Fourth of July Frustrations

Fourth of July Frustrations

July 2, 2014 by

My dad enlisted in the Air Force as an 18-year-old high school graduate. Over his 41-year career, he engaged in structural battle damage repair on fighter aircraft, acted as an intercontinental ballistic missile crew commander, worked nuclear intelligence and space program surveillance, served as a space shuttle launch team member, and worked as a public affairs officer for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For many years, he held the highest security clearance available. (He knows stuff. It’s a running joke in my family.) When people ask me where I grew up, I proudly declare, “Oh, I’m an Air Force Brat.” It’s safe to say I’m reasonably patriotic.

The churches I attended as a kid were full of military families. “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “God Bless the USA” were staples of our worship gatherings. I can remember the exact placements (yes, plural) of the American flag in each of those spaces. Did we recognize veterans on Memorial Day and Independence Day? You bet your Yankee Doodle Dandy we did.

The Empire at the Altar
In my early 20s, I became close friends with a few seminary students in Boston—radical-thinking types who were questioning everything they’d ever been spoon-fed about Jesus and the church. One Sunday, we were visiting yet another church to see how they “did” worship. At some point in the service, one of them leaned over to me, pointed toward the chancel, and said, resolutely, “You’ll never see one of those in my church.”

“What? A choir loft?”

“No, the flag.”

“Umm… why?”

“Because it doesn’t belong in the church, that’s why.”

Now this guy was a bit anti-establishment, so I assumed he was just having a stick-it-to-the-man moment. Turns out he isn’t the only clergy person who feels that way, though, and over time—and what feels like yearly conversations—I’ve come to agree that the church isn’t an appropriate venue for displays of patriotism. And while giant, church-sponsored Fourth of July festivals aren’t my biggest concern these days, it’s nevertheless worth talking about why such things fall under the general category of church marketing that sucks.

Freedom of religion is for-sure worth celebrating—it’s just not worth worshiping.

3 Reasons Patriotism Can Turn People Off
Now before you get your red, white and blue bunting in a bunch, let me explain. I’m not saying it’s un-Christian to be patriotic. I’m saying it’s not a good idea to go all ’Merica! in our worship spaces—for three main reasons:

  1. The church is universal; it’s not American. We pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” right? I’m guessing the pearly gates aren’t flanked by flagpoles. We—all of us, in every nation—are under the banner of Christ, not the stars and stripes.
  2. There’s a place-of-highest-honor issue.  There’s absolutely nothing wrong with loving our country. But, like anything, love of country can become an idol. When we come together to worship, we should have a singular focus. Christ should be receiving the greatest—the only—glory.
  3. America’s not always a terrific reflection of Christ. If we have God and country intertwined, what do we do when the two ideologies conflict? I mean, at one point, America valued slavery (Frederick Douglass had some things to say about slavery and the Fourth of July). Right now, people’s families are being killed by our military’s drone strikes. Some Americans are marginalized as a result of politics and policies. Isn’t it dangerous for the church to be aligned with what is, for some, an oppressive empire? When we’re preaching patriotism (even subtly), what message—or whose message—are we actually marketing? Do people have to share your political/patriotic beliefs to participate in your church community?

Celebrate But Don’t Worship
So are we supposed to boycott our community’s celebrations? Nope. Go oooh and ahhhh with the rest of your neighbors. Hand out popsicles at the parade. Hug a veteran. Bring a meal to a deployed soldier’s family. That’s all good stuff.

We enjoy a freedom to practice our faith that many parts of the world do not have. Freedom of religion is for-sure worth celebrating—it’s just not worth worshiping.

How Can We Celebrate?
So should we host Independence Day festivals? Maybe not. If you’re planning a big concert for America during the Sunday worship service, it’s likely you’re sending the wrong message. But maybe there’s a way to have a church picnic on the Fourth of July that celebrates our freedom without putting the stars and stripes before the cross.

Here are a few other ideas you might consider for celebrating inside the church:

  • Pray for our country and our leaders. I’m not talking about “God, please help Congress get their act together” prayers. I’m talking about prayers of protection and blessing, not scoring political points.
  • Pray for our enemies. That’s not my idea; that’s all Jesus right there.
  • Invite veterans to a post-worship meal. There are more, and arguably better, ways to honor our servicewomen and men than having them stand and receive applause in our worship service.
  • Serve. Reach out to people in your community who may have been hurt by the confluence of God and country—or who may simply be turned off by it. Be neighborly and help a local mosque with their yard work. Volunteer at a clinic serving people suffering with AIDS. Do something that lifts high the cross of Christ.

