The fourth of July weekend is a tricky one in churches in the US. It’s especially tricky in culturally conservative parts of the country, though I don’t imagine that there’s any place that’s immune.
Anything to do with patriotism, in general, invites a lot of silliness that we wouldn’t embrace in other situations. No lie, I have been to a Christian “worship service” that included a civil war reenactment and a delivery of the Gettysburg address. (Of course, the battle ended with Lincoln guiding the two sides to stop fighting and shake hands, though I suppose the alternative – John Wilkes Booth playing the part of Judas – would have been even worse.)
Because the ideas of “God” and “country” have become so intertwined, the identity of the church as the transnational bride of Christ becomes obscured. Evangelicals in the US embrace Thomas Jefferson while shunning John Shelby Spong, despite their remarkably similar views on the Bible. Many Americans come into corporate worship on or around July 4 expecting to sing about a Grand Old Flag and amber waves of grain. In fact, many pastors and music leaders get angry calls and/or emails if America isn’t celebrated. (NB: There’s a difference between being thankful for freedoms enjoyed in America and celebrating America in a time that’s supposed to be reserved for Jesus. An Iraqi Christian living in Peoria can be thankful for the freedom to worship freely without having to say the Pledge of Allegiance.)
The wise thing to do isn’t to put up a huge middle finger and accuse everyone of idolatry. Because it’s the air so many of us have breathed for so long (especially our parents and grandparents), dealing with matters of God and country requires gentleness and wisdom. But neither should we cave in and sing My Country ‘Tis of Thee or The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
So what do I do? I cheat. We sing my favorite “fake” patriotic hymn: God of Our Fathers. It has enough civil connotation to evoke some of the nostalgia that hymns to America do, yet the text isn’t about America, it’s about our fathers (and mothers) in the faith. It’s much more Hebrews 11 than July 1776.
As wonderful as they are, the stars and stripes won’t last forever. Jesus’ kingdom will.