Attending church services around the 4th of July always makes me uneasy. As I walked up the steps to the sanctuary at my church this year, I knew what to expect. And true to form, I found the sanctuary adorned with the red, white, and blue of American mythology. To be fair, the decorations were very understated and tasteful. The sanctuary did not contain any American flags or other national symbols standing alongside the symbols of our Christian faith. Nor did we sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” before whispering the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, the only “patriotic” song we sang was “America the Beautiful.” If you’ve never sung the entire song, the second verse is particularly relevant.
O beautiful for pilgrim feet,
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
The subdued patriotism displayed by my church stands in stark contrast to the display at First Baptist Church in Dallas. The worship service there in 2018, led by pastor Robert Jeffress, was a display of unbridled nationalism paired with Jeffress’ peculiar brand of Christianity. Huge electronic flags waved behind the communion table while the mass choir and orchestra sang “Make America Great Again,” a song commissioned specifically for the event.
More and more, I’m seeing deliberate attempts to tie Christianity to American nationalism, and, as a Christian, I’m concerned. First, let me make the distinction between patriotism and nationalism using the words of Brian McLaren:
“Patriotism is the love for what is good, wise, and beautiful in a country, along with a corresponding desire to improve the parts of that country that aren’t good, wise, or beautiful. When we treat a nation as quasi-inerrant, and therefore God-like, we tip from patriotism to nationalism. We lose our ability to name and identify what is not good, wise, or beautiful about our country.”
Patriotism faces our shortcomings, learns from them, and seeks to improve. Patriotism. admits its mistakes and apologizes when appropriate. Patriotism will not rest until the promise of America holds true for each and every citizen.
Nationalism brooks no dissent. Nationalism admits no fault or shortcoming. Nationalism is unconcerned about the plight of the underprivileged, caring only about the wealthy and powerful. Nationalism says, “my country right or wrong,” “America, love it or leave it,” and “America for Americans.”
When combined with a religion giving the state ethical cover and a God-ordained mission, nationalism becomes a dark force that endangers us all.
The alliance of state power and religious fervor is nothing new. Throughout history, even to this day, nation states seek the blessing of religious authorities because they know how powerful a motivator religion can be.
When we think of the Pilgrims, we tend to think only of their flight to America seeking religious freedom. What we don’t speak of is the fact that many emigrants to this country did so to escape the incessant wars in Europe, many that were prosecuted based on disagreements on some fine point of Christian doctrine. A prime example is the Thirty Years War, fought between various Protestant and Catholic states in central Europe between 1618 and 1648, a conflict that caused some eight million casualties.
With this war fresh in their minds, the Framers of the Constitution decreed that the new government of the United States would never endorse an official state religion. The separation of religious and secular power was so important, the Framers enshrined it as one of our three revered rights — along with freedom of speech and freedom of the press in the 1st amendment to the Constitution.
The National Socialists of 1930s Germany understood the power of religion when married to the state all too well. While there is some debate about Hitler’s Christianity, most scholars agree that he was not a practicing Christian, and often derided its institutions and practitioners. This did not mean he did not use the faith of Christians in Germany to solidify his power and further his goals. Nazi propagandists often juxtaposed Christian symbols with Aryan mythology to conflate the two.
Now I’m not suggesting that America is facing the rise of a Nazi-like fascist state. The conditions in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s were unique to that time and place. Nonetheless, that does not preclude the rise of a form of fascism unique to American history and experience.
I’m sure many of you have heard this quote, often attributed to Sinclair Lewis: “When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”
As it turns out, Sinclair Lewis is not the source of this quote. Nor can I find any reference to its origin. However, in 1944, John Thomas Flynn wrote As We Go Marching, considered by many to be a classic treatise on fascism in America. The following excerpt speaks a warning to us even today:
“But when fascism comes it will not be in the form of an anti-American movement or pro-Hitler bund, practicing disloyalty. Nor will it come in the form of a crusade against war. It will appear rather in the luminous robes of flaming patriotism; it will take some genuinely indigenous shape and color, and it will spread only because its leaders, who are not yet visible, will know how to locate the great springs of public opinion and desire and the streams of thought that flow from them and will know how to attract to their banners leaders who can command the support of the controlling minorities in American public life. The danger lies not so much in the would-be Fuhrers who may arise, but in the presence in our midst of certainly deeply running currents of hope and appetite and opinion. The war upon fascism must be begun there.”
The state provides the fuel, and religion provides the fire. Christians must hold true to the words of Christ: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).
We must resist attempts to conflate our Christian faith with the power and goals of the state. Christ calls us to build the kingdom of God on earth in the here and now. We cannot accomplish that by aligning ourselves with the secular state and, in doing so, justify the acts of the state as being ordained by God.