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Patriotism, religion and the building of American community

By Mike Ruffin The time between Memorial Day and Independence Day is a good one to think about the value of patriotism. So let’s ponder the valuable and healthy role that patriotism can and should play in forming, preserving and enriching a sense of community among Americans. ’Patriotism’ as I define it is a healthy love for, respect for and devotion to one’s homeland, whether it is one’s homeland by birth or by adoption to its people, its traditions and its principles and a commitment to protect it and to work with all other citizens to make it even better. Now, as a Christian (and I think I can safely assume I would say this if I came from another faith tradition), I must add that my commitment to love and to serve my God and to have my life formed by my Scriptures is prior to and more important than and thus must inform and can even sometimes limit the ways in which I can serve and support my country. It’s a matter of putting first things first. As a Christian my primary allegiance is to my Lord. All my other allegiances, including my allegiance to my country, exist under and are shaped by that primary allegiance. One of the great principles upon which the United States is founded is the principle of religious liberty. In this nation, people are free to practice their religion (or to practice no religion) and are free from being compelled to support an established or state religion. I think that is good and healthy, which I am sure the founders would be relieved to hear. I furthermore think that it is a principle around which we should rally and which we should all, irrespective of our religious traditions and convictions, defend. But one of the side effects of our tradition of religious liberty and the resulting tremendous religious diversity in the United States is that our religious traditions and convictions often become lines of division and debate and even of antagonism. All Americans should certainly have the freedom to make their case and to speak their minds so long as we are respectful and civil about it. Let’s face it, though – most of us do in fact think that there is something more valuable in and right about our faith tradition than there is in other traditions or in no tradition; otherwise, we wouldn’t stay in it. I, for example, am a Christian and I truly believe that the ultimate and at the same time most accessible (a tension I just have to live with) revelation of God is in Jesus Christ. I would very much like to see absolutely everybody absolutely everywhere become a disciple of Jesus. But that is not going to happen here in America or anywhere else. Moreover, all American Christians are never going to interpret or practice their Christian faith in the same way. Therefore, practicing ecumenism is very difficult. Perhaps to our shame, but nevertheless understandably given the way things are, holding truly ecumenical Christian worship services or sharing in truly ecumenical Christian ministry efforts – and by ‘truly ecumenical’ I mean services or efforts at which any Christian group or individual would be fully welcomed and fully included and fully appreciated – is difficult, given the differences in doctrine and practice that divide us. Certainly, then, holding truly ecumenical – with no requirement or expectation that the participants be Christian – worship services or ministry efforts is even more difficult. For the record, I’d be more than willing to try it either or both ways ‘Christian ecumenical’ or just ‘ecumenical’ – but I recognize the difficulties. While it is true that God is one and that people of all religious traditions probably should be willing and able to come together to worship that one true God, it is the case that our different beliefs, convictions, and practices make it hard. In the United States of America, then, building over-arching community around religion, even around the worship of the one true God, is a non-starter. So here I return to patriotism and to the valuable and healthy role that it can and should play in forming, preserving, and enriching a sense of community among Americans. The bottom line is that we have at least a chance to be unified behind our common allegiance to the United States and to the principles on which the nation is built. It is not – or at least it should not be – difficult for us to see that we best celebrate our American freedoms, remember our American history, or embrace our American heritage when we do so not as Christian Americans, Jewish Americans, Muslim Americans, Sikh Americans, or Atheist Americans but rather as Americans who happen to be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Sikh or Atheist. It is our common allegiance to America that can and should bring us together and create American community. I know some will say that this is idolatry, that I am suggesting putting America in the place of God, but I deny that. I say again that for a person of faith his or her commitment to God must come first. I also say that where ecumenical progress can be made it should be made. But I also say again that our heritage of religious liberty and the fact of religious diversity makes it impossible for religion even faith in the one true God who, I would say, is most fully revealed in his Son Jesus Christ – to be the basis for American community. The creating of such community is the most important role that true patriotism, and only true patriotism, can play. Mike Ruffin is a writer, editor, preacher and teacher who grew up in Barnesville and lives in Yatesville.

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