Mark Shea: Patriotism As Idolatry

Posted by Kendall Harmon

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 5,000 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 of 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” (Catechism, No. 675).

Read it all.

Filed under: * Economics, Politics* Theology

Posted August 26, 2007 at 6:03 pm [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]

1. bob carlton wrote:

what a wonderful article - thanks for linking to it kendall

this part really resonated with me:

In fact, though, unconditional love a 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).

I have really struggled with the manner in which the current administration has manipulated patriotism to mean (a) buy things, so we can be good Americans and (b) do not question the direction of foreign policy or domestic security.

August 26, 6:55 pm | [comment link]
2. AnglicanFirst wrote:

Reply to #1.

Why does discussion always have to devolve into the ‘immediate’ politics of the day?

Historians looking at our comments 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 years from now may find our political ruminations to be confused and meandering and symptomatic of a people who just don’t have a real sense of what is occurring in their time.

August 26, 7:47 pm | [comment link]
3. DonGander wrote:

There is honor among thieves.

The logic of this article seems to say that, as there is honor among thieves, then honor is dishonorable.

I don’t buy the logic as I comprehend it. I stand open to correction or additional insight.

August 26, 8:31 pm | [comment link]
4. Bob from Boone wrote:

I entirely agree with Mr. Shea on this point: My first loyalty is to the Reign of God; that is my first citizenship. After that comes the love I bear for my country. But my country comes under the judgment of God’s Reign. When my government and fellow citizens act in ways I am convinced stand against the establishment of God’s reign, then it is my patriotic duty to challenge those ways and work to move my country in the direction that will make God’s visible indwelling a reality.

August 26, 8:32 pm | [comment link]
5. AnglicanFirst wrote:

Reply to #4.

You can do that Bob, it’s called political activism and the ballot box.

But, when the nation has spoken throught the ballot box, then that political consensus becomes the consensus of our nation.

But, today, we have people who cannot or will not accept the outcome of a national election or the leadership of elected leaders in a manner that does not undermine the security of our country.

In fact the opposition to President Bush has been in denial of his leadership from the very onset of his administation.  This pre-dates 9/11 and the current war in Iraq.

Those who criticise Pesident Bush with a broad brush are silent regarding the 1961 election in which Kennedy defeated Nixon by a narrow margin that was sealed by the corrupt political machinery of the State of Illinois.

Nixon and the Republican Party in this case chose not to enter in a divisive situation regarding Nixon’s near loss, because they believed that doing so would hurt our country.  Please remember that at that time we were deeply involved in the Cold War with an implacably dangerous Soviet Union.

Where do you stand on all of this?

August 26, 9:03 pm | [comment link]
6. physician without health wrote:

I am conflicted about patriotism vs. Christianity.  In our country (USA) I see among evangelicals, a strong tendency to fuse Christianity with patriotism.  I have heard preachers speak from the pulpit of American superiority. Yet, when I travel abroad and kneel in worship next to my brothers and sisters in the Lord, I feel very much equal and at one with them, and thus have tremendous difficulty with the fusion of American Pride and the Gospel.  I like the Luther model of two kingdoms.  I also feel as an American that we have been truly blessed with an abundance like that in very few places, and that we have one of the best “systems of government” (albeit not perfect).  I love my country.  But we must remember that Christians in other nations feel the same way about theirs (I remember being in St. Andrews, Sydney, as the congregation were singing about the fact that their land “abounds in nature’s gifts of beauty rich and rare”) and we have to be careful not to let patriotism divide the Body of Christ.

August 26, 9:43 pm | [comment link]
7. Katherine wrote:

bob #1 and Bob #4, this is precisely the point which pro-life people have been making for many years.  The difference is, as #6 points out, that the Iraq war decision was made by the properly constituted authority, with the concurrence of the Congress, I might add, while the abortion decision was improperly imposed on the nation outside the appropriate legislative process.  The active efforts to undermine or prevent the success of the war effort once it had begun are the question of the day.  As even some Democratic leaders are beginning to point out, leaving Iraq now is a different question from the one posed in 2002/2003.

August 26, 11:06 pm | [comment link]
8. Bob (aka BobbyJim) wrote:

I do not disagree with the basic premise of the article, but I do disagree with the direction the early commenter wishes to take re: consumerism and policy of the current administration.

A later commenter rightly points out that the marketplace of political ideas and political action can sway policy direction. In our system, when the majority does finally decide where we are to go politically, we generally (maybe grudgingly) abide by the decision. Then we try again in the next election cycle to sell our marketable ideas and agenda.

I am as skeptical about our policies as any old veteran could be. But as hard as it is for some to conceive, it is quite possible our leaders may know just a tad more about ‘hidden facts’ than the general populace knows. They may even lead us in unexpected directions. But, didn’t we elect leaders, and not poll takers?

