The New Testament does not seem to encourage patriotism. The Revelation to John juxtaposes the heavenly hosts arrayed against the malign powers of darkness, two worlds, two governments, if you will: the heavenly Jerusalem ruled by the slain Lamb, and the earthly Babylon, awash in luxury, decadence, and death. What Christian could be a patriot for Babylon?
St. Augustine provides the Western tradition with the most influential formulation of this sharp biblical contrast between the ways of Caesar and the ways of God. In his massive study of world history, City of God, he distinguishes between the earthly city, organized around the sinful self-love of fallen human beings, and the heavenly city, ordered toward love of God.
It is easy, therefore, for a Christian to take an entirely critical stance toward patriotic impulses and deep loyalties to earthly cities. The most a human society can hope to achieve, St. Augustine observes, is a “negative peace,” which is merely a suppression of violence, greed, and lust for domination. At best, therefore, an Augustinian tends to see the nations of the world—their history, their culture, their particular achievements—as worthy of a cold and conditional loyalty rather than ardent patriotic fervor.
The New Testament, however, does not speak in one voice. It also suggests a more positive view. In his Letter to the Romans, St. Paul stipulates that the earthly ruler receives his authority from God (Rom 13:7). Secular authorities are “ministers of God.” In an important sense, therefore, the earthly city participates in rather than simply collides with the divine purpose that animates the city of God.
In light of this strong affirmation of a positive link between God and “the sword,” the Christian tradition has developed a positive view of patriotic loyalty, one more affirmative of the natural human impulse toward social solidarity than the largely negative view suggested by St. Augustine’s sharp distinction between the city of man, which is ruled by the sword, and the city of God, which is ruled by love.
St. Thomas Aquinas is representative. He sees continuity between the heavenly city and our earthly regimes. The key biblical text that encourages this link can be found in Ephesians 5. There, St. Paul urges husbands and wives to bring their relations into conformity with the order of love found in Christ: “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ” (5:21).
With this vision of the family—the most natural and fundamental social unit—as capable of embodying Christ’s love, St. Thomas takes a further step. Civil society is also a natural social unity, and it can adopt—only partially, yet nonetheless in a real way—forms of life that are motivated by a commitment to the common good (“be subject to one another”) rather than self-interest. These forms of life, which St. Thomas explains in a discussion of justice, participate in a Christian ethic of love.
Here we find encouragement for patriotic sentiments. Although our national cultures are always compromised by sinful self-interest—after all political, economic, and cultural life takes place in the city of man, as St. Augustine saw so clearly—they can also manifest a just order that rightly commands our love and loyalty.
Moreover, this just order involves more than formal laws and political institutions. Habits of behavior and patterns of sociality, which is to say public life more generally, often does more to contribute to the common good than the law courts and legislative chambers. Genteel social traditions soften the hard edges of our always imperfect laws and our too often bitter political battles.
In his recent speech in Westminster Hall in London, Pope Benedict implicitly endorsed St. Thomas’ view. He began with a generous acknowledgement of the achievements of Anglo-Saxon political and legal culture: the development of parliamentary democracy that has encouraged “participative government,” as well a common law tradition that respects the rights of the individual and checks governmental power.
It is true of course that English history is full of oppression, violence, and injustice. After all, it is a city of men, not the city of God. And yet, in Great Britain a political tradition also emerged that, Pope Benedict suggests, is worthy of admiration. An Englishman can nurture a proper pride in his nation, not an uncritical pride, but one nonetheless warm and enthusiastic.
Not all societies have political institutions as venerable and humane as do the English. Contemporary Russia comes to mind. But where political achievements are lacking, there are often literary or artistic traditions that properly evoke loyalty.
Perhaps more importantly, we may find ourselves instinctively loyal to the simple wisdom that comes from settled forms of life that have matured over time—a fundamental source of conservative sentiments. Although the city of man is always corrupted, the rot is never complete. Sin corrupts but does not destroy our humanity, and thus our natural impulse toward patriotic love can almost always find worthy objects.
There is something comical about an ardent nationalist who champions his homeland with little sense of her failings, all the while remaining willfully blind to the achievements of other nations. America certainly has here share of these puerile patriots. But there is also something pathetic about the cynic who disdains of warm patriotic feelings. We have our share of these postmodern, post-patriotic citizens as well.
We should avoid the excess and impoverishment of patriotism. Beware those who use religion to rally believers to serve a political cause. A sanctified patriotism is dangerous—both for sane politics and for the integrity of religious faith. But avoid overcompensating and thus stymieing the patriotic impulse. We should encourage the innate human tendency toward social solidarity, for it can lead us to overcome our selfishness and motivate us to serve the common good.
R.R. Reno is a senior editor of First Things and Professor of Theology at Creighton University. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible, to which he contributed the commentary on Genesis.