Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Some thoughts about patriotism and conservative v. liberal Christians

I came to know the Lord back in 1970, in a time when Christianity wasn't strongly identified with a particular strain of American politics. Before any of us knew Jerry Falwell's and Pat Robertson's politics, back before Jimmy Carter gave born-again Christians a candidate they could identify with on the basis of their faith.

So I fortunately had lots of room to figure out God and country on my own, to draw my own conclusions before anyone came along to tell me what my politics had to be. And some things just seemed obvious.

For instance, God is bigger than country. There's really no getting around that one. God is bigger than the world He created, so He's bigger than America or (back then) the Soviet Union or whatever.

For a Christian, being patriotic in the standard sense is silly. If we are to be patriotic, what is our patrie, our fatherland? Well, we know who our Father is; presumably His land would be our Fatherland. We know from the Gospels that Jesus in His ministry spread the Good News of the Kingdom of God; if we have a true country, that would presumably be it. Certainly Jesus said his kingdom wasn't of this world, and the writer of the letter to the Hebrews said we are sojourners, passing travelers, in this world. And if our true country is outside of this world, that inherently limits the sort of commitment we can make to any of the countries in this world.

Which is important, because it would seem that anyone with a modicum of common sense - no deep theology or even book learning required - could see that God and country are going to ask very different things of us, and that there's going to be some conflict there from time to time. God is love, and He loves us all: God so loved the world, and He is no respecter of persons. Nations have strategic interests, for which God surely cares little; God cares about the people, not trade routes and resources. A nation might ask its citizens to bear arms against the citizens of a different nation, and a citizen who gives his allegiance to that nation will fight, kill, and die on its behalf. A Christian, in aiming his gun at the citizen of another country, has to ask, "Does God want that person dead? Am I called to kill that person?" If the answer to the first is No, or even I Don't Know, then the answer to the second question is No as well. (It could even be No if the answer to the first question is Yes: in the event that God wants someone dead, you may still not be called to be the one to kill him.)

Christians, in the true sense of the word, would make lousy soldiers. If you are serving God, then you must ask God what He wants you to do. In the military, they can't wait around for that. They have to know you will do what they want you to do.

Conservative Christians are generally quite patriotic. I have never understood this, and it's a fundamental part of my alienation from them. To be honest, I am not at all sure they believe in the God of the Bible, but rather in some tribal deity who blesses their tribe over against all the other tribes of the world, whether those other tribes be Communists, Moslems, or even American secular liberals, who they seem to view not as true Americans, but as a fifth column to be rooted out. (For the most part, I don't think they even believe in the existence of liberal Christians; I expect they think people like me are really secular liberals who are attempting to hijack their religion.) Certainly those I've talked to - a pretty large number, over the years - feel no tension between serving God and serving America, regarding potential conflict between the two as a rare and exceptional aberration that they're unlikely to ever have to deal with, if they think about it at all. And that's certainly symptomatic of a tribal religion. And if you were in an evangelical church this past Sunday, chances are excellent that you heard a lot of verbiage that wrapped God and America up together in the flag, with no caution that no man can serve two masters. That is also symptomatic of a tribal religion.

I don't know what to do about this. I feel some sort of need to call my more conservative brothers and sisters in Christ out of their tribalism, and into a deeper faith - for I believe many of the people in the pews have had genuine experiences with Christ, and have been led astray by the Falwell and Robertson wannabes in fundamentalist pulpits everywhere. But Lord knows I have no idea where to start.

But here and now, on the morning of July 4, I know that as a Christian, I cannot in any way, shape, or form be a patriotic American. I cannot pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands. That debt of loyalty and service to a liege lord that was the original meaning of 'allegiance' is already given; I already have a Lord. That doesn't bother me; I've known this for a long time now, and am quite comfortable with it. What I still find perplexing is that any Christian should see it another way.


At 6:18 PM, Blogger evilbeth said...

