There is an often told apocryphal story of the little boy in a worship service who was seated beside his father, as he frequently was at sports games. The minister called upon the congregation to stand and sing the National Anthem. With gusto the boy added his voice to the others in the congregation. As soon as the song came to an end, he loudly shouted, “Play ball!”
Those of us who have had considerable experience with children in worship won’t find this story all that far-fetched. And those of us who have considerable experience worshipping in American churches won’t find it at all far-fetched to hear of the National Anthem being sung during a service. But I am convinced that such an action is every bit as misguided as holding a ballgame in the sanctuary.
On the Sunday nearest to Independence Day and other national holidays many churches incorporate into worship, if not the National Anthem, other pieces of patriotic music. “My Country ‘Tis of Thee, ” “America the Beautiful, ” “God Bless America, ” even “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are given a place. The concern for liturgical integrity is lost on those who think devotion to God and love of nation can be seamlessly joined. They may think the desire to keep patriotic music out of worship is either an expression of an overly scrupulous concern for liturgical correctness at best or at worst, evidence of anti-Americanism.
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It is neither. The real issue is the nature and identity of the church. What is sung in worship should faithfully express who – and whose – the church is and serve no other purpose. When other needs are met or other loyalties are given voice, the true reason for worship is undermined. Music is an important focus for those who seek to maintain the integrity of Christian worship over against the encroaching influence of nationalism.
Drawing from the thought of sociologist and philosopher Alfred Schutz, liturgical theologian Mary McGann has argued that musical expressions in ritual events is an important way in which a community manifests and communicates itself as a social body. Individuals become a “we” as they join together in singing and “the musical process affect the manner in which the community knows itself as a whole. For this reason, music in Christian ritual can have a powerful impact on how a community perceives itself as an ecclesial body.” Mary E. McGann, Exploring Music as Worship and Theology: Research in Liturgical Practice (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 24f.) Who are we as we gather in worship? When patriotic music is given a place in the worship of the church, this inevitably effects how the church knows itself and sees itself in the world.
In singing “psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians 5:19) we rehearse the story of God’s inter-action with God’s people. We cannot give thanks with genuineness unless we are reminded of the gracious deeds of God. It is the distinctive story of the creative, inviting, forgiving, guiding, judging, nurturing God to which scripture bears witness that is to be expressed as the congregation sings in worship. It is therefore imperative that great care is taken when making music selections, distinguishing those “which most faithfully name or address the God of Jesus Christ and those hymns which in one way or another diminish the gospel” (Randy Cooper, Being Subject to One Another as We Sing, 2004, 11.)
The predictable presence of patriotic songs in worship displays the widespread and longstanding commitment in American churches to using liturgy for nationalistic ends. Instead of being ourselves reshaped in the presence of God, we attempt to reshape God. Consequently, the power of worship to form and strengthen Christians as a peculiar people gets undercut. All too frequently worshipers fail to see how the songs and rituals of the nation don’t compliment but compete with devotion to the God revealed in Christ. Americanized spirituality replaces distinctly Christian spirituality.
Patriotic songs convey a story, sanction a set of values and elevate an object of attachment that is not intrinsic to the Christian faith. Yet in the process of singing them the church is impacted. This is advantageous if the substance of the hymn is shaped by the biblical story and the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, it is detrimental if the substance carried in the song is not grounded in genuine Christian convictions. Patriotic music imprints in the consciousness of the congregations viewpoints and visions that are absent from – if not contrary to – the faith confessed throughout the centuries and throughout the world.
Worship which calls the congregation to sing songs of the nation has a formative effect. That effect is not to shape whole-hearted disciples of Jesus Christ. Rather it is to form the worshipers into devoted citizens who often end up being less inclined to challenge the priorities of the nation in the name of the God who transcends all nations and the interests the nations hold. Patriotic worship forms worshipers to be people who believe America is particularly blessed by God and that America is important to the purpose of God in ways no other nation can claim. Therefore, support for America is support for the purposes of God. Worship that serves such nationalistic ends is worship that has departed from its rightful, singular purpose of glorifying God.
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Surely the word “God” is used in patriotic songs included in hymnals. But is God the real object of praise or does God play a secondary and supportive role? And is the God named in patriotic songs the God of biblical faith or a god of a decidedly different character? A brief look at a few of the songs should help to provide an answer. We find that God is often an afterthought appended to the praise offered to the nation. God receives little more than an honorable mention in some of these pieces. And the most prominent feature of this god is found in the special attention bestowed upon America, not in the love offered for the whole world.
When the church is true to its nature and purpose it will have no place for the songs of the nation. The church exists as a Christ-centered alternative to the world of conflicting nations, races and tribes. This is especially true for the church that exists in a superpower nation accustomed to privileged status. Rather than helping elevate the nation by sitting it apart and drawing adoring attention to it, in the gathered church faithful voices join to praise the One who tears down barriers between peoples and unites them as one God-glorifying body. The church gathers in worship to joyfully respond to the prophetic call, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” (Isaiah 42:10). It should sing no other.