Confession: I struggle with patriotic worship services

The argument has been made that a strong co-mingling of Christianity and American patriotism began in the middle of the last century. It is common to find American patriotic songs in Christian hymnals. Some nearly identify love of the United States with love of God.

Full-blown “patriotic services” are held around every July 4th. These productions are like Christmas pageants in July for pomp and planning.

Performances of the military service hymns, color guards, and red, white and blue bunting are required parts of the festivities. Neither the Democratic nor Republican conventions can compete for passion. Large churches sometimes have a soldier–or someone playing one–rappel from the rafters. Flags wave ferociously.

In the past these were honest attempts to evangelize by reaching people who might not attend a regular service. Pastors probably deemed them successful given the sheer number of churches involved.

My discomfort with patriotic worship services culminated when visiting a church while vacationing. The front of the auditorium was covered by an enormous American flag. Beneath the flag was the opening for the baptistry where the pastor baptized a new believer.

Under the American flag. No cross in sight; I suppose it was covered by stripes. It was not surreal for me; it was troubling. The imagery was all wrong.

Writing last year on American patriotic services, Trevin Wax compared his experiences in Romania:

The first time I ever questioned the appropriateness of patriotism in worship was when I was doing mission work in Romania.

 

After I had learned the language and settled into ministry in a village church, I remember asking a pastor friend why we didn’t do a special service in December that celebrated Unification Day (Romania’s national holiday). I also wondered why the Romanian flag wasn’t in the sanctuary.

 

The pastor looked at me funny and then said: “The only way we’d bring a Romanian flag into our sanctuary is if we brought in flags from all over the world.” 

 

“To show you do missions?” I said, trying to find a reference point from my own culture.

 

“No, to show we are the church.”

Similarly, Ed Stetzer says,

I think that Christians in all those places need to be careful about mixing their faith and worship with their patriotism and nationalism.

Sunday gatherings of believers are a microcosm of the Kingdom of God. For me, at their best, patriotic services celebrate baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet at the expense of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. At their worst they rehearse selective history, celebrate decisions of a man-made government, and blur the line between the kingdoms of man and the kingdom of God.

Sundays find followers of Jesus gathered celebrating His victory over sin, death, hell, and the grave, not American victories at Iwo Jima, Normandy, and Bastogne. We gather with the promise of a Prince of Peace whose return will not only render Valley Forge, Gettysburg, New Orleans, Normandy, Guadalcanal, Da Nang, and Baghdad impossible; He will make them unneeded.

But with 53% of Americans still believing “God has a special relationship” with the U.S. I am mystified. Among evangelicals 45 and older that figure is a staggering 71%. They may be the majority, but they will not read of National VIP status in heaven.

Hebrews 11:13, 14 records of the heroes of the faith:

They saw [God’s promises] from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (HCSB)

Even Abraham, who journeyed to a plot of ground promised by God, lived there as an outsider, an alien.

By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, coheirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:9, 10, HCSB)

Sing the Star Spangled Banner at baseball games, football games, Olympics parties, parades, on July 4, Memorial Day, Flag Day and Veterans Day. Erect a flag pole in your front yard, or angle one from the front door of your business. But the kingdoms are distinct by divine decree.

If God today sent me and my family to Botswana, Bangladesh or Bolivia, and led us to become citizens not resident workers, I hope we would do it. I hope you would, too. The Kingdom isn’t defined by geo-political boundaries. Every nation, tribe, people and language contains its citizens.

If you are a follower of Jesus never forget we are not citizens of this world. We are missionaries living with a green card in the country of God’s choosing. For most readers of this blog that is the United States. Our country of assignment, however, should not take priority over the King that sent us or the city He’s built for us.

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Featured image credit

Marty Duren

Just a guy writing some things.

2 Pingbacks/Trackbacks

  • Ray Allen

    You are free to write because and speak your mind because there had been those willing to bears arms to defend your rights. So Sunday in church we will thank veterans, police officers and firemen for protecting us.
    ray allen, 55 years as a pastor, 3 year veteran U.S. army

    • Steven Grajeda

      Countries and their flags come and go. Nations do not own god. Those that fought did it ultimately for freedom and for the people, not a flag or government.

    • martyduren

      Ray-

      Thx for your comment.

      Another friend wrote this on Facebook [edited for length]:

      “As a retired U.S. Army Chaplain, I deeply appreciate the freedoms we enjoy. I love my country. I thank God for the privilege and blessing of being a U.S. Citizen. I am trained in proper flag etiquette, the law that prescribes public display of the standard, and the fact that the SCOTUS has decreed that the punishments in that law for failure to comply/desecration etc. are not enforceable.

