Full-blown “patriotic services” are held around every Fourth of July; productions almost like Christmas pageants in July for pomp and planning.
Performances of the military service hymns, color guards and red, white and blue bunting are required parts of the festivities. Neither the Democratic nor Republican conventions can compete for passion. Large churches sometimes ask a soldier – or someone playing one – to repel from the rafters. Flags wave ferociously.
In the past these were honest attempts to evangelize by reaching people who might not attend a regular service. Pastors probably deemed them successful given the sheer number of churches involved.
My discomfort with patriotic worship services culminated when visiting a church during vacation. The front of the auditorium was covered by an enormous American flag. Beneath the flag was the opening for the baptistry where the pastor baptized a new believer.
Under the American flag. With no cross in sight, I suppose it was covered by stripes. It was not surreal for me; it was troubling. The imagery was all wrong.
The first time I ever questioned the appropriateness of patriotism in worship was when I was doing mission work in Romania.
After I had learned the language and settled into ministry in a village church, I remember asking a pastor friend why we didn’t do a special service in December that celebrated Unification Day (Romania’s national holiday). I also wondered why the Romanian flag wasn’t in the sanctuary.
The pastor looked at me funny and then said: “The only way we’d bring a Romanian flag into our sanctuary is if we brought in flags from all over the world.”
“To show you do missions?” I said, trying to find a reference point from my own culture.
“No, to show we are the church.”
I think that Christians in all those places need to be careful about mixing their faith and worship with their patriotism and nationalism.
Sunday gatherings of believers are a microcosm of the Kingdom of God. For me, at their best, patriotic services celebrate baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet at the expense of Jesus Christ crucified and risen. At their worst they rehearse selective history, celebrate decisions of a man-made government, and blur the line between the kingdoms of man and the kingdom of God.
Sundays find followers of Jesus gathered celebrating His victory over sin, death, hell and the grave, not American victories at Iwo Jima, Normandy and Bastogne. We gather with the promise of a Prince of Peace whose return will not only render Valley Forge, Gettysburg, New Orleans, Normandy, Guadalcanal, Da Nang and Baghdad impossible; He will make them unneeded.
But with 53 percent of Americans still believing “God has a special relationship” with the United States, I am mystified. Among evangelicals 45 and older that figure is a staggering 71 percent. They may be the majority, but they will not read of National VIP status in heaven.
Hebrews 11:13, 14 records of the heroes of the faith:
They saw [God’s promises] from a distance, greeted them, and confessed that they were foreigners and temporary residents on the earth. Now those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. (HCSB)
Even Abraham, who journeyed to a plot of ground promised by God, lived there as an outsider, an alien.
By faith he stayed as a foreigner in the land of promise, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, coheirs of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. (Hebrews 11:9, 10, HCSB)
God’s kingdom isn’t defined by geo-political boundaries. Every nation, tribe, people and language contains its citizens. Followers of Jesus are like missionaries living with a green card in the country of God’s choosing.
Sing “The Star Spangled Banner” at baseball games, football games, Olympics parties, parades, on July 4, Memorial Day, Flag Day and Veterans Day. Erect a flag pole in your front yard, or angle one from the front door of your business. But churches should be distinct by divine decree, not by the Stars and Stripes.