The Separation of Church and Patriotism

There are several songs in the back of our Baptist Hymnal that are listed under the heading of “Patriotic”, including “The Star-Spangled Banner”, “America the Beautiful”, “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee”, and my personal favorite, “O Canada”. Why is that one my favorite? Because I think it proves the point of why we shouldn’t sing any of these songs during a worship service. If it is inappropriate to sing “O Canada” in Alabama while worshipping the Lord of All the Nations, then why is it okay to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner”?

I feel compelled at this point to make a confession. I am a bit of a patriot. I served for six years in the Army National Guard and exited gracefully with an honorable discharge. There were three reasons for my service: 1) I wanted to challenge myself, 2) I wanted to serve my country, and 3) I needed the loot for college. I suppose that makes me both a patriot and a mercenary since I was motivated by both pride and money. I can live with that. In any case, my service now means that on Veterans Day, the Fourth of July, and other military holidays, I get to stand up when the veterans are thanked. I smile, I nod, and I sit back down.

So it isn’t as if I come to this conversation with zero street cred. I served honorably. I have the certificate hanging on the wall in my office. I put my hand over my heart when the national anthem is sung at ballgames, and I actually sing. I do so partly because I am a patriot and partly because I think it embarrasses my kids. (As I said before, I’m a mixed bag.)

But at our church, we do not fly the American flag. We do not sing patriotic songs. We do not present the colors during the service. Folks can come to our church in their military dress clothes if they like; that wouldn’t bother me any more than a pizza delivery-man coming in his uniform. However, in the worship of the Church, the focus is on the worship of Christ, not country. There are theological reasons for this, some of which should be obvious and others less so.

First, the Church of Christ gathers to honor Christ and only Christ. He is the Lord of All. He is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. Nothing ought to distract us from that. The United States, and even Canada, will cease to exist as national entities the moment Christ returns. Our countries are ordained by God to be stewards of justice and to protect their citizens until then, and nothing more.

Second, the goal of our church is to be multi-national and multi-ethnic. We have members who are not American citizens. Why on earth would we subject them to patriotic American songs during the service? They would automatically be excluded from worship, and I guess they would be a tad uncomfortable. How would you like to be in Iran fellowshipping with your Christian brothers and sisters when they began singing about the glories of their country? Is that going to create unity in the body, or division?

Third, the mixture of patriotic fervor with worship is concerning. Jesus doesn’t salute the American flag. We are not his pet favorite country, and believe it or not, some of our national policies are abhorrent to him — just look at our country’s checkered past, from its atrocious treatment of Native Americans to the horrors of slavery and, more recently, abortion. When we mix patriotic fervor with our worship, we make it difficult to raise serious questions about our wars and laws. Christians ought to be able to ask questions about, say, the just-ness of our recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq without having to fear losing communion with the Church. But if our worship becomes unequally yoked with American patriotism, then criticism of our country runs the risk of being construed as criticism of the Church.

So what is appropriate in the worship of American Christians concerning our country? First, we should pray for our country and for our leaders. Second, we ought to speak of our leaders in a respectful way. Third, we ought to encourage our brothers and sisters who hold office to fight the good fight of faith in their jobs. Finally, we ought to encourage our folks to be involved in the community and be a positive influence for the things of Christ.

Remember, when governments are pictured in the Scriptures prophetically, they are pictured as wild beasts that trample and destroy. Our government is ruled by sinful men, many of whom would use the Church to further their own schemes and plans without regard to the honor of Christ. Remember these words of Solomon the Wise: “When you sit down to eat with a ruler, observe carefully what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to appetite. Do not desire his delicacies, for they are deceptive food” (Proverbs 23:1-3).

When your church gathers during the week of July 4th, I hope you will pray for the country and give honor to whom it is due. But don’t mix worship with patriotism. Honoring your country does not mean offering it a pinch of incense on the altar.

Illustration courtesy of Seth T. Hahne. Check out his graphic novel and comic review site, Good Ok Bad.

About Brad Williams

Brad is the pastor of a Baptist church in a small town in Alabama. Brad has a lovely wife, two children, two dogs, a cat, a turtle, and five bee hives. Besides the incredible fact that he managed to persuade his wife to marry him, he is proud that he served six years in the Army National Guard, managed to graduate college with an English Lit. degree, graduate seminary, and finish the original Bard's Tale as a youngster by making maps on graph paper.

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston

    This weekend tends to be the only weekend in America that I am tempted, and sometimes do, to skip church. Entrenched in the South, regardless of where I end up on Sunday — Baptist, Episcopal, Anglican — somehow, I can’t avoid the centering focus on flag over Christ. Having no military honor to my own name, I particularly appreciate your service to our country and, more significantly, your service to the Kingdom.

