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The “Star-Spangled Banner” in church? Some Christians are questioning the mix of patriotism and God

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Patriotic church services this time of year were so common in the early republic that the Episcopal Church’s national convention in 1786 resolved that “the Fourth of July shall be observed by this church forever, as a day of Thanksgiving to almighty God for the inestimable blessings of Religious and Civil Liberty vouchsafed to the USA,” according to a book about the denomination.

Over the centuries, what it meant to celebrate July 4 in church has changed and been debated. In recent years, the debate has been especially heated, with Christians disagreeing strongly on whether conflating God and country is a right or a heresy.

On this Sunday preceding July 4, many Christians will expect and experience a patriotic bonanza, with flags waving, tributes to political and military leaders, and songs. The evangelical news magazine Christianity Today this week listed the “top patriotic songs sung in churches,” according to Christian Copyright Licensing International. Among the 10 are “America the Beautiful” (#1) and the 1984 country hit “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood (#5).

The story noted that First Baptist Church of Dallas, a megachurch led by Trump adviser Robert Jeffress, has performed “Make America Great Again,” a hymn composed by one of the church’s music ministers and promoted multiple times last July by Trump.

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But criticisms of July 4 church events seem to have grown louder in recent years, a reflection of anxiety among younger Christian leaders who think the idea of Christian nationalism is problematic from various angles.

“When you add that patriotic song, display that flag, or invite the politician to offer a special word to your church gathering, you risk working against the Great Commission. Jesus commissioned us to ‘Go into all nations.’ That means he was establishing a people not bound or defined or constrained by this world’s national borders,” Jonathan Leeman, an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church outside Washington, wrote this week on the Gospel Coalition, a blog popular with conservative evangelicals. Leeman also came out with a book this spring about faith, politics and anger.

Last year, the blog’s managing editor, Matt Smethurst, tweeted:

Thinking about July 4 church services feels especially fraught these days, Leeman said.

“The culture wars in America today indicate more and more people identify as non-Christian. With that comes the fact that many Christians have to reconcile their own Christian identity with their national identity in ways they didn’t have to before,” he said in an interview.

In the midcentury, when 80 or 90 percent of Americans were Christian, the two identities were perceived as almost interchangeable, Leeman said. “Now Christians are going through a deprogramming process.”

More extensive July 4 church services are more likely to be evangelical or charismatic than Catholic, some experts on Christianity in America said, though it’s not uncommon for Sunday Mass around the holiday to close with a patriotic tune such as “America the Beautiful.”

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In 2016, LifeWay Research, an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, found that 61 percent of Protestant pastors agreed that it was “important for July Fourth worship services to incorporate patriotic elements to celebrate America. Fifty-three percent of pastors in that survey agreed that their congregation “sometimes seems to love America more than God.”

The context of 2018 may be new — rapidly changing religious and racial demographics in the United States, growing secularism, the explosion of Web-based faith — but debates about how churches handle July 4 began surfacing early in American history.

Catherine Brekus, a Harvard University historian of U.S. religion, noted that in the early 1800s, Methodists opposed Fourth of July celebrations on the grounds that they were not Christian. By the 1850s in Cleveland, Protestant ministers “usually took the lead in organizing 4th of July activities, and speeches were given in churches. After the 1850’s, ministers still gave benedictions, but the ceremonies were usually held outdoors, and commercial leaders and businesses were prominently involved,” she wrote in an email, noting historical accounts.

John Fea, a U.S. historian from Messiah College who just published a book about Christian nationalism, wrote in June for the History News Network about why activities such as July 4 services are being debated anew:

“Ever since the founding of the republic, a significant number of Americans have supposed that the United States is exceptional because it has a special place in God’s unfolding plan for the world. Since the early 17th century founding of the Massachusetts Bay colony by Puritans, evangelicals have relished their perceived status as God’s new Israel — His chosen people. America, they argued, is in a covenant relationship with God,” he wrote. Today, the anxiety about how to be Christian and American is high because history is being reexamined.

“The United States Constitution never mentions God or Christianity but does forbid religious tests for office. The First Amendment rejects a state-sponsored church and celebrates the free-exercise of religion. This is hardly the kind of stuff by which Christian nations are made.”

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William L. Kynes, longtime senior pastor of Cornerstone Evangelical Free Church in Annandale, Va., said he had not even thought about addressing July 4 this on Sunday until this reporter called.

“I don’t see it as a Christian holiday. I feel the same way about Mother’s Day,” he said with a chuckle.

“There’s nothing wrong with pledging allegiance to the flag as long as it’s not your highest allegiance. I think there is a role for patriotism in the life of the church. We are placed in communities and have loyalties” to those communities. But there is a hierarchy, he said, and “our identity shouldn’t be grounded in lesser things, but in our ultimate allegiance. We try to keep that mind, but it’s not always easy these days.”