Faith, patriotism and the challenge of balance

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While writing this reflection, I'm cognizant that it will appear in the July 3 edition of this newspaper - just in time for the Fourth of July.

We're Americans. I'm a veteran. Many will display red, white and blue, and enjoy a cookout.

On July 4, patriotism; on July 8, church services.

Perhaps few of us have thought about the more complex aspects of patriotism and faith, a tension that has existed for thousands of years. In many ancient cultures, religion and culture have been nearly inseparable. Ah! "Religion" rather than "faith" - an important distinction.

"Faith" is the personal commitment of the individual to God, the personal belief in the supremacy of God and the belief that God, and God alone, is the only "moral compass" for humankind. (Perhaps you might have heard an actress claim recently that Hollywood is America's "moral compass.")

In contrast, "religion" is the cultural system of designated behaviors and practices, world views, texts - the collection of outward behaviors through which we live out our personal faith. (It is not necessary to believe in God to have a "religion"; it's known as "civic religion.")

In the mid-1930s, the Nazis developed an interesting strategy to advance their brutal agenda. Rather than confront Christian faith head-on, they embarked on a program to co-opt religious practice to assure that religious organizations did not contradict the views of the state.

Christian teaching insisted on the sanctity of life in contrast to the Nazi plan of genocide. This new "patriotism" simply required silence. (Something very similar is unfolding now in China as churches are being required to eliminate teachings opposed to official government positions.)

In 1934, Karl Barth and others drafted a respectful but defiant statement that faith must not be subservient to nationalistic goals. This opposition cost some adherents their lives.

Barth reputedly said that, "To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world." What "disorder?"

For us, is it nuclear arms proliferation, immigration, poverty, sex trafficking, genocide, corporate greed, sanctity of life, or disregard of the environment? With faith do we find ourselves on "the wrong side of history" or on the "right side" of enduring values?

Clearly, the world is not what it is supposed to be. Those of many faiths assert that this is not the way it need be.

Patriotism calls us to care for our country and its people. Faith calls us to do so in a way that honors God.

If, on occasion, a form of "patriotism" challenges us to be less than people of faith, we need to speak truthfully so as to be "true patriots" in the finest sense of the word.

Joe Crowley is director of adult discipleship at Lowcountry Presbyterian Church in Bluffton. jcrowleydmin@gmail.com

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