Very interesting take. How do you feel about environmentalism? If Christians are only traveling through, they really shouldn't care much about what leave physically leave in their wake.

At 5:04 PM, Blogger Rufus said...

Hi, evilbeth! Thanks for stopping by!

Maybe I should've said this in the post itself, but I believe Christians should care deeply about this world and its inhabitants; it's just that this world isn't where our allegiance lies.

That applies to a lot of things, not just environmentalism. For instance, since America is where I live, it's not surprising that I care more about what happens in America than elsewhere. That's just the way it goes. But OTOH, I recognize that that's not God's view of this world; the life of a Cambodian, say, matters just as much to Him as mine. So when I think about the role of America in the world, I'm going to at least try to step out of my Americentrism and seek relations between America and the world that work well for all concerned, and not just us.

As far as the environment is concerned, God made this world for us, to be a good place to live. Maybe the End Times will come next week, or maybe they won't come for millennia. Since we don't know which it will be, we should pass on God's love for us to future generations by leaving them as pleasant, fruitful, and interesting a world as God left us.

Not to mention, we should love His other creatures, too, to the extent that we can. (I'm not capable of loving mosquitos and tarantulas. Nobody's going to confuse me with St. Francis of Assisi.) I have no idea whether animals have souls, in the sense that Christians use the word, but the higher animals can feel happiness and anguish, pleasure and pain. It ought to matter to us that we're screwing up their world - that we're squeezing out the Florida panther's habitat, that polar bears are swimming across endless miles of Arctic ocean before ultimately drowning because the polar ice has moved so far away from the shore. That ought to strike a chord in us somewhere.

The fact that we're just passing through doesn't exempt us of moral responsibility for what we do while we're here. It just means we should care about the world in a deeper way than someone who believes there is no God, and this is all there is. Doesn't seem to make as much difference as it ought to, though.

At 8:50 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Rufus,

I came across your blog entirely by chance, and find it very interesting! I have only had time to read a few entries so far, but this one caught my eye.

I was wondering: As a liberal Christian, how do you interpret the First Amendment? I find this question interesting because of my own experience. I moved to the shallow South about a year ago and started working at a federal agency -- both for the first time. I was really surprised at the degree to which non-governmental interference in religion in this region seems to be interpreted as the right to express religious beliefs openly (even at work, even in a government building) -- rather than as "please keep it out of other people's faces."

I was raised in an old-fashioned agnostic Unitarian church, and have always felt strongly that government be obligated enforce a separation of church and state. What's your view on religion and the state, Rufus? Politically I think we're pretty similar, but we obviously have very different religious leanings. So I am very curious to know where you stand.


-- Anonymous

At 2:38 PM, Blogger Rufus said...

Dear Anonymous,
Thanks for stopping by! I think you're right - despite our different religious leanings, we probably see SOCAS (separation of church and state) issues fairly similarly.

My interpretation of the Establishment Clause is fairly simple: the government has no business taking sides in religious matters - be it in disputes between different religions, different denominations within a religion, holders of different beliefs, or even between religion and atheism.

I don't see this as anti-religious in any way. It's no surprise that more politically powerful faiths would try to use worldly power to make everyone comply with their beliefs. As a Christian who finds very different things in his Bible than the Falwells, Robertsons, Dobsons, etc. of the world seem to, I'd rather they not have the opportunity to use the government to spread their version of Christianity.

I wouldn't take it quite so personally if it weren't for their incessant efforts to equate their perverted religion with Christianity itself, rather than their own particular take on it. But their efforts to paint all their foes as anti-Christian when Christians such as me have plenty of reason to be unhappy with them not only gets under my skin, but it's a violation of the commandment against bearing false witness. (I guess they like some of the Ten Commandments more than others.)

I also don't think it speaks well of their faith that they're using government as a means of spreading their faith. My God isn't so small that He needs government assistance. Theirs apparently is.


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