God and Country

When I was in Boy Scouts I worked to earn a medal called “God and Country.” Most of the things we achieved in Scouting were either merit badges to wear on a sash or a step up in rank, where the highest rank was Eagle (I stopped at Life, just below Eagle). The fact that “God and Country” was a medal, and not just another cloth badge, suggests that encouraging devotion to both was a high priority for the Boy Scouts of America.

And that’s right, of course. People should be devoted to God and to their country, and cultivating that devotion is an important part of young people’s education. The trouble is, the order of devotion is easily confused. Too often people act as though God and country were two sides of the same thing, so that faith and patriotism are wrapped around each other like the double helix of a DNA molecule.

That’s a problem for several reasons. First, when we fail to distinguish between God and country it’s tempting to act as if God were just an especially powerful American. Then whatever we imagine our national interest to be, automatically becomes God’s interest too. “God bless America” morphs into “God bless America only,” or “God bless America more than everybody else.” Not surprisingly, people in other lands are tempted to the same kind of confusion, and history is littered with tragic tales of what happens when nations or ethnic groups come to believe that God is on their side.

Then again, shrinking piety down to patriotism undermines the prophetic role that religion can play in correcting any misguided impulses of nationalism. As long as our understanding of God’s will remains on a higher plane, distinct from our tribal or national will, there’s a chance that devotion to God may inform and guide our lesser loyalties. If we lose that higher perspective, what’s left to check the powerful passions of party and patriotism?

And finally, raising any other devotion to the level of our devotion to God is a kind of idolatry. The first of the Ten Commandments says, “I am the Lord your God …; you shall have no other gods besides me.” Idolatry is a grave fault, first and foremost because it’s an affront to our Creator, but also because devotion to any other god will only lead us astray.

We ought to be devoted to God and to our country. But they are not the same thing, and insofar as our devotion to one is likely to shape our devotion to the other, the order of our priorities makes all the difference.

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