United Church of God

Patriotism: The Good, the Bad and the Biblical

You are here


The Good, the Bad and the Biblical

Login or Create an Account

With a UCG.org account you will be able to save items to read and study later!

Sign In | Sign Up


Patriotism is a complex and sometimes controversial subject. People have different ideas about what it is and how to express it. My own concept of patriotism used to be rather narrow: Love my country, be a good citizen and enjoy patriotic music. But the subject is much broader than that.

Perhaps no human being's subjective opinion about patriotism is really that important. But, for anyone who believes in God and that He "created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1), the perspective of the Creator should be all important.

So what does God think? Should we be patriotic? If so, how? Are patriotism and Christianity compatible? Would Jesus Christ be patriotic if He were on earth today?

Before addressing these questions, let's review the concept of patriotism.

The term patriot comes from the Greek root word pater, meaning father. A patriot is generally defined as one who loves, supports and defends his fatherland, the country of his nativity or residence.

Patriotism represents the qualities and conduct of a patriot. The idea of patriotism originally was an attachment to the surrounding land—merely a love for the climate, scenery, agriculture and native people. With the establishment of national boundaries, governments and ideologies, patriotism came to mean loyalty and support of one's own country.

Patriotism can be unifying or divisive

Consider the example of the United States of America. What makes it remarkably united in spite of being composed of such diverse peoples? What power begets E pluribus unum, meaning "Out of many, one"—a motto found on the great seal of the United States? Part of the tie that binds Americans is patriotism. How and why American patriotism developed so strongly during the short history of the country is a fascinating study.

Clearly, patriotism had dwindled before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when it revived noticeably as an understandable source of comfort and strength. After all, one of the surest ways to be unified is to have a common enemy.

Yet an upsurge in patriotic expression inevitably becomes divisive in some ways. People resent feeling pressured to conform to someone else's brand of patriotism. People are hurt by judgmental finger-pointing: If your ways are not like my ways, or your political views are not like mine, you are unpatriotic.

Some people express their patriotism in public ways—displaying their nation's flag, celebrating national holidays, singing their national anthem, cheering a candidate—and usually expect everyone else to do some flagwaving. Other people are more private and may think of such exuberance as superficial, childish or pretentious. If they are law-abiding citizens, pay their taxes and contribute to their community—if, for example, they occasionally donate blood-they may think they are patriotic enough. Some would ask: If I love people, obey the laws and pay my taxes, do I really need to love my government?

Much of the divisiveness comes not so much from patriotism itself but from its abuse. Patriotism should not be a club to browbeat others into conformity with a political view or as a tool of emotional manipulation. It shouldn't be a means to justify bad proposals or condone evil action-nor as a method of wrapping oneself in the flag to excuse mistakes and wrongdoing.

Patriotism vs. nationalism?

Although definitions of patriotism vary, many observers regard patriotism as positive and nationalism as negative. Patriotism can be easily confused with nationalism, partly because the patriot and the nationalist often use the same words to express their feelings. So nationalism can easily be mistaken for patriotism.

It's important to understand the distinction—because all too often, when people believe they are being patriotic, in reality they have crossed over the line into chauvinistic nationalism.

A nationalistic person usually expects patriotic citizens to always agree with their nation's government. But a truly free, democratic country not only permits dissenting views but cherishes this freedom as a strength. Many who point out faults in the system are quite patriotic. In fact, constructive criticism is a valuable patriotic contribution. This freedom is a priceless privilege, sadly abused by those whose motives are not in their country's best interest.

For the patriot, love of country is like love of family-involving caring, devotion and affection. A nationalist may claim to love his country primarily because it is the best country in the world. Ideally a patriot has more of an unconditional love for his country because it too is his "family," even though it is not perfect or the most powerful or the "best." Just as family members feel a willing obligation to help each other, patriotism includes sense of responsibility to assist one's country.

