Under the Sun: Patriotism Inside the American Church

Each week in “Under the Sun,” Jonathan Sircy examines the history of a cultural practice that’s generating buzz at CaPC.

In his recent feature “The Separation of Church and Patriotism,” Brad Williams writes that “worship and patriotism don’t mix.” I was glad to see Brad explain the theological underpinnings for such a claim as I had been thinking through this same dilemma.

On the Sunday morning preceding Brad’s post, my wife and I sat through a church service that featured boy scouts parading the flag right before the congregation stood and pledged allegiance to it. I whispered “and to the republic for which it stands,” unsure exactly what was happening. My wife protested by remaining silent. Before the service was over, I’d heard a re-arranged “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” sung “America the Beautiful,” and stared intently at the bulletin’s full-color picture of the Statue of Liberty while the pastor preached on the fate of the nation.

The experience was new to me. I’ve been a churchgoer all my life, and those churches have been theologically and politically conservative, a sign that the churches should have skewed patriotic. In his 2006 column on the topic, David P. Gushee sums up the current divide between the Christian Right and Left this way:

On the Christian Right are many of that dwindling number of Americans who are happy to proclaim their love for this country and to wave the flag proudly as a symbol of that love. Meanwhile, on the Christian Left there is an emphasis on the international loyalties of Christ’s people—and also some trenchant critiques of our nation’s behavior.

(It’s important that in his column, Brad appears to fall on both sides of Gushee’s divide; Brad simultaneously declares an open love for his country while emphasizing the transnational makeup of the church.)

Now, I’ve certainly sat through sermons about God both blessing and damning America. I’ve had pastors ask that veterans stand and be recognized when Memorial Day rolls around. Such practices might not have passed Brad’s muster, but they seemed par for the course to me, especially considering the political demographics of those churches. But I had never seen a flag ceremony, an unending queue of patriotic songs, or a church bulletin that seemed to shout in unison so unswervingly: “We love America!” I mean, the liturgist opened the service by reading Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”!

Is this seemingly inextricable connection between patriotism and worship something old or new? That is, was my church participating in a long-held tradition or responding to particular political circumstances? The answer, of course, is both.

The ties between national pride and religious fervor run deep. Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, preacher after preacher used Biblical narratives to describe America’s special place in history. We can write off such scriptural deployments as distortions, but, as historian Mark Noll writes, “[I]t is not so easy to regard the use of the Bible in the country’s early history as simple ideological prostitution.” The Bible, Noll contends, came “to be read in terms dictated by the development of American nationalism.” Noll supports his case with quotation after quotation from period sermons, showing that the connection between politics and theology was not something that stayed outside the doors of the church.

Nineteenth-century hymnbooks also set aside special songs for “National Occasions.” An 1878 Methodist Hymnbook, for instance, includes a section dedicated to such occasions alongside songs about the seasons or marriage. The section begins with the tune to “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” Intriguingly, the book contains two different sets of verses for the tune: the well-known address to the country itself (“Of thee I sing…!”)  and an alternate set that prays to God for blessings (“For her our prayer shall rise”). The collection never approaches jingoism, however. Other songs ask that God pardon the nation’s sins and show mercy upon its inhabitants. In general, the songs resonate with Brad’s theology while showing that such songs had a place in corporate worship.

But there is something new about a 21st century church’s patriotic display; for while America’s churches have a longstanding connection to open displays of patriotism, the relationship between worship and patriotism has grown more fraught over the past decade. Peter C. Meilaender, Professor of Political Science at Houghton College, notes that “following the terrorist attacks of September 11, patriotism, for the first time in a long time, became fashionable in America.” That unified love of country didn’t last long, however. Splintered by G.W. Bush’s controversial foreign policy, the public has seen patriotism used like an inverted form of another polemical buzzword: “ideology.” You never wanted to admit you were under ideology’s grip; it held your opponent. Patriotism, however, gets used in the exactly opposite way. It has been good policy during the past decade to portray yourself as a patriot while claiming that your opponent hates the country. National pride, in short, became yet another way of delineating “us” and “them.” When combined with religious fundamentalism of America’s attackers, we had a citizenship-confusion powder-keg on our hands.

This patriotic tension played out against an increasingly hostile debate over the realms of church and state. Judges listened to cases on everything from the public display of the Ten Commandments to the inclusion of “under God” in the pledge to the flag. The confluence of these two cultural trends—the increasing importance of national pride and the Conservative Right’s sense that their religious heritage was being slighted—left the church as a secure place to combine an open love of country and Jesus. The church has provided a venue for the pomp and circumstance of religious patriotism that is no longer allowed in the public square.

I want to stress that the theological position Brad stakes out in “The Separation of Church and Patriotism” makes sense to me.

However, the evangelical church is in a bind. On the one hand, the weight of national tradition, so frequently appealing to conservatives, places a burden on those who seek to follow Brad’s advice. On the other, our current political climate has made the public performance of God-inflected patriotism more difficult.

It’s enough to make you cry out a line from one of the 1878 hymnal’s songs for “National Occasions”: “Give to us peace in our time, O Lord!”

About Jonathan Sircy

CLOSE | X

HIDE | X