In present-day global society, we have increasingly been forced to submit to what Pope Benedict XVI called a “dictatorship of relativism,” imposed on us by multilateral organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union. As the Pope Emeritus said, it is a dictatorship that “does not recognize anything as for certain and which has as its highest goal one’s own ego and one’s own desires.” A consequence of this is that many countries — though not all — have become morally indifferent toward social and political matters.
Europe, in particular, has been culturally and politically divided into what I see as three Europes: East, West, and Central. This ‘cleavage’ of what was once a united Judeo-Christian West has led people like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to implore Central European nations to join forces in order to preserve their Christian roots, lest they cave in to the bullying and dictates of an atheistic, liberal West or its secular, supranational partners.
The liberal mainstream media has sought to spin Orbán’s appeal as the outcry of a crude nationalist. But it is really a patriotic call to action. The fact is that the fundamental purpose of Orbán’s message is not self-glorification; rather, it is a plea to overcome the threats to national sovereignty — “by an honest attitude of love for the good of one’s nation and by acting with renewed solidarity,” as Pope St. John Paul II said in 1994 in his January 6 Letter to the Italian Bishops.
The notion of homage and allegiance to one’s homeland has been part of man’s DNA as long as civilization has been in existence. In fact, ‘patriotism’ — unlike ‘nationalism,’ which sees the interests of one’s own nation as separate and distinct from the interests of others — stems from the Latin words patria (one’s native country or city) and pater (father).
The role of the ‘father’ in late Roman antiquity was not just one who exercised authority over the members of his household — that is, other family members and slaves (who, in turn, were expected to show loyalty). He was also one who provided them with the necessary means with which his patrimony could eventually be securely passed on to his progeny. After inheriting his father’s estate, his heir (note that it was usually passed on to the eldest son) would be obligated to eventually do the same out of filial piety.
In like manner, we, as sons and daughters of the nation we were born in (or have chosen to make our own), are called to safeguard it against all internal and external threats — not just for our sake but for the sake of future generations. Patriotism is thus also a virtue of filial piety.
Piety — a devotion owed to the gods and goddesses — was the most important and most powerful virtue shaping life in Ancient Rome. In the Summa Theologicae, Aquinas refers to Cicero’s exposition on piety: “it is by piety that we do our duty towards our kindred and well-wishers of our country and render them faithful service.”
In the Judeo-Christian context, piety is an acknowledgment that God is the primary source of both life and government. But just as God requires our obedience, so, too, do the legitimate authorities — parents, family, community, state — who govern us. In II-IIae, Q. 101 (“On Piety”), Aquinas makes it clear that after God — who is “supremely excellent, and is for us the first principle of being and government” — gratitude for our well-being is owed to “our parents and our country that have given us birth nourishment.” He then concludes that man is in debt to both and that man must “give worship [i.e., render respect] to one’s country.” This includes “homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country.”
In order to better understand patriotism, we need to further consider: first, the concepts of people and nation, and patriotism as love for and defense of one’s country; and second, whether we are obliged, as sons and daughters of a nation, to be patriots — especially if we find ourselves under a government that seeks to undermine our Judeo-Christian inheritance.
People and nation: In the Old Testament, the meaning of ‘people’ is at times equivocal and it is not entirely clear what constitutes a people: race, territory, government, or other factors. The most common Hebrew terms to be found for ‘people’ are ‘am and goy. These often share the same meaning; while at other times, they are synonymous or even parallel in meaning. A few examples include: “Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight: and consider that this nation is thy people” (Exodus 33:13). “Keep therefore and do them; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say: Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deuteronomy 4:6). “Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord; and the people whom he hath chosen for his own inheritance” (Psalm 33:12).
God, of course, establishes a covenant with the Israelites as his chosen people under the condition that they “hearken to [his] voice and keep [his] covenant” (Exodus 19:5). This pact — which requires filial obedience — institutes a relationship similar to that of blood kinship: “I will be your God and you will be my people” (Jeremiah 11:4). This is why God’s people are given a land of their own — albeit, with nationalist implications: “Hence I have said to you, ‘You are to possess their land, and I Myself will give it to you to possess it, a land flowing with milk and honey.’ I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples” (Leviticus 20:24).
