The chapel at Virginia Military Institute, which I recently visited in Lexington while returning from United Methodist Virginia Annual Conference in Roanoke, stunningly features a massive tableau of its cadets in their famous charge at the Battle of New Market in 1864. There 264 cadets, many of them under age 18, were reluctantly ordered into battle, where about a quarter of them were wounded, and 10 of whom died. It’s considered the pinnacle of VMI history and heroism.
Some would object to this commemoration of martial ardor, for the Confederacy no less, in a worship space. It honors very young men who sacrificed for each other and for their notion of country and patriotism. This notion rejected a wider nationalism and fidelity to the national union. VMI for 150 years has essentially admitted that secession and the Confederacy were mistakes by churning out military leaders for the government that the VMI cadets of 1864 sought to defeat. Generals George Marshall and George Patton, who destroyed German Nazism, are among its most famous alumnae. The cadet courage of New Market has been seamlessly woven into a larger narrative of patriotic duty and self-denial.
Around July 4 there’s always lots of Christian commentary, much of it criticizing Christian celebration of American patriotism/nationalism or striving to distinguish between acceptable patriotism and unacceptable nationalism, with the latter denounced as idolatrous. But the dictionary definitions of both don’t differ greatly. Nationalism can be vice or virtue. More nationalism in the 1860s would’ve prevented southern separatism and the VMI cadet bloodletting at New Market. Gandhi and Nelson Mandela in their struggles urged nationalism against religious and racial division.
AHCTV recently in time for July 4 has been broadcasting Apocalypse: Stalin and Apocalypse: Hitler, chronicling the vast crimes of both. Hitler was the supreme nationalist, rooting ultimate meaning in his own blood, race and land. Stalin was, at least initially, the ultimate internationalist, rejecting all national distinctions as barriers to fraternal Communist revolution and rule. Their respective idolatries cost the lives of tens of millions.
In contrast, a Christian outlook on statecraft respects and honors the role of nations in God’s ongoing purposes. Nations have important earthly purposes, but unlike the Church, they are not eternal. For the Christian, love of God is lived out through love of family, community and country, reminding all of their role as creatures in the divine image. Godly patriotism, like godly marriage, parenthood or friendship, is prudent, rooting temporal love in God’s eternal love.
Some Christian commentators, in their diatribes specifically against July 4 and American patriotism/nationalism, showcase an ideological anti-Americanism. Stanley Hauerwas has suggested July 4 is the worst day in history because the USA, through its Declaration of Independence, makes universal claims no other nation makes. Mark Charles has an ongoing speaking circuit at Evangelical conferences in which he denounces the Declaration as racist. There is also the widespread Christian stereotyping of American Exceptionalism as supposedly believing that USA global behavior is not subject to divine law because of America’s special relationship with the Almighty.
Mother Theresa, an Albanian nun, once offered a more accurate understanding of America, its Independence Day, its founding document and its Exceptionalism:
Yours is the one great nation in all of history that was founded on the precept of equal rights and respect for all humankind, for the poorest and weakest of us as well as the richest and strongest. As your Declaration of Independence put it, in words that have never lost their power to stir the heart: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…” A nation founded on these principles holds a sacred trust: to stand as an example to the rest of the world, to climb ever higher in its practical realization of the ideals of human dignity, brotherhood, and mutual respect. Your constant efforts in fulfillment of that mission, far more that your size or your wealth or your military might, have made America an inspiration to all mankind.
July 4, 1776 was not just Independence Day for a few million American colonists but a universal assertion, based on Christian anthropology, of human equality and dignity under God. Hauerwas is correct about its sweepingly audacious claim.
America’s national holiday, like the national days of every country, is a celebration of one people’s story. But that story over 240 years has become a global narrative and a challenge to all powers that dispute human equality and dignity under God.
The VMI cadets of 1864 whose courage is celebrated in their chapel mural chose a regional patriotism over American nationalism. They won at New Market but fortunately lost the war to government built on the aspirational claim that all men are created equal.