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(Still) Be Careful What You Worship on July 4

Is national patriotism inconsistent with Christianity? A controversial classic.

I've been a part of numerous churches that celebrated American Independence Day with abandon: 80-foot flags hanging from the ceilings, singing the "Star Spangled Banner" and "I'm Proud to Be an American" and even— most disturbing to me as I reflect back—saying the Pledge of Allegiance during our corporate worship.

If some visitor had asked us on those Sunday just what we were worshiping, I think that might have been a very perceptive question.

For many, the Fourth is about gratitude for the blessings of freedom. And as far as that goes, I'm in complete agreement—though to see only the "blessings" of freedom and not also repent of all the many varied and creative ways we've abused it might be a bit short-sighted. Still, yes to gratitude.

For others, these celebrations go beyond merely the gratitude and obedience that Scripture commands, into something else, something entirely absent from the God's Word: Patriotism.

Patriotism, defined as "devoted love, support, and defense of one's country; national loyalty" makes little sense to a people called to live as aliens and strangers, as exiles. If I am—as Scripture tells me I am—a "citizen of another country," where should my "national loyalty" lie?

And as for my "devoted love"what does it mean to say I "love my country"? I love and feel called to the people in it? Yes. But should I ever love the people of America more than the people of Canada or Mexico, of Haiti or Ghana? Probably not. To say "I love America" is to say I love a political system, a set of laws and arbitrary boundary lines that history will eventually erase and more: I think it might be saying more than I ought to say as a follower of Jesus.

Tony Campolo puts it this way: "America may be the best Babylon the world has, but it is still Babylon nonetheless."

We are exiles living in Babylon, folks. Our corner may be called "America," or "Canada," or "France," but it's still all a part of the same thing: a world system that transcends borders, is dominated by materialistic consumerism and exploitation, and is fundamentally opposed to the Kingdom of God. And while love and affection for the people living in that system is entirely necessary, and while we should certainly pray for the peace and well-being of the place where God has set us, we need to avoid the mistake we see over and over in Scripture: becoming so enamored with our temporary dwelling—whether that's called Egypt, Babylon, or even America—that we lose sight of what Hebrews calls "a better place."

I may carry an Oregon driver's license, but I try hard to remember where my identity is really rooted. It's rooted in Jesus, the One whose claims of Lordship will always challenge Caesar's.

And that means that nationalism, in any degree, is misplaced affection. If Jesus really is our Peace who has broken down every dividing barrier between us, to celebrate the arbitrary lines and political distinctions which divide us is, in a sense, anti-gospel. Jesus expressed anger a number of times in the Gospels, but the most famous was when He saw what should have been "a house of prayer for all nations" turned into something else.

And my fear is that by highlighting ideas of America and patriotism so heavily in our Fourth of July services, we do just that. At best, we fail to see how waving the American flag in a worship service looks to the Brits and Kenyans and Malaysians sitting in our pews and what it communicates to them. And at worst, we give to Caesar what really belongs to Jesus.

Is it okay to celebrate the Fourth with neighbors, families and friends? Absolutely. If we really want to love people to Jesus, we live in line with the rhythms of the places where God puts us. When we show them the Gospel lived out in a culturally contextualized way we demonstrate that Jesus is for all people. So, grill some burgers, dogs, or the vegetarian alternative of your choice. Set off the firecrackers and watch the fireworks. Don't dare be a stick in the mud during a national celebration.

But in your worship this Sunday, steer people towards gratitude and obedience, and stay far, far away from nationalistic pride. But most important, be careful what you pledge allegiance to this Fourth of July. Caesar is owed your obedience, your prayers for his health and well-being, and, as Jesus and the IRS both agree, your money... but your allegiance belongs to Someone Else.

[Comments below from Bob's original post. All spelling/grammar errors are in the originals.]

