On Christianity, Patriotism, and Christian Patriotic Music

On Christianity, Patriotism, and Christian Patriotic Music July 4, 2011

Happy 4th of July y’all. Today I thought I’d tackle a well-worn topic: Christianity, patriotism, and Christian patriotic music. Hopefully I can bring something new to this familiar discussion.
Most Christians don’t have a problem with saying the Pledge of Allegiance loudly and proudly, singing “God Bless America” in church, or giving a singing group a standing ovation in concert for a stirring patriotic number. However, there are some Christians who feel uncomfortable with demonstrating love and pride in America. They argue that since this country is neither our true home nor the primary object of our allegiance, patriotic emotion is misplaced, perhaps even bordering on idolatry. Consequently, patriotic songs should have no place in the church or in a concert by Christian singers.

Yet a third group of Christians will try to strike a balance by saying that we should not sing patriotic songs in church (even songs that make reference to God), but that patriotic emotion in general is a good and healthy thing. Dr. Russell Moore had a podcast a couple months ago suggesting this “compromise.” At first, I thought I might agree with him, but then I was reminded that our own church isn’t even evangelical and uses a very stodgy 1940 hymnal, but you can still find patriotic songs in there which we break out around national holidays. And in an evangelical context, there are already plenty of services with “themes” to them and a wide range of music in general. On reflection, it therefore doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to have a service with a “patriotic theme” in which songs like “God Bless the USA” and “America the Beautiful” are sung, perhaps as special music or perhaps with the congregation. As long as prayers to God for our country or the blessings of God on our country remain in focus, it can be an uplifting and appropriate thing, perhaps not unlike a Thanksgiving celebration.
However, I have now heard several different people use this illustration to demonstrate the possible down-side of mixing the patriotic with the sacred: Suppose that you are sitting in a concert or in a church service, and somebody sings a powerful song about the cross. Perhaps you see people nodding and taking in the lyric, perhaps singing along quietly, and applauding appreciatively when the song is finished. But for a patriotic song, it’s not uncommon to see people standing up and holding hands, becoming very emotional, loudly singing along if the song is familiar, and giving a rousing ovation at the song’s end. The conclusion is that something must be “wrong” with this picture. It shows that people are more easily stirred to emotion by thoughts of country than by thoughts of God, thereby illustrating that a patriotic song can “defeat the purpose of the gospel.”
I have a couple of problems with this line of argument. First of all, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with patriotism. Dr. Moore makes a good analogy to honoring one’s father and mother. It’s possible to become so obsessively disconnected from all acknowledgment of our country that we make ourselves the equivalent of children without an ancestor. It’s not a good thing to cut ourselves off from our roots. Once that happens, our own independence can become a kind of idol in itself. Of course, this is true in many areas.
But there’s another observation I’d like to make, and it’s this: Patriotic songs more naturally lend themselves to open, spontaneous emotional expression than many songs of the cross, even strong ones. When we hear a lyric about the cross, it encourages personal meditation and reflection. Each of us thinks about the price paid for his sin while he listens, if he’s listening attentively. The kind of joy we feel at that type of song may not necessarily be the kind that causes us to leap up and cheer. We may well be more inclined to stay in our seat and be quietly, thankfully joyful. However, a patriotic song stirs specific emotions within us that connect us with other people and inspire us to rise together. Some patriotic numbers have the added impact of a martial theme, which can bring along all sorts of standing/marching connotations with it. It’s a natural instinct. It makes sense. Also, I think it’s worth noting that a patriotic song will affect all Americans in basically the same way, while a deeply moving song about the cross can have a very different impact on each person in a group, depending on that person’s individual struggles. This naturally makes it more likely that you’re going to observe a concerted, massive response in response to a patriotic song. The thing to remember is that observable emotion by itself is not an end in itself, and we should be careful not to place too much weight on it.
I think that if you’re looking for strong crowd response to a specifically Christian song, it’s much more fair to go to a song like “These Are They” and compare. The reason is that this is also a song of country in its own way: It unites people not in earthly citizenship, but in heavenly citizenship. It nails all the same emotional places that a patriotic song would touch, just with a deeper meaning. For those of you concerned about overly enthusiastic crowd response to patriotic songs, I invite anyone to watch the two videos below and tell me whether you feel this crowd’s response to “These Are They” is any less dramatic or fervent than their response to this patriotic medley:

“These Are They”

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  • K Payne

    Wow! What a way to start a day when our Independence as a country is still being tested here and abroad. As Christians, it also seems that our spiritual freedoms are being slowly taken away through court cases and the over used line of ” separation of church and state” ( which still does not exist in the Constitution). Remember what this country was founded on and not take it for granted.

