© 2019 Robert Osburn
On many of our American national holidays, churches will be one of the places we sing rousing patriotic songs that swell the heart of most American Christians. There are no more quintessential celebrations of America than the day late in May (Memorial Day) when we remember those who gave their lives to preserve Americans freedoms, as well as Thanksgiving Day (late November) and, upcoming on July 4, Independence Day.
But, I can almost hear the grinding gears of caution on the part of many academics who worry about something called “civil religion.” More on that below.
For the record, I am grateful we can sing songs that evoke deep patriotic emotion in the American breast while also extoling the goodness of God. My wife remembers fondly the East Texas church of her childhood bellowing patriotic melodies on national holidays. More recently, by contrast, we were members of a Minnesota church where patriotic music was essentially verboten.
However, I find neither extreme with respect to patriotic music in churches—full-throated embrace or abstinence—prudent or principled.
Rather, I suggest church leaders should teach Christians that they are citizens of two kingdoms, with dual loyalties. Thus, we must carefully balance music that exalts the Savior and His goodness to our nation. This is an especially important issue for most of my students who come from nations where the long-term influence of Christianity has been absent or muted at best (e.g., India and China). How do they faithfully cherish their citizenship in God’s Kingdom while citizens of nations without a Christian heritage?
Let me first address the deep fear, by my estimate, of nearly half of all academics: Patriotic music indulges a form of civil religion. Civil religion is defined minimally as the “social cement” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau) that binds a nation together, and the implicit religious ideals of a nation as expressed through symbols, rituals, and holidays. The longstanding critique of American civil religion is that Christians who engage in it are practicing a form of idolatry, or at least an unholy synthesis of authentic Christian faith and flag-wielding patriotism.
As is often the case, the academics have a point, but we should listen to them cautiously. Too many want to weaponize their concerns over civil religion in order to attack American ideals and history as so much colonialism and empire-building. While this hostility is simply unjustified, many American Christians doneed to step back and think very clearly: “I possess a dual citizenship: America and God’s Kingdom. The two are not the same, though I want to help my nation embrace the ethics of God’s kingdom. When America deserves to be criticized, I will do so on distinctly biblical grounds. Otherwise I will be a loyal American citizen who seeks to protect her while not mindlessly justifying the nation when it is wrong.”
Church leaders thus have a very important responsibility. They should regularly teach that every Christian has a dual citizenship, and that sometimes those two citizenships will be in tension with one another. Here are some of the principles that highlight and clarify our dual loyalties and citizenship:
1. For Old Testament Israel, there was little daylight between Jewish and Kingdom citizenship, whereas since the dawn of the Christian era one’s national citizenship has often been at odds with Kingdom citizenship.
2. Jesus launched a multi-ethnic, multi-national church that, by definition, makes Kingdom interests and national interests somewhat separate.
3. Nevertheless, our Christian responsibility is to disciple our nations (not just individuals within the nations, but whole societies) so that their interests, morality, and functions better align with those of the Kingdom of God.
4. One of the primary ways that we disciple our nations is by making our churches models of the ideal society toward which national leaders should strive
Let me briefly clarify the implications of these four points, as I see them. Christian students ought to lead by serving their communities and their nations so that their nations promote the flourishing of their citizens. Serving them can include defending them against hostile outside forces. Instead of prioritizing hostility against the social order, instructors and other leaders ought rather to teach the virtues of one’s culture and society while also teaching students to critique what in the society needs to be changed. Neither an uncritical patriotism nor an exaggerated hostility toward the social order is warranted. Some Christians are so wrapped in the American flag that they cannot follow Jesus without tripping. By the same token, at the other extreme are some radicals whose willingness to trash the American flag suggests, to some at least, that they would rather see American interests subverted rather than clarified, justified, and strengthened.
Church leaders need to teach the four principles listed above, so that church members develop clarity about how to be a loyal member of God’s Kingdom while also being an appropriately loyal citizen of one’s homeland.
John Witte, in an article on the political implications of Luther’s idea of the priesthood of all believers, wrote that:
A Christian is a citizen of both kingdoms at once and invariably comes under the distinctive government of each. As a heavenly citizen, the Christian remains free to live fully by the light of the Word of God. But as an earthly citizen, the Christian is bound by law and called to obey the authorities that God has ordained and maintained for the governance of this earthly kingdom.
Jeremiah 29 perhaps epitomizes the joyful dual citizenship of Christ’s followers when he counsels the Jews exiled to Babylon to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you in exile” (v. 7). I hope that every one of our Wilberforce Academy mentees rallies around the needs and opportunities in their home countries, doing all they can to foster their nations’ success. But, doing so is motivated by a higher, grander citizenship whose heavenly address ensures the highest and purest of motives as they help solve problems in their home societies.
The key, however, is to recognize that their two citizenships are distinct, with one calling forth the patriotic impulse, the other calling on a Father in Heaven who love, as the Psalmist repeatedly reminded his readers, is always loyal.