Land that I love
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above
God Bless America will undoubtedly be sung in thousands of parades, picnics, services, and churches to celebrate Memorial Day. First instituted after the Civil War to commemorate Union and Confederate soldiers who had died, it was extended after World War I to be a day honoring all Americans who had died in war. Beyond the weighty task of reminding us of the price paid for our freedom, Memorial Day weekend serves as the unofficial start of the summer season with its vacations, cookouts, and fireworks. Americans will enthusiastically lift their voices wherever they gather to sing God Bless America, America the Beautiful, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, The Star Spangled Banner, and perhaps a rendition of Neil Diamond’s America.
While Christians should join to sing these songs at parades and picnics, should they be doing so in a church worship service? Do displays of patriotism have a place in Christian worship or should they be reserved for the local minor league baseball stadium? The church I grew up in regularly mixed God and country. Memorial Day and the Fourth of July were occasions to prominently display the American flag, have veterans wear their uniforms to church, and congregationally sing every patriotic hymn in the book. Many a tear was shed and hand raised in salute at the sacrifices of soldiers and success of the United States. I even recall a seminary chapel service I attended where all of the students were led in My Country, ‘Tis of Thee. God and country seemed to fit together like two houses of congress.
One Sunday I was sitting in a church worship service on Memorial Day weekend reminiscent of what I experienced growing up. The choir was singing a patriotic hymn while images of America and her military were displayed on the screen. At the end of the song, the congregation eagerly rose to its feet in thunderous applause, profoundly moved by the images and music. On that day, America received more heartfelt and enthusiastic worship than Jesus did on the average Sunday. It is tragic when followers of Jesus are more moved by Normandy than Calvary, more inspired by God Bless America than In Christ Alone, and more challenged by the soldier than the Savior.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am a patriot who loves my country. Words cannot describe the depth of my gratitude to the soldiers who have given their lives for the sake of others. I believe, while America has done both good and evil in the world, the good has outweighed the bad. I’m not afraid to stand up next to you and admit Lee Greenwood’s Proud to Be an American can still a bring a tear to my eye. But I love Christ more. My allegiance to Him surpasses my allegiance to any person or country. He alone is God and He shares His glory with no one. When Christians elevate country and render worship which is God’s unto Caesar (America) they commit idolatry.
Early Christians would have been confused at our mixing of God and country. In the Roman Empire in which they lived, God and country were the same. To worship the gods was to declare loyalty to Rome. Since Christians refused to sacrifice, burn incense or acknowledge Caesar as lord, they were branded as disloyal and identified as a threat. Pliny the Younger, governor of Bithynia, in dealing with accusations brought against Christians in 112, was supported by Emperor Trajan in releasing any who denied Christ by reciting a prayer to the gods and offering incense and wine to the statue of the emperor. For the Roman Christian, patriotism was the acceptance of a god other than Christ – something they could not do. For us, it is more complicated. At what point does patriotism become the false worship of country as a god?
Each person must wrestle with this individually but churches can blur the line between patriotism and idolatry by taking time designated for the worship of God and devoting it to America. Can we imagine the early church singing praises to Rome? Since the state was equated with god it would be idolatry; so is singing praises to America during a time of worship acceptable? Jesus declared in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting…” Honoring those who have served and died and reflecting on their sacrifice can be powerful, but caution is warranted. We have gathered to worship Christ and Christ alone. Anything less is a sad imitation and can lead a congregation into country idolatry.
Turning one’s country into a god destroys the very spirit of unity Memorial Day exists to create. If you make country a god you will be constantly stressed about the direction it is going. You will exalt those you believe are helping it and demonize those you believe are hurting it. It’s not simple disagreement; they’re ruining your country! You will look down on other places and other peoples as inferior. You will become ethnocentric – caring little about the world because only your country is worthy of attention. If you feel your country is a good god, you will exalt its achievements, but if you feel it is a bad god, you will harp on its failings. You cannot see it objectively because too much is at stake. A country may be a great place to live and a worthy cause for which to die, but it makes for a horrible god.
This Memorial Day, let’s devote our worship services to Jesus and not America. He receives so little of what He truly deserves of our lives that to take time devoted to Him and to give it to a lesser god is a tragic mistake. Then, after we have worshiped Jesus, we can remember the troops, salute the flag, and sing God Bless America.