I call myself a politically incorrect patriot. It’s a much easier designator that “someone who has studied the American civil religion and finds it a dangerous thing with which to engage.” There are a number of reasons why I have taken a stance that is often at odds with the prevailing expectations of patriotism in the United States. Admittedly, one of those reasons is that I’m a contrarian at heart and coming of age during the “War on Terror” has made me weary of blind patriotism. However, there are also theological and sociological reasons for my stance. The theological becomes especially important around this time of year when worship services on the Sunday closest to the July 4 holiday take on a certain patriotic tone.
I want to be clear about something from the outset here: this is not a new thing. It’s not some grand political statement about our current president. If I want to make grand political statements about our current president, I do it on Twitter. You can check; I’m not shy. I was against patriotic worship last year (and the year before that and the year before that, etc.) when Barack Obama, who I voted for, was president. I’m anti-patriotic worship this year with Donald Trump, who I definitely DIDN’T vote for, in the White House. The conflation of the American civil religion with Christian theology is troubling, and I really don’t want anything to do with it. Let me explain.
Last fall, I taught a seminar course on the American civil religion. In the description for the course, I invoked Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous statement about pornography: I can’t define it, but I know it when I see it. The term “American civil religion” only really finds traction in an academic setting. Try to explain it to the average American, and you’re likely to get a blank stare until you start describing the sorts of things included in the civil religion:
- Priests and prophets: Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln, King, Kennedy—either one
- Sacred places: Gettysburg, Arlington National Cemetery
- Hymns: the National Anthem, God Bless America
- Holidays: July 4, Memorial Day, Flag Day
At this point, most folks will start nodding along when I describe the civil religion, but it’s not just what the civil religion is, but what it does that can be problematic.
The difficulty with the civil religion is that it often has been and continues to be conflated with actual religion. This problem started at the very founding of the colonies in the New World. The Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630, included, as did the Motherland of Britain, an established church. What that means is that the state and the civil magistrates were able to enforce church discipline and tax monies collected in the colony went to the support of the church. Thus, the religion and the civil religion were, for all intents and purposes, one and the same. The continued into the colonial era when eight of the 13 colonies had established churches. After independence, the Constitution would include only two references to God: forbidding a religious test for federal office and, more famously, protecting the free exercise of religion and forbidding the establishment of a national religion in the First Amendment. However, the individual states were allowed to maintain their established churches, and Massachusetts did until 1831 when it formally disestablished the Congregationalist church, making it the last church to disestablish.
We still see vestiges of this historical mixing of religion and civil religion throughout our places of worship, however. Many churches have an American flag at the front of the sanctuary along with the Christian flag (and woe betide any minister who attempts to remove said American flag). Churches offer patriotic-themed worship around Memorial Day and the 4th of July. My theological problems with this are two-fold: first, if Pentecost taught us anything, it’s that the message of Christ is available to everyone, everywhere, of every language, tribe, and nation. To plant our flag (literally and metaphorically) on the mountain of American Christianity does a disservice to that message. Second, idolatry becomes a real problem. Wrapping Jesus in an American flag often bastardizes the message of Christianity and sets up the flag, the country, and the leaders of the country as objects of devotion at best, worship at worst.
"Anthem" by Five Iron Frenzy, from the album Upbeats and Beatdowns
Don’t believe me? Allow me to share what Robert Jeffress, one of the “court evangelicals” as John Fea calls them, has been up to lately. Last Sunday, his church (First Baptist) in Dallas hosted “Freedom Sunday.” I’m not sure exactly what was being worshipped, but I don’t think it was the risen Christ. Yesterday, he and his merry band commandeered the Kennedy Center for an uber-patriotic celebration of the July 4 holiday that included—no kidding—the First Baptist Church-Dallas choir singing a song called “Make America Great Again.” While this is obviously the marriage of God and country taken to an extreme conclusion, it is not abnormal. In fact, according to a survey done by Lifeway, the Southern Baptist Convention’s research outfit, 53% of Protestant pastors said they think that their congregations sometimes seem to love America more than God. Love or devotion to something other than the Almighty is the very definition of idolatry.
Is it any wonder, then, that someone who has studied the American civil religion would be squeamish about it? The sociological implications of the civil religion are equally difficult to stomach. It is often weaponized against those who don’t follow the party line (like politically incorrect patriots). This has been seen as recently as last fall when Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the National Anthem before San Francisco 49er games as a protest against the state of race relations in this country drew outrage from all over. In fact, it may have killed his football career, proving that violating the civil religion is more injurious to a public figure than domestic violence or other criminal activity. Furthermore, minorities in general have been left out of the civil religion. Richard Hughes’ book Myths America Lives By lays out the various myths that have informed the civil religion as well as Black critiques of those myths.1 Such critiques are easy to find because the civil religion is so often blind to its own faults.
So about my own politically incorrect patriotism. I don’t do patriotic worship services, for one. I also don’t say the Pledge of Allegiance (or put my hand over my heart while it’s being recited). For one thing, I don’t pledge allegiance to a symbol, regardless of what that symbol stands for. My true allegiance is to my faith, though I am eternally grateful to have been born in the United States. I’m also not wild about the “under God” of it all. It wasn’t in the original, it only reinforces the “America is a Christian nation” trope, and it was really about the Cold War. Nor do I put my hand over my heart when I sing the National Anthem. This is where my contrarian side really comes out. After 9/11, this became one marker among many of who was a “true” patriot and who wasn’t. That’s stupid. First, I don’t really feel the need to prove my patriotism to anyone. Second, this is a ridiculous standard by which to judge one’s patriotism. If Muhammad Atta and the other 9/11 hijackers could have done it to blend in and avoid suspicion, it’s not a great measure of patriotism. Does it have meaning and value to people? Yes, of course, which is why I don’t lecture others on what they should do. It just doesn’t seem particularly meaningful to me.
This is but one politically incorrect patriot’s attempt to explain why I don’t do patriotic worship services without getting into the weeds too much. Far be it for me to tell others what they should do. My church had a partially patriotic worship service today. That’s fine. Plenty of others did too. I just choose not to participate. Because I’m a contrarian. Because the civil religion gives me pause. Because the slide to idolatry is far too easy.
“And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.”—Romans 12:2
1 Richard T. Hughes, Myths America Lives By (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2004).