Mission Lab

Patriotism in church?

July 3rd, 2018 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor in Chief / comments

Jonathan Leeman, writing at The Gospel Coalition, has well-expressed a rising discomfort with patriotic celebrations in our churches. After reading his column here, you may be more compelled by his opinion than mine. But let me take a shot at counterpoint.

You’ve no doubt sat through elaborate musical presentations that feature the flag, the U.S. military and traditional patriotic songs. I agree that some of those are over the top. Some of them are over the top for even non-theological reasons, unless you consider taste and restraint theological imperatives. But I digress. Are such displays, volume or cheesiness aside, inherently inappropriate, or as Leeman would suggest, against the Great Commission? I think they are not inherently wrong; such expressions of patriotism can be honoring to God and edifying to our gospel mission.

I have sat in several congregations where the worship was conducted in a language that left me recognizing only the occasional “Moses” or “Jesus Christ.” Sometimes, the songs were completely unrecognizable and even sung in quarter tones—odd to the Western ear. The cultural trappings of such worship are based on a history, preference and religious background unfamiliar to me. The Jordanians sang and preached as if they were from Jordan, the Sudanese as if from Sudan and the Russians as if from Russia. I was aware of my outsider status and didn’t mind them being the home team. I never forgot that we came from different places and I never forgot the one Lord we had in common. I couldn’t tell you from memory if those worship spaces featured flags of their respective countries. In the event that you did not follow the Gospel Coalition link, I say this in answer to one of the objections Brother Leeman brings to this issue: A brother or sister from another country, say one that finds American policy less than a blessing, would be left out or even offended by what he sees as “bringing the national in” to our worship. No doubt he’s right that some will take offense, even someone who was born and raised here. My question is whether or not he should find a carefully considered patriotic presentation inherently off-putting. How harshly should he judge those who disagree?   

What are we saying when we sing patriotic songs in church?

  • We are thanking God for his provision of a country that has been a general positive good for the world for at least 100 years. The ideals of America, imperfectly lived out, have to this day also been used of God for kingdom purposes—the spread of the gospel, the doing of justice and the application of mercy to millions.
  • We are thanking him for providing leaders who, willingly or unwillingly, serve our communities, families and churches by their work. This is a takeaway from Romans 13 and 1 Timothy 2:1-2.
  • We are expressing honor and gratitude to those leaders who, however imperfectly, serve us.
  • We are acknowledging the legacy of those who have gone before. We can see better than they the good they did on our behalf. We see it in our laws, our ideals, the courage and ingenuity of those who built and preserved our country, and in the religious liberty that allows us to choose to put or not put an American flag in the corner of the choir loft.    

 

What are we not saying (or a least should not be saying)?

  • Our national identity is primary. We are citizens of a heavenly kingdom, literally. I have more in common with Jordanian Christians who sing and preach in a language I do not understand at all than I do with the lost guys I went to high school with. 
  • America is God’s uniquely chosen nation. He has a purpose for our country, as he does for other countries, and for their leaders. God has used America in unique ways but that says nothing about our inherent virtue or the plans of God for tomorrow.
  • We worship our flag or the heritage is represents. I don’t know anyone who does this but it is a stereotype of patriotic Christians that we worship the flag, the nation or a political party. I understand the point they are making but that attitude is rare and I join in saying it is idolatry.

 

This should not be the place where I call you unpatriotic or you call me idolatrous, though some have gone to just those extremes in this discussion. Some of it is a matter of personal taste; some I suspect is a matter of eschatology. In any case, a touch of forbearance, even grace could make such a difference tolerable (Leeman also makes this point). I’d also add that not everyone who is comfortable with a flag on the stage or “God bless America” on Independence Day is advocating for a civil religion. Maybe your church will do something this weekend that makes you squirm a little (as any church will occasionally do) but not everyone will be as uncomfortable as you. Maybe hesitate to make assumptions about the theological depth or Great Commission sincerity of those who enjoyed it more than yourself.