Saturday, June 28, 2008

Church and State in Tension

The 4th of July holiday is coming up, and many churches are getting very elaborate in their celebrations. These celebrations unfortunately do not include acknowledgement that my wife, Jessica, was born on this day, but I digress...

Many churches are choosing to hold special worship services celebrating America's Independence Day. Some are even advertising these "Patriotic Services" in hopes of attracting those who feel strong national loyalties but don't often attend church.

A fellow Methodist pastor recently talked about putting together a Patriotic Service on his blog and he said that some people had objected to including the Pledge of Allegiance as part of the service. He argued that saying the pledge was acceptable for Christians because loyalty to one's country does not negate one's commitment to Christ.

I agree with his sentiment, but I don't think it's a good reason to include the pledge as part of the worship service. Clearly national loyalties and confessional loyalties are not mutually exclusive from one another, as we can see from the many faithful Christians who serve as members of the armed services. But just because these loyalties are not mutually exclusive does not mean that they never conflict with one another.

Such generalized discussion, however, doesn't really address the issue of including the pledge as part of a worship service. For the record, I don't think the Pledge of Allegiance, or any other national oath, should be part of a Christian worship service. I don't even think national flags should be present in sanctuaries or other worship spaces. 

A worship service is supposed to help us grow in our adoration and praise of God, and anything that distracts from that central goal should probably be left out. A pledge of loyalty to a nation, a national flag, or other symbols of human kingdoms might be nice ways to pay tribute to the nation, particularly a nation like the United States where we have the freedom to worship as we see fit. But would including those elements distract some of the people attending the service and confuse them as to what loyalties and values are being extolled in the time of worship? Does saying the Pledge of Allegiance or having a flag in the sanctuary help us to love God more? Does seeing the Stars and Stripes and singing "America the Beautiful" increase our devotion to Jesus Christ? 

No, they don't. So they should be left out. 

Let's have those things in the 4th of July Parade and the fireworks display. That way we can celebrate how great America is without accidentally implying that our loyalty to our country should be even remotely equal to our loyalty to Christ.

2 comments:

pastorbecca said...

Amen, amen, amen, and AMEN.

I told my choir I didn't want any 'patriotic' anthem that didn't at least include the word "God" in it. This after two years ago they sang "you're a grand old flag" on memorial day and I nearly died in the pulpit.

Sounds like a reasonable requirement to me: if it brings people closer to God, it's fit for worship; if not, save it for the floats.

Becca

B Smith said...

Matt,

I see where you are coming from and I have battled with that thin line for a couple of years now. We have an American and a Christian flag in our sanctuary and outside the church. I really don't have a problem with it either way; I see the American flag in the sanctuary as reminder of those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to ensure our freedom to worship as we choose in that space. I would concede that in this post 9/11 America where flag pins on lapels and unquestioning loyalty to Bush and Fox News are the measuring stick for patriotism that nationalism runs dangerously close to idolatry. Too many churches have blurred the line between honoring our freedom and those who served and died to provide them and placing nationalism as an idol for nothing more than increased numbers.