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Patriotic Worship

     It is a question being asked repeatedly in church after church in this second decade of the twenty-first century.  Should the church be political? And, behind that, an even more controversial question: Should the church embrace American patriotism at all?
     In case you haven't noticed, take a look around you this Sunday when you go to worship.  If you see an American flag proudly displayed in the front of the sanctuary somewhere, chances are your church is more than thirty years old.  If you look around and see no American flag anywhere, chances are your church is less than twenty years old.  Now, this is far from a hard and fast rule.  There are many exceptions.  But, it is true enough to indicate a seismic shift in the assumptions churches have regarding their role in relation to the United States of America is underway.

Pacifists Among Us

     In the early decades of the Stone-Campbell Movement, churches had little interest in national or political issues.  Many of the first generations of leaders, like Walter Scott or Barton Stone or Alexander Campbell were dedicated pacifists and most expressed the view that the Christians ought not to involve themselves in the affairs of civil government. 
     In the north, some of this was revised as the passions regarding the practice of slavery increased in the middle of the nineteenth century.  Though far from universal, large numbers of northern churches, especially in Ohio and Indiana, did express commonality with the cause of emancipation during the civil war.  But, it was not the Civil War, but the First World War that began to bring a much more open link between Christian worship and patriotism.  This is particularly noticeable in the changes related to the introduction and acceptance of purely patriotic songs in popular church hymnals.
     At the turn of the century, the Fillmore Brothers’ New Christian Hymn and Tune-Book of 1882 had contained six songs under the topic “National.”  Of these, four are calls for prayer or national repentance.  They made no direct reference to a particular nation and could, at least in theory, be sung by the citizens of any land.  These hymns were (1) “God Bless Our Native Land,” (2) “In Prayer Together Let Us Fall,” (3) “Lord, For All Mankind We Pray,” and (4) “While O’er Our Guilty Land, O Lord.”  Only two could be considered mildly patriotic, in the sense that they extolled the greatness of the American nation.  These were (1) “My Country T’is of Thee” and (2) “Swell the Anthems Raise.”  The other widely used hymnal in Christians Churches in the early 1900s was the Revised Christian Hymnal of 1882.  Here we can find five “National Hymns.”  These were (1) “Lord, For All Mankind We Pray,” (2) “While O’er Our Guilty Land, O Lord,” (3) “Thy Footsteps Lord, With Joy We Trace,” (4) “My Country T’is of Thee,” and (5) “God Bless Our Native Land.”
     Although the evidence is not conclusive, it seems very likely that no national flags would have been placed inside houses of worship, also.  This is not so much a decision to not include them, as it was the fact that it had not been done or seriously suggested.  Patriotism was emphasized in public school classrooms, to be sure.  Sermons would have also included allusions to patriotic stories, focusing mostly on those, such as the Pilgrims, that included overtly Christian themes.

Wars and Rumors of Wars

     Although Wilson was elected largely on the promise to keep America out of a European war, patriotic enthusiasm for war rose to a fever pitch as the old European monarchies immersed themselves in the bloodbath of the Great War (1914-1918).  By 1916 the pressure for the United States to join with England, France, and Italy to save civilization “from the Hun” became overwhelming.  The Germans, of course, were not in any way related to the ancient Huns that had swept into world history in the fourth and fifth century.  But, as that was the quintessential battle between the Christian world and the barbarian world in popular thinking, the imagery became a part of the language of the twentieth century.
     Following the sending of American soldiers “over there” in the First World War, the presence of more songs identified as “national,” or, more commonly, “patriotic” in printed hymnals is evident.  The 1933 Favorite Hymns by Standard Publishing contained such clearly nationalistic songs as “Our Heroes,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “America the Beautiful,” “My Country T’is of Thee,” and a song with no discernible religious content whatsoever, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  This trend, unseen in the nineteenth century, of intermingled nationalistic themes with Christian worship will grow substantially more pronounced in the later part of the twentieth century. 
     By the end of the 1930s Europe was involved in what will be called a Second World War (but would be more accurately called the second phase of the First World War).  Also, in the same decade, the militarist who took control of Japan were expanding violently into China.  Even before Pearl Harbor, most northern churches would have included American flags in the sanctuary.  National holidays would have been marked by including at least some patriotic hymns and sermons calling upon Christians to embody both the assumed faith (often wildly exaggerated) and patriotism of America’s founding fathers.
     Southern churches of Christ had resisted this patriotic impulse much longer than had northern churches.  World War Two, however, swept America with an unprecedented patriotic fervor.  By 1950, churches in both the north and the south would have displayed the American flag and marked major national holidays with patriotic music and sermons.

