Patriotism and the Church

Or: Why A Fourth of July Service is a Bad Plan

July 04, 2014Filed under theologyMarkdown source

A few days ago, Trevin Wax shared a thoughtful article on younger evangelicals’ discomfort with patriotic services, noting:

On the one hand, pastors want to demonstrate their gratitude toward those who have served their country well – heroes who put themselves in harm’s way for the good of their neighbors. They are patriotic citizens who love their country and don’t want to be seen as contributing to cynicism or apathy.

On the other hand, pastors express reservations about incorporating patriotic songs and anthems into a worship service. They worry that too many people are already confused about the relationship between Christianity and the culture, the church and the country, and that such services exacerbate the problem.

He suggested four basic reasons for this discomfort and confusion:

  1. Extreme Experiences in the Past
  2. Decreasing Patriotism Among Millennials
  3. Shifting Cultural Currents
  4. Failure to Fully Appreciate Time and Place

His analysis of the overall situation was fairly helpful, and I recommend you read it. However, in his final point, he argued:

Some younger evangelicals see any patriotic expression as a compromise with worldly power. Their approach is to take the flag out of the sanctuary, never sing a patriotic song, and never mention a patriotic holiday.

I think this overreaction has unfortunate and unintended repercussions. It lends itself to a Gnostic idea that downplays our embodied state (as humans) within a state (a nation). We are rooted in time and place, and this is according to God’s good plan.

Unfortunately, I think Wax gets this wrong, and younger evangelicals get it basically right, at least in the context of the church. It is one thing to say that when younger evangelicals reject any sense of patriotism at all, that is an unhealthy and unhelpful move. If Wax had stopped there, I would have agreed with him. We do undervalue our embodied context and we do need a greater sense of the goodness of our geographical and temporal contexts in God’s providence. We certainly should be grateful the blessings of liberty that we enjoy, and I think as Americans we ought to celebrate those things. Independence Day (and other similar holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day) are parts of our culture in which we as Christians ought to participate. We should participate in a chastened way, perhaps, recognizing the mixed legacy of our nation’s history, but we should participate.

But we should not participate when we act as the church. On Sunday morning, we should never be singing the Star Spangled Banner, because we gather precisely to proclaim our allegiance to a king and our citizenship to a kingdom that transcends national borders just as it transcends ethnicity and culture. It does not blur out those differences, but it does not set that as ultimate or allow allegiance to them. We can see that an anthem to Asian or Caucasian or Black ethnicity would be inappropriate in the church (even as we affirm the goodness of Asian, Caucasian, Black, and other ethnicities and cultures). Singing patriotic songs in the church or preaching a sermon on American history is no less inappropriate. It divides precisely where the gospel calls us to unity.

This is ultimately about a confusion of spheres. The church is the place where the kingdom of God has broken into the present age. The nation-state is the place where his reign has not yet been established. Confusing the two does no one any good. We long for the day when every nation is part of the kingdom of heaven, but if we blur out the distinctions between the two today, we will produce confusion and unhealthy attitudes toward on or the other.

To take one obvious example: Wax notes that younger evangelicals seem uncomfortable with God-and-country language—and younger evangelicals are right to be uncomfortable with such language. Whenever we have conflated the work of God in the spread of the gospel to America, we have ended up in all sorts of confusion. We end up political servants to one party or the other, making all sorts of un-Christian ethical compromises along the way. We end up affirming approaches to foreign and domestic policy that bear little resemblance to the ethic of Christ we are taught by the apostles. To pick just one specific-but-controversial example: we find it hard to remember that we have more in common with our Palestinian brothers and sisters in Christ than with our non-Christian Israeli friends.

We should never hang an American flag in our churches. We should never sing the national anthem in our churches. We should never leave any doubt when we gather together that we come as one people, joined in Christ across every line that exists in this world: ethnic, cultural, linguistic, geographical, political, temporal. We should never, ever confuse our joyful embrace of our being situated in this place and time with our ultimate allegiance to a kingdom still to come. We should skip the patriotic services and take the opportunity instead to remind people both that every blessing we have in this nation is from God and that this nation is but one of many lands of sojourn for his people. We should teach each other to be glad that this is our land, but to look with all the more longing toward our future home when all nations will bring their treasures into the New Jerusalem. We should with Rich Mullins say that we will call this our country and be longing for our home.