  • Tim

    Couldn’t agree more! I love this country as much as anyone, but I am so thoroughly disgusted with the mixing of nationalism and faith that I actually skip worship every Memorial Day and July 4th Sundays. When I come to the house of God, I come to worship God and NOTHING else. Again, nothing wrong with being patriotic, just please don’t bring it into the place where we proclaim Jesus as Lord. The Bible teaches that we are not citizens of this earth, but of heaven. To proclaim that truth with an American flag displayed prominently in the church is utter hypocrisy and nothing else.

  • http://mashenahope.blogspot.com nicole

    When I moved to Chicago from the south, I found myself exhaling a sigh of relief on the first “patriotic Sunday” when the service continued as normal rather than being draped in red, white, and blue.

  • Tim

    Just so you know, this isn’t just a southern thing. I grew up in the south where this practice was common, but now that I live in the north, I still find that the majority of churches up here engage in the same idolatry.

  • Amy

    Thanks for addressing this. If feel it is a particularly dangerous combination in the Bible Belt where too often a belief in God coupled with patriotism equals Christianity. And country music only feeds that mindset. Apologies to all the CMT fans.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    I grew up in a small rural church in California and every 4th of July we would sing patriotic songs, which even as a child I thought was weird. I doubt this is the first time that Christians have mixed patriotism for the country with their Christian faith but seeing displays of blatant patriotism in a worship service is very off-putting. I want to tell the people, “Hey don’t we all love Jesus. Let’s focus on him and know that we are part of another kingdom that is not contained solely within the borders of the United States.” Definitely a case of citizenship confusion.

  • kim

    Brad, exactly the conversation I had with a good friend yesterday about my least favorite day in the “church” calendar. I am in Alabama and in the thick of this. Our sanctuary/service looked like a satire of this concept: a SNL spoof.

    Thank you for your credible and well crafted words.

    I wish this was just a preference thing. I am afraid it speaks to things far more sinister in the seed of who we are as the American Church.

  • http://www.quixoticiconoclast.blogspot.com Chris Todd

    Sir, your Commie rhetoric is making baby Jesus cry. :)

    I want to add a fourth point. Fourth, it causes us to ignore the Kingdom of God in the world, and our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world. How many American Christians feel a real kinship with their brothers and sisters in Palestine or China? How can I cheer for those who oppress my brothers and sisters? This is what happens when we fly Old Glory higher than we lift Jesus.

    As a Pastor, I did manage in one Church to get the American flag offstage and into the back of the sanctuary. I’ve never been able to get the pledge of allegiance out of VBS. Like Brad, I am a military veteran with an honorable discharge. I also place my hand on my heart when pledging and I sing the anthem. That’s fine at a baseball game, but not in the Church of Jesus Christ. We should pledge allegiance to Jesus.

  • Nick Rynerson

    Yes and amen. This is an honest, needed and theologically robust statement here. I’m sad that the churn has been seduced into nationalism. It reminds me of the German Riechkirche displaying a swastika and portrait of Ol’ Adolf in thier sanctuary. Not that we’re nazis… But still. Also, did you dudes see the RELEVANT article totally patting nationalism on the back?! In the words of Spike Lee- WAKE UP YO!

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    I read the Relevant article and the author really has a misunderstanding of the so-called “patriotism” of Israel as being an example of how to have patriotism in the American church. The psalmists understood the kingdom of God as being tied to a specific people and a specific place and that is why there is so much focus in the psalm on Israel, Zion, etc. Since Jesus ascension God’s kingdom is no longer tied to a specific nation as under the old covenant but it is a kingdom that is supra-nation. As Christians our patriotism is not for the country that we currently reside in but the kingdom of believers in Jesus that crosses borders and ethnic lines. How can we justify singing songs about our particular country in worship when one day the redeemed in Christ “from every nation, tribe, people and language” will sing a song devoid of earth-made nationalism but focused on the Lamb:

    “Salvation belongs to our God,
    who sits on the throne,
    and to the Lamb.” (Rev. 7:11)

  • Gene Gregory

    Can we not, on the 4th, or other days, recognize how God has blessed our nation and point out the responsibility that goes with that citizenship and those blessings? Can we not point out the Christian beliefs and values that our founding fathers held and how we as a nation are turning from them today? Worshipping Christ and being citizens of His kingdom, does not negate my citizenship here nor the responsibilities that go with my earthly citizenship and addressing those responsibilities and blessings does not equal worship of the US. any more than recognizing the blessings and responsibilities of fatherhood or motherhood means that I am worshipping parents.
    Single folks might feel out of place when I am addressing the responsibilities of a spouse or parent, but those things must still be addressed. Someone from another country may feel out of place I when I address the blessings US citizens have enjoyed, but we must be grateful and address those blessing and responsibilities anyway.

  • John Turner

    I too have managed to move the flag away from the front of the sanctuary in churches I have served, and I have insisted that the heart of the worship service always be focused on Christ. Acknowledgements of secular holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day) are reserved for the informal time around greetings and announcements and, even then, are designed to be sensitive to those who are not American, for those who are pacifist, for those who have had hard experiences with motherhood or fatherhood, etc.