A patriot is proud of his country in a benign sense in that he respects it. Patriots are devoted to causes greater than themselves. A nationalist, on the other hand, usually identifies with causes as extensions of himself. A nationalist -sometimes called a superpatriot—can be fanatical. The nationalist usually views contrary opinions and other cultures as threats.

The most important distinction is that rightly expressed patriotism is in line with God's law, wherein He commands us to love others, while nationalism crosses the line into exclusive superiority, which is ungodly. God loves all people (see John 3:16), and so must we. Worse still, nationalism can be a mask for what amounts to idolatry, violating the First Commandment—"You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3).

Nationalism has many characteristics in common with religion. The No. 1 priority of nationalists may be their nation, government or ideology. But putting anything higher than God is idolatry and breaking the First Commandment. Anyone engrossed with nationalism often has a shallow relationship with God.

Godly leaders were patriotic

Many biblical figures—patriarchs, kings, priests, prophets and apostles—were clearly patriotic. They demonstrated their patriotism by love of country and caring for the welfare of the people. For instance,Moses pleaded with God not to destroy the Israelite nation after one of its many rebellions against Him (Deuteronomy 9:6-29). Nehemiah showed concern for his native land, so much so that he mourned, wept, prayed and fasted for it (Nehemiah 1:4). He even left the comfortable position of being one of the king's officials to travel to Jerusalem and help rebuild God's temple.

Esther and Mordecai risked their lives to save the Jewish people of their day. Daniel prayed and fasted with sackcloth and ashes for the restoration of the nation of Israel, the city of Jerusalem and the temple (Daniel 9:1-19).

Each patriotic leader was passionate about helping to save his country, especially from captivity and destruction. God Himself has never stopped being a patriot for His people, showing mercy as a protector from physical harm, as we see most dramatically in passages like Revelation 3:10, 12:14 and 18:4.

The New Testament relates the apostle Paul's obvious attitude of self-sacrificing love for his country and countrymen: "Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved" (Romans 10:1) and "I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren [if it would save my brethren], my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites . . ." (Romans 9:2-4). Paul yearned for spiritual salvation and eternal life to come to his countrymen.

The example of Christ

Jesus Christ, too, was a patriot. He said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem . . . How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!" (Luke 13:34). As He drew near Jerusalem, "He saw the city and wept over it" (Luke 19:41).

Christ also said, "Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one's life for his friends" (John 15:13). That's exactly what Jesus did. Although He had a loyal attachment to His earthly homeland and a special love for His countrymen, He obviously loved all human beings. Paul speaks of "God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Timothy 2:3-4). God would have us all follow that example and love everyone—even our enemies (Matthew 5:44).

True patriotism includes "tough love," a willingness to warn people of the disastrous consequences of continuing in their evil ways. This is similar to the role of a watchman as described in Ezekiel 3 and 33. Jesus said what we need to hear, not just what we want to hear. His mission was not to make people feel good, but to try to get them to be good and do good—for their own benefit and salvation, because He loves all people.

However, people—especially false religious leaders—hate to be corrected. They don't like a patriotism that includes constructive correction. Before long, Christ's own countrymen killed Him.

Jeremiah's unpopular patriotism

Perhaps the most dramatic example of true patriotism is that of the prophet Jeremiah. Incredibly, although he deeply loved his country and countrymen, he was branded as unpatriotic.

God chose Jeremiah to bring His messages of warning primarily to the nation of Judah. However, this Hebrew prophet was not just a dispassionate messenger. Knowing the disasters that would happen if the people didn't repent, he continually expressed a personal passion to save his country. Jeremiah exhorted, begged, pleaded and even threatened—often with weeping—for his countrymen to repent. He said, "O Jerusalem, wash your heart from wickedness, that you may be saved" (Jeremiah 4:14).

But the people didn't want to hear about their sins or any prophecies of impending punishment for wrongdoing. They wanted to hear only about how good they were, about how they were God's chosen people, how they would never suffer defeat.