Church-going America

     In the “I like Ike” 1950s, every good American, it was assumed, would frequent a house of worship regularly.  Families with young children, which were many, were expected to attend “church and Sunday School on Sunday,” as the popularly repeated phrase emphasized.  Movies theaters, in addition to cartoons and news shorts, included regular advertisements urging their viewers to “worship at the church of your choice.”  The nation was coming to church.
     For many, this resurgent religion that blended Protestant orthodoxy with American patriotism harkened to a beloved, but largely mythical, American past.  George Washington, who never is registered as having taken communion, is suddenly on his knees at Valley Forge.  Washington, at least, gives evidence of accepting the main tenants of Christian orthodoxy.  In spite of the clear evidence of their own writings, however, Abraham Lincoln, and Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin also became sainted figures whose vision of America seemed wholly Christian, wholly Protestant, and wholly evangelical. 
     These perceptions, driven in part by American propaganda of the Second World War and the later Cold War, were as evident in public school textbooks as they were in Sunday School curriculum.  A good American was a (largely Protestant) church going American.  After knowledge of the Nazi atrocities of the holocaust shattered America’s conscience, this would be slightly revised to include the “Go to the church or synagogue of your choice this week” statement also shown in many movie theaters between films.  America, it is assumed, will produce Bible-believing church-going families.
     The reverse side of the same phenomenon was that the church had become increasingly oriented to the assigned role as the producer of good and patriotic citizens for the nation.  The national flag, patriotic music, special patriotic services, “God and Country” awards for Boy Scouts, and calls from the pulpit on the duties of patriotic citizenship permeated Evangelical Christianity in the 1950s.  The eleventh commandment, some might say the first, became, “Thou shalt be patriotic.”  Patriotic music, largely absent from hymnals several decades earlier, now appeared in nearly all evangelical hymnals.  It was not uncommon to find the Pledge of Allegiance recited as a kind of nationalistic liturgy in the opening exercises of Sunday School programs throughout the country.  The national flag, which would have seemed out of place at the turn of the century, was as standard as the pulpit or the table in many sanctuaries.
     The impact of these developments on Christian identity will be mixed.  On the positive side, patriotism assumes a law-abiding lifestyle, in which respect for other Americans is expected.  Without patriotism, only a fragile cohesion holding a nation of such vast geographical area and diverse populations together would exist.  Patriotism also fosters a willingness of families to send their sons (and, eventually, daughters) into harm’s way to defend the nation.  Christian patriotism, in a needed balance, also preserves attention to the religious aspect of American history and American ideals.
     On the negative side, such an overt marriage of the church and fervent nationalism is just not remotely present in the church depicted in the New Testament.  While submission to governing authorities was commanded, the giddy love-of-the-flag patriotism was not.  The twentieth century provides, in both Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, tragic examples where such God-and-country blending serves the purpose of the state at the expense of the church.  It must be remembered just how church-going and Christian Germans saw themselves early in the twentieth century.  They were the modern continuation of the Holy Roman Empire.  Being a good German Christian, in the mind of many, became identical to being a good and patriotic German citizen.  Thus, the ranks of the Waffen SS and even the Gestapo included many church-going young German Lutherans.

The Contemporary Choices

     The leaders of churches, particularly the worship gatherings of churches, are increasingly faced with the contradiction between America’s stated values and traditional Christian values.  No longer can anyone reasonably assert that, in a fair election, the majority of Americans will vote in ways consistent with the interests of the church.  For many younger leaders in the church, the presence of overt patriotism is as distasteful as it is cherished by those whose fathers died on Omaha beach or the sands of Iwo Jima to free the world from fascism.
     Many, particularly younger adults, are deeply disturbed by the degrees in which patriotism takes on all the trappings of a religion, including ceremonies and actions (such as the so-called Pledge of Allegiance) that virtually any reasonable outsider would label as some kind of worship activity.  They look at the church's great suffering under the Romans, largely because they were seen as disloyal and unpatriotic to the empire.  They rightly point to the Bible's universally negative view of earthly kingdoms and powers and authorities, in which the commands to submit were never understood to be synonymous with commands to adore.  If Jesus held up even family relationships as potential rivals for Lordship, it seems certain He would be even more negative toward elevating loyalty and love of country.  For them, patriotism in church is not only unnecessary, it is deeply offensive. 
     This tension is not likely to go away anytime soon.  It’s one thing to have never included flags or patriotic services in a church.  For many newer congregations, both are those are certainly true.  It is quite another to intentionally remove them if they have long been present, as many young idealistic ministers have no doubt discovered.
     My own father joined the United States Army in 1937, and remained in the army for the next twenty years.  I confess to getting goose bumps for patriotic songs and tearing up when the American flag is carefully folded as part of the funeral ceremony for a veteran. 
     And yet, in spite of that, I have to come down absolutely on this side of those who assert that the church should never have brought nationalism and patriotism into its worship or made it a part of its dogmas.  Even at its largely mythological best, the United States of America was still an earthly civil government that falls under the condemning judgment of God (the Bible never suggests God will only make war against some of the kings of the earth).  While sharing some common ground, the central goals of the church and those of a nation-state will always have serious contradictions.

