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.”
“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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.