    If I address issues in the sermon that are related to the secular holidays during the sermon, they are designed to be non-nationalistic, non-partisan topics such as how we represent the gospel in a pluralistic society, how we get beyond viewing freedom as the unconverted pursuit of happiness, how we remember that the church is transcultural and transnational, how we avoid idolatry of the nation, family, how we minister with sensitivity to those who have been wounded in their families, etc.

    I have been significantly impacted in all this by the teachings of Jesus, the writings of Paul, and the Revelation to John. I see the primary message of the Revelation as avoiding cultural observations (practices of civic cults, emperor cults, trade guild cults, fertility cults, etc.) which dilute our witness to Christ, and our being willing to suffer the consequences of such purity in worship because we trust that Jesus and his faithful ones win in the end.

    My efforts in this area have never gone unopposed in North or South, and I have pastored significant times in both regions. The church has not been trained in the biblical perspective on these issues. It goes with the culture instead.

  • Steven Petersheim

    Well, now, aren’t we a bunch of righteous non-patriots (at least for the most part). You all can come to my childhood Amish church where we had no flags (Christian or otherwise). And we never worshiped the United States government though we gave God thanks for a government that allowed us freedom to worship as pacifists, something Germany and other European countries were not willing to grant our ancestors (way back when).

    I’m checking your ideas/proclamations against Amish beliefs.

    1. You shouldn’t mix church and politics. Check.
    2. You shouldn’t pay attention to “secular” holidays imposed by the U.S. government. Check– except for Thanksgiving, when the Amish have special church services thanking God for our freedom to worship Him “unmolested by the authorities” and praying for our governmental leaders. The text used for this service is Romans 13, but there is typically a recounting of Abraham Lincoln’s formal proclamation of a national day of giving thanks. This is as “American” as the Amish ever get (in the context of church).
    3. Church is about Christ. Check.
    4. Church is not the place to honor soldiers. Double check.

    Celebrate Amishdom with me today if you wish not to celebrate America. You can enjoy a picnic and watch fireworks with your family as I probably would be with mine if I were at my Amish home in Maryland. Maybe we’ll go hiking… or biking (depending on which ordnung you’re from), a game of horseshoes… softball… volleyball… arm wrestling or just plain wrestling (as long as Mom doesn’t get too worried about someone getting hurt)… Fun times without country music :-) But then on Sunday, we can worship Christ in our churches.

    P.S. Unlike July 4th, Veterans Day doesn’t even hit the radar in Amishville. No picnic. No games. Just another day of work. For some Amish, the 4th passes without notice as well.
    P.P.S. My (ex?)Mennonite wife and I were frightened away from some churches in our current home in Waco because the flag was more prominent than the cross.
    P.P.P.S. I’m no longer a pacifist (not really anyway) and I am thankful for those who defend us and allow us to live and worship freely, but I agree that some forms of nationalism sometimes distract the church from her true object of worship– Christ.

  • Ken

    This whole debate strikes me as sanctimonious and pharasaical. There’s nothing wrong with honoring your country. You critics need to get a life.

  • John Turner

    Steven Petersheim and Ken,

    Please note that no one on this forum has claimed that it is wrong to honor one’s country. I have not re-read everything, but I do not recall anyone saying that they were personally a pacifist.

    This is not about personal righteousness.

    This is about the fact that the New Testament church is called to be a transnational, transcultural community of faith offering witness to all people that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior of all, and that some of every people group are to be included in the New Heaven and New Earth.

    I think that a simple prayer of thanks and nonpartisan petition for the leaders of the land in which the worshiping community is gathered is always appropriate.

    Pep rallies for holy war against our country’s enemies are never appropriate in the name of Jesus. My own opinion is that most of the patriotic songs that are often used on Memorial Sunday and Independence Sunday, and Veteran’s Sunday have lines that should be problematic for Christians who have accepted their calling to represent the good news of God’s love to all people. I cannot imagine Jesus singing them or happily receiving them in his honor. Our worship ought to be governed by our desire to honor and please Jesus above all. Is that sanctimonious? I hope not.

    Steven, I have great respect for Amish and Mennonite Christians, but the traditions of separation of church and state run much broader than the Anabaptist wing of the church, also including many believers’ baptizing churches, and more broad;y still, evangelical pietists in general. Some of us have forgotten our heritage, but it can be found in history.

  • Adam E

    Meanwhile in Australia, we wonder what the big deal is about American patriotism.

    Patriowhat?

    We’re quite happy to complain against politicians and keep church and state as separate as possible… It’s much neater. And less Erastian.

  • Rick Troth

    Wow … great read! And spot-on observation!

    The church (esp in America) has a desperate need for Christ focus.

    Only part I challenge is … “The United States, and even Canada, will cease to exist as national entities the moment Christ returns.”. That’s not clear from Scripture. Just sayin. (Since you’re obviously prodding us to look into the Word, which I deeply appreciate.)

    – R; <


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