PM

As we move into summer, I find myself, as I do this time every year, pondering the approaching Fourth of July and its relationship to church life and matters of faith.

First a disclaimer: While I was born in the United States and love living here, if for no other reason than our magnificent and varied natural landscapes, I have lived elsewhere and have been happy living there as well. I am glad for the good things we have and do here as a nation, but I do not look at us through rose-colored glasses. I am not what might be called a “super patriot” who believes we are, across the board, better in all ways than all other countries.

As a person with leadership responsibilities in a congregation here in Cortez, I have often wondered about the interface of love of Nation and love of God. I don’t know about other denominations, but in the one with which I am most familiar, there are aspects of our shared life where these get conflated. While I’d be surprised if there are many (if any) of our clergy who preach Nationalism, we do as a church have a couple of arenas where it is easy on Sunday mornings for clergy to blur the love of God with love of Nation.

The first is visual. Displaying the American flag in the sanctuary opposite the flag of our denomination is not uncommon. The unspoken message this gives is that God and Country are on equal footing and are of equal importance. If we come into the sanctuary to worship God, this says we are also to worship the State. The last time I checked, this was not among Jesus’ teachings.

The other place it is easy to slip into conflating love of God with love of nation is in our hymnody. Again, I can’t speak for other denominations, but in ours the standard hymn book has an entire section that goes under the heading “National Songs.” On occasional Sundays throughout the year, churches might sing from this section, but when it comes to the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, many will haul out “America the Beautiful” or even “The Star Spangled Banner.”

We live with a pervasive myth in this country that we are a Christian nation. Even if this were true, which it is not and never has been (check your history), we who are Christian are called to live here as resident aliens. We are to live by the values of Christ’s realm – loving others (including our enemies) as we love ourselves – striving (not just hoping) for justice and peace among all people. All people. When we followers of Jesus slip from loving or serving God by loving as God loves – indiscriminately, with abandon, unflinchingly – and instead love or serve our nation indiscriminately, with abandon, unflinchingly – we have fallen into idolatry.

Presbyterian minister and theologian Frederick Buechner, in “Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary,” writes about the relationship between patriotism and Christian faith: “The only patriots worth their salt are the ones who love their country enough to see that in a nuclear age (and I might add, in an age of global warming) it is not going to survive unless the world survives. True patriots are no longer champions of any one country in particular, but champions of the human race. It is not the homeland that they feel called on to defend at any cost, but the planet earth as home.”

Food for thought as we cue up for our hotdogs and fireworks this Fourth of July.

Leigh Waggoner is priest at St. Barnabas Episcopal Church. She can be reached at 565-7865, or