Culture At Large

World Cup Fever: The Purest Form of Patriotism?

Nathan Bierma

Fans across the United States erupt in elation after Landon Donovan's winning goal against Algeria.

"Patriotism," said Samuel Johnson in 1775, "is the last refuge of a scoundrel." Johnson was talking about phony patriotism or manipulative patriotism, but he reminds us that patriotism is not without its risks and excesses. As philosopher Ralph Perry once elaborated, "If patriotism is 'the last refuge of a scoundrel,' it is not merely because evil deeds may be performed in the name of patriotism, but because patriotic fervor can obliterate moral distinctions altogether."

I'm patriotic, but these quotes help explain why I'm sometimes uneasy about patriotism. Patriotism is like any other kind of love—good when channeled appropriately, problematic when it strays its bounds.

But for better or worse, I felt no limits to my patriotism while cheering the U.S. team in this year's World Cup. It probably helped that the team had us fans on pins and needles the entire time (thanks to a sickeningly consistent routine of allowing early goals and having to heroically come from behind), making the experience more emotional. But it also helped that the World Cup is not just a celebration of individual nations, but a celebration of the world. If it's not a paradox to say it, the World Cup is where you can most heartily cheer for your country and have it be a celebration of global unity. Maybe it's less true in other countries, where soccer is central in a way it isn't (and probably will never be) in the United States, but cheering for my country this year felt less like trying to drown out the cheers of other countries and more like joining into a global chorus. I won't push the analogy too strongly, but I think there's a hint of Revelation 7 in this experience—that glorious day when all nations and cultures gather, and, while maintaining their distinctiveness and uniqueness, join in a single song of ear-splitting praise. (I'll refrain for now from commenting on whether I think there will be vuvuzelas in heaven.)

This happens to be a year for Christians in the U.S. when our nation's birthday coincides with our day of worship, and I expect all kinds of uncomfortable displays of idolatrous nationalism—though also some very healthy prayers of gratitude for our nation—to break out in American churches this Sunday, the 4th of July. To begin or deepen a complex conversation on discernment in this area, I highly recommend Richard Mouw's essay "Alien Loyalties" and John Witvliet's article "Patriotism and Politics," which begin to make room for a wise position for churches: loyal to country as appropriate, loyal to God's kingdom above all. But if there's one thing I think I've learned from the World Cup, it's to be proud of my country, but most proud when it takes its place alongside all the others in God's wide world.

Topics: Culture At Large, Theology & The Church, Faith