Patriotism in Worship: How far is too far?

This post is likely to get me into hot water — so before I go any further, let me make the following assertions:

  1. I believe that the United States is the greatest country on earth. While we have our faults, our system of government for the people and by the people is better than that of any other nation.
  2. I consider myself a patriot and I love my country deeply. The men and women who have given of themselves to win and protect our freedom have earned the respect of all, and should be given special reverence in our society.

Keep these assertions in mind as you read on. If at any point in the reading of this post you feel inclined to question my loyalty to country, return immediately to these two assertions, take a deep breath, and continue reading. That said, let’s begin.

Many evangelical churches have the custom, especially around this time of year, of having what are called “patriotic worship services.” The ones I have attended in various churches throughout the years have contained such elements as recognition of military veterans, patriotic songs (“America the Beautiful,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” etc.), the pledge of allegiance, and even sermons concerning America and its Christian heritage.

While I typically enjoyed the stirring anthems and recognition of those who had given so much to purchase our freedom, I always felt something was out of place. It never dawned on me exactly what was out of place until several years ago when I myself was a bit out of place living in Belarus, a part of the former U.S.S.R. I was worshiping in a local Russian-speaking church that was using bilingual hymnals. On the left-hand page sat the English version (presumably for the benefit of Western missionaries). On the right, the translated Russian.

As I leafed through the hymnal, I noticed that “America the Beautiful” and “The Star Spangled Banner” were in the book, both translated into Russian. A Belarusian friend (a recent convert) sitting next to me noticed the oddity and asked me about it. Why was the American national anthem in a Russian hymnal? It was a good question, and one which I could not answer except to guess that perhaps the translator was told to translate all the songs in the American hymnal, and he did his job thoroughly.

All this leads to the larger question: why are patriotic songs even included in evangelical hymnals? I suspect the intentions were lofty enough. Americans are passionate about their patriotism, so why not include that passion within the worship of the church? Perhaps the desire was to bring patriotism under the rubric of Christian worship so that it may be properly checked.

The problem I have with these patriotic worship services lies not in their substance, but in their focus. For if worship is to be prostrating ourselves before the Lord (see Isaiah 6:1-7 for a prime example), it becomes very dubious if the object of worship is shared with anything or anyone.

Biblical passages such Deuteronomy 6:4 and Isaiah 48:9-11 (“My glory I will not give to another”) show us that God seeks complete exclusivity in his prominence. Worship is to be to him alone.

I have no doubt that most congregants (and leaders, for that matter) are not consciously exalting country over God, but the danger is there. It’s more likely that we tend to exalt country alongside God, something equally dangerous.

There is a time and place for everything, and the corporate worship of the church is a time for exaltation of God alone. Patriotic songs and anthems should be sung, but not at the expense of drawing attention away from our supreme Creator. Veterans should be recognized, but not while we’re trying to recognize Christ alone. The church’s corporate worship of God is not the proper venue for displays of patriotism.

5 thoughts on “Patriotism in Worship: How far is too far?”

  1. Yes, Yes, and Yes. But I’m glad we still need the American flag either in the choir loft back corner or over near one of those exit doors leading somewhere that you wonder about while some guy is preaching. I also wonder about the place of singing hymns at 4th of July picnics.

  2. Great points. I have always wondered why we worship America instead of God on July 4th weekend. What bothers me is how people believe that you are a communist when you question these traditions.

  3. I’m in total agreement. Patriotic celebrations disguised as corporate worship drive me nuts. I saw a well known SBC church on tv the other day performing a huge musical pageant that extolled the virtues of “God and country” and even got kind of political.

    I just don’t think the “God and country” stuff is appropriate. At best it confuses the point; at worst it could be called syncretistic.

  4. Thank you for putting into words what I’ve been feeling since July 3 when my church held its annual “patriotic service.” As you said, something was definitely “out of place.” This year’s service went farther than most. For example, a soldier (Ft. Benning is a short drive away) read the rather lengthy Creed of the Infantry Soldier, with its resounding chorus, “I am the Infantry. Follow me.” It’s great in the right context, very stirring, but in church–where the focus should be on Christ–it seemed a bit odd, especially since Jesus also says, “Follow me.” Worst of all, instead of a sermon we were shown a video of Judge Roy Moore expounding his views. He seemed rather proud of his exploits. I was not impressed, nor was I drawn closer to God by hearing him.
    From now on, I will avoid “patriotic” church services. I believe people mean well in having them. I believe our pastor and worship leader meant well. But I don’t feel right using time meant for honoring God to honor the nation, the military,or anything else.

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