I recall years ago on a Sunday when I was on vacation doing what I normally would do at such times: I went to visit another church in the community. This particular church was one of the ten largest in the country. The sprawling campus was perfectly landscaped and the huge building was impressive. My family and I were running late. We rushed from the parking lot, through the doors to their “worship center.” But what I saw stopped me in my tracks. A color guard in full military uniform was about to walk down the main aisle with an American flag hoisted high. It was only then that I remembered it was the Sunday before Independence Day. I took my children by their hands, turned and walked away to find another place to worship.
Our world is filled with institutions that would like to gain our affection and attachment. These use images, music and slogans in order to impact us. The institutions range from the universities, to the movie theaters, to restaurants, to Federal Express and Delta Airlines. These variously provide us with services, entertainment, education and more. From us they expect remuneration, payment for whatever it is they have provided to us. These institutions attempt to win our loyalty. But the word “loyalty” here is narrowly defined. At best it involves only a small sliver of our lives.
The nation-state is different. It is an institution that calls for comprehensive allegiance of a sort that supersedes every other loyalty. The nation-state is, to use the words of the first of the Ten Commandments, a “jealous God” who has little patience for competitors. This institution demands body and soul. Loyalty to it is a matter of life and death. In other words, it is religious devotion that is expected of citizens. The rituals and practices of the nation-state aim to form, define and deepen our loyalty and in so doing shape our identity so that who we are above all – at least for those in the United States – is American. Of course Christianity is welcome, even applauded in many quarters. But being Christian is assumed to be a subcategory of being American so that those in the church in the United States are American Christians, not merely Christians in America.
Historically, if there has been little serious conflict in the United States between Christian devotion and American allegiance it is not due to some Christian nature of America that some people imagine exists. Instead this is an indication of the extent that the church has been conformed to American ideals, interests and identity. No clear distinction between being American and being Christian is even a possibility because the two have become one in the hearts of many. The God being worshiped is the American God and the nation they love is in some fashion God’s nation. Consequently, many Christians find it incomprehensible that incorporating the rituals of America into the worship of the church could be anything other than a positive, edifying practice.
On those all-too-rare occasions when an objection is raised about the presence of the rituals of American nationalism in the worship of the church, those who respond are usually quick to rehearse the myth of the Christian origins of America. It would not be fair to declare the myth entirely baseless. Surely William Bradford and then John Winthrop believed their colonies had a special relationship with God somewhat similar to that enjoyed by the people of Israel. While the founders of the United States did not intend to establish an expressly Christian nation, many politicians and preachers through the years have borrowed biblical language and imagery to speak of America. The belief that America is in some fashion “chosen” by God has been widespread and enduring.
Fortified with confidence that the cause of humanity and the cause of God just so happen to coincide with the cause of the nation, Christians have repeatedly taken to the battlefield under different flags. There they kill and maim one another, to say nothing of the injury they cause to others who make no claim to follow the Prince of Peace. Regardless of which nations are the victors and which are the vanquished, nationalism wins and the church loses.
Nationalism generally provides answers to at least two important questions. First, is there some kind of group smaller than the entire humankind that is of central importance or is there not? For the nationalist the answer is that there is and that group is the nation. Second, is it voluntary or involuntary belonging that is the basis of obligation one has to his or her community or communities? The nationalist says that involuntary belonging is most important. The nation is the community to which one belongs from birth and to which one is most obligated. Christians generally agree with nationalists that there is some group smaller than the entire humankind that is of central importance. But in contrast to nationalists we must insist that membership in the group and the basis of obligation to others in this particular community is voluntary. For Christians that group or community is –or rather should be- the church.
However, for the nationalist it is not enough to view the attachment and obligation to the national community as merely important to who we are and what we do. Loyalty to the nation cannot be secondary to loyalty given to the church. National loyalty must be most important. Because the population is divided in many matters, political leaders are intent to unite people by appealing to a shared identity that will supersede all other understanding of the self and, as philosopher Charles Taylor noted, “take precedence over a host of other poles of identity, such as family, class, gender, even (perhaps especially) religion.”
The best way for nationalism to take precedence over religion is for it to wear the mantle of religion, even if unofficially. This can be done best, not by an assault on religion, but by the subversion of it. Nationalistic ministers even more often than politicians are the most frequent agents of this subversion. On the one hand, this takes place as religious leaders make much of the ceremonial use of “God” in the national motto, the Pledge of Allegiance, in political speeches, and by treating the myths of national origin as somehow revelatory.
On the other hand, the subversion is furthered by incorporating elements of nationalistic liturgy into the life and worship of the church. The result is that churches become what historian Carlton Hayes called “auxiliaries to nationalist fervor and nationalist endeavor.” By prominently displaying the American flag, by singing the National Anthem or other songs that glorify America and foster pride in the nation, by offering special honor to the U.S. military, and perhaps even pledging allegiance to the flag, the nation is invited to take a seat on the throne of God in such close proximity to the Lord that distinguishing the two becomes virtually impossible.
Several years ago, after serving as a visiting professor in an American seminary Swiss theologian Eberhard Busch, friend and biographer of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, found himself disturbed. He sat down and wrote, “A Letter to Ministers of the Church in the U.S.” In this open letter he reflected on what he observed as he spent time in this country. “I got the impression,” he wrote, “that among Christians… what it means to be a child of God and to be an American has become confused.” This state of affairs led him to be concerned for the credibility of the American church. He had seen firsthand in Germany what damage could be done when church is subverted and enlisted the by nation. The confusion of Christian identity he observed is evident above all in the worship of the church in the U.S.
The church in America will not be a Christ-centered community of peace so long as it is determined to celebrate its identity as American. It is imperative, I believe, that all traces of nationalism be removed from the church’s worship. Otherwise, in times of international crisis, instead of being an instrument of reconciliation, it will continue to embrace the role of handmaiden of war. God cannot be praised in the same breath that America is honored without God being dishonored and replaced by another god. The church cannot be itself so long as it is defined by its location, complexion or culture.
But ridding the church in the United States of the marks of nationalism will be a formidable task for those who are willing to face it. Many in the church will intensely resist. I cannot help but recall the words of a long-time lay leader who was in the middle of a discussion about the prospect of removing the American flag from the sanctuary of his church. In an unguarded moment of nationalist fervor, he passionately thundered: “Some things Jesus Christ himself can’t make me do!” That says it all.
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”