The question posed by Timothy Dalrymple at Philosophical Fragments is as follows:
When does patriotism pass over into idolatry?
First, one must define patriotism. The simple definition of patriotism is possessing love or devotion for country or homeland. Simple enough. The problem with this is that different individuals demonstrate love and devotion in a myriad of ways. There was a time when certain people were branded unpatriotic for not supporting President Bush in the war effort in Iraq. It was unpatriotic to say the war was not a good idea. However, on the other side, a protester of the war may believe that patriotism compels him to speak out and criticize the actions of the President in his war efforts. Both sides think they are patriotic. And, they are both probably right. Patriotism should not require one to assent to various political “doctrines.” It only requires love of country. No one side has a monopoly on patriotism. When one has a genuine or sincere love for his or her country, they have patriotism. An individual’s love may be misdirected, misinformed, or misapplied – but that does not mean it is insincere. Let Truth guide whether the love is good. Let sincerity determine patriotism.
Second, one must define idolatry. Idolatry is excessive devotion or worship of a person or thing. In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller writes that idolatry exists when an individual turns good things into ultimate things. He also says that “[i]dolatry is not just a failure to obey God, it is a setting of the whole heart on something besides God.” One can be idolatrous about anything – money, sex, ideas, a job, family, country. It is when that thing becomes such a necessity for a person’s well being, even more so than a relationship with God, that it becomes an idol. Idolatry is replacing God with things.
So, when does patriotism pass over into idolatry? This occurs when an individual sets his whole heart on the love of country while turning his heart from God. I would argue that this rarely happens. It seems that it’s more likely for an individual to set his whole heart on political ideology than it is to set one’s whole heart on the love of country.
Since Glenn Beck was mentioned in the article, I will use him as an example and make certain assumptions about him. I think it’s safe to say that Mr. Beck is a patriotic man. He loves his country. Mr. Beck is also a T.V. personality, author, and speech maker. Through these mediums, Mr. Beck transmits his political ideology. If Mr. Beck has any idolatrous tendencies, it is his political ideology. In my limited exposure to Mr. Beck, there always seems to be patriotic underpinnings to his words and images. But, he is not trying to get people to love America. He is trying to get people to love his ideology. And, only the people who love his ideology are the people who are truly patriotic. Mr. Beck believes his political ideology is the answer to the problems that are facing this country and potentially the world. He also believes his cause has been divinely ordained. His answers are God’s answers. Or rather, Mr. Beck has replaced God with his own answers. Mr. Beck stated at the “Restore Honor” rally that the country needs to turn back to God. But what he is really saying is that the country needs to turn back to conservative politics. The danger here is not patriotism. The danger is that people will put their trust in a political ideology rather than God. Now, it should be stated that the left is probably no less idolatrous than Mr. Beck, and it could easily be used as an example as well. My apologies to Mr. Beck and his supporters.
So, I do not think it is fair to indict anyone of America-worship. But, I do think an indictment for idolatry is appropriate. A hip phrase for this is not needed. It is idolatry, plain and simple. But, the truth is that we all have idols. It’s just that this one is on such a macro level and is explicitly claiming God as its main proponent. That’s dangerous.