      I contend that our practice of giving the U.S. Flag the position of honor in churches by placing it to the left front (right of the speaker facing the congregation) and placing the standard of our Savior, the Christian flag, in a subordinate position on the opposite (right) side is at best a sacrilege and borders on idolatry. We would never verbally claim our hierarchy of allegiance as Country and God; we say God (sometimes throw family in second place) and Country. But our insistence on adhering to an unenforceable, man-made law in our churches and chapels puts the lie to our claim.

      […]

      So yes, Marty, patriotic services in church are difficult for me as well.”

  • John

    Marty, I agree that the church Sunday service is still the place for worship & celebration for believers, so I think you have to be careful and balance out any inclusion of celebrating America; however I do not believe you have to exclude it. It is a part of our culture, plus it is part of our thanksgiving to God, as well as part of our prayers to God for our nation – thanksgiving and prayer are to be parts of our corporate worship. To follow your line of reasoning we would also have to exclude any culturally relevant music, media, etc. After all, they are not part of the church either.

    • martyduren

      Hey John-
      Thx for your comment.

      I don’t follow your thinking on the music and media. I’ve never seen an entire church service or pageant dedicated to Powerpoint or MediaShout. My concern isn’t about pageantry or celebrations in general.

      There is a difference between tools we use and celebrations that can so easily (and do) lead to distorted theology.

  • I served in the USMC. I later served as a missionary. I feel the same way as you, Marty. It can be appropriate to give honor for various forms of sacrificial service, but too often it becomes nationalistic in an unbiblical way.

    I wrote a similar piece to express my struggles here:
    http://russellminick.com/god-bless-our-idols/

    • martyduren

      Good post, bro.

  • Gratitude for people serving others is excellent.

    Responsible focus on the nation we are a part of us good.

    Exalting our nation as divinely special is contrary to the New Testament.

    When the apostles were filled with the Spirit they displayed a sign prophesied by Joel: the curse of Babel dividing people was replaced with a promise of uniting people from every nation/tribe/tongue/sub-group/etc.

    That is the 1 issue Paul confronts Peter on in Acts 15 and in Galatians 2; nationalistic/racial/tribalism vs. Kingdom redefinition of identity and loyalty.

    It is also the point of the Revelation of Jesus Christ (as anticipated in 1 Corinthians 15 resurrection passage explaining that meaningful unification under Christ is the point).

    What we “can” do is one question. What we should do is another.
    What are our motives, and do they line up with Jesus’ teachings?

    Can we consider adjusting our affections or are we arrogant and hard hearted?
    (hint: If we are tempted toward disgust and rage and the impulse to call people idiots and such… something might be wrong! “Raca!!”)

  • Paul Littleton

    You are free to write and speak your mind because the Creator of the universe and your Redeemer gave you a mind and a mouth, so thank and honor Him this and every Sunday, because in eternity He will be all that matters.

  • Paul

    I recently started following your blog. Thank you for writing this, what I’m sure was a difficult piece. I could not agree more with your thoughts. I cringed a few Sundays ago on Memorial Day when people stood and put their hands over their hearts as the choir led “America the Beautiful”. First of all, I think people are confused. That is in no way, shape, or form, our national anthem. Secondly, why does nobody stand and put their hands over their hearts when we sing hymns that describe the wonder of Heaven? I think streets of gold are much more worthy of praise than purple mountains.

    A little background on myself before I continue: I am a recent 3-time combat veteran in the US Marine Corps. There is not a soul in this country that could question my patriotism and devotion to this country. I do, in fact, as John described in an earlier comment give thanks to God for the blessing He decided to give me by allowing me to be born in a country as free as this.

    There is a not so fine line, however, between thanking God for the great country that we live in, and dedicating a WORSHIP service to our country. A service that is supposed to be set apart for the Lord. A service that should be able to be transmitted as a live broadcast to every end of the earth at the same time. That, is where I have the issue.

    • Paul, I gave a testimony of serving in the USMC for 3 years and later becoming a Christian and doing 2 decades of missionary work.
      I left the stage and then entered in the back to find a seat.

      A lady saw me and eagerly grabbed my hand to thank me for my service.

      I asked what she was referring to.
      “Your military service to protect us!”
      oh. (sigh)

      • Paul

        I try not to get bitter about it, but I can relate. More often than not, when people find out I’m a Marine combat vet, they hug me, thank me for my service, and go on and on. Don’t get me wrong, I really appreciate that. It means a lot.

