Love of God. Love of Country. As we approach Independence Day, we become cognizant of the way these sentiments intersect. We think back to the “founding” of our country, led by Europeans fleeing religious persecution. The Declaration of Independence speaks of unalienable rights that “all men” are bestowed by their creator; the love of country is, to some extent, dependent on the love of God. At the same time, the first amendment to the Constitution seeks to ensure that our government does not require us to believe in said creator; the love of God can be freely expressed only when we have, to some extent, love of country.
The institutions of religion and government evolved in order to regulate this love. The United States, for historical reasons, most closely identifies with Christianity and democracy, and each of these institutional brands has a leader. The trinity — expressions of the leader in three forms — instructs the former while a trinity of government branches instructs the latter. Each seeks to uphold its institutional mission statement, and followers are exhorted to obey the Bible and the Constitution. Since both were written by men at particular times and places, this obedience is dependent upon informed interpretation.
Love of God and country are seen as positive sentiments; we celebrate them with hometown parades and dazzling fireworks displays. We express our devotion at mass and summer revivals. And yet we know that these sentiments can lead us astray. Extreme positions get the most attention; talking heads on cable news rarely straddle the middle road. Conservatism and liberalism, fundamentalism and ecumenicism, capitalism and socialism, sexism and egalitarianism — all of these and others are interpretations of proper government and God. Because these interpretations are made by beings who are viscerally motivated to protect themselves and their loved ones, each is flawed and in competition with one another. It is human nature to focus on what is best for oneself; we are all protagonists in our own play. Thus, politicians sport flag pins on their lapels in order to show how devoted they are to country; pharisees follow all the rules set forth in selected biblical texts (and are quick to admonish those who do not) to publicly show their devotion to God. These expressions of piety and patriotism are motivated by self-interest; they are not virtues because they are come by easily.
Piety and patriotism are only meaningful when they embrace another sentiment: Love of Others. While crucial to the success of our local, state, and national communities, this sentiment becomes buried as we dig our trenches. We fail to practice this love both within and outside the borders of our religion and government. Inability to care for those who are ‘like’ us makes loving outsiders who are ‘different’ all but impossible. Our self-focus and self-interest lead us to act in ways antithetical to our beliefs. Undocumented immigrant children pile up in shelters as a result of keeping the Other out while we forget that we are the Other who viciously took this land from those who were here before us. National sovereignties are occupied to ensure access to a non-renewable energy source that will feed our consumption while we ignore the tens of thousands of families in these sovereignties who suffer and die as a result. We send our loved ones out to protect ‘our’ way of living while remaining blind to the body bags and the broken bodies and minds that return. Instead of working with each other to protect God’s creation, we dispute climate change. Instead of caring for the impoverished in our communities, we argue over who deserves basic needs such as housing and health care. In the end, we destroy the very thing that we love just to gain the upper hand; piety and patriotism have become perverted by power.
As a community and as a nation we need to rethink the meaning of love of God and country. We must stop bickering about who is a patriot and who is not or who is going to heaven and who is not. Our institutions must go back to their mission statements instead of focusing all their energies on self-maintenance and so-called progress. We must exchange competition for compassion and love others as ourselves. Only by expanding our idea of self beyond our physical shells will we truly become a melting pot.
This Independence Day let us celebrate our dependence upon one another. By doing so we can then proclaim to truly be the land of the free.
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