Being “separated” — or, rather, set apart — meant that only a fellow Israelite was a neighbor, while the non-Jew was an alien: “Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people but love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:8). Yet, compassion and justice still had to be shown toward the alien. This is why Moses prohibited the reaping of the crops entirely: some were to be left “for the poor and the alien.” As Leviticus 19:9-10 says: “When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. … Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.”
In the New Testament, however, the ‘people of God’ is not really as prominent a theme as it is in the Old Testament. Instead, we see references to ‘children of God.’ This transition occurs when Jesus reveals himself as the Son of God, consequently revealing His Father as ours, too: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
In the Pauline epistles, the concept of the ‘people of God’ (laos in Greek) transcends the common socio-political ancestry. The relationship is thus no longer a legalistic one but rather an intimate — and personal — relationship to God. The idea of the ‘children of God,’ on the other hand, in the Pauline epistles becomes an ekklēsia (that is, an assembly or church) in which all are invited to join: “Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20).
It is thus the acceptance of the Gospel teachings — regardless of race, gender, or status — that makes us children of God, his holy people: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). In fact, this notion of ‘people’ is parallel to Cicero’s juridical appellation of ‘people’ in De re publica. The Roman statesman writes: “Populus autem non omnis hominum coetus modo quoquo congregato, sed coetus multididinis iuris consensus et utilitatis communione sociatus.” (“A people is not any collection of human beings brought together in any sort of way but the convergence of a multitude based on the sharing of laws and common interests” — that is, the sharing of something that transcends ethnicity.)
Patriotism in Scripture: But whether it is ‘people of God’ or ‘children of God,’ the filial piety owed to our country is binding according to the Decalogue. When God gave Moses the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai, as recalled in the Book of Exodus, every single Commandment entailed a proscription — that is, a directive forbidding certain actions. The one exception was the Fourth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother, that thy days may be long in the land which the Lord thy God gives you.”
This Commandment is of extreme importance. The first three Commandments dictate man’s fundamental obligations towards God. But the Fourth Commandment is the first of God’s revealed precepts that expresses the Divine Will in regard to our relationship with our neighbor. It also establishes the structure of the institution of the family (i.e., the ‘people of God’ or ‘children of God’ on Earth), whose members have the moral duty to love each other and give homage to the land inherited from God.
This piety is also extended to all those whom God has vested with authority — that is, subordinates serving leaders, citizens serving their country, and those who govern the nation. In the New Testament, we read: “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy mountain” (Psalm 2:6), as well as: “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God” (Romans 13:1).
As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Those subject to authority should regard those in authority as representatives of God and offer their loyal collaboration for the right functioning of public and social life. This collaboration includes love and service of one’s homeland.” This is reinforced by the Gospel narrative on taxation: “Render, therefore, to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s’’ (Matthew 22:15-21). The message here is quite clear, with Jesus Himself acknowledging a realm of legitimate secular authority under Caesar — i.e., the state. (Of course, even Caesar must then also render unto God.)
In light of the passage in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians (3:20) — which says, “our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” — can we as Christians exercise the virtue of patriotism in what tends to be a godless world? While it’s true that the power of the state is granted by God, this power is not to be abused — particularly if the state makes or enforces laws that are contrary to the natural law, the unwritten law of God inscribed on the heart of every man. Thus, citizens are obliged to act in obedience to legitimate authority — so long as governments do not transgress divine authority.
Today, the very same response is asked of us. This is something we should keep in mind when we consider the world around us and the many bureaucratic institutions that demand our obedience. Operating under their version of ‘soft’ law — that is, rules that are neither strictly binding nor completely lacking legal significance — the UN, EU, and other multilateral entities, for example, have sought to impose various guidelines and codes of conduct on us. To not run afoul of their secular dictates, one can no longer act according to faith and reason — particularly if one identifies as a ‘Christian.’
A proper understanding of patriotism — particularly one rooted in Scripture — compels us to remain united, both as ‘children of God’ but also as ‘children of our nation.’ It also requires that we be willing to lay down our lives — if it were ever necessary — for our nation and our fellow man. Remember: “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13). It is only with this full understanding of patriotism that we will be able to safeguard our families, our nations, and our civilization — and pass on our manifold inheritance, as He has bequeathed it to us.◼︎