On the other hand, some folks would be happier if ‘their political flavor’ ran the whole shebang. I hope and pray that we don’t let either ‘political flavor’ have a free reign in this country.


August 26, 11:30 pm | [comment link]
9. Larry Morse wrote:

Someone remarked that we should render unto Caesar those things which are his. Patriotism is precisely that. And the same time, patriotism and jingoism are different, even though the difference is in degree, not in kind. No country can abide by Christ’s rules and survive. That’s why Christ gave us that particular advice. At this same time, this is not advocacy for Machiavellianism - in the worst and commonest sense of the word.  LM

August 26, 11:49 pm | [comment link]
10. Wilfred wrote:

The author is onto something here; let’s take it further:  Loyalty to The Episcopal Church USA is a form of idolatry, since by blessing ungodly actions, and promoting ungodly bishops, ECUSA has abandoned Christ.

August 27, 12:44 am | [comment link]
11. Words Matter wrote:

Odd to find myself in agreement with Bob from Boone, but there it is and there’s nothing for it.

Katherine, in fact, the Roe vs. Wade ruling does exactly what the Constitution allows: judicial review of a law measured against the highest law, the Constitution. The ruling was bad, but the process is part of our political system. Therefore, abortion-on-demand can be considered part if the political consensus that has become the consensus of our nation.  Moreover, in at least some states, even without Roe, a majority of people would certainly vote for legalized abortion, possibly up to the moment of birth. 

My duty as a Christian and a patriotic American would remain what it is now, which is to declare that abortion is the willful murder of an innocent and defenseless human being and that no civilized society would permit it. No matter how many people vote for it.

August 27, 2:03 am | [comment link]
12. Katherine wrote:

Words Matter, with respect, I don’t agree.  The Roe ruling was based on tenuous grounds not found in the Constitution.  It was based primarily upon the majority of Justices thinking it was the “right policy” and then finding some way to present it as a Constitutional requirement.  You are correct that after thirty-plus years most states would not enact strict prohibition of abortion except for the life of the mother, but at least sending the issue back to the state legislatures would put the making of public policy back where it belongs.  I think, myself, that state laws would allow early abortions but not later ones except in rare cases, as in supposedly liberal Europe today.

Mark Shea’s larger point, which is that patriotism can become extreme and when it does it’s idolatry is valid.

August 27, 2:56 am | [comment link]
13. Robert Easter wrote:

Interesting points all around, but remember when dealing with presidents, kings, bishops, or license bureau clerks, “..that God rules over the affairs of men, and sets over them the basest of men!”  (Dan. 4:17)


August 27, 4:13 am | [comment link]
14. The Duke wrote:

I’ve just come back from the cinema (‘Stardust’.  Not bad.). 
Before the movie there was a commercial for Army recruitment.  I was expecting the usual slow-mo images of honor, courage, and the stirring music in the background.  However I was not prepared for the most blatantly idolotrous statement I’ve ever heard in a commercial.  “In this green world there is nothing stronger than the US Army.  Because in this green world there is nothing stronger than a US soldier.’ 
Huh?  What about, umm, the grace of God?  The love of God?  The power of God?  The judgment of God?
An extraordinary claim to godhead by our military.

August 27, 7:59 am | [comment link]
15. Katherine wrote:

One doubts that they meant it quite the way you took it, Duke.  And they can’t say, “For God and country” any more because they’re not allowed to mention God at all.

August 27, 8:09 am | [comment link]
16. Bob from Boone wrote:

The notion that challenge in the name of the Reign of God is to be made simply in the ballot box, and that if the government says it’s all right we should go along with it: these illustrate precisely the problem that arises when faith gets in bed with politics. There are many other ways to change society to bring it in line with the egalitarian message that Jesus proclaims of God’s Rule. Everyone knows that the champions of woman’s sufferage in the nineteenth century and the freedom riders/MLK Jr. in the twentieth couldn’t count on the ballot box: they didn’t have it! And constituted government denied the vote and equal rights to women and to blacks. They had to take their stands in other ways; they had to witness, sometimes in peril of arrest or their lives, to help change the mind of the nation, and then the governmental structures. And they did so out of their Christian faith. It is appropriate that MLK, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Aemilia Jenks Bloomer, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Ross Tubman, and Jonathan Daniels (whose martyrdom we celebrated recently) are honored in the TEC calender of feasts and fasts.

When Jesus spread the good news of God’s Reign he did so in a way that challenged the hegemony of the Pharisees and Scribes over the Torah, the Sanhedrin, the High Priestly group, and implicitly the Roman imperial government. He went on, knowing that the last two would collaborate in his judicial murder. And he didn’t have the vote. But he gave us an example of how to work for God’s Reign, and also of the price we sometimes have to pay for it. One of the things this commitment calls on us to do is think outside the box, and that included the ballot box and the letter box we use to write our representatives and officials.