        On the flip side, shouldn’t they thank me for my service on the mission field (albeit short-term missions) or as their Deacon??? At least in the same breath…..

  • Bob Cleveland

    For me, it’s easy. I Simply won’t attend “patriotic worship services”. Any more than I will attend a service put on by people selling things in the lobby.

    In the worship service, the only common bond I recognize is allegiance to King Jesus.

  • John Pierce

    Well said, Marty. However, the challenge for so many pastors is simply this: church members who embrace such civil religion do so with deep emotions. Therefore, they have no interest in considering anything that counters their feelings/perspective, no matter how rational, biblical or historical. So they simply respond defensively by questioning the minister’s patriotism or spouting something about how our freedom to speak, worship, etc., is tied to military might (as if that justifies co-mingling an equal allegiance to God and country). This is the one area where a minister can get in trouble for daring to call Christians to make Jesus lord over all else .

    • Financial vulnerability is an interesting problem. Jesus was willing to lose disciples because his mission was not essentially dependent on the funding of his disciples (John 6, Matthew 19 etc.).
      Getting “in trouble” can mean losing one’s position/salary/ministry venue. It is a real challenge.

  • gfkdzdds

    This is garbage. Just another blogger who had to write a column and so he took to America bashing. I have been attending church all my life, east coast, west coast. midwest and now in SC. I have never seen what he described. This article reminds me of all the pastors who said they were reading hateful anti gay articles after the recent SCOTUS decision. I don’t know where they found those but I did see alot of the opposite with blasphemy of the Lord. We don’t need this and the writer should be ashamed of himself.

    • Susan Correll Foy

      I’ve never seen anything quite as extreme as what he describes, but every church I have attended have America the Beautiful type hymns on the 4th of July. I also had a pastor when I was young who would preach America sermons on the 4th. It never bothered me too much until one year when I had atheistic acquaintances from Germany visiting our church on the 4th July. I so much wanted them to understand that this isn’t what our church is about, or what any church should be about. I wanted them to know it is all about Jesus.

    • martyduren

      At least you used your real name in your complaint.

      Signed,
      Not Ashamed

      • gfkdzdds

        Didn’t know using your name was a requirement for posting. I stand by my comment. I’ve never seen a church service as described. Me thinks someone went a bit overboard so he could come up with a column for his blog.

        • martyduren

          Just because you’ve never seen it doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. That’s an incoherent argument. Stand by it if you wish. As to my motives you simply couldn’t be more clueless.

          I bring up your anonymity not because of my commeting policy, but because you question my motives, do so erroneously (twice), and offer nothing by way of theological critique or help in your comments, all from behind cover.

        • gfkdzdds

          You use the “I’ve never seen that” argument with “John” above but when I use it it is not valid. I question your motives because either you have been to unbiblical churches, are going to unbiblical churches or lead a church that celebrates the 4th on equal footing with the gospel. What you describe could certainly happen although I have never seen it. Could it exist? Certainly. Patriotic worship services are not as rampant in this country as you would have us believe. I think you are exaggerating, at best. You certainly have a thin skin for blogger. I’ve read some of your other posts. Don’t worry, I won’t be back.

        • martyduren

          Thx for visiting.

    • Faye Simmons

      gfkdzdds-
      Here are images from this morning at a church in Georgia.
      In the color guard photograph the “Christian flag” which is supposed to represent the Kingdom of God is subordinate to the American flag. The streamer cannons and confetti in the other picture say all that needs to be said.

      Marty wasn’t exaggerating.

    • Faye Simmons

      Here is a photograph of another church ready for their patriotic Sunday. The US flag draped over the Lord’s Supper table.

      I saw another church on Facebook whose pastor planned to dress like Patrick Henry to deliver the sermon today. It’s more common that you seem to know.

      • gfkdzdds

        Maybe it is odd because I attend churches where Christ is preeminent. If you don’t like what you are seeing at your church and feel it doesn’t exalt Christ – find another church.

        • When Paul noticed churches in error, he didn’t tell the congregation to go elsewhere. He addressed the issue directly.

          If we avoided everything unbiblical within the church, how could we grow?

        • gfkdzdds

          And how can you grow when you aren’t fed the Word. no church is perfect but to remain in a “church” that does not worship Christ can quickly lead you down a slippery slope. Look no further than most of the mainstream churches today

  • Steven L. Taylor

    I wholly agree that there is often an odd (and inappropriate) mingling of the patriotic and spiritual in many American churches.