  • quartet-man

    Interesting read.

  • I know, it’s appalling. Whenever I say, “I love my country,” or “God bless America,” I have to remember that the government/evolving nanny-police state certainly isn’t being included in any of that!

  • Wilma Metcalf

    Thanks for posting this. I love the ” Together “video.
    Happy 4th. of July!

  • You’re welcome, and the same to you! The Together video is one of my favorite concert DVDs.

  • Wilma Metcalf

    EHSS & that GVB make one awesome group. My favorite of all the GVBands but EHSS is my all time favorite!

  • Beth

    Appreciate your thoughtful considerations, and I think you made good observations!

  • Thank you!

  • ontos1963

    Both are beautiful! This is how church and state can come together for the good of mankind.

  • Absolutely!
    It irks me when Christians start to buy into the “wall of separation” talk. It’s not even in the constitution for crying out loud! It was in some letter of Thomas Jefferson’s. Seriously!

  • How do you know Patriotism is not intrinsically wrong?

  • I think everything hinges on how you define “patriotism.” Is it a “my country, right or wrong” attitude? Or is it a love for everything good our country was founded on, and the remnant of that good that still remains?

  • Usually Patriotism is, at the basic understanding, ‘a love of country or nation-state’—Nationalism being its ugly maturity. But the underlying issue here is how Christians should respond. And I am not quite so sure it is obvious; nor is it quite obvious what our State stands for is ‘good.’These are things we happen to assume, by happenstance from our birth. Patriotism is a relatively new concept, as is Nationalism—so to our dismay, the Christian source of wisdom has not a word to speak on this, but only that there is no Jew nor Gentile—in terms standing. Of course, do not get me wrong here, I love America and its people. I love its energy and desire to preach the Gospel, even though it is often skewed by political and theological approaches, differences, and novelties— but the real issue here is being acutely aware of its dangers, and its ability to seep into the reading of the Scriptures, and thus creating a false Gospel—the American Gospel, or better known as American Exceptionalism. The question thus ends up being one about self-perception, are we American-Christians, or Christian Americans—Christians who happen to be living in America.

  • Well, there are certain objective respects in which America really is the best country in the world. Unless you can think of some other place you’d rather live. Mind you, our government is working hard to make sure it doesn’t stay that way for long, but at the moment, we still have the best economy and the most liberty (in the sense of liberties that are good to have, as in freedom of religion, speech, etc.)
    My guess is you would say we shouldn’t hold our breath when we say “God bless America,” because there’s no reason to expect Him to bless us more than any other country. I’m not sure I agree with that. Here’s how I put it on a different blog once:
    “It is true that we have no continuing city here, and it is true that as Christians we are strangers in a strange land. Yet at the same time, I believe God still loves this land, and I believe we can still love it too… because of the people who have made and are continuing to make her great. ‘Why does God spare us?’ people might ask. I answer that he spares us for the sake of Ronald Reagan, and Judge Moore, and many more like them.”