In short, be sure the message your church proclaims is clearly about Jesus more than America. The freedom in which Christ-followers live is so much higher, broader, deeper and wider than that afforded by the “land of the free.” That’s what the church ought to be communicating.

What about your church? Is this an issue with which you’re struggling? How do you balance the tension of God and country?

Photo by matt northam.
Post By:

Kelley Hartnett

Kelley Hartnett spent a decade working in established churches and helping to launch new ones. Currently, she’s focused on writing, volunteering for organizations that care for vulnerable populations and making progress on her journey toward minimalism. Kelley is also the membership director for our Courageous Storytellers Membership Site.
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17 Responses to “Fourth of July Frustrations”

  • Nolan
    July 2, 2014

    The last thing that belongs in church is political correctness!!! When I went to church in the Philippines and Australia when I was in the Navy I did get offended that they did not celebrate US holidays and I did get offended because they celebrated their national holidays because I WAS IN THEIR COUNTRY!! The church is not a building it is made up of people and American People celebrate the 4th of July!! I wonder if your view would be different if you served in the military and actually went to other countries and experienced their cultures from that point of view!! The Church needs to focus on preaching the Bible and stop worrying about offending people!! The Bible is offensive to the world!!

    • Kevin D. Hendricks
      July 2, 2014

      If people are put off by unnecessary offense, then they’re missing Jesus because of some unimportant distraction.

      This isn’t about being politically correct. It’s about putting God above nationalism. It’s about making sure people don’t confuse country and church.

    • Kelley Hartnett
      July 2, 2014

      Hey, Nolan. Thanks for being a part of the conversation. I’m not nearly as concerned about offending people as I am about creating confusion about the purpose of worship. And yes, the Bible is “offensive,” but it’s incredibly important that we’re mindful of the people on the receiving end of our messages. Otherwise, people will get stuck at “offended” and, therefore, never actually hear the Truth.

  • Dave Shrein
    July 2, 2014

    Kelley, thank you for writing this. While I’m unsure how much I line up with all of this in a practical standpoint I am 100% rocking with you in the overall larger point.

    We have a pastor who is Canadian but he has always done a good job honoring the heritage of America in a way that honors sacrifice. While we don’t place American flags inside our facility, we will do special things to recognize the day.

    For me, I look at days like this as opportunities to bridge the gap between temrpal and spiritual.

    Excellent piece and very well thought out… THANK YOU!

    • Kelley Hartnett
      July 2, 2014

      Thanks for your kind words, Dave. I agree about bridging the gap. Our church is having a float in our community’s parade on Friday because, well, that’s where our community will BE that day. Plus there’s a prize for the best float, and our pastor’s kinda competitive. So there’s that. HA!

  • Tim Pennington-Russell
    July 2, 2014

    Well said Kelly. It seems odd to me that many would advocate teaching faith in our public schools and patriotism in our churches.

    My experience explaining the primacy of God’s Kingdom in church life and liturgy over some nationalistic mix of patriotism and faith is that you are perceived as challenging their religion. Approach this as you would with someone of another faith. Patriotism can be as deeply held as their faith in God, and in many, inextricably bound together.

    But it is worth the effort. Nothing should be competing with undiluted worship of the one God of the universe. In our church buildings, worship and hearts:
    One Lord, God
    One Banner, The Cross of Jesus
    One Love, Worldwide and Unconditional

    • Kelley Hartnett
      July 2, 2014

      Tim, that’s valuable insight–to approach these conversations as if we’re talking with someone from another faith. Thanks for your comments!

  • Becky Powers
    July 2, 2014

    Ok, I can see where you are coming from and it is indeed a fine line between recognition and worship; however, I do not believe there is anything wrong with recognizing veterans and service men and women on July 4 and Veteran’s Day. There are all sorts of other “days” in many churches in which groups are recognized. For example, we are an older church and we have Senior Adult Sunday. A couple of weeks later, we have Graduate Recognition Sunday for our high school seniors. We recognize mothers on Mother’s Day and fathers on Father’s Day. So, why not recognize those who have sacrificed for our freedoms, including our freedom to worship?

