Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Some Thoughts on Independence Day

Photo from Max Pixel
Today on our nation’s birthday, I will spend some time in gratitude for the wonderful country that is the United States. I will not, however, spend any time conflating God and country. The one is a natural human response that anyone might have for his or her homeland while the other is a dangerous move toward the idolatry of nationalism. That danger of conflating faith and patriotism came home to me last Sunday when we sang the soul-stirring "America the Beautiful" in church.

Brian McLaren has a brief discussion this week on his blog regarding the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Also this week, Johnathan Aigner, on his church music blog, Ponder Anew, illustrates some of the danger in linking love of country with worship of God.

God and Country?

My own conflict came to light for me many years ago when I was a Baptist seminary student. I was in school in Mill Valley, just north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge – a beautiful environment for learning. While in school, I was involved in youth ministry in a nice suburban church in Novato, California, which is further up U.S. Highway 101 in northern Marin County. 

One Sunday, right before the choral anthem, the pastor (a fine man who had given me some excellent guidance and advice) called for us all to recite the Pledge of Allegiance (it was on the Sunday that fell just before Independence Day). One of my best friends even went up to hold the U.S. flag. In all fairness, my friend was in the military reserves and several in the congregation were military as well. I am sure that they, like many other of my Baptist colleagues, saw no conflict. I, on the other hand, felt like I had been delivered an unexpected side-blow.

During that time of worship which I saw as a time for contemplation and the turning of one’s attention toward God, I was suddenly called upon to stand in allegiance to my country. Of course, I was proud of my country – and patriotic – but to me, in that setting, in that sacred space, the worship of God took precedence over all else. 

I had first begun to parse out the difference between love of God and love of country when I was a freshman in college. I learned in my Western Civilization class about how St. Augustine saw the necessity of reassuring the faithful that their faith need not be devastated by the fact that the Roman Empire was falling apart. He set it all out in his written work, The City of God. It occurred to me that just like those earlier times when Rome and the Church were seen as inseparable, we American Christians too often were conflating God and country. 

The way I framed it for myself then, trying to follow Augustine’s lead, was that if I did not fully separate my faith in God from my love of country, then my faith might not hold up if my country were to fail. More important, I might not properly distinguish the demands of faith vs. the demands of citizenship.

Taking it to the Classroom

It just so happened that in seminary that semester I was taking a field supervision class which met every week to examine issues we were experiencing in church ministry. I brought my dilemma to the group – of having faced the inner conflict of having to say the Pledge of Allegiance in the context of Christian worship. 

In the discussion that ensued, some were surprised that I would have such a conflict. One person said that he saw patriotism as a Christian duty. "What about Vacation Bible School?" someone else countered, "we always lead the children in the Pledge of Allegiance there, in church, while teaching kids the Bible." Another said that I was sounding more like a Jehovah’s Witness than a Baptist (Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in saluting the flag or pledging allegiance to the United States since their duty and allegiance should be to the Kingdom of God). 

Later in the week, one of my classmates stopped me to offer a word of encouragement and expressing admiration that I “put myself out there on the line” in the group discussion. I had not seen anything “heroic” in my questions, I was simply bringing forth my own honest discomfort and conflict that had occurred during a time of worship.

A Young Country and an Old Faith

Since those days, I have parted from my Southern Baptist heritage for many reasons. Nevertheless, it remains ironic to me that a group that has made the separation of church and state one of its hallmarks should have conflated God and Country so that the line between patriotism and faith is practically indistinguishable. Our great country is, after all, not even 250 years old while the Christian faith is over 2,000 years old. 

Though I have not been in a position of having to say the Pledge of Allegiance during worship in the intervening years, I still witness the unexamined conflation of God and country, as in the case I mentioned earlier with using "America the Beautiful" as a closing hymn in church. During that service last Sunday, I closed my hymnal and remained silent throughout the hymn. I listened, wondering if perhaps I could make that a prayer for country rather than an exaltation of nationalism in the context of worship. I decided, no, that would be a stretch.  It is a beautiful song that I prefer even over the National Anthem, but for me it does not belong in church.

Love for Country and Peace among Nations

(The following is from a Monday Music post on this blog last year)


The tune "Finlandia" was composed by Jean Sebelius and has been used for other hymns ("Be Still My Soul" is one example). "This Is My Song," by Lloyd Stone, was written when the poet was 22 years old. It was after WWI and the song is a beautiful example of having love for one's country while recognizing the need for peace among the nations. The song is performed here by Indigo Girls.






                    This is my song, O God of all the nations,
                    a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
                    this is my home, the country where my heart is;
                    here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
                    but other hearts in other lands are beating
                    with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

                    My country's skies are bluer than the ocean,
                    and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
                    but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
                    and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
                    O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
                    a song of peace for their land and for mine.

                                                                       ~ Lloyd Stone



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2 comments:

  1. I agree 100% with your thoughts here, Charlie. Interesting, another friend of mine posted This is My Song on FB as a good example of a patriotism that extended to love of all people around the world. I was just talking to someone the other day about preschool kids being asked to say the Pledge of Allegiance--I see that as pointless, and dislike schools using the Pledge every day. It loses all its meaning and to me resembles totalitarian countries' notions of loyalty more than true American citizenship. But that aside, a religious service is definitely NOT the place for patriotic displays. It's too bad Baptists, of all denominations, can't figure that out. Left wing of the Reformation, remember? Fighting against state-endorsed religion!

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  2. I agree with your word. I served I. The military and I consider myself patriotic, but not at church. That space is for more sacred work.
    R

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