This coming Sunday (July 1st), many churches in our nation will choose to honor America during the worship service. Some will include America-centered songs, military-oriented hymns, and perhaps recitation of the pledge of allegiance. Others will honor those in attendance who served in the military. A few churches will preach sermons equating America of today with Israel of old: God’s chosen nation. The vast majority will display the American flag.
All of this raises the question: does nationalism belong in church? I think not. When we strike patriotic tones in worship, we dishonor God, disobey scripture, and misunderstand the relationship between God and country.
Why the Confusion?
Since Bible-believing Christians start with scripture in fleshing out how to practice and understand our faith, how is it that so many consistently conflate faith and flag? It’s not just at Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Veterans Day, or other national occasions – many churches have made the American flag a permanent fixture in the sanctuary and many of those same churches lead all Vacation Bible School attendees in a recitation of the pledge of allegiance (first to country, then to the Christian flag and then to the Bible).
There is much well honed research detailing how nationalistic fervor finds it way into faithful worship (including the recently released Chosen Nation: Scripture, Theopolitics, and the Project of National Identity by Braden Anderson. For me, the question of why Christians worship gets polluted with nationalism comes down to a simple truth: both matter deeply and, in our zeal to honor both, we confuse and conflate the two.
A similar confusion occurs on Mother’s Day, when a simplistic logic (“Mothers are important, so we ought to give them focus in worship”) leads churches to do all sorts of strange things in worship on that day. But not all sentiment belongs in worship (or in church for that matter).
With nationalism, the confusion runs even deeper than with other sentiments. American nationalism is a story with faith at its center. While I’m no David Barton, I cannot read American history and not see the faith of our forefathers. But just because Americans have chosen to believe faith and country can be combined does not make it so. No matter what John Winthrop (“city upon a hill”) thought or said, no matter how deeply Americans wish to support the American experiment and American exceptionalism by writing faith into the national narrative, the narrative of scripture makes no room for nationalism in the modern sense.
It’s not up to America to adopt Christ, it’s up to Christ to adopt America – and He hasn’t. He has adopted all who will come and follow. For those who choose to follow, national identity wanes as kingdom identity grows.
What’s the Harm?
So what’s the big deal? It makes people feel good to stir up patriotic pride, so why not wave the flag a bit and honor the courage, conviction, and sacrifice of those who have been willing to serve a greater good? Why not pump up the pride we have in our country? Why not give some glory to Old Glory?
Well, therein lies the problem, doesn’t it? To whom (or what) is glory due? The answer, of course, is God and God alone. To give glory to country is idolatry. To weave faith into nationalism is heresy.
Conservative Christians rightly resist religious syncretism (mixing Christianity with aspects of another religion in order to make our faith more palatable to those who are sympathetic to the other religion and who don’t wish to fully let go of it), but we fail to see that equal and greater harm comes from the syncretism of Christianity and nationalism. As Christians, we resist nationalism in all forms, especially those forms that would hijack the story of God’s activity in the world, that would synthesize national identity with His hopes and plans for creating, saving, and sustaining all peoples of the earth.
I forgot most of what I learned in seminary, but one thing I will remember forever was a slide shared by Dr. Hans Hillerbrand, whose devout Lutheran family escaped Nazi Germany when he was a boy. The slide showed a Christian communion table draped with a Nazi flag and holding a communion cross that had been reformed to bear the swastika. It’s easy for us to stand such a great distance away and see how blatantly heretical that display was. Today we feel such great repugnance to the Nazi regime. But many of the Christians who were steeped in that culture saw no problem mixing the two because their loyalties to church and country were both high and they were unable to choose the higher (and ultimate) good. Many Christians in the world today feel repugnance when they see our flag or other symbols of our national pride and exceptionalism. This doesn’t mean we should be ashamed of our country or deny our citizenship – to the contrary, we should appreciate our country and strive to make it a force for good in the world. But we should not hold up America as a Christian nation and we should not pollute the worship of our Lord with fervor, faith or devotion to our nation (or any nation).
When we choose Christ without hesitation, we make no room for mixed motives and refuse to share God’s glory with any other person or institution – no matter how good, noble, or sentimental.
Questions for Conversation
What about you and your church? How do you manage the desire to honor country while remaining true to the message of scripture? In your opinion, what (if any) displays of patriotism should find home in church? In worship? Where do you draw the line? I look forward to the conversation.