"Your premise seems to be that American nationalism is just a worship of our political system, and that we are a "better Babylon". But that is false. This country was founded as a Christian nation, born out of the providence of God. "No King but Jesus" was our revolutionary battle cry. I love this country, and have strong nationalism, but at it's core, my love is because this country loves Jesus. To know why you love what you love tells you what you really love. And I love America because it is founded on the Christian God. Just because this country is falling away from that, doesn't mean we should fall away too. We should be working to restore our nation's reliance on Christ." – Rob

"It is a very helpful paradigm to see the USA as Babylon and not Israel.

Nations are not Christian; people are. Our nation was certainly influenced by the Christian faith, but many of our founders had just fled the oppression of a Christian nation/kingdom. They desired a political nation with the freedom of religion without the establishment of a State religion. And IMHO, this is the best Babylon." – Derek

"The Pledge of Allegience states, ‘one nation, under God...' Why cringe at that?" – Paul

"If you go and read American history we were founded more so on the drive to make money than the drive to serve God. Our pledge can say "One Nation Under God" but we speak in our actions, not in our words. God's name is vainly attached to each and every political campaign to "prove" that they're championing a higher cause

Patriotism is pride at the core and pride leads to death of the soul. When we become so enamored with America that it affects the way we view others then we haven fallen prey to the sin. No one is immune from it. I'm guilty as any, but Bob does a great job to help open eyes to what is at the heart of our patriotism and the danger of it bleeding into our worship of God. Good work Bob." - David

"One of the first acts of congress was to print and distribute bibles. Our nation was born during a time of religious revival, Christian religious revival. When we turn from having pride for our heritage and thankfulness of our uniqueness in the world we turn from the model set forth by God.

The government is here to protect us and restrain evil. The church is here to minister God's grace. To worry about offending another because of national pride is to say that we should be offended of the divine providence which set forth our nation.

Ceaser – the government - is to protect us and restrain evil, administers God's justice, provide peace The government is national.

The Church – Ministers Gods grace, exposes evil, leads the great commission. The church is international.

As established by God they should work harmoniously. This is the uniqueness of our government that we celebrate every 4th of July. Good people need to speak up and show patriotism. There is nothing wrong with it, read David's Psalm 137:5, this portrays an allegiance to a faithful nation." – Victor

"And Victor, as long as you continue to think of America as Jerusalem (Psalm 137:5) all of that will make perfect sense for you." - Bob

"Our last church had, and continues to have, a "patriotic service" each year on Sunday around July 4th. It was, and is, in my view, idolatrous. We generally skipped it.

I don't believe for a second that America or any other nation can claim to be Christian, and to make that claim is to misunderstand scripture, and in particular to misunderstand and subvert the Kingdom Jesus talked about and told us to seek first. We are to render unto ceaser and to render unto God. But by no means are we to render unto ceaser in a place and a setting in which we ought to be worshipping the One true God. That practice leads to idolatry." – John

"It is absolutely revisionist history to claim that this country was founded as a "Christian" nation. There were a few colonies which were founded on Christian principles. One might be able to make the argument for Plymouth and perhaps the very early years of Massachusetts Bay Colony. However, to lay claim that the southern colonies were founded on anything other than capitalistic greed is sophomoric at best and blind at worst." – Sonja

"... it doesn't really matter what ideals this country was founded on. We are strangers in a strange land, whether that is America or Iceland. We are exiles and to place our hope in our country or the government that runs it is idolatry. The Kingdom of God is the only thing Christians should be in alliance with." – Michelle

"My life is hidden in Christ before God. My home is wherever my Savior dwells, so...heaven it is. I have citizenship in the not yet. Still I live in the now, I make a home (albeit a temporary one) in this nation - wonderful and horrible as it is all at once.

In this Sunday's worship, which just so happens to land on the U.S.A.'s Independence Day, I will celebrate the freedoms my God has given within this nation, even if it is but a dim reflection of the freedom Jesus Christ fought to win for me and you. Our church will sing Battle Hymn of the Republic, God of Our Fathers, and God Bless Our Native Land, but we will begin with Lift High the Cross.

