Many churches this Sunday will be transformed into sanctuaries for nationalism and worship of a nation.
There will be patriotic hymns sung. There will be sermons about the greatness of the country.
But there will also be churches where flags will be conspicuously absent, where the faithful will be called upon to worship something greater than country and pledge their devotion to something larger than a nation.
Still more will fall somewhere in between, toeing a line between honor of country and honor of God. Now, I’ve got my own ideas about how churches should handle the idea of patriotism and the Fourth of July — by honoring all those dissenting voices (often inspired by Christian faith) over the centuries that have dragged the nation closer to embodying its stated values of equality and justice — from achieving suffrage and abolition to ending Jim Crow and marriage discrimination based on sexuality. You can listen to Mark Sandlin and I talk about those ideas on our latest episode of The Moonshine Jesus Show.
But there’s no denying the Fourth of July is a touchy subject in American Christianity. And more than few folks might walk out of their sanctuary believing their clergy got it wrong this year. Some might want to talk about the ideals of the nation. Others like myself are more inclined to notice the ways it falls short of those same ideals in its treatment of indigenous people, people of color, immigrants, LGBTQ+ persons, and more. The greatness and wealth we so often hear lionized on the Fourth was built through the exploitation of indigenous people and lands, on the backs of black slaves.
It’s worth asking, then: What exactly does this common kind of patriotism look like to those being oppressed and marginalized?
Considering it’s with these people Jesus explicitly identifies in the gospels, perhaps looking at patriotism through that lens might actually be a faithful way to approach the Fourth.
But, ultimately, the problem with injecting the Fourth of July into Sunday worship services in any way whatsoever is that it’s a holiday whose center is wholly political and national. As fellow Patheos blogger Benjamin Corey notes as well, It fails to call us to something beyond ourselves as worship should but instead encourages us to celebrate ourselves. It fails to call us beyond our borders to a place where God is.
In the end, Frederick Buechner might frame the shaky intersection of patriotism and Christian faith best when he writes:
The only patriots worth their salt are the ones who love their country enough to see that in a nuclear age it is not going to survive unless the world survives. True patriots are no longer champions of any one country in particular, but champions of the human race. It is not the homeland that they feel called on to defend at any cost, but the planet earth as home.