     The evidence of history is also clear.  A wholesale marriage of God and country does not produce nations that serve the cause of Christ as often as it morphs the church into an uncritical and eager lapdog in the cause of the nation.  For the sake of both, a respectful, but still significant, distance is needed.
     I believe we are commanded to be respectful and law-abiding.  I would like to everyone to be, in the Romans 13 sense, a good citizen.  I am against flag burning.  But, although a person can shamefully disrespect the nation's flag, I won't and I'm not sure a Christian should (Romans 13, Titus 3, etc).  But, it is impossible for me to desecrate a national flag.  That means to un-sacred the flag.  But, flags are not sacred to begin with.  Check out the definition of sacred in a good English dictionary.  Not an attribute we should give to any national flag.  
     As to the opening question: Can you have patriotic worship?  Well, you can certainly have patriotism.  I have a hard time saying it is wrong to love your country, since (perhaps as a product of my own culture and childhood), I must admit to having a deep love for the United States.  But, I recognize that such love is not anywhere commanded in the Bible.  And, such love has the potential, and clearly often is, elevated into idolatry.  
     And, of course, it is not only possible to worship our country, it happens often.  So, if the question is, can you have patriotic worship, the answer must be yes.  If the question is should you have patriotic worship?  In spite of my own love for this country, and my father's long service through a world war, the Korean war, and a cold war, the answer must always be, "No.  Never."  When, as church, we sing, when we adore, when we weep, when we turn and speak solemn words together to mark out our loyalty and identity, these cannot be given to any king, any leader, any fuhrer, any cause but King Jesus.
     As another professor of theology is reported to have said when faced with the demands of his own parliament and his own Christian emperor, "I cannot.  Here I stand.  I can do no other.  God help me."
     With gentleness and love and patience, we must help lead the people of God to learn again how to live in Babylon without being Babylonians.


Tyler said...

Thank you for your thoughtful recounting of the development of patriotic worship in American churches.

I do, of course, have one major quibble. Not only is “an overt marriage of the church and fervent nationalism [. . .] just not remotely present in the church depicted in the New Testament,” such nationalism is explicitly described as idolatrous. One cannot read Revelation, let alone the Thessalonian correspondence, in context and think otherwise. It will not do to suggest that the NT is silent about nationalism, because it is not. I’m afraid your narrative could lend itself to such a conclusion.

Now, you use the language of “nationalism” and “patriotism.” You claim to be a patriotic, but appear to denounce nationalism. What is the distinction? What exactly do you mean by “patriot” and “nationalist”? Is this really a helpful distinction or simply a convenient way to justify nationalism?

I really appreciate your willingness to address this issue and recognize the significant cultural issues that surround how churches actually practice, or refuse to practice, certain ritual activities and accept, or refuse to accept, the placement of symbols and objects of devotion (i.e. the flag) in worship gatherings.

Brian said...

Thanks for the excellent article. One question: You wrote, " The USA was still an earthly civil government that falls under the condemning judgment of God (the Bible never suggests God will only make war against some of the kings of the earth)."

Are you suggesting that a believer should never be a "king" because to do so would place them on the other side of a war with God?

Tom Lawson said...

Brian -
An excellent question. There are certainly those in our own RM history, as well as among the Anabaptist traditions who would say no. Of course, that would also apply to anyone in that government. The Bible speaks of both corporate judgment (as in the judgment of nations, cities, towns) and individual judgment. I'm not sure how to always make a clean distinction. Corporate, to the degree we see that judgment enacted, seemed to involve temporal punishment. But, considering how little we know of judgment outside this current era of life, it would be an over-reach to insist we can be certain.

In any case: judgment against a nation or the king (as a metaphor for the whole government) cannot negate individuals. All Christians are with nations that will be judged and condemned. Many serve as some kind of government worker. So, individuals are in a different category altogether.

Tom Lawson said...

Excellent questions, as I might have expected.