  • That of course depends on what we mean by the ‘good’ :). When I say good, I do not mean anything in the sense of ‘standard of living;’ but ‘moral goods;’ and more specifically yet, I mean this in a Christian-Theological-Ethical sense. And again, while I may not disagree with aspects of ‘liberties’ you speak of, or perhaps being ‘the best place to live’…maybe— we beg the question some more! Because of our happenstance, notice what you stated: Our forms of ‘liberty’ or the ones that matter! Of course, not everyone holds to this, and not everyone has held to this, and I’d say the strong majority in history’s past has not! Including Paul the Apostle… We of course could ask if we truly have the most liberty! But this again depends upon what levels of liberty we’re talking about and what we mean by this.
    You are correct, I do not believe ‘Godblesses America;’ and there is no reason to hold to this. This was conjured up after the French and Indian Wars as we drifted towards conflict with England, and further unpacked in 2nd Great Awakening, in our attempt to fasten together a National-Identity ex-nihilo. We eisegetically took this from Puritan Theology in order to do this; but we forget that material blessings do not entail a Spiritual blessing or a blessing for being good children: Rome, Babylon, Persia, Greece, and many others. The Bible also does not have a coherent message on material wealth—as it is all contingent upon certain things—or seems to be— and ours seems to be contingent upon the grave injustices we’ve committed (slavery, Indians, and war). Remember, the theological principles laid out by Christ, the last shall be first and the first shall be last, and blessed are the meek!
    The adage should be: ‘God bless the Church and its witness to the Nations!’

  • I should add, no reason to believe ‘Godbless America’ in a special sense, or in the sense prevalent in America’s history!

  • Well I don’t believe that “liberty” with no further specifics is automatically a good. For example, I don’t think anybody has a “right” to free love or free drugs, etc. And I scorn the people who use “freedom of speech” arguments to say that pornography shouldn’t be taboo. But I’m talking about, for example, the right to criticize the government, the right to worship as a Christian, or the right to hold conscientious objections to immoral policies. You can’t deny that we’re an improvement on North Korea, or communist China! Like I said, the government is trying to change the status quo on these kinds of things, but it hasn’t happened yet.
    As for wealth, I don’t think there’s something evil about a free market economy. When I see somebody who’s become rich and successful, I say, “More power to his elbow,” and more importantly, I recognize that he’s contributing something very valuable to the market, because it increases the distribution of goods and services and creates jobs for many other people. Now, is it possible for any given person to be greedy and materialistic? Absolutely. But that’s just human nature. It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with a flourishing economy.
    I think it’s a very misguided view of history to say that our free market economy is a direct result of our committing grave injustices. That just puzzles me. Slavery and Indians have no bearing on what our economy has been doing for the last century. As for war, if anything the various wars we’ve engaged in have been terrible practical decisions (particularly recently—if we go back to WWII, that was certainly a necessary war).

  • Well this brings us further down the path of questions—what is a ‘right?’ And how do we determine what we have a ‘right’ to?
    I never mentioned the words ‘free market,’ nor ‘wealth being an evil.’ What I am pointing to is what I meant by the words ‘good,’ and that we often associate ‘American causes’ as being the good and righteous cause, morally and justly that is— and this of course, entails questions of what a ‘moral good’ is. Whether a country is wealthy materially or not, does not necessarily flow into the ‘good,’ I am talking about. So, when I say what I said above, ”nor is it quite obvious what our State stands for is ‘good.’’ This entails a whole list of questions, and not just ‘our standards of living’—- unless our standards of living are at the expense of others….uh oh!
    I never said our free market system is the result of grave injustices. What I am saying though, is that our wealth is, or at least —-has been a result of…Where did we get our land from which allowed us to be as materially wealthy as we were? Let me ask you this, was the slave trade profitable? Did it put money in peoples pockets—and did it not allow for a virtually free labor force to reap a massive harvest of cotton that placed the South as the leading cotton producer during the 1800s? Where do our current goods come from? Are they produced by cheap under-paid labor—meanwhile the corporation is reaping in the big bucks? How about Philip Morris who provided a cost/benefit analysis to various governments trying to clamp down on tobacco sales; and showed that it would actually be a monetary gain for a government to keep tobacco products selling! These sorts of things factor into economics dear friend, and to say they don’t, is just economic ignorance! As far as war goes, that all depends on what sort of viewpoint you take here. As a Non-violent Christian, I do not think war is ‘necessary,’ nor the Christian calling; and I think as non-violent resistance movements that have taken place in the last 100years have shown, including in Nazi-Germany. The opportunity was there to deal with Hitler without violence, and it was done successfully. The problem was with the patriotic-Church of Germany, who took Romans 13 out of context, ignoring Romans 12, and of course Christ’s non-violent resistance. But the virtues of Just War Theory, and potential of Christian Non-violence is another topic for another time. Just note, that WW2 is probably the only war in American history that can fit the Jus ad Bellum, but certainly not the Jus in Bello of Just War theory—it of course, along with Hitler, is the bane of Christian Non-violence—although this can be dealt with theologically, and thus, perhaps not quite so necessary! So pointing to the minority case of war in American history, is probably not a good idea, considering the other wars and…’undeclared’ and therefore not officially war but in reality are wars–wars. As far as the misguided view of history comment is concerned, not to bolster myself up, or to create an argument from authority, but I actually am a trained historian, with an academic degree in history.

