In many pulpits this Thanksgiving season, love of our country and pride in our citizenship are pronounced in the same breath, and often with the same intensity, as declarations of our love for God. But we must be careful, for patriotism can be destructive as well as constructive. Worse, patriotism itself can become idolatrous.
Constructive patriotism, or what James Forbes (pastor emeritus of the Riverside Church in New York City) calls prophetic patriotism, is the willingness to strive in word and deed to insure that this nation is healthy, whole, secure and conducting its affairs at home and abroad according to the political doctrines we claim to hold dear.
Destructive patriotism however is primarily focused on discrediting or destroying those it perceives as opponents of America. The purview of this destructive patriotism is "us" verses "them." : "them" being not only foreigners, but also any American who openly disagrees with the official actions of the leaders of the United States, no matter if their policies contradict our Constitution, harm the public good or violate the most basic ethics of the biblical faith they claim to hold dear.
If we who call ourselves patriots are to be true to our faith, our patriotism must ever be constructive, because constructive criticism of governmental policies and practices is squarely in the tradition of the biblical prophets and the Gospel of Jesus. It is not only concerned with political affairs; it is also concerned with the spiritual and moral health of America. Constructive prophetic oversight is the highest and healthiest form of patriotism because it seeks to help the nation become its best and most righteous self.
That is why true patriots will welcome prophetic criticisms of our government because they can help America become its most righteous and best self. Conversely, the true patriot will reject uncritical abdications of our prophetic responsibility to make our nation its best self. These abdications include such slogans as "America : love it or leave it" and "criticism of our government gives support to our enemies." To the degree that patriotism causes divisions and enmity between God's children, it is in opposition to the Gospel, pure and simple.
When patriotism seeks to silence prophetic criticism, it is more than oppositional; it becomes idolatrous because by pursuing its own beliefs, judgments and interests rather than the biblically inspired prophetic mandate, it makes an idol of them. This blind, idolatrous brand of patriotism is blasphemous because it values the welfare and humanity of some of God's children : that is, Americans, though not even all of these : over the welfare and humanity of all others, particularly those who look, speak and worship differently. In contrast, a God-centered patriotism will confess, like the apostle Peter, "I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who respects God and does what is right is acceptable to God" (Acts 10:34,35).
So if we are true patriots and true followers of the biblical imperative of justice "on earth as it is in heaven," then each day before we pledge allegiance to the flag and the republic for which it stands, we must first recommit our allegiance to the Gospel of Jesus, the justice of God, and the love of our neighbors it commands. We must never allow the flag to supersede the cross, because it is the Gospel that inspires genuine patriotism. This Thanksgiving season we thank God for those faithful voices that : despite the derision and personal physical harm they risk and sometimes actually suffer : speak out against every action, policy and pronouncement of our political leaders that distance us from the liberating Gospel of Jesus and kingdom of God.