There is a very large church in Greenville, South Carolina, that I happened to drive by one day when I lived in that area several years ago. It stands prominently up on a knoll, and a long, slightly curved driveway cuts in front from one end of the property to the other. The day I drove by, the place stood out more conspicuously than usual, for members had lined the entire length of that driveway with hundreds of American flags stuck in the ground every three feet or so. You couldn’t miss them, and, of course, that was the point.
That kind of sight is not uncommon in the South. Christians and their churches often easily meld their love of country with their love of God. And, yes, people of other faiths obviously do the same thing.
I am an Episcopal priest. I believe there is an appropriate relationship between my love of country and my love of God. My patriotism includes thanksgiving to God for the freedoms we enjoy and for the men and women who bequeathed to us our Constitution and form of government. My faith compels me to press my religious convictions toward a patriotism characterized by love, compassion and truth.
The broad biblical and theological tradition holds a critical mirror to my patriotism, reflecting the prophetic challenge to get at the unfinished business of extending justice, liberty and care to all, especially to the oppressed and those who have been left behind. There is a fruitful tension here.
But I worry that Christians in our country too easily equate patriotism and faith, especially in times of fear and uncertainty, and forget the powerful critique our faith must provide. Patriotism can be a fine sentiment, until and unless it starts veering off into a dangerous nationalism, as it presently is in our country and in parts of Europe. We saw the horrific effects of such nationalism in Europe in the middle of the last century, and how nationalist fervor co-opted some churches into its demonic wave of mass dehumanization, death and destruction.
People tend to get possessive about their gods, and want to lock them into their own national box. Americans have no less tendency to do that than anyone else. It is a particular risk during times of war and economic turmoil. But demagogic leaders will create opportunities to stoke fear of people who look different from us and to attack those who challenge them in their divisive and destructive schemes. In such times, too many people of faith are swayed by lies and false promises of security. They forget that their role is not to fall in line, but to step out and challenge the distortions — both for the good of the country and for the integrity of their faith.
In his book “The Four Loves,” C.S. Lewis tells the story of his encounter with an English pastor who espoused zealous nationalism. Lewis asked him, “doesn’t every nation think of itself as the best?” The clergyman responded without irony, “Yes, but in England it is true.” Lewis concluded that his friend’s conviction “had not made him a villain” but instead compared him to an “extremely lovable” old animal. Lewis, however, cautioned that even a lovable animal can bite and kick, warning that, “On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Racialism which Christianity and science equally forbid.”
Our nation presently stands dangerously close to the precipice where the lunatic fringe Lewis wrote about has been waiting for decades to push us into that “popular Racialism.” Will people of faith acquiesce? Or will we stand up and refuse to let this nation to fall into the abyss?
We must refuse to allow our faith to be co-opted by nationalist fervor. We must courageously inject our patriotism with faith’s core ethic of love, compassion and truth.
The Rev. John S. Nieman is the interim priest at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in Belfast.