I think it’s fair to say that one of the defining characteristics of “conservative” evangelical Protestants in the United States is a strong sense of patriotism. And, as an evangelical myself for so long, I certainly shared this trait. Over time, though, something began to concern me: I found it easier to love my country than to love “the church,” and I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why. Yet again, though, G.K. Chesterton helped me out, describing to me the basis for how I felt about America which, in turn, pointed the way towards a deeper understanding of the nature of the Church.
Growing up, history was my favorite subject in school, and I particularly loved learning about all of the great stories of American history. Loving America seemed almost as natural as breathing, and this feeling persisted even when I learned about the various episodes of wickedness in our nation’s past. Chesterton explained to me why this was:
The world is not a lodging-house at Brighton, which we are to leave because it is miserable. It is the fortress of our family, with the flag flying on the turret, and the more miserable it is the less we should leave it. The point is not that this world is too sad to love or too glad not to love; the point is that when you do love a thing, its gladness is a reason for loving it, and its sadness a reason for loving it more. All optimistic thoughts about England and all pessimistic thoughts about her are alike reasons for the English patriot.
At the same time I felt what Chesterton would call a “primary loyalty” to my country that transcended whether I loved or hated what had happened in our history or was going on in our politics or in our culture, I had no such feeling about “the church.” Part of the reason for this, I now believe, is that I had no meaningful conception of what “the church”–beyond my local church–even was. As Nikki has said, within Protestantism, “the church” seemed to be an “amorphous blob” without any real definition. Because of this, I think most Protestants, when they use the word “church”, are referring to their church, and that was how I almost-exclusively used the word as a Protestant.
Since there really was no identifiable universal church within the Protestant system, any loyalty I had to “the church” was pretty much limited to how I felt about “my church.” And that loyalty did not run deep. Rather, to use Chesterton’s example, I felt about “my church” the way I’d feel about a “lodging-house at Brighton”: I’d leave if it got too uncomfortable (which could happen in a whole host of ways–doctrinal disagreements, personality conflicts, controversy over church finances, etc.).
I eventually found it depressing that I felt more love and loyalty towards my national homeland than I did to my spiritual home, the church. If a “primary loyalty” is necessary even for “worldly” patriotism, shouldn’t it be even more necessary for “spiritual” patriotism?
On this issue, again, Catholicism came in and quieted the storms raging in my heart and mind. Because the Catholic Church was a thing with a definite shape and form that was not dependent upon how I felt about it, I could love it as something outside myself. Beyond that, though, because I am convinced that the Catholic Church is the Church Christ Himself founded, no matter how “bad” things may ever seem inside the Church, I feel I’ll be able to persevere and fight to help the Church triumph over whatever internal enemies may assail her. And, in that fight, I will be sustained by Christ Himself in the Blessed Sacrament and His promise that, no matter what, the gates of Hell will not prevail against His Church. Much as I love my country, he never made that promise about America.
 It’s not my purpose here to address whether this patriotism ever gets out of hand. That might be the topic of a later post.
 I understand that Protestants would say they believe there is such a thing as the “universal church,” made up of all “true believers.” That church, however, exists only as an idea in the mind of those who hold this view, and (at least in my experience) it’s hard to feel loyalty towards a disembodied idea. Indeed, I believe one of the primary points of the doctrine of the Incarnation–that Christ was truly man and didn’t just “appear” to be a man–is to drive home that God understands that it’s hard to love an abstraction and so, in His great mercy, sent His Son to us as “true man.”