Patriotism as Idolatry

We’ve been discussing how patriotism is the normal human love of home. It is a natural extension of the commands to love your neighbor and love your father and mother. It was upon this nature that grace built into the Church the love of our true homeland, Heaven. God raised Jewish patriotism, which naturally loved Jerusalem and Mt. Zion, and made it a sign pointing to our heavenly home: the “New Jerusalem” and the “Heavenly Zion”. So patriotism, as we saw, is sacramental, giving us a glimpse of our love of Heaven.

We also saw that the essence of patriotism is unconditional love. You do not love your parents or your neighbor because they are lovable. You do not love them for a reason at all. If you did, and the reason (beauty, brains, power, money, talent, etc.) went away, then you would stop loving them. You love them because they are yours: the people God has given you to love. In that way, love of neighbor is, as Jesus said, like the love of God. God loves us because he is Love, not because we have done something to deserve his love. But his love for us makes us loveable — makes us, in fact, into creatures who share in his life.  Our task as Christians is to imitate this in all our loves, including the love called “love of country”.

One big confusion that arises when you speak of “unconditional” love of country is the notion “My country, right or wrong”. Some people think that unconditional love for one’s country means approving everything your country does. Some are terrified of doing that (me among them). Others are enthusiastically in favor of it, usually at a cost of enormous blood and treasure.

In fact, though, unconditional love for country means loving your country in obedience to God. This means that when your country disobeys God, love of country means calling your country to repent, not approving her sin. The prophets did this—and paid with their lives. But the prophets were great patriots. So was Jesus when he denounced Jerusalem for killing the prophets, stoning those sent to her, and refusing to accept his message (Matthew 23). He was deeply patriotic for Israel, because he was first a patriot of the Kingdom of Heaven.

But many of his countrymen were not. They believed it better for him to die than that the whole nation should perish. They had no king but Caesar. In this, they acted, not as Jews, but as fallen men just like us. For every one of us is tempted to take creatures (intended by God to be referred to him in the mystery of sacramentality) and make them ends in themselves. The moment we put the creature before God, it stops being a means of grace and becomes instead an idol. We can do this with virtually any creature, but three of the most popular idols are money, sex and power. (The Golden Calf symbolized all three, showing you that not much has changed in 5000 years.)

The danger of the modern nation-state (a danger incarnated again and again in the 20th century) is that the tempting offer to deliver these three goods will become a substitute for Heaven. We saw this in Nazi Germany, which elevated patriotism to the idolatry of the race. We saw it in various Communist nations, which elevated the state to the place of God with the promise bread and land. And we see it in the post-Christian West today. Again and again, the promise is the same: “a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth.” (CCC 675).

That, says the Church, is the spirit of antichrist at work: a “pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah come in the flesh.

Unfortunately, the notion of “antichrist” has been so glammed up by Hollywood and bad Christian fiction that people forget the teaching of the Church and start looking for devil horn, pea soup vomit and maniacal cackles. But the reality is that “the Antichrist’s deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the “intrinsically perverse” political form of a secular messianism.” (CCC 676).

In short, idolatrous worship of one’s people or country is like all other idolatry: a disordered love that puts love of the creature before the love and obedience due to God. The solution is not to reject patriotism, but to put it back in right order.


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