Nationalism and Worship

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Nationalism and Worship Panel (Left to right): Wright, Maiden, Hummel, Bivins, Haberski and Turek

Martin Spence is Associate Professor of History at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He is writing for us this weekend at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association in New York City.  Enjoy his latest post.  –JF

This morning at ASCH I chaired a roundtable on Nationalism and Christian Worship. This gathering was my idea. It forms part of a project I am working on this year funded by the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. The grant is given as part of the CICW’s new Teacher-Scholar grant program that encourages scholars to find ways to connect their discipline, the study of Christian worship, and the practice of local worshipping communities. I have been doing various things during the grant year including reading good books on worship and nationalism, and starting to write a book of my own on Evangelicalism and Nationalism. I have also been working with Dr. Jim Samra, pastor of Calvary Church, Grand Rapids, to lead a church-based study group on the history and practice of nationalism and worship.

As a scholar whose main research interests focus neither on nationalism nor the United States I wanted to conduct a fact-finding mission to learn from experts in the field. The roundtable this morning was the result. I was very pleased with the top-flight team who assembled, and I learned much from their lively and multi-dimensional responses to my questions.

Lauren Turek (Trinity University, San Antonio TX) explored how Evangelicals have appropriated the internationalist language of human rights to serve nationalist ends, particularly in regard to construing the global campaign for religious freedom as a refraction of their own allegedly embattled place within American culture. Jason Bivins (North Carolina State University) picked up this theme of the imagined marginality of American Christians, and I look forward to his new book Embattled Majority which plots these issues in detail. Bivins also gave arguably one of the most passionate orations I have heard at an academic conference about the need for scholars to be plain-speaking prophets for these perilous times. Raymond Haberski Jr. (Indiana-Purdue University) reflected on the link between rhetoric and “operationality” of religious nationalist discourse, thinking particularly about the way in which Catholic just war theorists engaged the public sphere in the 1980s against a tendency toward ecclesial withdrawal from public life in the wake of the  Vietnam era.

Dan Hummel (University of Wisconsin-Madison) opened up the multivalent connection between worship and nationalism in regard to Christian Zionism, in particular the adoption of Jewish liturgical practices by Evangelical Christians. But he also wanted to warn against seeing Christian Zionism as simply a refraction of American nationalism, pointing us to the international nature of the Christian Zionist movement. Ben Wright (UT Dallas) explored the issue of national formation in the antebellum era, and affirmed the point made by some other panelists that nationalism differs across space and time, and is, to some extent, always a site of contest and evolution in which Christian communities have played strategic and varying roles. John Maiden (Open University, UK) offered a British perspective, arguing that the British Evangelical community has in one sense lost its older commitment to national religion (the 27% of Evangelicals that voted for Brexit stand in marked contrast to the 81% that voted for Trump), while retaining some of its imagery, particularly in regard to Britain’s special status and anti-Catholic rhetoric.

Several overarching themes emerged which I will want to reflect on further. First, a hunch I had developed going into this project received some affirmation. Nationalism, while on the one hand belligerent and self-satisfied, is in many ways fragile and uncertain. Indeed, its most strident manifestations may come from positions of weakness – or imagined weakness – as much as from strength. Second, the question was raised at several junctures concerning for whom the discourse of Christian nationalism is intended. Is Christian nationalist rhetoric primarily aimed at the Christian community, or is it directed to achieving defined goals within the nation-state? Third, I was interested in the relationship between individualism and community raised in the discussions, especially as this seems a very germane link with issues of worship. Is nationalism, especially in the American context, something experienced (ironically) in isolation or, at best, as a kind of personal experience of a cultural mood or sentiment? Or is it genuinely about community and civic engagement? This seems important as it connects with a standard critique of Evangelical worship that privileges sentiment and individual experience over the formation of an ekklesia. This leads me to the fourth reflection, which is the sense of moral imperative that several participants conveyed for the church to do better at helping Christians think and act well about these issues. Much of the literature on worship and liturgy stresses the educative function of worship. The question my whole project is asking this year is (a) whether churches are equipped to fulfill this function in a way that sufficiently addresses and overcomes the other powerful liturgies that form Christian identity and community within the national-state, and  (b) if, as I suspect, the answer is often not, then what role can Christian thinkers — including us Christian historians—have in helping the church “imagine the Kingdom” and “unmask the powers” more fully.

One question after the panel from an audience member reminded me of a question I also still want answered: are there any historical studies of when the flag when into the sanctuary, or when and why it left the building? Flags in sanctuaries seem to be a great example of what Michael Billig calls “banal nationalism” – the slow and almost unnoticeable daily drip-feed of national identity symbols. My only answer to the question is anecdotal. Perusing the minutes of a church in Grand Rapids I found that this particular church raised the flag in 1976—a symbolic date that requires no explanation. But it would be interesting to know if this was the start or just a renaissance of the flag in the sanctuary, and to explore the mechanisms that encouraged churches to hoist the flag in this year. Was there a concerted national campaign, or was it spontaneous local initiative? As the audience member suggested, it would be useful for those trying to encourage the removal of the flag from the sanctuary if historians could show the context and reasons it went in.