You shall have no other gods before Me. – Exodus 20.3
Idol worship is sin. Therefore, if the state were to theoretically become an idol (i.e. treated as a god), this would be a sin.
Unfortunately, making an idol out of the state happens far too often. What makes state idolatry so dangerous is that it is almost never recognized for what it is: idolatry. State idolatry frequently sneaks into the church under the innocent cloak of patriotism, where it is then welcomed and encouraged with noble and even God-glorifying intentions. “Our country needs to be a force for good!” “Our country has been, and can continue to be a Christian nation; a city set on a hill, influencing the rest of world for good.” “Government is intended to be God’s minister for good. Good government can be a powerful tool to stop the spread of evil.”
This is not to say that all (or even most) patriotic Christians are idolaters. But we must recognize an important truth: If patriotic affections become strong enough to exalt the state into the presence of God, patriotism can become idolatry. Patriotism, if not kept within proper boundaries, can become sin. And since patriotism is frequently encouraged and often embraced by the modern church, these calls for patriotism must be tempered with biblical warnings against idolatry (Acts 15.20; 1 Cor. 10.14; 1 John 5.21).
What is Idolatry?
Idolatry is more than just bowing down to statues. Idolatry is a sin of the heart.
Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their hearts and have put right before their faces the stumbling block of their iniquity. – Ezekiel 14.3
Yes, this idolatry is often identified by the images the hearts of men have chosen to revere as gods. But the sin is not in the statue itself. The sin of idolatry is to be found in the heart that chooses to revere the statue as a god.
Yet statues are not the only things that can be revered as gods. Paul often spoke of “greed” as a form of idolatry.
Therefore consider the members of your earthly body as dead to immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed, which amounts to idolatry. – Colossians 3.5
Once it is recognized that idolatry is more than just worshiping little statues, it is easy to recognize that anything that the heart exalts as a god is idolatry. If the state is exalted by the heart as a god, the state has become an idol.
Idolatry is often incorrectly defined as “putting anything ahead of God.” Look again at God’s definition of idolatry:
You shall have no other gods before me. – Exodus 20.3
The meaning of the phrase “before me” is not limited to anything put ahead of God. The word used for “before” also includes anything that is put into God’s presence. The phrase could also rightly be translated “You shall have no other gods besides me”, or “You shall have no other gods except me.”
Thankfully, I have never met a Christian who claims to place their love of country ahead of their love of God. Although this must be continually guarded against, placing the state ahead of God is not, in my opinion, a major cause of state idolatry. What happens far more often is that the state is glorified, respected, revered, served, trusted in, and sworn allegiance to in a manner which is due only to the LORD God. In other words, the state is treated as a god. Yet due to the fact that the state is not put “ahead of God,” it is rarely recognized for what it is: idolatry.
Is All Patriotism Idolatry?
No. Scripture is silent when it comes to patriotism. Although patriotism is certainly not required of Christians, it could be argued that having affection for one’s home country is somewhat natural. Jesus wept for Jerusalem (Matt. 23.37). Paul had a special desire in His heart for the Jews, the people with whom he shared a heritage (Rom. 10.1).
Consider an analogy. I am a huge Tennessee Volunteers fan. I like the color orange. I don’t like missing games. I like it when they have good seasons. I rock my son to sleep at night humming “Rocky Top.” Is having affection for my team idolatry? Hardly!
But given my affection for the Big Orange, I must continually remain on guard that they do not become an idol. What if, for example, I allowed myself to get angry, to be less of a loving father or husband on days when they lose? What if I allowed by fandom to damage my relationships with Christians who prefer the color Crimson? What if my affection for my favorite football team made it more difficult for me to be a faithful Christian?
Have I put my team ahead of God? Hardly. But have I exalted them to a position beside God? Have I allowed them to start shaping my character? Have I allowed my reverence for them to come into the presence of God? Yes. As soon as my affection for my football team lessens my desire to give honor, respect and faithful submission to God, they have started to become an idol. Even if I refused to call them an “idol” they would have become one.
Now what about patriotism? Is it wrong to have a special affection for the country of your origin? Not in itself. Yet as soon as our patriotism causes us to lessen our ability to serve in God’s Kingdom, we need to stop and ask if we have allowed our patriotism to gain too big of a foothold in our lives. We must ask whether we might be on the verge of making the state an idol.
Questions for patriots to consider:
- If I were to take all of the time, energy, and emotion that I invest into making my country better, and I were to redirect all that time, energy and emotion towards making God’s kingdom stronger, what would that look like?
- When symbols of national pride (such as the flag, or the national anthem) are disrespected, do I allow my emotions to get the best of me? Do I respond with grace and kindness?
- During election seasons, when others see my words, my actions, and my social media posts, can they see that my hope is firmly held in Christ? Or would they assume that I am just like everyone else in the world, viewing political outcomes as one of the most important things for our future?
- Do I pray for missionaries as often as I pray for my country’s soldiers? Do I pray for my enemies as often as I pray for my country’s soldiers?
- Am I a peacemaker? Do I love my enemies? If so, when others look at my words, actions and social media posts, can they tell that I am a peacemaker who loves my enemies? Can they tell that I love my enemies, even at times when my preferred political party demonizes someone? Can they tell that I am a peacemaker even when my preferred political party supports acts of war?
- When I consider the possibility of patriotism becoming idolatry, where does my mind go next? Do I welcome the warning against idolatry, or do I feel a need to defend the idea of patriotism? Do I welcome, without hesitation, the suggestion that it would be okay for Christians to reject expressions of patriotism if by so doing they are able to live more faithfully? What does the answer to this question say about my heart’s deepest concerns? Am I more concerned with faithful loyalty to God, or am I more concerned with maintaining faithful allegiance to my country?
Once again, we must not simply ask, “Am I keeping God first, and love of country second?” We must ask whether or not our love of country has in any way lessened our commitment, service, or allegiance to the Kingdom of God. Although there may not be anything wrong with patriotism in itself, if patriotism comes anywhere close to becoming an idol, we must flee from it. It would be better to be an unpatriotic faithful Christian than to be a patriotic unfaithful Christian.
Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. – 1 John 2.15
Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry. – 1 Corinthians 10.14