We will hold up the tension we stand in between the now and the not yet, between allegiance to a temporal government while living here and the allegiance to the eternal God that trumps any allegiance to anything here.

Luther's understanding of the two kingdoms is very helpful here. My God reigns - in heaven and on earth. In heaven, without an intermediary; and on earth, through the mediation of the governing authorities He put in charge to provide peace and freedom within which His Gospel can be shared, which transcends borders, classes, ethnicities, and nationalities. God bless America – so the Christians within her can spread the Gospel throughout the world." – Brian Larson

"Scripture is clear: the common outcome of devotion expressed toward anything that is corruptible or temporal is idolatry.

Karl Barth knew well the dangers of nationalistic fervor in the life of the church, when Caesar is made welcome and honored. He warned against such "alien prophecies" incorporated into what only is properly Christ's alone. Sooner or later, he writes, such prophecies "will make an open bid for sole dominion—the prophecy of Jesus Christ asks to be excused and avoids such incorporation. If it is subjected to such combinations, the living Lord Jesus and His Word depart, and all that usually remains is the suspiciously loud but empty utterance of the familiar name of this Prophet. ‘No one can serve two masters' (Mt. 6:24). No man can serve both the one Word of God called Jesus Christ and other divine words" (Barth, Church Dogmatics IV, 102)." – Rob

"In all these posts as well as in the original article, I don't see any disagreement that our allegiance to Christ is ultimate while allegiance and devotion to anything else must be secondary and conditional. But I think that Hyatt goes too far when he says "...nationalism, in any degree, is misplaced affection".

I love my wife more than I love other people. That does not mean I worship her or think she's perfect, but I'll wave her flag any day and defend her against all comers.

No analogy is perfect, but it is OK to love your own country more than others. You have to be realistic about the failings of your country, but the critics need to honestly give the US credit for some huge accomplishments and many good things. Freedom of conscience is not the least. The combining of freedom and the rule of law contrasts favorably with history and much of the rest of the world. Where other countries have done well, give them credit, but this is the country to which we owe a combination of appreciation, allegiance and responsibility. Call that pride if you will, but it's enough reason to fly the flag." – Wayne Shockley

"The fact that a clear call to understand the fundamental character of the Church as a supra-national body who proclaims a better day and way is coming gets turned into "You hate America" and "You don't get the beauty of our Christian nation" only demonstrates one thing ... if this article "gets your goat" you had a "goat" to be got. Why not just own it and do some soul searching about what is, at best, only a murky exercise in "gratitude" that tends to veer to a silly belief in American "exceptionalism"?" – Nathan

"As a missional and incarnational Christian, I should represent Christ to the community in which I am placed. And that community is diverse. There are many sociopolitical tribes in the U.S. Some tribes wave flag more than others. I happen to live in a liberal university town where most people are loathe to wave the flag, and a flag in church would be an abomination. But drive a few miles out of town and you will see the flag displayed prominently everywhere. I want to understand and respect both points of view, because I think that they both have something to offer. Perhaps some of the out-of-towners do cross over the line with too much nationalism. But plenty of in-towners cross over another line by placing themselves apart from – nay, above – the culture in which God has placed them by pretending that they have no special relationship to it. The patriotism-by-definition-crosses-the-line language just seems unnecessarily dogmatic, and I'm not at all surprised that the article sparked strong reactions." J.L Schaefer

"You said, "And that means that nationalism, in any degree, is misplaced affection." Really? I have to root for the Christians in the Olympics or the World Cup. I can't proudly cheer for my fellow Americans.

I'm proud that I am an America. I am deeply grateful for the freedom my citizenship affords. I wish (and work so that) those from other countries have the same opportunities I do simply because of who my parents are. I respect those who serve our country. Certainly America, like any other fallen institution/system is full of good and bad. However, I can love it nevertheless without it interfering with my love of Christ.

Loving one's country is like loving one's family. Fallen, yes. Broken, yes. But still my family." - Dave Terpstra

Chime in below. What would you add to the discussion?

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