When Sunday morning meets Independence Day, what can be more frustrating than conservative churches who replace Jesus-worship with American flag-waving?
Answer: church leaders who replace Jesus-worship and flag-waving with simplistic critiques of American patriotism—not just in church services, but anywhere else.
Over the weekend, I saw several examples of these critiques.
Church leaders, including many I respect, shared their rejections of patriotic expressions in churches. They called out specific leaders or denominations with memes and Tweet-blasts, claiming these Christians worship George Washington instead of Jesus Christ. They blacklisted practices such as flags and patriotic hymns.
After all, they said, we’re meeting to praise Jesus Christ, not this often-bad country.
I empathize with these desires. It’s good for Christians to recognize the flaws and limits of a nation-state. It’s better for us to enforce the purpose of a local church: not to build a modern nation, but to help build an ancient-and-forever Kingdom.
Before you critique patriotism, show your Bible homework
Still, many of these opinion-casters seemed to prefer deconstructing over defining. They have loudly proclaimed how Christians should not treat the United States. They seem to say little about how Christians should see the U.S., or any nation-state with peoples and cultures and patriotism, especially in light of God’s word.
I couldn’t help but think of my frequent caution: You must not criticize a thing until you know its purpose according to God. For example, I’ve suggested Christians (including pastors) should, frankly, stop warning against popular culture unless they know what it’s for. I’ve applied this to “cultural engagement” Christians who see little place for conservative culture. You don’t get to pop up and say “that thing is bad” until you understand how the thing could be good according to God’s word.
I apply this view to critiques of nation-states or patriotism. If you don’t know what a thing is for, you haven’t won my respect for your warnings against that thing.
In this case, Christian leaders are likely right to rule out Sunday services focused on Independence Day. But if they stop there, or turn their guidelines into statements against the nation-state concept or plain patriotism, they are becoming legalists.
Such pastors wouldn’t like it much if I only ranted against abusive pastors, without caring for definitions of good pastoring or recognizing what pastors are for.
Christians (especially Christian leaders): Before you say anything against patriotism, show your Bible homework. If you can’t define nation-states or patriotism according to God’s universe, or you think there’s no point to this exercise, then kindly excuse yourself from the discussion. You have no business here. At best, you are acting out of automatic legalistic impulses rather than gospel application. At worst, you are acting out of your own tragic backstory (or your perception of such). If you grew up in a bad church that waved American flags instead of gospel in your face, I’m sorry, but abusus non tollit usum: abuse does not disqualify proper use. Many Christians already know this truth about good-gifts-twisted-into-idols, like TV, certain foods or drinks, and holidays. We need to grow up and apply this gospel belief to America.
Do we celebrate a fantasy or flawed United States?
“What, exactly, will I be celebrating this Independence Day?” she asked in her comment. “There will be fireworks and music—an atmosphere that is certainly celebratory. But I can’t help but think that this experiment has reached its end.”
If you’ve felt the same, you might choose from at least three responses:
- Keep calm and carry on. Distract yourself and celebrate like you always did.
- Toss away your flag, shut the windows, and pretend you’re not at home when the Independence Day trick-or-treaters stop by. (“July 4 is a pagan holiday.”)
- Attempt some kind of “neutral way” based on spiritual platitudes: “Well, this whole representative republic thing was okay, but too many people idolized it. Anyway, America will burn someday. Our true citizenship is in heaven.”
In the past, I’ve sampled each of these reactions. The year 2015 was especially rough, after an especially nasty series of antichrist-style Supreme Court rulings.
But then I began trying to think of the United States in more fantastical terms.
No, I don’t mean I want to celebrate a fantasy America: that place where The American Dream™ works every time you seriously try it, thanks to total freedom, flawless Founding Fathers, and perfect progress against social contagions.
Nor would I celebrate without qualification the real America, which has plenty of bad history about people sinning against other people and against our God.
Will the United States last forever?
Still, every Independence Day, I have been training to celebrate America anyway.
Here is why: I believe the United States could last forever.
Again, no, I don’t mean the modern nation with all the bad parts—materialism, racism, or other false religions such as Sexualityism or secular nationalism.
These evils will not last forever, any more than the other sins Scripture condemns.
However, I do celebrate the United States full of biblical ideals, philosophy, creative works, stories, songs, cookouts, human diversity, and natural wonders. Thanks to God’s common grace, all these gifts make this country feel a little bit like Heaven.
Could all these good things be a shadow or copy of the true United States?
Might we arrive in Heaven—that is, the New Heavens and New Earth—and find to our astonishment an eternal and perfected country like the United States?
New Earth will showcase ‘the glory and honor of the nations’
The Bible never promises eternity will be some satire-spawned cloud-land where people get bored. Heaven will not be vague “spiritoid” dimension where Jesus’s people will float around, after Jesus has nuked away his previous material creation, with corruption and good gifts and all. Instead, the story of Scripture—the arc so often ignored by Christians on all sides of our patriotism debates—promises this:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”3
Christians often miss this part because we get distracted by debates about beasts and persecutions and the millennium. However you interpret the end-times, we must agree that beyond all that awaits this Afterworld: a restored paradise born from the union of New Heaven (the Church, like a dazzling bride) and New Earth.
