Jonathan Edwards on Love and Patriotism

A Refreshing Take and Interpretation on Love for the Nation-State

Not too long ago, I was into the best of what the Reformation had to offer theologically.  It seemed odd to me that people would make a delineation between Abraham Kuyper‘s worldview (Dutch Reformed) and the theological vision of Jonathan Edwards. But I think that one of the great distinctions which separates the two is their view of the nation-state.  For Kuyper and Woodrow Wilson, the Christian is obligated to submit herself to the government in one area of her life, and then in the area of the church, she is to submit herself to church authorities.  These spheres are separate and the highest good one can do is to know their role; for Wilsonian democracy, this included Negro Americans to live life apart for the rest of culture due to the color of their skin.

Philosophically, this approach bumps heads with another approach to the Reformed Christian tradition, the early American variety that was in dialogue with the Enlightenment and liberal Protestant theology (literally a protest against orthodox Christianity here in the U.S. historically).  During my first year in seminary, I came across Jonathan Edwards’ view of country, and the bad news for John McCain: there is no Country First.  In fact, Jonathan Edwards saw love for country, much of the time, was a vice rather than a virtue.  In his The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards suggests, “among the Romans, love to their country was the highest virtue; though this affection of their so much extolled, was employed as it were for the destruction of the rest of humankind.” He continues, “And this is the reason why self-love is not mistaken for true virtue.  For though there be something of the general nature of virtue in it, as love and good will, yet the object is private, the limits so narrow, that it by no means engrosses the view; unless it be of the person himself, who though the greatness of his pride may imagine himself as it were all. […] And though , self-love is far from being useless in the world, yea, it is exceeding necessary to society, yet every body sees that if it be not subordinate to, and regulated by another more extensive principle, it may make man a common enemy to the general system.” (page 88-89)

In other words, Nationalism is the outward going form of narrowly self-interested love.  No matter how pure our motives our, Edwards goes on to argue, humanity is corrupted by sin.  Therefore, the higher principle to patriotism, love of the state (self) is God.  Our love is God, the Holy Other, directs us to respond to love others (a self-giving  love/selfless-ness), for “all sin has its source from selfishness, or from self-love not subordinate to being in general.” (92).

Edwards could not be more correct here.  While Edwards disguises his language in the theology of the times referring to God as “Deity” and “Supreme Ruler” like something out of a George Washington speech, the one Self-Giving/Selfless God that Jonathan Edwards is obviously discussing is none of than the Crucified God, who emptied himself for the love of others, we unholy sinners.

5 thoughts on “Jonathan Edwards on Love and Patriotism

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  3. Greg henneman

    A well written, timely, and provacative post. I wish more people would recognize the connection between nationalism and what I would consider idolatry.

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