How to Love a Country, Part 1: C.S. Lewis on the Good and Bad of Patriotism

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Summer in the United States is a time of patriotic display. Parades and festivals in small towns across the nation celebrate the benefits of living in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” Organizers spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars on firework displays and Fourth of July festivals. And most of us happily participate in all the merrymaking because we are patriotic—we love our country, and we want to express our loyalty.

As I recently reread C.S. Lewis’s The Four Loves, I paused a bit longer on his comments about patriotism. The recent events and polarizing movements within America have caused me to think again about the relation of my love for country to my love for Jesus Christ. It was only a few Sundays ago that we celebrated “International Day” in our local church as a celebration of our identity with the global Church of Christ. It was part of our observance of the feast of Pentecost, and we rejoiced at the reality that we live as Christians in Christian solidarity with believers everywhere. Then there are the days throughout the year—Fourth of July, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, etc.—when we express special concern and honor for our fellow countrymen. It is here where Lewis throws in the kicker: is it possible that there could ever be a conflict between our love for Jesus Christ and our loyalty to our country? C.S. Lewis says yes.

C.S. Lewis on Love for Country

In the introductory chapter of The Four Loves, Lewis describes what he thinks patriotism or “love for country” means. When we say we love our country most of us mean at least three things according to Lewis: first, that we love this place. It is natural to have an affinity for the places and the faces with which we are familiar. This is why a daring friend, born and raised a Buckeye but living in the heart of Dixie, will still cheer for the “home team” (Ohio State) when they’re competing with the Alabama Crimson Tide for the college football championship.

Is it possible that there could ever be a conflict between our love for Jesus Christ and our loyalty to our country?

Secondly, patriotism according to Lewis means that we love these people, those with whom we live and call neighbors. We share our life with these people. We work with them, go to school with them, live next to them, shop at the same stores, visit the same doctors, and attend the same church together. In many ways and to a large extent, we choose them to be our close neighbors. 

Third, C.S. Lewis says that love for country means that we love our past. This doesn’t mean that everything in the past is admirable and worthy of statuary. But it does mean that the place we live and the people with whom we share it are shaped by our shared history. To love the past is not to adore dry trivia but real people who experienced the past similarly to us. When we think of the “good ole’ days,” we’re thinking with nostalgia about our personal history. This is natural and this is, as Lewis conceives it, a vital part of being patriotic.

Lewis’s treatment of patriotism is pretty straightforward and not too philosophically nuanced. A number of cultural philosophers offer more sophisticated theories of patriotism. The sort of patriotism which Lewis describes and to which most of us can relate is called egocentric patriotism, that is, the love we have for our country simply because it is our country. This sort of patriotism is not dissimilar in essence from the kind of fan loyalty we may have for the home team. It is our team. It somehow represents us, or at least the geographic part about us.

When I say that I love my country, I have in mind the sentimental attachment to places I’ve known, the friendships with the people I’ve grown to love, and the nostalgia of the past. But Lewis reminds me of two important facts: we tend to see our own history through rose-tinted glasses, and we forget that other people of the world love their country for the same reasons we love ours.

We tend to see our own history through rose-tinted glasses, and we forget that other people of the world love their country for the same reasons we love ours.

Each country has its legends and sacred history, but none quite as important as the ones we have, so it seems. In truth, as C.S. Lewis says, “a patriotism based on our glorious past is fair game for the debunker” (Four Loves, 226). In other words, those who don’t share our past probably won’t see the past the same way we see it. Let’s be honest: we only tell stories about ourselves in public that make us look good. Lewis writes, “What breeds a type of patriotism that is pernicious … is the perfectly serious indoctrination of the young in knowably false or biased history” (Four Loves, 226). He continues, “The image [we create of our past] becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken.” (Four Loves, 226). I think Lewis has touched on what irks me about people who are always wishing for the “good ole’ days”; they always seem to have an exaggerated and exalted view of the past. And I suspect this is true only because it is their past. Exaggeration is often the beginning of a full-blown lie (if lies can be measured in such terms). Reading our own history critically is a good idea if we want to steer clear of political and cultural hagiography.

When Patriotism Becomes Destructive

Reading C.S. Lewis brought this question to mind: How do I love my own country while respecting that other people love theirs too? The last thing we want to do is make every other place just like ours. Our home is “home” precisely because it is not like any other place. This is why love for our country cannot be imposed successfully on foreigners, and shouldn’t be. 

Lewis lamented the kind of patriotism that had grown up in his home country of England in the mid-20th century. Patriotism, he says, is sometimes mistaken for the “prosaic belief that our own nation … is markedly superior to all others” (Four Loves, 226). Then he relays this anecdote: 

I once ventured to say to an old clergyman who was voicing this sort of patriotism, “But, sir, aren’t we told that every people thinks its own men the bravest and its own women the fairest in the world?” He replied with total gravity—he could not have been graver if he had been saying the Creed at the altar—“Yes, but in England it’s true.” To be sure, this conviction had not made my friend (God rest his soul) a villain; only an extremely lovable old ass. It can however produce asses that kick and bite. On the lunatic fringe it may shade off into that popular Radicalism which Christianity and science equally forbid. (Four Loves 226-227)

Lewis goes on to say that patriotism becomes destructive when it imposes duties on other countries to be subservient to us. This is where the egocentricity of my patriotism becomes dangerous to others and dangerous to my own faith in Christ. The rationale of this destructive way of thinking is straightforward: since we are the superior country, other nations owe us their respect, their allegiance, and their best and brightest. Britain first in Lewis’s day; America first now: first here and first abroad. Immigration policies, healthcare provisions, and a million other social and political decisions follow suit.

Love of country becomes a demon when country becomes a god, that is, when our loyalty becomes unquestioning and uncritical.

Finally, Lewis says that patriotism can become downright demonic. Love of country becomes a demon when country becomes a god (Four Loves, 224), that is, when our loyalty becomes unquestioning and uncritical. This reminds me of what Charles Colson once said about Christians in America vacillating between two extremes—the God-and-country, wrap-the-flag-around-the-cross mentality, and the simply-passing-through mindset (Kingdoms in Conflict, 246). Both are misguided. Colson calls the first of these “Triumphalism,” the mentality that getting Christians into political office will cure the nation’s ills. Colson reminds us that it won’t. The second is “Escapism” and tends toward isolation from and indifference toward our neighbor and a sort of political pacifism. Honorable patriotism avoids both. It respects others’ love for their country, refrains from the bullying that naturally arises among the powerful, and seeks to preserve what is good and right in our own history and place.

At the beginning of each summer, Christians everywhere ought to pick up Lewis’s Four Loves and read the short selection on patriotism. Even without extended argumentation and in-depth analysis, Lewis offers a framework within which those who love Christ can understand the nature and limitations of our love for country. 

Next in this series: How to Love a Country, Part 2: Patriotism as Love for Our Neighbor.

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David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).