“We need not hate or condemn our country to avoid worshiping it. We can honor veterans, celebrate our freedoms, and advocate democracy without insisting our nation is somehow favored by God. We can participate in politics without believing political solutions speak to the deepest human needs. We can praise America while honoring the feelings of many in other nations who prefer, instead, the land of their birth. We can celebrate the Fourth of July while acknowledging that patriotism is not a Christian principle.”
—Mark A. Taylor, “Our Greatest Hope”
Okay, go ahead and get out the rotten tomatoes, but I’m going to say it anyway: singing patriotic songs in church gives me the heebie-jeebies. I actually shrivel up inside when our worship service includes such songs as “God Bless America.” Don’t get me wrong—I am happy to live in the United States. I appreciate tremendously our military and the fact that our founding fathers were devoted Christians. Good grief, I’m a leader in our American Heritage Girls troop! But I still don’t like singing patriotic songs as the focus of our worship service. Give me a night of fireworks and flag-waving, a parade on a hot July day, and a concert in the park like Partyoffive describes and I’ll have a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes; but please don’t make me sing “America” in church.
So upon arriving home from church yesterday, Dr. H asked me how the service was (he skipped out to help Jesse finish getting ready for camp). I told him that our minister’s sermon was outstanding, as usual, but, well. He knows those patriotic services all too well. “What is wrong with me?” I asked him. “Why do I have this aversion to singing about [read: glorifying] America in church?” I was vaguely troubled and disappointed all day. This morning I pulled out this week’s Christian Standard, the flagstaff magazine of the Independent Christian Churches, which we can pick up each Sunday at church. The articles are always excellent and thought-provoking, dealing with issues in the church today from worship styles to, well, this week’s theme: Christian Nationalism—Two Views from Two Continents. The first is written from the perspective of a European professor of theology and the second from a pastor in Maryland.
Naturally, I ignore my children’s own breakfast needs so that I can read what these two have to say. First, Patrick Nullens gives a European perspective:
"You can blend vanilla ice cream with Coca-Cola and call it a float. So why not blend religion with patriotism? After all, the founding fathers were devoted Christians and the puritan pillars of American society. Why should we be against being a Christian American nationalist? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines nationalism as “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” But Christian nationalism is a form of consciousness that stresses Christian roots and promotes a blend of Christian subculture with the interests of the nation. Patriotism is slightly different, referring to devotion to one’s country. But Christian patriotism blends devotion to the country with devotion to God. Is this a good blend? Well, my answer is yes and no."
He goes on to address the concept of being a Christian American nationalist, considers nationalism from a kingdom perspective, and discusses the dangers of mixing nationalism with missions. This quote below is the essence, I think, of why I’m uncomfortable singing about America during worship:
"What does Scripture teach us? Jesus said his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:36). The church is a manifestation of his kingdom and it does this by being intrinsically diverse or multicultural. Being a people of all nations is not just an accident; it is part of the essence of the church. … Our citizenship is in Heaven (Philippians 3:20), and only secondarily do we belong to a nation. We are wandering pilgrims with brothers and sisters all over the world."
The next article, written by Ethan Magness, is from an American perspective. (In a SmallWorld sighting, this author is the son of Dr. Lee Magness, who is a professor Bible at my alma mater, Milligan College. Besides my father, Dr. Magness is the most brilliant and spiritually insightful man I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. And Ethan writes as powerfully as his Dad.) He writes: “One of the transformational marks of Jesus’ ministry was his universal love for all people. His contemporaries seem to have forgotten the prophecy of Isaiah that God’s good purposes would include all people (Isaiah 2:2). The scandal of the parable of the Good Samaritan is precisely that he is a Samaritan.” In his article he discusses the dangers of confusing being a follower of Christ with national loyalty and the challenge of knowing the proper place for “tribalism”:
“God Bless America” makes a good bumper sticker, but as a prayer it is rather incomplete. God desires to bless all nations, tribes, peoples, and languages. It would look less catchy on a bumper sticker, but perhaps we should pray, “God bless America, and our allies, and especially our enemies, and everyone else in between.” It is not the prayer I want to pray, but I think it is what Jesus would have prayed.”
Aah. By my second cup of coffee I was feeling relaxed. Validated. Singing America’s praises in church sets my teeth on edge because, well, shouldn’t we be singing God’s praises? Always? God is so much bigger than America. How dare we try to reign him in and put him on a podium in Washington? I shudder to think of a member of our large Japanese population visiting on a Sunday morning to see what Christ’s church is all about, only to find a slideshow depicting the White House and a robust singing of all four verses of “My Country 'Tis of Thee.” And what if Neal and Kristina, our Canadians, had visited our church this past Sunday? They might not be coming back in October.
And so, Patrick Nullens and Ethan Magness, I thank you for your perspectives. I’ll end with one more quote from Magness:
“The nation is not the church, and we must expect nations will continue to glorify themselves. Politicians around the globe will continue to proclaim their nation the greatest. In particular, as Americans, we have taken some minor losses over the years, but in general our history is one of success after success. For the last 20 years, we have enjoyed the role of sole superpower. In such a situation, national arrogance is easy. But the church must be the church, and Christians must proclaim through their lives that it is service and sacrifice that make one great. It is the meek who will inherit the earth.”