Who and what travels from these heaven-glorified lands into this heaven-sent city?
By [the city’s] light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. … They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations.4
If we will remember and recognize “the nations” with their glory and honor in the New Heavens and New Earth, why wouldn’t these nations include the United States?
“Kings of the earth” will continue into the New Heavens and New Earth, with their own glory, still representing their nations’ “glory and honor.” Why couldn’t these glories and honors include the United States?
Famously, of course, the U.S. has no kings. America is a representative republic. We have no single federal government, but try to divide power between federal branches, states, counties, and cities. King David will bring his glory on behalf of Israel. King Nebuchadnezzar (redeemed by God!) will bring his glory on behalf of the Babylonian nation. It’s biblical and rational to conclude that non-monarchial nations will also represent: voters, council members, mayors, state representatives, congresspersons, cabinet heads, delegates, and presidents.
If we will see, appreciate, and use for worship the nations’ “glory and honor” on New Earth, why not the glory and honor of the United States? What is this glory and honor? It is not imperialism, intolerance, false religions, or any gift of God corrupted by man’s sin. All those evils will have been purged by God’s judgment fire (2 Peter 3:10). Instead, this glory and honor may include promises from the Old Testament:
For the coastlands shall hope for me,
the ships of Tarshish first,
to bring your children from afar,
their silver and gold with them,
for the name of the LORD your God,
and for the Holy One of Israel,
because he has made you beautiful. …
Your gates shall be open continually;
day and night they shall not be shut,
that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations,
with their kings led in procession.
For the nation and kingdom
that will not serve you shall perish;
those nations shall be utterly laid waste.
The glory of Lebanon shall come to you,
the cypress, the plane, and the pine,
to beautify the place of my sanctuary,
and I will make the place of my feet glorious.5
Isaiah promised that everything sin-corrupted in this world, including “the nation and kingdom that will not serve [God]” (verse 12), will perish. Yet the prophet also promises that everything good in the world—ships, trade, silver, gold, wealth, fine wood (from cut trees!)—will help beautify God’s sanctuary, His home on Earth.
Is today’s old America a ‘shadow or copy’ of future New America?
Christian fantasy fans may recall the wisdom of C. S. Lewis’s hero, Professor Digory Kirke, who tells Lucy and the other Friends of Narnia in The Last Battle:
“[The old Narnia] was only a shadow or a copy of the real Narnia which has always been here and always will be here: just as our world, England and all, is only a shadow or copy of something in Aslan’s real world. You need not mourn over Narnia, Lucy. All of the old Narnia that mattered, all the dear creatures, have been drawn into the real Narnia through the Door.”6
This is why I suggest that in the New Heavens and New Earth, the United States may be reborn. If you’re a redeemed saint of Christ, who happens to have been a citizen of the old America, you might help bring New American glories into the heavenly city. Could that include Old Glory itself? The stars and stripes, marching bands, corn dogs and sparklers, banners, symbols? Maybe even certain Judeo-Christian–inspired political philosophies or constitution-based federal systems?
Of course, I can’t wait to visit every nation in the New Earth, just like I can’t wait to visit all the “rooms” Jesus has gone away to prepare for us (John 14:2). We’ll visit one another’s homes, share in one another’s families, and celebrate one another’s gifts. But if you can still prefer your home, your family, and your gifts, and not sin, then that is healthy “patriotism.” You can still prefer your home country and not sin.
I’ve been careful to use concession-words like could or may. Of course, God does not need to redeem the United States—the good-parts version—into a New America for New Earth. With or without any particular nation, Jesus will make New Earth a paradise that glorifies Him and make us happy in his rest forever and ever.
Still, the burden is on patriotism-critics to prove New Earth would not have a new version of Old Glory. Critics share similar burdens to prove good gifts like natural wonders, sports, storytelling, and culinary arts won’t be redeemed for eternity.
That is why, after God melts down and purges his creation of all impurities, I can celebrate my country, because my country—and yours—may just last forever.
- In fact, I’m generally remixing that article from this point to this article’s end. ↩
- Yes, even in 2015, people were already feeling negative about the United States. I can confirm from memory that this this negativity dates back at least to the 1990s. ↩
- Revelation 21:1–4. ↩
- Revelation 21:24, 26. ↩
- Isaiah 60:9–13. ↩
- From The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis. Lewis’s metaphor could imply wrongly that the new world will be wholly separate in space, not only time, from the old world. Scripture emphasizes both fire-judgment on the old world but also material continuity between old and new worlds. Our old world will not be annihilated forever, any more than it would lie frozen and dead behind a door. ↩