Flags of Our Father? Patriotism, Worship,and Knowing the Difference

Yesterday, a great many American Christians gathered for worship just as they do on the other fifty-one Sundays of the year. But with one notable difference. For many, Baptists and Evangelicals in particular, it was a day marked by ostentatious displays of national patriotism. Flags lined the aisles and claimed pride of place upon pulpits; patriotic songs, ballads, and anthems took the place of the regular hymns; speeches rendering tribute to the glories of our country were given; prayers for God to “bless the U.S.A” were incorporated into the liturgies; sermons which roused a sense of national honor were offered; all of this culminating with a eucharistic celebration of grilled hot dogs and homemade ice cream. 

This seemed most proper for most since this was the Sunday nearest July, 4th, our national Day of Independence. The majority of those Christians who gathered to heap laurels upon Uncle Sam and salute the Grand Ole Flag thought that they were doing what any good, red-blooded, American Christian should do. To those thoughtful believers who reasoned that yesterday was but a felicitous occasion to thank the Almighty for the providential blessing of living in a nation where we can enjoy such freedoms, I admit that I am sympathetic. I am not writing this to impugn their motives. Our nation is unique and it behooves us to express gratitude for the peculiar grace of God which affords us the privilege of calling it home. 

Of course, there are countless others who could not be characterized as thoughtful or reasonable souls who gathered for the occasion to pledge their allegiance to the flag without any consideration of the propriety of the circumstances simply because they never care about propriety in matters of worship. For them, worship services revolve around their tastes and preferences. These unthinking persons should be roundly condemned by all parties. That said, they are not the ones whom I seek to address. 

Rather, I offer some considerations for those who wish to properly esteem the normative role of Holy Scriptures in the life of the Church, the virtues of the Great Tradition, the clear expression of Christian doctrine, and the proper place of godly patriotism. I offer criticism as one who believes that each of these is morally and spiritually good.  

My concern has nothing to do with whether or not America should be celebrated. I am not of those who would decry any semblance of robust nationalism. I have written in defense of such ideas elsewhere, so I won’t take the time to do so again. Suffice it to say that the following should be received as the faithful wounds of a friend rather than the deceitful kisses of an enemy. Moreover, I have no desire to become an enemy simply because I present what I believe to be the truth of the matter. 

There are many critics who are up in arms today over those “patriotic worship services” simply because they do not like America. They are liberal globalists who believe that our nation is the source of every evil which afflicts the world at large. They recoil at any thought of American greatness, let alone American exceptionalism. They believe in the depths of their beings that we are a nation of bigots and racists who owe everyone everything because we have nothing that we have not pillaged and plundered from the colored peoples of the earth. Of course they reject the presence of the American flag in the Church. They resent the presence of that flag anywhere! They are averse to red, white, and blue because their hearts are largely lit with the hues of a pale yellow. This is high folly.  

Their arguments must not be confused with those of us who are neither liberals nor America-bashers. If in this case we happen to be arguing for the same practical end, then it is but a case of serendipity. We certainly haven’t exchanged ideas—we aren’t really on speaking terms. 

As previously stated, I grant that the motivation for a patriotic worship service may stem from a wholesome desire. It is good and right to pray for those who are in authority. In the Anglican tradition of which I am a part, prayers for our president, governor, and other federal and state leaders are a part of our liturgy every Lord’s Day. Paul admonished us to pray for all kinds of people, especially kings and those that bear the responsibility of rule and authority. To pray faithfully for such leaders is but humble obedience.  

However, if the Sunday nearest the Fourth of July is the only time this happens then the problem is not an overweening patriotism or an attempt at holding the high ground with regard to biblical fidelity. Rather, it bespeaks the presence of a liturgy that is defective fifty-one other weeks of the year. I would urge such folks to tighten up. They need the prayers, and you need the practice. Pray for those that have the rule over you regularly, and that without ceasing.  

Most of those who held special services yesterday did so in the presence of patriotic songs and anthems. Granting that any discussion on music in worship places one in a veritable minefield, I step lightly and with care. I am not taking the time and pains here to argue about instrumentation, whether or not contemporary tunes are appropriate, or any of the usual third-rail issues. My concern is with the shape of the liturgy and the way in which it shapes everything else.  

The traditional music of the Church is unapologetically theocentric, rendering the honor and glory due His Name, as we seek to worship our Maker in the beauty of holiness. The way in which music is ordered in worship orders our thoughts, orders our hearts, and thus orders all actions which proceed from our wills. For this reason, our songs have historically centered on God’s person and works. That is, we move in our sung worship from who God is in Himself to what God has done in creation, providence, redemption, and will do in the consummation.  