August 27, 12:42 pm | [comment link]
17. Sherri wrote:

But, today, we have people who cannot or will not accept the outcome of a national election or the leadership of elected leaders in a manner that does not undermine the security of our country.

Are you saying that as long as voters have approved it, you would sit back and do nothing if you perceived our country to be on a morally wrong path? Acting in “disobedience to God” as Bob Carlton put it?

Words Matter (#11), I’m with you. If we love God - and if we love our country, too - it is our duty to speak out when our country does something wrong and ungodly. To do less is not to love God or our country.

Bob from Boone (#16), well said: “Everyone knows that the champions of woman’s sufferage in the nineteenth century and the freedom riders/MLK Jr. in the twentieth couldn’t count on the ballot box: they didn’t have it! And constituted government denied the vote and equal rights to women and to blacks. They had to take their stands in other ways; they had to witness, sometimes in peril of arrest or their lives, to help change the mind of the nation, and then the governmental structures. And they did so out of their Christian faith.”

August 27, 2:02 pm | [comment link]
18. chips wrote:

I think Bob from Boone missed the point of the article.  It was directed at the post-Christian secular west - the article’s heading was patritoism - but then it went into providing, money sex and power.  Other than power I am not sure how foreign policy plays into it and the state heretofore has not been seen as a pimp. Money is doled out by both sides of the political spectrum - but it is the left that does it more openly.  It is the liberal nanny state that is the greatest threat to God in our culture as a competitor - think +KJS and the MDGs.  I think from the article which was vague and confusionin - keep the order right God, King and Country.

August 27, 3:43 pm | [comment link]
19. bob carlton wrote:

your statement:
the liberal nanny state that is the greatest threat to God in our culture as a competitor
just stunned me.

the majority of cath & evangel folks who look at such things have seen consumerism as the primary competitive narrative to following God in a Jesus way.  Consumerism is, first and foremost, a culture of expectations that draws us into unhealthy ways of relating to our material possessions and tempts us to be consumers of one another.

For much of the last 40 years, the church has been tempted to adopt marketing strategies that transform the body of Christ into one more vendor of products and services. Yet in true worship through the Eucharist, we can be shaped in fidelity, other-centeredness, and proper joy, which are counter-cultural to the ethos of consumerism. As often as we eat the bread and drink from the cup, as Augustine reminds us, we receive the mystery of ourselves.

August 27, 4:51 pm | [comment link]
20. Bob from Boone wrote:

Bob C., #19, you are right on! Consumerism is the sustaining force of our capitalist economy, which is nourished by government support, monetary subsidies (e.g., the enormous subsidies given to agribusiness)  and tax cuts for industries. Everything is marketed now, including organized religion, as you noted. We Christians are saturated with a political economy that promotes the gospel of “work hard, earn money, buy stuff,” as Brian Swimme once put it.

When I teach Revelation, I give my only sermon of the semester. I asked the students to reread chapter 18, the taunt song over Babylon, and substitute “America” for “Babylon.” It is far more difficult to work for the Reign of God in this land today. It calls for a degree of consciousness-raising most believers have yet to undertake. The old sermons against materialism just don’t cut it.

August 27, 5:30 pm | [comment link]
21. bob carlton wrote:

On of my favorite writers is David Dark, whose book The Gospel According to America:  A Meditation on a God-Blessed, Christ-Haunted Idea offers plenty of (cautionary) food for thought:

  Properly understood, the gospel of Jesus is a rogue element within history, a demythologizing virus that will undermine the false gods of any culture that would presume to contain it. In fact, as American history shows, the gospel itself will often instruct nations in the ways of religious tolerance. But our understanding of the gospel is made peculiarly innocuous when its witness of socially disruptive newness (in whatever culture it finds itself) is underplayed or consigned to the realm of “religious issues” within the private sphere. When the Bible is viewed primarily as a collection of devotional thoughts, its status as the most devastating work of social criticism in history is forgotten. Once we’ve taken it off its pedestal long enough to actually read what it says, how does the principality called America interpret the gospel? In an age when many churchgoing Americans appear to view the purposes of the coming kingdom of God and the perceived self-interests of the United States as indistinguishable, what does faithful witness look like? . . .

  Jesus’ announcement of a better kingdom puts any and every Babylon on notice, and woe unto any nation that would presume itself above the call to repentance, refusing to call into question its sacred symbols and assuming a posture of militant ignorance. Does the biblical witness disturb the mental furniture of the average American? Do we have the ears to hear a prophetic word? When we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” are we thinking mostly of other people from other countries or different party affiliations, or are we at least occasionally noting the axis of evil within our own hearts and at work in the lives of whomever we think of as “our kind of people”?

