Is patriotism part of Christian worship?


“How can this not be a form of idolatry? » asked our friend John Fea, about a Christian worship service last month that included waving flags, indoor fireworks (!), and patriotic chants that made little to no mention of God. The church was First Baptist of Dallas, Texas, whose pastor, Robert Jeffress, later shared the Kennedy Center stage with Pres. Trump last weekend Celebrate the Freedom Rally. “Millions of Americans,” said Jeffress, “believe that [Trump’s victory] represented God giving us our next chance, maybe our last chance, to make America great again.

(I wonder if Jeffress read his most famous predecessor’s most famous sermon from the pulpit of First Baptist. In a 1920 speech from the steps of the U.S. Capitol, on “Baptists and Religious Liberty,” George W. Truett strongly affirmed the separation of church and state, comparing it to the “incomparable apostasy” of Constantinian Christianity, “the most fatal misalliance that ever bound and cursed a suffering world.”)

As if that weren’t enough, Trump’s campaign slogan then became the basis of a hymn sung by the First Baptist Choir. This is how far we have fallen: singing songs of Babylon as if they were songs of Zion.

I don’t think idolatry is the wrong word here, nor is it an isolated danger. As Americans went to church this Independence Day weekend, I doubt many of us have experienced such naked patriotism. But we’ve probably gotten closer than usual to confusing love of God with love of country.

In a 2016 Lifeway survey, nearly nine in ten Protestant pastors said their churches were doing something different for the Sunday before July 4. About two in three added patriotic music, and slightly smaller majorities recognized military veterans and military families. A third added another type of ceremony. (Indoor fireworks don’t appear to have been an option.) Overall, 61% said it was important to celebrate America in such a way that Sunday, with the number being much higher. among Pentecostals (82%), Baptists (67%), and older ministers (78%).

To some extent, I’m sympathetic. At the church in Iowa that I was visiting two days ago, I sat next to a National Guard family for whom patriotism is not an abstract ideal. I joined them singing”Eternal Father, strong to savethe military anthem that prays for the safety of soldiers, sailors and others who risk their lives for our safety. For example, when we asked God to “hear us when we cry out to you / For those in peril at sea,” my thoughts turned to my cousins ​​who served in the navy. (We did not survive his peril and now rests in a military cemetery not far from my home.)

But praying “Your children protect themselves in the hour of danger” is one thing. I just couldn’t bring myself to sing any of the earlier songs. Because if “My country is you” belongs in Christian worship at all, it is certainly not in communion!

Among its many layers of meaning, this sacrament reminds us that we belong to the transnational Body of Christ, to the “holy [universal]church” which we had just professed in the Apostles’ Creed. This community, not this nation or any nation, is “God’s chosen people” (Pass 3:12 NIV — one of our morning texts).

Is it any wonder that 53% of pastors conceded to LifeWay that their followers sometimes love America more than God? As big as what happened in Dallas and DC and as small as what I experienced in Iowa, American civil religion too often seeps into American churches.

And that’s no small feat. You could easily update early July what I written at the end of May for Christianity today, by simply changing today’s holiday to Memorial Day:

…[Independence Day] is a holiday in our nation’s civil religion, one of many “constellations of rituals, ceremonies and spaces which, according to [Calvin College philosopher Jamie] Smith, “invest certain practices with a transcendentally charged meaning that calls out our allegiance and loyalty in a way that is meant to trump other ultimate loyalties” (Desire the Kingdom, p. 104). [Independence Day] is a time of national worship; approached carelessly, it will tempt us to promise the nation-state the “full allegiancethat we owe to nothing and no one but God.

At the same time I was ready to entertain historian John Wilsey’s argument that civil religion can also help foster a healthier type of patriotism: an “open exceptionalism” that “opens the door for citizens to recognize, address, and rectify genuine American flaws because, in doing so, citizens express true love for their country. ”

In short, a call not to make America great again, but to make it better than it has been.

John’s idea came to mind earlier at Sunday’s worship service, when a male choir sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic– like Memorial Day, a remnant of the American Civil War. Unlike “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, Julia Ward Howe’s anthem is not explicitly nationalistic. And while it is certainly easy to get carried away by martial music, it is also possible to interpret its text less as a manifesto of triumphalism than as an exhortation to reform.

Here I highly recommend John Stauffer and Benjamin Soskis “biography” of the famous American anthem. Noting that he embodies both “an urgent, even ecstatic hope” and a deep disappointment (since “if the Lord is comingIt Hasn’t Happened Yet”), Stauffer and Soskis show how this abolitionist song “has been adopted as the anthem of nearly every reform movement in American history, from temperance to civil rights and the pro -life”. It is a battle anthem that even anti-war activists have sung, illustrating how it “heralded the onset of allegorical battles in which military combat provided only a symbolic representation of necessary personal service to usher in the Kingdom of God”.

So the next time this hymn appears in worship (probably next July), I suggest you listen especially carefully to the third verse:

Stauffer & Soskis, The Battle Hymn of the RepublicIn the beauty of the lilies, Christ was born across the sea,
with a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me;
as he died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
while God walks.

If you are truly ready to “die to set men free” – or, as modern hymns tend to render, “live to set all free” – please sing this line not as a declaration of selfish challenge (as in: whatever it takes to preserve our religious freedom) but as a token of self-sacrifice of commitment to Jesus’ mission of liberation.

Let the anthem remind you that the land of the free restricts unnecessarily the right to vote of many citizens — or makes their votes meaningless by gerrymandering. Let it make you wonder why the land of the free imprisons proportionally more of its citizens Than any other country. Let yourself be moved to help those who languish in the false freedom of poverty or dependence. Let it make you reflect on America’s obligations to its global neighbors whose political and civil liberties are routinely violated.

Or if you happen to sing”america the beautiful“Later today – in Christian worship or in any civil ceremony – remember that whatever grace God has bestowed upon this country is an undeserved gift, mercifully given to a nation whose pray that he “repairs” “every fault”.


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