It was our first Sunday attending church in our new city. We were in a city with many Lutheran churches, so we had our pick, but we decided to start with the church right down the street.
It was Fourth of July weekend.
The worship service was patriotic, complete with Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American.”
And this politically moderate Lutheran was ready to run out of the building.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate a good patriotic song. It’s not that I don’t admire the men and women who have served to keep my loved ones and I safe. And it’s not that I’m not thankful for the freedoms that I have because I am an American citizen.
It’s that I wasn’t there to celebrate my American citizenship and everything that goes with it. I was there to freely worship a God who has repeatedly made it clear that my earthly, American citizenship is temporary; my heavenly citizenship is what will last forever.
With unease, I’ve seen the relationship between patriotism and religious belief become increasingly intertwined, as if one’s belief system is some kind of litmus test for their ability to be a true patriot.
This is how some people see it: A regular Evangelical Christian churchgoer is a true patriot because he or she understands that the United States is a Christian nation and we must do everything we can to keep it that way. A born-and-raised American Muslim cannot be a true patriot because he or she adheres to a belief system that supposedly supersedes the United States Constitution. Apparently, those who feel that way forget that Jesus famously told the Pharisees to “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
There is this mistaken belief among some Christians that Americans have become God’s new “chosen people.” As if somehow, God miraculously ordained the formation of a new country in 1776 and American citizens of the past and present are the beneficiaries of God helping a ragtag group of underfed, under-armed, under-clothed militia to defeat the greatest military power in the world, at the time.
But maybe God wasn’t smiling down on the treasonous individuals looking to make a new country. Maybe the British lost because the colonists just wanted it more.
This mindset also ignores some of our nation’s darkest moments. My country has used my God to justify the genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of African peoples, and discrimination of many. By contrast, my God has used my country to open doors to refugees of all kinds, bring destruction to evil dictators, and bring justice to those suffering under oppression.
I am proud to be an American and I love my country. I also fully appreciate the beautiful green landscapes of the Emerald Isle and the rolling German countryside, but I am happy that my ancestors chose to leave and make a new life in the United States. While I want to travel and see more of the world, I have no desire to leave my country and settle somewhere else.
But as an American citizen, I often feel that I am a walking paradox. I love my country and the freedoms I have as one of her citizens. But I am ashamed of the skeletons in her closet, the ones that people want to keep buried so they can preserve an illusion of superiority.
I believe it is time that we start to change what it means to be patriots in this country. We need to stop expecting our politicians to make our nation great, and start getting our hands dirty doing the work ourselves. We need to travel the world and be ambassadors to other nations, not because we want to escape our current political climate and not because we want to prove how much better we Americans are than everyone else. We need to show that we are patriots who love our country but who want to understand other countries better. We need to demand that our economic system—a system that has the potential to be the best in the world—benefits all Americans, not just the few. We need to vote for politicians who will take the greatest governmental experiment ever conducted and do what is best for the country, not just for their next re-election campaign.
And I believe that my fellow Christians need to stop believing that one’s faith declaration is an indicator of love for country, and instead seek a common, patriotic ground.
For the first time in my history, I believe that America has reached a crossroads, a crossroads where we have to decide if we’re going to be a nation of people fighting each other over who is right, or a nation united in protecting and respecting each other’s rights.
In doing so, I believe we can be patriots our founding fathers and mothers would be proud of.