Should we be patriotic?

Posted on September 2, 2011 at 11:24 am,

The Union FlagThis is the latest in a series of posts critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we look at the issue of patriotism, where Grudem’s stance is that it is something that a nation should value. Before looking at what Grudem claims, though, I want to start with the presuppositions I bring to the issue.

Patriotism is, ironically, something that is very unBritish. For us Brits, public displays of patriotism are only acceptable in the context of major international sporting events (football, cricket, rugby, Wimbledon, and possibly the Olympics – and in most of these we play against each other), the Last Night of the Proms, and a few Royal events. And even then, a chunk of the nation is often uncomfortable with them. We will, however, sometimes argue patriotically when somebody from another nation attacks some aspect of ours (criticise the NHS at your peril), or when Americans pretend to be speaking English rather than American. In fact, we’re even embarrassed to sing our own national anthem (and almost none of us know it beyond verse one).

There are probably a wide range of reasons for this. It might be that we associate patriotism with the jingoism that facilitated World War I, or with our imperialist past. It could be our national cynicism and the “stiff upper lip”. It could be that we associate patriotism with the far right, or that we see American patriotism and think it to be tacky. And there are certainly some Brits who see the place they are born as an accident of birth, and nothing to be proud of (an individualistic viewpoint that I don’t share). Whatever the reason, I’ve absorbed some measure of our national distaste towards patriotism, which made me naturally cynical when I read this section of the book.

Grudem’s take on patriotism (which he doesn’t define) is that it is pride in one’s country, but not to the extent that you can’t be criticise your country, its government and its leaders. And, by that definition, yes I am patriotic. I’m proud of my nation’s disproportionate contributions to church history, science, technology, sports (we invented most of them), and the arts. I’m proud of great moments in our history, such as the way we took the lead in the fight against slavery, or stood alone against the Nazis. I’m proud of our creation of the BBC and the NHS. And I’m occasionally even proud of our national sports teams (as I write this, the England cricket team have just systematically demolished world number one team India in a 4 match test series, claiming that title for ourselves).

The question at hand, however, is not whether I am patriotic or not, but whether patriotism is a good thing. Grudem starts with some biblical arguments, and moves on to a list of benefits he sees when a nation is patriotic.

Biblical Arguments

Grudem begins with Acts 17:26, which says that God established nations, and also cites Job 12:23 to say that God is in charge of the destiny of nations. He then claims that the word nation means essentially the same as it did 2000 years ago – a group of people living under the same sovereign and independent government. This is a controversial claim for two reasons. Firstly, the rise of the nation state in the 18th and 19th centuries was a major change to our idea of what a nation is. Secondly, the term nation is frequently used to describe people groups who do not have their own state (e.g. the Kurds in Iraq/Iran/Turkey). However, in order to facilitate discussion, I’m going to give Grudem the benefit of the doubt on this one.

His argument here is that the existence of many independent nations on earth should be considered a blessing from God, and that a significant benefit is that they divide and disperse government power, ensuring that we have no chance of a single evil world government. He doesn’t, however, follow through the logic to suggest that large countries should split up into smaller ones. Grudem then says that 1 Peter 2:17 and Romans 13:1 say that Christians should honour the rulers of their nation (in these specific cases, the Roman Emperor).

Looking at Grudem’s arguments, I find the case that the Bible supports patriotism to be very much on the weak side. It certainly doesn’t rule it out, but neither does it directly teach it. Which leaves the case to be decided entirely on practical arguments.

Practical Arguments

Grudem lists seven things he views as practical benefits of a nation having a fairly patriotic nation. These are:

  • A sense of belonging to a larger community
  • Gratitude for the benefits that a nation provides
  • A shared sense of pride in the achievements of other citizens of your nation
  • A sense of pride for the good things that a nation has done
  • A sense of security, coming from the expectation that the nation’s citizens will work together to protect the nation
  • A sense of obligation to serve and protect the nation in various ways
  • A sense of obligation to live by and pass on to immigrants and children the nation’s shared values

He also says that a lack of patriotism means dislike, scorn, or hatred for your nation, accompanied by continual criticism of it, which will erode the nation’s ability to function effectively.

To be honest, I’m not sure that the effects of widespread patriotism are quite as positive as Grudem portrays (certainly some of these benefits can be felt by people who scorn the concept). I also think that widespread patriotism brings with it some definite negatives. For example, where there’s widespread patriotism, you will also see far more “blind patriotism” that uncritically accepts the failings of a nation and a government – and becomes idolatry. There are certainly some cases where American churches give the impression that they are putting patriotism above the gospel.

In some circumstances, this blind patriotism can be very harmful to a nation. For example, for a couple of years after 9/11 many American critics of the Bush regime reported that this kind of patriotism was silencing legitimate democratic debate about whether Bush’s response was the right one. The impression given was that the slogan “you’re either for us or against us” had been taken to be the measure of patriotism. If you weren’t 100% behind Bush’s response then you were unpatriotic and should shut up. Now, I wasn’t there, so I can’t say how accurate this portrayal was, but it’s certainly how many on the left saw the political atmosphere at that time. But, in any case, it’s a good illustration of how patriotism gone wrong can be very harmful to a nation.

Having said that I think patriotism can be harmful as well as good, Grudem has persuaded me to revisit my opinions on the subject. I’m now quite happy to see myself as patriotic. Although I’m still British enough to be hesitant about public displays of patriotism. After all, as a Brit, partaking in them simply wouldn’t be patriotic.

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