In post-Christian America, our love of our country has to take a new shape – LifeSite

(The Catholic Thing) — As Christians in the United States celebrate Independence Day 2024, we are doing so in what is now an essentially post-Christian society. Though we rightly lament our country’s move away from Biblical values, especially as secular forces adopt an increasingly militant anti-Christian posture, our present predicament does have one great advantage – it makes us more conscious of the transitoriness of all our earthly loves, including our love of country.

Our situation is not unlike that which the Church experienced during the first three or four centuries of its existence, when it lived in the midst of a pre- rather than a post-Christian culture. That’s why the theme of exile loomed so large in those early days. St. Peter, for example, urged his readers to live as “sojourners and exiles.” (I Peter 2:11) And St. Paul explained to the Church in Philippi why this is so: because “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Philippians 3:20)

We are told that those great heroes of the faith inscribed in the eleventh chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews all had this in common: they “acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth;” as pilgrims, they desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one.”  (11:13, 16)

This may help explain those strange-sounding salutations we sometimes read in the writings of the early Apostolic Fathers. For example, Clement of Rome’s Epistle to the Corinthians, written around the year 100, contains this: “The Church of God which resides as a stranger in Rome to the Church of God which is a stranger at Corinth.”

The danger of sacralizing the temporal becomes less of a temptation when the values of the earthly city stand in sharp contrast to those of the heavenly city. Truth be told, when the values of these two realms were much more closely aligned in our own history, we Christians perhaps were too prone to blur the lines between Church and country and rely too heavily on politics to advance a Christian vision of life.

However congenial the previous arrangements may have been, and however rightly appreciative we were for them (grateful immigrants like me, especially), we must acknowledge the temptation of a “God and Country” patriotism to assign an almost quasi-redemptive mission to the United States. As Msgr. James Shea has forcefully reminded us, however, “The Blessed Mother was immaculately conceived, not the American Republic.”

As for unduly elevating the importance of politics, we’d all do well to heed the wisdom of the late Chuck Colson’s advice to his politically active fellow Evangelicals that “The Kingdom of God does not arrive on Air Force One.”

But we must not push this point too far. For the same apostles who addressed the early Christians as strangers and foreigners also reminded them that they were also citizens of their earthly country. St. Paul, for instance, writing in a decidedly pagan context, instructs Timothy: “I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all peoples, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (I Timothy 2:1-2; ESV)

It’s clear that for St. Paul this did not mean simply being willing subjects. His instructions to Titus, for example, included the admonition that the latter should remind the Christians under his charge “to be ready for every good work.” (Titus 3:1) This was essentially the same message that God, speaking through the prophet Jeremiah, had delivered several centuries before to the Jews who had forcibly been carried away into exile in Babylon. Then they were instructed to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:7)

So, we Christians shouldn’t merely be passive residents of our earthly city, marking time until the Lord’s return, but rather fully participate as active citizens advancing the welfare of the city where God in his wise providence has placed us. We should never forget, however, where our ultimate allegiance lies; with St. Thomas More, we are the king’s good servants, but God’s first.

Perhaps nowhere in early Christian literature is this tension given more powerful expression than in the 2nd-century Epistle to Diognetus. The unknown author of that missive first points out to Diognetus, likely a pagan of high social standing, how in many ways Christians live as ordinary citizens, doing their part to benefit their cities. But then, recalling the Lord’s prayer for his disciples in John 17, the author explains that “Christians dwell in the world, but they are not part and parcel of the world.” (Ch. 6.3)

Earlier in the letter, the author had provided this arresting description of the Christian’s dual status: “They reside in their respective countries, but only as aliens. They take part in everything as citizens and put up with everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their home, and every home is a foreign land.” (Ch. 5.5)

So, if our current situation as resident aliens keeps us from sacralizing the temporal, this does not diminish in the least our responsibility to “take part in everything as citizens,” as the Letter to Diognetus puts it. For all the changes we have seen in mainstream American culture in the last decades, there is still an essential goodness in loving our country, and there is still such a thing as healthy patriotism.

So, on this Fourth of July, let us render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. But let us also, as strangers and citizens, heed C.S. Lewis’ words that “He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, most emphatically belongs to God: himself.” (“Learning in War-Time”)

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Thing.

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