    Yes, we must be careful to keep our worship Christ-centered and not put ANYTHING above that, but instead of telling people NOT to recognize other things, I think we should help them discover ways to do this, if they so choose, while keeping Christ first.

    • Kelley Hartnett
      July 2, 2014

      Thanks for your thoughts, Becky. More than anything, I’m just hopeful that people are thoughtful and intentional about why they’re choosing to include particular elements in their worship experiences. It sounds like you’re careful about blurring the God/country (or God/moms, God/dads, God/high-school graduates) line.

  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    July 2, 2014

    I love this comment from Adam Legg on Facebook: “I’m all for celebrating what we have as Americans, and I think we have a clear mandate to pray for and lift up our governmental leadership, but far too often the line of allegiance between Christ / country, gets blurred.”

  • Tim Pennington-Russell
    July 2, 2014

    One way to picture the church is as an embassy for God’s kingdom – and we “ambassadors for Christ”. The question to ask is would every fellow kingdom citizen feel included and at home – a fellow Christian from anywhere in the world? Just as any American would in any American embassy across the world.

    So I imagine that Jesus might recognize American veterans and soldiers, but not as a proud American. He would recognize them as one who stands outside national loyalties. I imagine he would be more concerned with their healing than with elevating any national pride. I can’t imagine Jesus speaking in such a way as to make any person feel diminished because of their earthly citizenship. Can we do less?

  • Kevin D. Hendricks
    July 3, 2014

    Phil Cooke (one of our former board members) recommends churches avoid military language around the Fourth of July: “This July 4th, let’s celebrate the ultimate freedom found in Jesus, and lay off the culture war rhetoric.”

  • Phil Banting
    July 3, 2014

    Here in Britain we don’t have an Independence Day, and indeed have been the country that so many others have become independent from over the centuries. The belief in some kind of innate superiority has declined along with the loss of the Empire, but some remnants of exceptionalism remain. I think the church just has to proclaim the message that as Christians we are all one in Christ Jesus and that nationality, status and wealth count for nothing in the Kingdom of God.

    It helps that urban churches in particular are increasingly international in nature. Maintaining strong worldwide mission partnership links also helps break down pride and insularity.

    It seems to me that the mark of a great party – whether family or national – is how welcome the guests feel. I hope that everyone who celebrates the Fourth of July, whether US citizen or not, has a great time and is able to feel part of it.

    • Kelley Hartnett
      July 4, 2014

      Phil, I loooooove this: ” . . . the mark of a great party . . . is how welcome the guests feel.” What a great lesson for the church in general! Thanks!

  • Mary abbott
    July 13, 2014

    Our first leaders had it RIGHT/UNDER GOD

  • Jim Edwards
    July 2, 2015

    Fantastic post. As a Communications Director for a multi-cultural church this is a huge issue for us. We have over 40 different languages spoken in our congregation, and we are evenly split between Caucasians, African-americans, and Hispanics. Many in our congregation are first generation Americans. To many Christians outside of the US, putting your country’s flag on display during a church service isn’t just confusing, it’s down right scary. We work very hard to find videos that talk about freedom… but videos that express that from the eyes of those who have escaped persecution and have found freedom to worship God. We feel this is a good mix between wanting to honor those who want to be honored on independence day, and being sensitive to those who find it pretty weird.

    I served in the US Navy for 4 years, and I loved it, and I deeply care for my country. But church is about our Lord and Savior, and although I’m thankful for having a country that allows me to worship “HIM” my adoration for my country doesn’t even register compared to my love for God.

  • Andrea
    July 4, 2015

    Well said!

    My church’s heritage makes for a tricky relationship with patriotism: we started out Mennonite. If you know your Protestant history, you know that Anabaptists (Mennonites, Amish, and Hutterites) believed in a radical separation of church and state: Christians were not to participate in government, nor vote, nor join the military, nor pay taxes (or only pay certain taxes). Patriotism equaled idolatry.

    And I don’t think that’s right either. It doesn’t square with the teachings of Jesus, Peter, or Paul. My church is trying to do more to acknowledge political reality, to recognize our national heritage, and to honor military sacrifice, but it’s a fine line to walk. We’re in danger of swinging too far the other way. I think so long as we recognize that it IS a fine line to walk, we’ll do all right.

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