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Should we or should we not be patriotic in public Christian worship? Indeed, this is the question that surfaces throughout the year – usually near Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Veterans’ Day. A comment I overheard recently reminded me that many individuals are concerned about the integration of patriotism and worship. Since I was a bystander when the comment was made, I did not have the opportunity to comment, hence this post. The comment? “Independence Day is the most important day the Church celebrates, next to Easter, of course.”
I was delighted to hear that in this person’s mind, Resurrection Day competed for a top spot with what is often called God and Country Day. Had I been in the conversation, my initial inclination may have been to inquire about the value of other days in the church year compared to Independence Day – Christmas, the celebration of Christ’s birth; Pentecost, the descent of the Holy Spirit; or All Saints’ Day, the remembrance of the faithful departed – but it seemed that this individual was not talking about the same calendar.
Admittedly, I believe the agenda of worship planners should be quite narrow: to point the entire being of worshippers to the work of the Triune God past, present, and future. By focusing on the work of God, worship functions as a central hub enabling the local church to partner with the global Church in the work of God and return to tell about it. The celebration of American patriotism interferes with this process in a significant manner.
To be blunt, celebration of American freedom is downright idolatrous for too many Americans, and they are incapable of balancing it appropriately with celebration of their freedom in Christ. Even though patriotic worship services may employ phrases such as “freedom is ultimately found in you, O God,” this is not heard the way it is intended. Those blindly struggling with their idolatry of a free nation might claim that God made America free. While our democracy is to be valued, one should question the methods of establishing freedom – namely those of war and lives lost. Furthermore, we would do well to consider those in America and in the world who are not free. Are not people still oppressed daily because of their nationality, their gender, their sexuality, their age, their occupation, their weight, their abilities, and their mental capacities…? Are not other countries still engaged in war over their freedom? What would God say – what does God say about such oppression? How are we called to respond?
Beyond the idolatry and lack of focus on Christ in a patriotic worship service, one should note that liturgical resources for celebrating freedom are plentiful but poor in taste. The texts of most patriotic songs are theologically inaccurate (e.g.: America the Beautiful claims God shed his grace nationally, incompatible for Christianity that knows no national boundaries; God Bless America is too individualistic and as it claims, America is not the indigenous home for many displaced immigrants; Battle Hymn has metaphorical language that few understand; and many other texts would fail a test on gender-inclusivity), and pledges to the American and Christian flags as well as the Bible are wrong given the absence of a pledge to God. Moreover, abuses of the phrase “In God We Trust” and other idiomatic expressions in sermons are often given as comfort food, elevated over scripture, a text that should continually probe our hearts to take action and seek freedom for those in bondage. Finally, one has to ask if the use of indoor firework displays a poor example of stewardship.
What is a solution? I’m not entirely sure, and this certainly depends on local context. Perhaps churches should stick closely to following the church year and ignore the political calendar altogether. Some churches may need to hold an alternative patriotic celebration outside of their regular worship hour. Some churches may need to include language of patriotism and freedom, calling special attention to the lack of freedom in America and in other countries around the world. Perhaps some churches should simply celebrate Easter again – surely celebration of the God who releases all from bondage could thwart negative comments about patriotic music. Finally, some worship planners should invite those voicing concern over the lack of patriotic elements in worship to engage in worship reflection and feedback throughout the year as much as they do in patriotic seasons.
Worship is about God, and God is not god of any one country or of any one people group. Our worship practices should take risks to reflect this prophetically.