Christians, Patriotism, and Nationalism

Because this country’s Independence Day falls on a Thursday this year, I’m sure there will be churches that celebrate it on the Sunday before July 4 and the Sunday after it. Past the celebration of Communion, I’m not sure what we have in mind for the 7th at Salem Covenant, but aside from the American flag occupying its customary spot in our sanctuary (and that’s no small, or uncontroversial thing), there were no explicitly patriotic or nationalistic overtones to worship last Sunday.

On the contrary, if you listened closely enough, you’d have heard a quiet but consistent rebuttal of some of the ways that American Christianity tends to lose itself in American nationalism. (A problem that goes right back to the 18th century, as Tracy McKenzie pointed out yesterday in his review of James Byrd’s Sacred Scripture, Sacred War.) In our traditional service, the text of the Bach introit started with a pledge of allegiance that wasn’t aimed at any secular caesar: “Lord Jesus Christ, be present now!” That was followed by a call to worship in which we asked God to “Give us undivided hearts to honor your name” — another reminder that love of country is of secondary or lower importance for anyone whose highest love is God.

From the memorial chapel at Somme American Cemetery
Cruciform window with American flag in the memorial chapel at the Somme American Cemetery (near Bony, France)

And while there are plenty of American Christians (especially among my fellow evangelicals) who this week will attribute to their Lord’s providence “the blessings of liberty” secured by their nation’s experiment in constitutional governance, I appreciated that Pastor Steve’s sermon explored a different kind of liberty than the variety celebrated in American civil religion:

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…. For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” (Gal 5:1, 13, NRSV — Steve called the first verse “Paul’s Magna Carta for freedom”).

Now, if our worship planners do decide to nod back at the 4th of July on the 7th, they would find suitable resources within our excellent Covenant Hymnal. The “Nation and Society” section includes patriotic standbys like “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” (#734), “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” (#736 – four verses of Julia Ward Howe’s Battle Hymn of the Republic, itself subject of an intriguing new “biography”), and “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” (#737 – i.e., “America the Beautiful”).

And to a point, it’s appropriate for Christians to be patriotic — so long as love of country is not expressed as love of a system or ideology, or of power, but as love of the “neighbors” that constitute one’s nation. (And let’s reaffirm that love of country can be expressed via unpopular dissent and conscientious objection…) I’m not sure I’m as “deeply patriotic” as Ed Stetzer, but I think he largely hit the nail on the head in this 2012 post:

Christians are, in a sense, dual citizens– of the Kingdom and of the nation where they live. I live in a country that is not without fault, but I am proud to be a citizen of that nation. I teach my children to be proud of their nation– not unaware of its challenges– and patriotic citizens.

Yet, I think that Christians in all those places need to be careful about mixing their faith and worship with their patriotism and nationalism.

…Don’t take my comments here as against patriotism. I love patriotism– I just am concerned about syncretism. You avoid syncretism by being discerning about what you do in worship and not mixing nationalism and Christianity in an unhelpful way.

So, I love my country. I celebrate my nation’s freedom and the good it does around the world. (And, I hope you can love your country as well.) But, I worship God and I work hard — and urge you to work hard — to make sure those two things do not get confused in our worship services.

So I appreciate how our hymnal also helps us to worship as “dual citizens.” Apart from the three hymns that I mentioned above, the other seven in that section of The Covenant Hymnal aren’t patriotic at all. “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” is preceded by William Reid’s “O God of Every Nation” (#733), which asks, “…from pride of race and nation / and blindness to your way, / deliver every nation, / eternal God, we pray!”

Earlier, the second verse of Craig Erickson’s “Jesus, Who Transcends the Ages” (#731) acknowledges that there are times “When false loyalty to nation / hate and lust in us conjure.” Furthermore, the “Nation and Society” section is bookended by clusters of hymns on “Justice and Peace” and “Art and Science,” themes universal enough to correct any impulse to think too highly and uncritically of any particular political or economic system. (God be thanked that our hymnal, unlike over 300 others, doesn’t include “The Star-Spangled Banner,” but does remind us, through a hymn by Catherine Cameron, that He “Stretched the Spangled Heavens” — #740.)

Most of all… While the Covenant is not an especially creedal or confessional church, I appreciate that the liturgical section in the back of its hymnal makes room not only for the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds (#878 and #884, respectively) — which, as I’ve posted before around this time of year, are the prime liturgical tools for reminding “Christians that they have a higher allegiance” — but for the slightly more obscure Barmen Declaration (#885).

I’ve never seen it in an evangelical hymnal (does anyone else use a hymnal that has it?), but as a 20th century European historian and as a Christian wary of a properly limited patriotism dissolving into the idolatrous ideology of nationalism, I’m tickled that my friend Glen Wiberg and the other editors of our hymnal included this 1934 statement. Drafted by Karl Barth and other German Protestant leaders, it responded to the rise of the “German Christian” movement (which stripped Jesus and Christianity of anything remotely Jewish and anointed Hitler a messianic figure) and the totalizing impulses of the Nazi regime that had taken power the preceding year. Here’s how our hymnal introduces Barmen’s six articles:

…this landmark post-Reformation confession sets out clearly the church’s source of authority in the Word, its sole identity in Christ, and its prophetic relation to nation, culture, and society. It reminds Christians that, while residents of this world and citizens of particular nations, they are not servants of any nationalism or other ideology that may compromise absolute loyalty to Jesus Christ and true loving service to any neighbor.

German Christian celebration, 1933
A Deutsche Christen rally celebrating Luthertag in November 1933; note the tell-tale fusion of cross and swastika in the smaller “D C” banners – Bundesarchiv

Or as Barth and the other Barmen authors put it:

We reject the false doctrine that there could be areas of our life in which we would not belong to Jesus Christ but to other lords, areas in which we would not need justification and sanctification through him….

We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over the form of its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.

Now, truth be told: I’ve yet to hear any part of the Barmen Declaration recited in worship at Salem or any other Covenant church. And I don’t really expect to see it show up in our bulletin this coming Sunday.

But I do hope that at least one or two of the hundreds sitting there will stumble across it while searching for “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies” or the like, and think on its words as they take communion: the sacrament that unifies the church across all national borders and proclaims that all of our lives belong to a Lord who commanded no armies, waved no flag, and died at the hands of an empire.


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