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My Country, Right or Wrong?

Back in 2007 I wrote a post about patriotism in which I said:

I’m going to annoy quite a few people with this post, but I have noticed for a number of years that Christians in America often conflate Christianity and American patriotism. …

I didn’t post on July 4th this year, but I did continue to think about this just a bit. What allegiance do I owe my country?

I think it is clear that a disciple of Jesus owes his or her allegiance first to the kingdom of heaven, and only second to any earthly power. The question automatically comes up as to whether I am a reliable citizen of my own country if that country does not have my first allegiance.

Some might think this was an accusation to be used by the anti-religious against Christians. But I think that suggestion is perhaps a bit too hasty.

Let’s take my father as an example. He was a Seventh-day Adventist and objected to bearing arms in war. As a Canadian during the 2nd World War, he was denied a request to be given a medical role. Since he still refused to bear arms, he was given alternative service, so to speak, planting trees for he war. Many people despised young men such as that, thinking them cowards.

This is a case here the laws of the land, in this case Canada, conflicted with someone’s understanding of the laws of God, and he chose to obey God rather than men. As such, he was certainly a less reliable citizen of the country–from one point of view–than those who were willing to do whatever their country demanded of them.

Many were in a similar situation in the United States. In the churches I attend, most people make the assumption that the patriotic–and Christian–thing to do is to serve your country in time of war. To them, it’s just right.

I served in the U. S. Air Force for 10 years and was honorably discharged. (I became a U. S. Citizen when my parents were naturalized when I was 12 years old.) For many people this is an indication that I am truly a patriot. (Well, some of my Marine friends think that service in the USAF is a substitute for real military service, which can only be performed in the Marines!)

Now let me note that I am proud of my service to my country. I’m no hero. I just served honorably and moved on. But I am also very proud of my father’s service to his country.

No, I’m not talking about the service of planting trees, though that is what was required of him. I’m talking about his service of obedience to his conscience.

I don’t know if patriotism is the right word. It gets used in so many ways. But often love of one’s country is defined in terms solely of obedience. I think the most valuable citizen is one who gives country the value of his or her mind and conscience.

You see, I don’t think this should just be a Christian issue. The greatest danger to a country, I think, is a citizenry that accepts “my country, right or wrong” as their approach to decision making. That is the road to tyranny.

I have a hard time imagining the ethical atheist giving first allegiance to country either. If you give first allegiance to your country you abdicate your responsibility to make ethical decisions. Face it, sometimes an ethical decision is going to disagree with what the country orders.

Let me bring up a more recent example. Supposing you have legal authorization to torture, as some people thought they did under the previous administration. Your superiors order you to do so. The relevant folks support their decision as lawful. What is your duty to your country?

I think there is no doubt as to what the ethical person should do, on the assumption that you are opposed to torture. You would have to refuse to participate, and I personally would fell obligated to take measures to try to prevent such a policy from continuing. (While I do not find any convincing arguments in favor of permitting the use of torture, that is not my point here.)

A country that wants ethical citizens should endeavor to make room for such ethical decisions and actions.

Let me illustrate this from another ethical issue. Quite a number of physicians would consider it immoral to perform abortions. (My father, true to his principles, also rejected abortion absolutely.) Many Catholic physicians have objections to providing birth control services. Some believe that the law should require all doctors to provide all services, in other words, it would be illegal for a physician to decline to provide a service he or she found morally reprehensible.

I believe such a law would tend on the one hand to create immoral and unethical citizens, while on the other forcing those who are ethical out of those professions.

The best thing for the country is to make such ethical decisions possible. The best thing for each individual is never to abdicate such decision making to others.

My country–when right. Otherwise I owe my country my best judgment.

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