By David Gushee
Visiting family last weekend, I experienced a classic “God and country” service at a large SBC church. There was a day when I would have been outraged by such a service on theological grounds. This particular day left me more analytical. These reflections are offered especially for everyone who will plan or experience a patriotic July 4th service this weekend.
Lesson 1: Americans lack civic spaces to celebrate our nation and roll out traditional patriotic music and rituals, and so they move inappropriately into church.
Who can forget the scene in “The Music Man” where Mayor Shinn prepares to offer his July 4th soliloquy, only to be interrupted by the rebellious members of the school board? Apparently in that (imaginary) Iowa town a hundred years ago there was a tradition of a communitywide July 4th celebration, held at the school gymnasium. Everyone came.
No one could complain about a July 4th extravaganza held at the public school or the city fairgrounds. But we don’t really do that kind of thing anymore in this country, except a mute fireworks celebration after the sun goes down. And so in many (Southern?) towns, these ritualized national celebrations are moved into the local church, without a whole lot of reflection about the theological issues raised by turning a Christian worship service into a civic patriotic celebration.
Implication: If Christians want a recovery of civic celebrations on July 4th, we should approach our city councils, not our pastors.
Lesson 2: Low-church Baptist worship services leave congregants with a hunger for liturgy, which is one reason why God-and-country extravaganzas are appealing to many.
I credit my wife, Jeanie, one who loves liturgy, with this acute observation. Populist Baptist worship services are informal. No one works from a script, every prayer is extemporaneous, dress is increasingly casual, and pastors are rewarded for being “down to earth” and “relevant.”
There was nothing informal, extemporaneous or low-church about the God-and-country service we witnessed Sunday. All rose as the American flag was walked in ceremoniously under the care of a Navy man. The Pledge of Allegiance was said with dignity. The patriotic music was presented with gravity and care. Most people were dressed in their Sunday best, especially those who led the service in any way. I think Jeanie is right—here was liturgy, and people responded. The problem is that the liturgy was national rather than Christian—or national as Christian.
Implication: Such an obvious hunger for liturgy calls for a rethinking of the trend toward studied informality in our weekly services.
Lesson 3: American patriotism is overidentified with war and the military.
In our service on Sunday we sang “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The songs of the five military branches were sung as veterans and active-duty servicepeople rose and were recognized. A dramatic monologue about the war-tattered American flag was offered. Those killed in wars while serving the United States were remembered and mourned.
A child or newcomer to our country could easily be forgiven for concluding that the main thing to celebrate about America is our wars and those who fight them and die in them. This then leads to the implication that America is at its best when we are fighting, dying in, and presumably winning wars.
Taken simply at the civic or national level, this is a problem, for it deprives Americans of reasons to be proud of their nation not associated with the military and with war, feeding an expectation and maybe even a hunger for more use of the military and more war.
And of course, returning to the fact that God-and-country worship services happen in Christian churches that profess to serve Jesus Christ, the peacemaker and reconciler, the problem is even more profound.
Implication: All who speak of what is good about America, and all who construct civic patriotic rituals, must find ways to honor aspects of American life that go beyond military service and war-fighting. And all ministers who incorporate civic patriotism into a Sunday service must remember who exactly is the Lord of the church.
Lesson 4: Christian celebrations of America tend to idealize the past and demonize the present.
Presenting the standard conservative account of American origins, our pastor on Sunday told us that America was founded on Judeo-Christian principles that have been lost in our time and must be recovered. He received many hearty “amens.”
As I looked around me at the sea of white faces, I thought about how very surprised I would be if such an unambiguous account of either the past or the present were offered in a black church. Black Americans know that somehow the Founders created a nation that combined ideals of justice and freedom with the injustice and bondage of slavery. And they also know that the America of today has both deteriorated in some aspects of its morality while advancing in others, including racial justice.
The past was both good and bad. The present is both good and bad. Human life, created good yet fallen, is always both good and bad.
Implication: Those who talk about America must acknowledge both the good and the bad in every stage, neither idealizing nor demonizing any particular era—and calling us to our best and highest values now and always.