Our country, may she always be in the right
August 23, 2023
“Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.”
– Stephen Decatur
There was nobody famous in my family except, I remember my mother telling me, Stephen Decatur – one of America’s earliest naval heroes (1779 – 1820). I forgot that bit of heritage until recently, when I had my DNA tested to trace my ancestry and, sure enough, there is a telescopic connection to this long-lost cousin a zillion times removed. He was raised in Philadelphia, where I was born, and that is where he is buried. His father, the elder Stephen, was a merchant ship captain from Rhode Island, where I have lived twice. So, who knows? Maybe we are related. One of the things Decatur is remembered for is a famous quote: “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations may she always be in the right; but our country, right or wrong.” This statement reflects Decatur’s strong sense of patriotism and loyalty to his country. My distant cousin’s quote always grated on me. It seemed only half right. Yes, may our country always be in the right in its relationship with other nations. But wait a minute. I’m not so sure about the last phrase.
The first part of the quote, “Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right,” expresses Decatur’s desire for his newly minted country to act justly and ethically in its dealings with other nations. The hope was that the United States would consistently make morally sound decisions and maintain a reputation for fairness and integrity in its international relations. Oh, yes, yes, yes! That is my hope and, I pray, the hope of all citizens of our land. The quote would have been just right had it ended with the first phrase. Stop there. Let us labor for that kind of relationship with others.
But then, my distant cousin added the second part of the quote, “but our country, right or wrong,” suggesting a steadfast and perhaps blind allegiance to his nation, regardless of its actions. Perhaps his sentiment implies that even if our country’s actions are not morally justified or in line with personal beliefs, he would still support his country. His phrase emphasizes the notion of loyalty and unity, standing by the nation in times of both right and wrong. Oh, no, no, no! Wrong is wrong, no matter who does it or says it, and not to be accommodated just because the wrong is our own.
Neither Jesus nor Paul taught blind patriotism or a simple accommodation of the state’s or country’s actions. For both, the Kingdom of God is where our hearts reside and “our citizenship is in heaven.”
Now, perhaps cousin Stephen was simply resigning himself to a matter-of-fact acceptance of what is. Even when it is wrong, it is still my country. That does not mean I will gloss over its evil behaviors, nor does it mean I will leave it because I disagree with its values, even if held by my country’s leaders or, sadly, even if held by a majority of citizens. During the Vietnam War, I served as a draft counselor in Princeton, NJ. Many of the men I counseled concluded that they regarded the Vietnam War as an unjust war and refused to participate. Some, with their engines running below my office, intended to leave their homeland and head to Canada. They saw their country’s choices as morally wrong and could no longer support their country. In her intercourse with foreign nations, they truly believed, America was not in the right. Others, in a sigh of defeatist resignation, for better or for worse, even at its worst, considered the homeland where they were born, in the wrong, was still their country. They hated its evil, but still loved its soil and its seas.
Today, there are behaviors of my country that conflict with my values. We have recently decided to send cluster bombs to Ukraine. I think Russia is a bully to terrorize Ukraine and to commit its atrocities, but I believe our country to be wrong to encourage cluster bombs. When I look at my country’s historic and even some current treatment of Native Americans and of Black people, I am ashamed. Today many the states of our union legislate horrible treatment of people who are LGBTQ, Black, immigrants, Mexicans, and women. I cringe wondering how I could ever join my cousin to say “but our country, right or wrong.” I peer into our country’s recent history with Iraq, Vietnam, Israel, and seeming to be on the wrong side of so many Central and South American countries, and I weep for my country’s misguided soul. How could cousin Stephen ever have condoned our country’s evil pursuits?
I turn for guidance to the Apostle Paul’s Epistle to the Romans (12:21): “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” This verse calls for responding to evil with good, rather than blindly supporting any action taken by our country. It implies that Christians should strive to promote goodness, justice, and righteousness, even in the face of wrongdoing. Cousin Stephen’s famous quote, about “her intercourse with foreign nations” referred to all nations, but it seems implied that it refers to those with whom we are in conflict. Our enemies. And so, the Apostle’s guiding words lead us to attempt to embrace correct attitudes when confronting our enemies and our enemy nations: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:19-21).
That’s much more than trying to get along peaceably with difficult people. This counsel is about dealing with enemies. This mountain peak of ethical behavior may be too high to scale. This passage from Paul is weighty and profoundly God-like, but watch out: you might not like where it takes you.
We are, therefore, dual citizens, and we desire with enthusiasm that in her interactions with foreign nations, our nation may always be in the right. When she is not, our other citizenship kicks in and we will labor without ceasing for good to overcome evil.
Paul wrote these words to Christians in Rome who, within a few years, would face the terror of their country’s wrath against them because of Who they followed. Paul is writing here to people about how to treat enemies – their own country’s leaders – who would persecute and execute Christians. “My country, right or wrong?!” Their country was wrong. Christians of every age are inclined to condemn the Romans who persecuted Christians, much the way Americans might condemn any state which persecutes or oppresses people of any category. Consider hot buttons like a state’s attitude about LGBTQ, abortion, voting rights. There are all too many states in our union where, for some people, it is literally not safe to exist just because of who they are.
We are right to name the state’s or country’s evil attitudes or behavior. We are right to name their evil, to labor for justice for all people, to stand with and speak for those who are threatened or marginalized. There is no question that those behaviors and attitudes are labeled as bad, wrong, unjust, and evil. But to accommodate their behavior, to say “my state or my country, right or wrong,” is insufficient. Cousin Stephen needed to reconsider and revise his last phrase. And yet, he was reflecting more of the world’s values than Christian values. For Christians, after the manner of the One we follow, we are to strive to overcome evil with good.
to love your enemies,
to turn the other cheek,
to walk the second mile,
to not resist an evildoer, and
to speak well of those who persecute you.
to rejoice in the right,
to leave vengeance to God,
to feed and give nourishment to your enemies, and, most dramatically,
to overcome evil with good.
Neither taught a blind patriotism to wrong values or a simple accommodation of the state’s or country’s actions. For both, the Kingdom of God is where our hearts reside and “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20). We are, therefore, dual citizens, and we desire with enthusiasm that in her intercourse with foreign nations, our nation may always be in the right. When she is not, our other citizenship kicks in and we will labor without ceasing for good to overcome evil.
Rev. John Zehring has served United Church of Christ congregations for 22 years as a pastor in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Maine. He is the author of more than 30 books and e-books. His most recent book from Judson Press is “Get Your Church Ready to Grow: A Guide to Building Attendance and Participation.”