  • “I actually am a trained historian, with an academic degree in history.”
    Considering that our universities’ history departments went to pot long ago, that doesn’t necessarily make me feel better. 😉

  • In which, I would disagree with this statement, and note its being filled with logical fallacy. And then I will revert you back to the question I posted earlier: Did the slave trade produce economically?

  • With “logical fallacy” you’re straying into my territory, which is philosophy. You don’t seem to understand what a fallacy is. It means there is some flaw in my reasoning. Now you can disagree with any of the premises (e.g. that our universities’ history departments are going to pot), but that’s a separate thing. There’s no fallacy involved in reasoning from the premise that our system has gone to the dogs to the conclusion that I’m pessimistic about hearing anything sensible from a product of that system. And in this particular instance, my pessimism is confirmed by the fact that a lot of what you’re saying doesn’t make much sense.

  • Ah… luckily for you, this is also my territory. I am also an academically trained philosopher; you don’t have to just get one degree and stay in one filed you know ;-)! And you should note that this is a fallacy; perhaps one of ad hominem?—a way for you to dismiss my statement, by noting that history departments have failed—And therefore “I shouldn’t take you seriously!” Of course, that can be true, and yet also be true that the American economic wealth has been, or at least partly been built upon the backs of slaves. Or would you also prefer a generalization fallacy? I can’t trust this guy, I mean after all, history departments all over have dropped the ball! With what evidence do you make this comment?! Which is what philosophers thrive on! Evidence! Argumentation!!? You know it can be true that some history departments have, while others haven’t right?
    If you can’t see the sense in what I am saying, I would then venture into the land of fallacy and question the level of philosophical training you possess, and/or the academic institution you attend. This is further demonstrated by how you interpret what I meant by ‘good,’ and your continual focus on material wealth—without seeming to bat an eye at the other types of ‘good’ there are, and of course that ‘success’ doesn’t measure goodness. I mean, you do know what Just War Theory is right? And what it covers and whats needed for a war to be just? I don’t want to sound rude, nor do I care to take this into the land of credentials since at some levels those do not matter. But I am generally not a fan of someone telling me I am wrong, when they clearly, at the most basic level, have no idea what they are talking about. So in order to stay clear of this wheel spinning land, let me ask you again as plainly as I can!
    Did slavery produce material wealth, in all its various forms, for those that bought and sold slaves from Africa? Was slave labor from Africa, the staple labor source for the American South, during its heyday of cash crops (tobacco, cotton, sugar)?

  • I would also add that you beg the question. You just assert history departments went to pot long ago, without anything to back that up.

