Patriotism in worship

July 10th, 2019

With national holidays comes a pressure to observe them on Sundays in the context of Christian worship. The most egregious and public example might be First Baptist Church in Dallas, who, on the Sunday before Independence Day celebrated “Freedom Sunday” complete with fireworks, “patriotic worship,” a salute to armed forces, and a special guest speaker, Lt. Col. Oliver North, of Iran-Contra Affair fame and a former president of the National Rifle Association. But many churches might insist on singing national songs as hymns or displaying the flag prominently.

While those who closely follow the liturgical year might lean on that to try to avoid the pitfalls of celebrating national holidays in church, the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer considers Independence Day a Major Feast. It has its own collect and set of propers or lessons, and our hymnal includes a section of national songs.

Observing or celebrating cultural and national holidays in our Sunday worship is often fraught, whether it is Mother’s Day or Memorial Day. Ultimately, we gather together to worship and praise God in community with other Christians, and if our worship veers too far in the direction of our country or anything else, we are in danger of idolatry. But neither should we neglect to give thanks for the freedoms we do enjoy, remember those who sacrificed to secure them, or commit ourselves to working for justice and peace in our nation.

The ways in which a worshipping community might acknowledge national holidays varies with context. Little, if any, mind is paid to them in my current congregation, but those with a high percentage of current or retired military or in close proximity to military bases or government offices may need to recognize them with more intention.

As someone deep in the rhythms of the liturgical calendar, I admit to often forgetting these days when I am planning out hymns and such, especially if the day in question does not fall on a Sunday. Few of us clergy get “three-day weekends” if we’re serving a congregation, and these holidays sneak up on us. In my first congregation, a helpful parishioner pointed out that I might want to “say something” about Veterans’ Day and so, at the announcements, I recognized those who had served and prayed the Thanksgiving for Heroic Service.

With this year's Independence Day holiday recently behind us, it may be fresh on our minds that patriotism in the context of worship is frequently fraught. No matter what we do, it always seems as if someone is unhappy. There is either too much or too little recognition of these national holidays, and they are weighed with political baggage as well. If one chooses to forego any acknowledgment in favor of straightforward worship, it can be seen as “hating America” or otherwise telegraphing liberal politics. And if there are prayers for our country or national songs sung, we receive accusations of idolatry.

Whatever else is being celebrated on our national or cultural calendars, it is crucial that the gospel is preached, a gospel that does not belong to any one country or political party. Our primary worship is for God, not country, but we can lift up in thanksgiving the freedoms that we enjoy and the beautiful land that we inhabit.

As Paul writes to the Galatians in chapter 5, “For freedom Christ has set us free,” but it is a freedom that puts us in service to our neighbor, not a freedom to be used as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Perhaps national holidays can be a reminder that the freedoms that we benefit from politically should be used in accordance with the will of God and not our own.

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