The NT era is too narrow a slice of time to draw certainty about a number of issues. For example, some will insist the absence of church buildings (which could hardly have existed even if the church had the legal standing and means to build them) means the NT prohibits church buildings. Again, too strong a conclusion from too little information.

There is very little opportunity within the NT to evaluate where, the in the range from Anabaptist isolation to the full engagement modeled in western Christendom, the Christian is to flesh out the complexities of a relationship with the state. Romans 13 hardly answers the question.

Magistrates or city officials do not seem to have resigned their position in the first century. Paul seems to relish identifying himself as a Roman citizen and also continues to show great personal affection for "his people" the Jews. As you might want to point out, though, the "Jews" were not a state. Well, yes and no. Like I said, no good parallel.

The second century apologists make it clear the Christians did not hate the empire, or the emperor, or seek its destruction. Tertullian asserts the church cared as much about the empire as any other citizen. They prayed for brave armies, peace, and the health of the emperor. Of course, he also appeals, in another work, for Christians in the Roman Legion to refuse to fight or leave. Even in the third and early fourth century, the church continues seeing itself as strengthening, not undermining, the empire (several emperors had very different views, of course). The most scathing assessments of the empire's violence and corruption from this era came from her own pagan writers and historians.

At a fundamental level, patriotism is an individuals affection and concern and some measure of loyalty to his or her physical home, or home town, city, region, or nation. While a world of absolutes is attractive, I think a degree of that affection is allowed and is not prohibited. Like all affections, potential abuse and idolatry looms as a danger.

Nationalism ... OK, I'm not sure I am clear on this, but here's where I think I am: Nationalism is the awareness of the world as distinct nations, and the perspective, beliefs, and actions through which those nations corporately manage their existence. I don't feel nationalism. But, nations, in the pursuit of nationalism, want to foster the feeling of patriotism in its citizens.

Patriotism, as I use it, refers more to that feeling of individuals toward their nation. When Patriotism grows into believing your nation is superior or other groups are to be labeled as "less-than-us" and either feared or hated, it is a force used for evil. When it uses the trappings of worship and demands something akin to religious loyalty, it is idolatrous.

So, that's a little more fleshing out where I am. Like I said, though, I am not set in concrete on much of this.

Anonymous said...

Tom, I very much enjoyed your article and found it very insightful. I work for a church that I would classify not just as patriotic but as militaristic. For this reason I become uncomfortable during holidays such as Memorial, veterans and the 4th.

It doesn't feel like we are simply saying we love the USA, it feels like we glorifying the USA and all military actions. I personally don't agree with our current military conflicts and to praise those efforts makes me feel like I am going against my citizenship of the kingdom.

It almost feels like we are not allowed to second guess the actions of our military in our Church, to do so would seen unchristian.

When I look at the amount of Afgans & Iraq's that have been killed, (talking specifically about civilians) it is hard for me to imagine Jesus praising our military.

thx again for a good article

Tom Lawson said...

Well, I sympathize with your struggles. I suppose we have to begin by loving the church we've got. Change needs to come from the inside out. In my interim ministries I do not start suggesting changes until I've been there for at least a year. People have to come to trust us, and know that we love them. Also, it's taken some of us many years to come to our decisions and concerns. And we put a lot more time into reading and thinking on it than most. So, patience.

Once people are defensive, it's much harder to get them to listen. (It's also easier to get them to listen being my age - but that's pretty typical).


XYZ123 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
XYZ123 said...

To see an example of how one American church has fallen under the patriotic and nationalistic spirit that you warn about in your posting, take a look at the finale to a recent "God and Country" patriotic service that was held this past July 4th weekend. This 10 minute long video clip ( see ) starts out with an "altar call" at the Ft. Lauderdale Baptist Church, followed by the singing of The Battle Hymn of the Republic. It's what happens at the end of the song that will make a genuine follower of Jesus sick. If you're an impatient sort of person and can't sit through the entire song, then scroll forward to the 8 minute mark in the video and watch how this song ends. You won't believe your eyes.

After watching the video, ask yourself: Is God being worshiped at these types of "church services", or is it America that is being worshiped?


Tom Lawson said...

Michael -

Watched it. Oh my goodness. There sometimes are just no words that come to mind. I am reminded of when my RC friends insist, when some people bow down to and pray to the statue of the Blessed Virgin, that they are not worshiping Mary, they are merely giving her "extreme veneration." We shake our heads in disbelief at that kind of sophistry. We know worship when we see it. But then we turn around and defend this kind of presentation as just "honoring" the those in authority. It is not worship. Give me a break.

Al Dente said...

i wouldn't even say america was being worshipped, they were headed south into entertainment land