  • Not all history departments are corrupted, but most are. One need only peruse standard secular textbooks, or read what passes for “scholarly” work among historians today, or observe the warped perspective on history that prevails among contemporary teachers/journalists, etc. Essentially, liberals want to distort history to fit their particular agenda, be it Afro-centrism, feminism, socialism, or what have you. Now, presumably you would not self-identify as a liberal. But in that case, you should recognize the phenomenon I’m describing. The fact that you seem to be oblivious to it, or at the very least playing dumb, isn’t exactly helping your case.
    I think I’ve made it quite clear that I recognize the distinctions among different types of “good” and that one kind doesn’t necessitate the other. Obviously I don’t believe the ends always justify the means, and I consider slavery to be a moral evil. However, it doesn’t have any particular relevance to our country today (except insofar as it’s used as a political weapon to bully whites). It certainly has zero contemporary economic relevance. Hence, I’m not sure why you chose to bring it into the conversation. If you simply wanted to demonstrate that the ends don’t always justify the means, well, I agree. What is there to discuss?
    Yes, I’m very familiar with Just War theory. I am not a pacifist, but I’m also a realist, and I recognize that some wars in our country’s history have been more profitable/advisable/justified than others. But since you approach war with a wholly different philosophy, I’m not sure how profitable continued conversation on the topic would be.
    I’m not going to comment on your consistent misuse of technical philosophical terms, since it would be a waste of time and patience on my part.
    Now, if you’d like to go ahead and have the last word here, it’s fine with me. But there doesn’t seem much use in continuing to debate beyond this point. Thanks for commenting.

  • *Sigh* Here we go…that good ol’ liberal conspiracy theory stuff again—Not fruitful for any discussion— lets just create a label to ignore what one doesn’t accept, even when the label doesn’t pertain to what I said–since the fact slavery did benefit the US economically cannot be ignored–unless again, you want to argue slavery did not bring any sort of wealth into the system. I am quite familiar with the schools of historical interpretation—i.e. the ones you list above, among others— However, I very much doubt you know how these schools of interpretations work… you know, you don’t have to be a Socialist to be from the Marxist interpretation, right? Nor do you have to be an all-out feminist to take a feminist interpretation. Tell me, which school do I belong to here? As far as playing dumb to anything, I haven’t—this is the first time in this discussion I’ve been presented with the opportunity to potentially give my take on the various interpretations of history— There is a vast difference between saying ‘history has different styles of interpretation, and some flawed’ from what you stated: ‘history went to pot long ago.’ Again, at best, some interpretations may ‘have gone to pot long ago,’ but not all have, nor are all historians among some of the schools you ‘fear.’
    I do think you missed the distinction— when I initially stated that it isn’t quite obvious that what we stand for is ‘good’— your immediate response was to bring in opaque notions as ‘liberty’—‘well our Country’s view of liberty,’ and your view of ‘what liberties really matter,’ and our ability to tangibly measure our standard of living/economy—which again, begs the question and assumes things and at least up front, don’t count as the ‘good.’ As far as slavery and Indian lands are concerned— of course they have to do with today’s economy—unless you want to disconnect history in a ‘misguided’ way?—Only you brought up ‘contemporary economy,’ which is itself vague—like today today, or the last 30years, 50years, 100years?? Are you meaning to say that God only blessed America in contemporary history? When I talk about God not blessing America in any sort of ‘special’ sense, I mean this since the beginning of America. Not just in a contemporary sense—which is what you’ve been, for some unknown reason, focusing on. So why does slavery and stealing the Native lands matter today, because you cannot get to today without getting through yesterday my friend, and all that stuff happened yesterday. One aspect of our economic size comes from our vastness! Would you not agree with that? And where did our vastness come from? Does this mean when you make a purchase, or buy a stock, you are supporting slavery from the past? No…unless the company you buy from is. What it does mean though, is that our Country is the way it is today, because of certain causes and events; and among those causes is slavery.
    As far as Just War theory is concerned; I brought it up because you keep saying things as if they are accepted and obvious, and that they clearly aren’t— WW2 isn’t quite obviously a necessary war. Well I have a different theology—not just philosophy! I believe New Testament teaching is non-violent.
    I don’t think I’ve misused any technical term here, if so where? Did you not hand wave my assessment away as misguided, not even dealing with the economics of slavery, and upon further learning that I am a ‘historian’ by training, further dismiss what I’ve stated based upon the ‘obvious’ failures of history departments all across America, instead of engaging with what I wrote? If this isn’t a fallacy of many strips, then you’re right, I have no idea what a fallacy is!
    That is fine, no reason to continue with this, unless we change up the pace of this—but I hope I’ve stirred the philosophical ‘anxious-wonderment’ in you to further probe why I hold what I hold!