Tuesday, October 08, 2013

God and country

Should Christian Americans love their country? Should Christian Americans be patriotic? 

i) This is debated from time to time. Let's begin with a critical cliché of Christian patriotism:

"Evangelical Americans equate the gospel with the GOP. They've turned the church into a wholly owned subsidiary of the Republican Party. But Christians are international citizens. We have dual citizenship. We have a higher allegiance. The world is our parish." 

Now, there's sometimes a grain of truth to that allegation. There are some Americans who consciously or unconsciously equate Christianity with American nationalism. 

But as a rule, I think this is a popular caricature on the part of faux-Anabaptists who like to make themselves look good by indulging in self-congratulatory rhetoric. 

ii) Let's take a different comparison. Eduardo Saverin is a pariah in some circles. Last year a heated debate broke out in the Corner of National Review over Saverin. Many pundits regard Saverin as a traitor for renouncing his American citizenship to evade corporate taxes. He ought to be more grateful for what he owes his country.

I understand the sentiment, but I don't think he's a good candidate to illustrate the sentiment. Now, for all I know, Saverin may be a cad. I'm not vouching for his character by any means. I'm just addressing this particular attack on his character. He may be a creep for other reasons.

From what I've read, he didn't choose to come here. His parents brought him here. He came here as a young teenager. And all his close relatives are Brazilian. 

Given those basic biographical facts, I wouldn't expect Saverin to identify with the American experience. He's not psychologically American. That's not his formative experience. That's not engrained in his character. If he doesn't feel the same national attachment as somebody who was born and raised here to American parents, I don't think that's disloyal. Given the awkward age at which he was uprooted, I doubt he feels at home anywhere. 

This also raises the contentious question of whether he should credit his success to America. Remember Obama's infamous "You didn't build that!" speech? 

From what little I know of him, Saverin is gifted and enterprising businessman who'd probably be succeed in most places where he was planted or transplanted. 

iii) The debate also suffers from ambiguous definitions. What does it mean to love your country? That's not easy to answer because enculturation is something we pick up by osmosis, so it's not something we're normally conscious of. 

If I say I love my country, I may be using my own life-experience as my frame of reference. It's not a statement about American history in general, or the continental US. It may involve a very narrow and deeply personal comparison. How I, as an American, living at a particular time in American history, and growing up in a particular region, feel about my nationality. 

There are many variables that shape that perception. Friends, relatives, and classmates. 

If you grow up on Long Island, coastal Southern California, the Bronx, a Montana ranch, Charleston, or Johns Island, these are all distinctively American, yet distinct from one another. 

Same thing with when you live. When you come of age. The century. The decade. 

iv) There are also certain commonalities that often shape national self-perception, like sports. Or movies about underdog sports teams. Likewise, the Western film genre has created an iconic American self-image. Pop music, from Frank Sinatra or Johnny Cash through rock or jazz, to Latin dance, &c., can also inform our national gestalt. 

These can be subliminal reference points. They contribute to a national mythos. 

v) Some Christian commentators define "love of country" in the theological sense of the duty to love our neighbors and even our enemies. By "enemies" is meant government officials or cultural elites who increasingly oppress Christian Americans. That's a valid definition, and a valid duty. But it's a rather specialized definition. It's not what we normally mean by "loving your country."

It defines "love" in terms of acting in the best interests of another. That's a valid, important definition. But "love of country" often has emotional or sentimental connotations. And that's valid, too, in a different sense.

vi) Love of country doesn't mean you necessarily look down on other countries. It isn't inherently chauvinistic. Rather, it's like an acquired taste. 

vii) Some critics act as though Christians are pure Cartesian souls. Our ethnicity and culture is like a snakeskin which we shed when we die and go to heaven. But I think that's a very artificial view of human nature. Our socialization is an essential and irreversible component of who we are as individuals. Biblical eschatology presents the world to come as a restoration and purification of human civilization, not an erasure of human civilization.  

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