August 27, 6:12 pm | [comment link]
22. chips wrote:

The article was about worship of the state.  My comment was the state does not provide sex and only tangently power to many of its citizens - the nanny state does provide money to some. The liberal nanny state has suplanted/replaced the individual and family for many as a means of sustenance (hence we have more single moms then we would absent state involvement).  The state is also capable of creating a theology - the liberal nanny state has chased God from the public square and is in the process of imposing secular cultural beliefs in the name of equality ie gay marriage - as in what can be more American than equality or what can be more American than “the freedom to choose.”  It is the proper role of the state to regulate and promote a viable economy - to suggest otherwise is absurd.  Consumerism has more to do with Park Avenue ad firms and Hollywood than with Federal Policy.  Consumerism can of course be an idol like patriotism but it was not the focus of the article.  I hope Bob from Boone that you are not so left of center as to be anti - Capitalism.

August 27, 7:35 pm | [comment link]
23. bob carlton wrote:

Chips, you have endowed what you refer to as the liberal nanny state with a tremendous amount of power.  I can not imagine Jesus, Paul, Aquinas or JP II speaking our against what the services I imagine you have in mind are focussed on.

I can imagine - and have read - what orthodox Christianity has to say about consumerism.  Your nievette in suggesting that our government has nothing to do with fostering consumerism is laughable - just spend some time unpacking the “ownership” society or remember President Bush exhorting us, in the wake of 9/11, not to plant victory gardens or enlist in the armed forces or even give blood, but to go shopping.

We fuse the two ideas consciously even. We know our economy depends on consumer confidence and spending. Shopping is good for America; therefore, it’s patriotic. And so it’s been a short step to use the model of shopper as a metaphor for citizenship. It’s not only flat-screen TVs we pick out. We “buy” ideas or we don’t. If we get something we didn’t want — say an elected leader or a war — we feel no ownership: After all, we didn’t put it in our shopping carts. Just as shoppers owe nothing to a store — because it’s the store’s job to be attractive to the shopper — it is a short step to the idea that we owe nothing to our country, let alone to our fellow shoppers. From a consumer perspective, our country needs to earn our patronage. If it doesn’t, we can opt out, for instance, by not bothering even to vote.

August 27, 7:56 pm | [comment link]
24. Robert Easter wrote:

Brothers, if we’re going to talk about the Nanny, there’s one detail that often gets overlooked in this discussions.  It’s easy to say the Nanny has too much control, or even that the Nanny is so obsessed with a safe and comfy nursery that it gets hard to breathe, but the question needs to be, not how did she get such power, or even why she is so obsessed with building a such a soft cocoon, but who invited her in the first place?

Society is retarded.  We are so accustomed to life in the nursery that our feet are too soft for firm ground.  And we are too weak to sustain ourselves outside the nursery, because our blood $upply has been so weakened from paying for the Nanny’s salary, and all her expensive toys.  As long as the Nanny is getting paid, we are going to be needing her to support our weakening legs and spines.  The “strongest” among us, with their huge salaries and estates, depend on the Nanny for support, and the rest of us are not so much “weaker” except possibly in terms of our positions in her feeding lines.  With 70-90% of our livelihood being pumped into the Nanny’s bags through business, transport, income, excise, and sales taxes (etc.) and other kiddies getting firesale deals on the nursery furniture, what is left to the imagination?

Two sad scenarios:  “We’re from the Government, and we’re here to help you”  Well, maybe so, or “The world is just going to keep getting better and more Christian until Jesus comes to see what a good job we’ve done!”  (Gimme that crying towel!)

One dependable, and happy, one:  Jesus is coming back, and, we expect, quite soon!


August 27, 10:33 pm | [comment link]
25. chips wrote:

I did not say that Uncle Sam is not a supporter of consumerism - just that there are sufficient forces within our culture to where Government is not the leading promoter and consumerism would exist even if the government took a neutral stance.  To suggest that the rise of the modern state has not reduced the relative role of the Church, family and individual is naive. My saying that the modern is state is powerul does not make it so - FDR’s coalition from 1932 t0 1968 did and the momentum has carried it forward to today. My original point was that although the author attacked excessive patriotism as being an idol - I do not think he was mainly or just shooting at jinoistic nationalism - but the rise of the post Christian state - which is fast becoming secular humanist and pushing religion, the family, and the individual to the sideline.  Consumerism is simply chasing after money which is one of the three idols mentioned in the article. The Authors point towards the end is that the state is trying to be the “solution to our problems” - which can be both right and left - but the left usually wants to be more involved in our lives.  In reality I think the author tried to cover too much ground and/or was deliberately vague so that both sides could draw their own negative conclusions about the aspects of the state/patriotism that they find unappealing.

August 27, 10:57 pm | [comment link]
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