I’m going to be honest: I used to hate my country. Maybe I was just angsty, or maybe I was just frustrated with the many flaws I saw in the system, or maybe I was just exhausted by all the people around me who seemed to be so in love with a place that I didn’t feel the same way about. But regardless, I honestly despised the United States, and I was quite vocal about it. I dreamed of one day moving to Europe (or Canada) and living among much more decent people in a much more decent place. I didn’t think there was any country on earth worse than the U.S.
But then I started to learn more about the world, and I realized a few things.
First of all, I am extremely privileged to be a U.S. citizen, and I benefit greatly from having been born here. Religious freedom, the right to vote, and the ability to become what I want to become are privileges I took for granted growing up, but they are not equally available to everyone. Many countries don’t offer their citizens the rights and freedom that I’m afforded, and I’ve learned to be thankful for that.
And while the U.S. does have its flaws, it’s also responsible for some pretty incredible things, and it deserves credit for them. The U.S. created democracy and proved to the world that it can be a viable—though certainly not perfect—way to govern a country. It is the birthplace of the separation between church and state, a concept that has made the world a much better place when put into practice. Its economy has created space for companies to form, grow, and create things that have revolutionized human life as we know it. When it is at its best, the United States can be a place of acceptance, innovation, and change that moves the world in the right direction.
I’ve also realized that my country needs people to love it well. It’s far too easy to criticize and cast hate the way I used to, but it’s just as easy to fall into the trap of uncritically believing that everything the U.S. does is great, even going so far as claiming that the country has some special relationship with God (which it doesn’t). But what the United States really needs is people who love it well, who recognize its shortcomings and care enough to work to change them instead of ignoring them or just simply pointing a finger. Without those kinds of people, the country is doomed to fall into division and decay. And if I won’t love my country the way it needs me to, who will?
The biggest thing I’ve realized is that the United States isn’t particularly special one way or another. Is it the democratic utopia that patriotic nationalism makes it out to be? No. But is the ultimate source of evil in the world, as I used to believe? Of course not. It’s a country, one among many, and it happens to be mine. Seeing the U.S. as just a country and nothing more has helped me put its history, its actions, and its current state into perspective, allowing me to let go of my feelings of hate towards it in the process.
I think Christians in the United States are in an especially difficult place when it comes to how we choose to relate to our country. On the one hand, we know that our loyalty does not ultimately lie with any earthly entity but with God alone. On the other hand, we are called to engage with the world and the culture around us as a part of living out the life of faith. And so we’re compelled to participate in the life and the processes of our nation. But there’s a balance to it that we miss out on far too often.
Because the institutions of this world exist for one reason: to perpetuate themselves. This is true for corporations, organizations, religions, colleges, and yes, even governments. Governmental institutions thrive when their citizens follow them blindly, so they use means like culture and education to create a hegemony of patriotism and nationalism that they then instill in every citizen that they possibly can.
And this hegemony is powerful. It tries to mix itself up with faith to the point that we followers of Christ can’t tell biblical principles from American cultural norms. It tries to convince us that patriotism is objectively good and that anything seemingly against the well-being of the country is morally evil. It tries to establish a relationship between God and country that is so close and so powerful that we end up worshipping the wrong one without even realizing it.
At least part of my former hatred towards my country was rooted in this hegemony and the utter control it had over the people around me growing up. I’m not trying to speak ill of them at all. They were well-meaning, Christ-loving people who had simply fallen into the trap of American hegemony. Once I recognized the system of lies that the people around me had bought into, I used hatred as a defense mechanism. It worked for a while, but I eventually realized that my approach had its own pitfalls.
Now that I don’t have hatred to hide behind, I sometimes feel myself being drawn into the trap of hegemony myself. I get a little too invested in my preferred political candidate, eventually granting them the position of savior, one that can only rightfully be held by Jesus. I condone acts of violence on the condition that they’re carried out for the security of my country, completely ignoring the fact that the people in other places are created in the image of God just as much as I am. I hear the phrase “America first” and think, “Why shouldn’t we put our own country first?” In the process, I lose sight of God’s concern for all people, not just those who share my citizenship.
There is a way to love one’s country without worshipping it. But it’s not easy, and I certainly haven’t mastered it. I think the only way to truly overcome the hegemony is to be completely devoted to Jesus Christ, resisting all temptations to put anything above him, even something as noble as one’s love of country.
Because the truth is that the United States isn’t our eternal destination; it’s heaven. And the American flag is not the symbol we pledge our allegiance to; it’s the cross. And The Star Spangled Banner isn’t the anthem of our souls; it’s Amazing Grace. The powers that be would convince us that we should love our country above all else, and our Christian response should be a resounding, “No.” We love our country, but we reject the hegemony. We love our country, but we love Jesus infinitely more.