Did your church have a patriotic worship service yesterday?
I know a lot of churches will pause to give thanks for their country or acknowledge veterans on the 4th of July weekend. I am not a fan of this, but I accept it as part and parcel of the American Christian experience. Anything that goes beyond this kind of brief patriotic pause gets dangerously close to idolatry. Fireworks and flag-waving are not brief patriotic pauses.
If the response to my recent First Baptist–Dallas post is any indication, it looks like a lot of Christians agree with me.
On the other hand, if what I watched on Saturday night at The Kennedy Center is any indication, it looks like a lot Christians do not agree with me.
I appreciate the perspective of Stephanie Wheatley (aka “Dr. Crazy Cat Lady“), a religion professor at Oklahoma State. Here is a taste of her recent post “Why I Don’t Do ‘Patriotic’ Worship Services“:
We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however. Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag). Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July. My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation. To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message. Second, idolatry becomes a real problem. Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst.
Don’t believe me? Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately. Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.” I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ. Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.” While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal. In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God. Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.
Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it? The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach. It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots). This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over. In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity. Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion. Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths. Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.
Read the entire post here.