Typically, we open with songs of invocation which focus us upon the nature and character of God. Think here of songs like the Sanctus, or Te Deum, or Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise. Beginning in this way orients are hearts and minds in a godward direction, leaving no question as to the center of our worship, affections, and allegiances. Each song should be carefully chosen to excite certain passions, and direct those passions to their proper object in the heavenlies. However, if we begin a worship service with My Country Tis of Thee, then we have done more than simply select an alternative invocation hymn—we have mishapen the liturgy in such a way that it directs our gaze away from the heavenlies, excites passions for an object unworthy of them in this particular setting, robs God of the homage due Him (which He is loathed to share with another), and recasts the direction in which the entirety of the service is to move. No longer are we moving away transitory things to things eternal, now we are moving in the opposite direction. Formerly, we would have been ascending to the courts of God where we would join that innumerable company of saints; the general assembly and the Church of the Firstborn; myriad angels in festal gathering; the spirits of just men made perfect; to the blood of sprinkling that speaks a better word than the earthly speech of Abel; to Jesus Christ the mediator of the everlasting covenant; and to God, the Judge of All.  But now we are moving away from Mount Zion to “purple mountains” and “fruited planes.”

Destinations matter. For that reason, direction matters. Now, if your argument is that you don’t believe that worship services actually lead us anywhere, or that they don’t really take us anywhere, then we are at an impasse. I would say that your whole theology of worship could use some serious reconsideration.  

But perhaps you would argue that you are in fundamental agreement on the larger points. Your concern would be that I am misunderstanding the nature of the patriotic songs. Perhaps you would argue that they are intrinsically God-centered and are but prayers rendered in musical form. While I cannot grant their inherent theocentricity, I would not dare argue against the latter proposition. Songs are prayers. And as such must be thoroughly conformed to Holy Scripture and sound theology. At times we have to put up with bad praying. We may, for instance, allow Uncle Reuben to offer an extemporaneous prayer in which he thanks God the Father for dying on the cross and giving us the opportunity to not get caught pulling a quick one on the tax man so we could get that new Mercedes. It happens. I know all too well. But what we do not do is canonize Uncle Reuben’s poor prayer by setting it to music and adding our collective “amen” to it by singing it right before the Apostles’ Creed.  

This is not to say that there are not any good “patriotic” hymns. This is only to admit that those are not the ones we tend to choose and sing. I would have few criticisms if the majority of churches had chosen to sing, O God of Earth and Altar, rather than God Bless America. Whereas the former seeks to take an honest accounting of what nations are and what they do, and seeks the aid of God in humble repentance and joyful expectation; songs like the latter are shallow pretenders to hymnody that do little more than function as a salve for a wounded patriotism. There is a greater balm, and better songs to extol its healing virtues.  

From songs, to flags, to speeches, to sermons, all of the emphasis was on America. God was thanked for being the benevolent facilitator. After all, He did bring forth this wonderful nation, and blessed us to be partakers of its inestimable privileges. But one wonders if this isn’t all just a little bit backwards. Corporate worship is never the time to raise the stature of lesser gifts so as to obscure the Unspeakable Gift. The Lord’s Day is a time that we must scrupulously guard for the sake of rendering unto God that which belongs to Him alone. Sundays are not the time for trying to clumsily balance allegiances between Christ and Caesar.  

Love your neighbor as yourself. But during the Divine Service all neighbors must take a back seat to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Husbands, love your wives. Wives, love your husbands. But do not seek to sing again your nuptial vows during the Trisagion. Love your children. But do not attempt to establish a family play time between the breaking of the bread and the offering of the cup. The issue isn’t whether or not love and honor should be displayed. It is a matter of propriety. There is a time and a place to celebrate every good and wholesome blessing. Celebrate your neighbors at barbecues and block-parties, celebrate your children at ballgames and camping trips, celebrate your spouse in the bedroom, and celebrate your Creator on His day in His house. 

The issue is propriety. No argument for loving your neighbor will alleviate the confusion that will arise if you attempt to celebrate the neighbor down the street in your spousal chamber. And no well-meant patriotic zeal removes the difficulties that attend a service in which God has to share the courts of Zion with Uncle Sam. Not only would that be rude, frankly it would be unamerican. It is we Americans who are against unlawful quartering in houses not ours. Selah. 

In conclusion, I would like to mention again those things which have surely been forgotten by now. I love America. I am not a globalist. I think flags should be flown most everywhere—usually right next to the gun racks. I think there is a time and a place to celebrate the privileges of this nation. I think it is good to sing songs which display a hearty patriotism. I believe that there is no greater country on the face of God’s good earth than the one in which I was born, raised, and from which I will go to meet my Maker. But the House of God serves One Lord for one holy purpose.  

There should be a flag flying before the altar at all times—the bloodstained banner of Jesus Christ. And it will brook no rivals. There should be anthems of allegiance echoing through its hallowed halls on a weekly basis—and they should name a solitary King and one unshakeable kingdom. As we gather with saints from across all times and places, both in heaven and on the earth, we should rally around our common citizenship as residents of the New Jerusalem until the day when we march on those twelve gates, bringing our peculiar national gifts of glory to further adorn the walls of our mutual home. Uncle Sam will just have to learn to sit in the pew with the rest of us, remembering his baptism, singing of his Redeemer, kneeling in confession, receiving absolution, praying for his countrymen, partaking of the Body and Blood of our Lord, and awaiting the restoration of all things.

But that is way of God, and it is enough. 

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