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.