Jeremiah became unpopular, to say the least. He was hated, ridiculed, persecuted and almost killed. But what grieved this prophet the most was that his people wouldn't, for their own good, listen to his warnings from God and repent. He lamented: "For the hurt of the daughter of my people I am hurt. I am mourning; astonishment has taken hold of me . . . Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" (Jeremiah 8:21; 9:1).

At times Jeremiah suffered despair and depression because of the stressful burden of preaching to hostile audiences of his own countrymen. After the torture of painful confinement in stocks, he sank into depression (Jeremiah 20:2). He complained to God about being forced into becoming a prophet and that his preaching wasn't doing any good (verse 7). He even cursed the day on which he was born (verse 14), complaining that he wanted to give up (verse 9).

But Jeremiah realized he couldn't stop trying to warn the people even if God had allowed him. He said, "But His word was in my heart like a burning fire shut up in my bones; I was weary of holding it back, and I could not" (verse 9).

Judah was his country, and its citizens were his people. He knew blessings would come only if they obeyed God and that they would suffer terribly if they continued in the path of disobedience. He simply had to keep trying. This was true patriotism.

However, the Jewish populace wanted to hear only flag-waving boasting. After all, they were God's special people, the good and the great. They convinced themselves that God was on their side to protect them unconditionally. Only their nation had the temple of God, so how could He possibly allow it to be destroyed?

The kingdom of Judah didn't want to hear any correction or gloomy predictions that might undermine national morale. Instead, the people wanted a cheerleader to tell them only what was reassuring and politically correct. Judah's hypocritical leaders and citizens, thinking they were patriotic, were actually nationalistic in the worst sense of that term. On the other hand, Jeremiah was a real patriot who wanted only the best for his country and countrymen.

God's prophecies and promises

The Bible foretells that in the end time we can expect to see more-frequent and more-ferocious wars (Matthew 24:6). Prophecies in the book of Revelation tell us that shortly before Christ's return a political, economic and religious power bloc will arise that will demand total allegiance. Just as the Roman emperors for centuries demanded that they be worshiped, in the end time worship of this power and its dictator will be enforced (Revelation 13:4-15).

How should we prepare for the terrorism, treachery and tyranny of the last days? By turning to God, living by His Word and trusting Him to protect and provide for us. Then each citizen can seek to better understand the will of God and how to express proper patriotism toward his country. Some religious people mistakenly think God's will requires isolation to the extent of becoming unaware and unconcerned about what is happening in the world. This type of cocooning tends to inhibit them from being friendly, loving and helpful to anyone except those in their group.

But Jesus said that we should be a Christlike role model, and that the light of this example would not be hidden (Matthew 5:14-16). Normally Jesus didn't wait inside a synagogue for others to come to Him. He was out among the people doing good works. Christ set us the perfect example in all things, including proper patriotism.

Seek a higher citizenship

Once a person has submitted his life to the Creator, he has continuous access to the most powerful instrument for good that exists. That instrument is vastly underestimated and underused-prayer to the God of the universe.

More good can be accomplished through believing prayer-for one's family, friends, church, nation and world-than with all the political action, mighty military machines and other human efforts put together (Matthew 7:7-11; 1 Timothy 2:1-3; 1 John 3:22; Hebrews 4:16).

The apostle Paul wrote, "For our citizenship is in heaven, from which we also eagerly wait for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" (Philippians 3:20). "Our" refers to those who have fully submitted to God through true repentance and have become a part of His Church. Their citizenship records reside in heaven. Their names are written in the Book of Life.

God's people have dual citizenship. It is noble and right to be patriotic toward our earthly nation, but we also should have a higher and more fervent patriotism for our heavenly Kingdom, which will be established on earth at the return of Christ. He tells us to "seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness" (Matthew 6:33).

For those who sincerely seek to become Christians, the wisest decision they could possibly make is to take the necessary steps to attain that heavenly citizenship.