  • Leah

    There is a fine line, to be sure, between worship of the USA (and flag) and honoring and giving thanks for what that flag stands for and for the lives given to make us free to worship as we choose, but we can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We can’t say that because we are “not of this world” and that Christians come from all over the world that we shouldn’t have respect and celebration for where we are. America was once a God honoring country. Not the only one, of course, but to say we shouldn’t honor America because there are other great countries could be said for nearly anything in our lives; we shouldn’t be happy because others are happier or as happy, we shouldn’t honor our parents because others had better parents or equally as good to our own, we shouldn’t be content with what God has given us because others have more money, a better house, etc. or at least as good as our own. As far as honoring that in our churches, in America we have amazing freedom. There are many countries that do not have those same freedoms and if we pay attention we can see that these freedoms, at least for Christians, are slowly but surely slipping away. America, until recently, has been a God fearing, God honoring country and as such, it is our job to thank God for his undying mercy on our country. While wars may have been fought for freedom of man, etc. they would not have been won by man alone. Praying men and women fought those wars, likely on both sides, but we do not control this world. God is in control. So if America has seen success, that success has come directly from God, for whatever His plan may be and while I can see that time slowly slipping away by our own turning from God and His plan, in the meantime, giving thanks to God in our churches on a designated day is not just an OK thing to do, but a right thing to do.

    • Susan Correll Foy

      We should honor our country in all these ways and for all these things, but honoring our country is not worship. It should never be the focus of our worship services. Only God should be the focus of a worship service.

    • martyduren

      Leah-

      Thx for your comment.

      I think I understand your desire for express thankfulness for God’s blessings; on that we agree 100%.

      Allow me to push your thoughts on America having been a God fearing, God honoring nations via this post I wrote:

      http://www.martyduren.com/2015/06/08/lbgt-sexual-revolution-colonial-prostitution-trafficking/

    • Debbie Biggers

      Thank you for your comments. I totally agree with you. Acknowledging our country and thanking God for his blessing on our country is not paramount with worship of our country. We are certainly not a perfect country, but we certainly can practice our faith. Try writing your blog in Saudia Arabia and see how that goes for you.

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  • Murray Hibbard

    As a Canadian Christian, I can’t tell you how shocked I was a few years ago when attending my niece’s church while visiting her in the U.S. Everyone recited the pledge of allegiance in the middle of the worship service! I felt like I didn’t belong.

    Thank you SO MUCH for writing this article. Scanning the replies that have been written here, I can see that many are very uneasy with what is being said. Allow me to say as an outsider that the only thing that matters when worshipping God is God! Sure, it’s fine to thank God — on a regular basis! — for living in a country of peace where we are free to worship. We do that too. But nobody should leave worship feeling like an outsider simply because they aren’t from that country. God doesn’t recognize borders . . .

  • John Draven

    Marty, do you think God or His blessing had anything to do with the founding of our country/ our victory for independence from Tyranny? Where are founders off-base in their proclamations of God’s grace?

    • martyduren

      Hi John,
      Which God are you talking about? Many of the Founders did not believe in the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. Any proclamations by deists (Adams, Jefferson, et al) was off base in that their concept of God is unbiblical.

      As to your first question, Acts tells us that God is involved with the times and borders of every nation, so in that sense, yes.

      • John Draven

        The God of Abraham, obviously, as that is the context of your entry, right? The numbers of our founders who did or didn’t share biblical views of Father, Son, and Holy spirit is inconsequential as to whether you believe the victory over the British was a good thing for Christians and the Kingdom of God. If you think (as I do) that the existence of America is a blessing, then taking one day of the year to testify and show gratitude for this blessing is completely admirable. Please show me a church that engages in such a manner as to promote America as the object to be worship or idolized. Because a flag obscures a cross, one cannot conclude that the intention of the service is to idolize the flag. It is no different than a church hosting a celebration for the return of missionaries, the healing of a sick member, etc., as all of these testify to the greatness of God. I don’t think there is any reason to fear some growing nationalism that is usurping the position of God and the Lord in these churches.
        This is simply not detrimental to the Church. Somethings that are, however, quite detrimental, how the American Church is now paying for the secularization tactics it used to attract youth in the last 30 years, which seems to have produced a generation that is either non-religious now, or nominally religious.
        People aren’t leaving the pew to go worship at Arlington cemetery, they are leaving to worship self-gratification.

        As for how we got here… I encourage you to read this:
        http://www.heritage.org/research/lecture/2011/06/did-america-have-a-christian-founding