Christianity makes loyalty to civil government a kind of religious obligation. It bases dutiful subjection to the powers—within certain limits—upon God’s revealed will for man in a fallen society (Rom. 13) and thus considers civil obedience a Christian responsibility.

Because the Christian’s supreme loyalty is to God alone, he must resist the temptation to make the nation and its institutions an object of religious loyalty. When exaggerated patriotism and uncritical loyalty to the state readily excuse its moral compromises and questionable power tactics, then a near-religious loyalty to one’s government can, in fact, threaten loyalty to Jesus Christ.

Christians become vulnerable to misguided loyalty when they center spiritual commitment exclusively in personal piety, and interpret separation of church and state to mean that government leaders have the prerogative of formulating political commitments independently of the criticism and influence of Christian citizens. Whenever patriotism co-exists with non-participation in public affairs, it is easily correlated—as a matter of faith in the nation—with whatever policies national leaders may pursue.

When the state becomes one’s object of ultimate loyalty, then authentic Christian patriotism yields to the religious cult of nationalism. And when faith results ultimately in the nation, the faith of citizens becomes essentially idolatrous. The nation’s military and economic might soon become the distinctive criteria of national greatness, and special interests are able to erect patriotism as a sheltering umbrella for their ambitions. In time each national participant tends to absolutize private interest into a loyalty for which all citizens are expected to lay down their lives. And the nation as a military and economic force is easily cast in the role of world deliverer.

Pride in the prestige and power of a nation has no moral legitimacy apart from national dedication to justice; furthermore, all that is represented as justice—insofar as Christians are concerned—must be tested by the revealed commandments of God. Apart from such dedication and evaluation, national pride remains an ethical prerogative only if one suspends it on the prospect of national repentance.

Only an awareness of the majesty of the Lord can guard us from considering any nation, however great, as the providential hinge of history, and preserve us from the myth that any modern nation is the instrument of world redemption rather than a body in urgent need of Christian discipling.

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Evangelical Christians have no biblical right to indulge the notion that civil government is a source of human salvation. Only when America’s self-interest as a nation is conformed to the will of God can and will its fortunes as a nation be identified with the highest good.

In the recent past democracy has for many Americans functioned as a false religion, much as state absolutism functions in Communist countries as the embodiment of political omnipotence and the means to utopia. These people think that the principles and ideals of democracy are inherently and unconditionally valid. Democracy’s virtues have been extolled and defended, and its indispensability for human freedom and hope emphasized above the Church of Christ. American patriots dedicated themselves to the goals of democracy more than to those of the Church as a bearer of hope for humanity, and expressed more concern over what threatened democracy than over what imperiled the Christian community.

We can rightly ask, however: What has happened to the Church of Christ as a bearer of the moral fortunes of mankind, once the ethical vitality of the nation as a political entity is thought to surpass that of the Church as a new society, and the moral energy of the body of Christ is considered inferior to that of the body politic?

Surely, democracy is not the only form under which justice might prevail, and many now think it just as potentially frustrating to justice as many another alternative. Around the free world Watergate has darkened even further the shadow engulfing American democracy as an ideal for other nations to emulate. The growing refusal in democratic lands to accept government policies is an ominous spectacle, since no society can long be vigorous without such acceptance. It nurtures the frightening fear that before the present century ends surviving democracies may succumb to and perish under dictatorships.

For all that, democracy still has a great deal in its favor. Those who glamorize political dictatorships seem never to learn from history.

But if not even the regenerate Church as a community of believers rises—or can rise—to the moral power and curtailed egoism of its best saints, how can we attribute to the collective national spirit (even of a democracy) the ethical superiority and natural restraint that best exemplifies individual self-denial?

Apart from shared principles and earnest moral dedication, democracy crumbles into chaos. The positive political achievements of a democratic nation are not to be exempted from critical evaluation. Moreover, if the friends of democracy do not pursue such an evaluation, it will be left to those who commend fascist, Communist, or other forms of government as more utopian.

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The only perfect reign known in the Bible centers in one absolutely sovereign Ruler, the Messiah; all self-appointed candidates for this totalitarian leadership are antichrist in spirit.

To expect more from any nation than it can give is not patriotism but political illusion. A decline of faith in democracy, or in any other form of civil government, and a critical questioning of national values and goals, is not devastating for the believer because faith in God is a very different faith from faith in democracy or in politics. For the Christian patriot, the nation reaches its highest pinnacle of prestige when it recognizes God as the sovereign source, support and sanction of all that is true and right, and makes its political institutions an instrumentality of public justice and order.

Perhaps the only way to avoid inordinate pride in thinking that the United States is indispensable to an exhibition of the final purpose of history is to provide a context in which human life best finds its temporal and ultimate meaning. That context must assuredly be more than political, although the political is inescapably important. The acme of national achievement will more properly and more surely be found when the nation rises to its true role in service to God and to man.

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