During my years spent in the States, there was one disturbing trend I found in most American churches I visited: every church has two flags on the stage in the front of the sanctuary–a ‘Christian flag” and an American flag.
What’s more is that the fervent patriotism of Americans is so entwined in religious observance that on the Sundays preceding important national holidays (Presidents’ Day, Memorial Day, 4th of July) patriotic hymns are sung and fanfare is made of the nation and our citizenship and duty of sacrifice for it.
Mark Twain, in the context of the Spanish-American War, wrote a short story called The War Prayer in which he used the voice of a derelict, homeless man to provoke the church into recognising it’s own complicity in the patriotism-fueled war machine. This was made into a contemporary video in 2007 where we enter an American flag-waving church celebrating the great nation’s power and spirit. In the midst of this, a homeless veteran walks in the door and makes his way to the stage and offers a prayer which is seen by many as very unAmerican. Have a look at the video here.
The truth is, whether it is displaying flags on stage, using patriotic songs, art and language in church or merely endorsing politicians, wars, or national interests from the pulpit, God is not American and (gulp!) he doesn’t care if you are or not.
I may be unpopular as I state this point, but I strongly believe that the church should have no part to play in this unless it is one of being the prophetic voice that calls people to repent and turn from their ego-centric ways. The church cannot be the prophet to the nation whilst at the same time playing the national anthem and shrouding itself in red, white and blue.
Certainly, we can acknowledge our national heritage and be proud of the fact that we are citizens of the U.S.A. We can (and should) also pray for our nation, its government and people. But we must never worship the flag, bow down to the nation, or hold our patriotism in higher esteem than our identity as imagebearers of God, whatever our citizenship.
The U.S.A. is not a Christian nation and the church is not a state-run or -endorsed organisation. The church needs to stop understanding and preaching God as the Lord of the U.S.A. who endows the American nation with prosperity, virtue and the right to lord it over any people considered to be inferior (starting with the native peoples and continuing to immigrants, the marginalised, and third world factory workers and farmers). There is no such thing as ‘Manifest Destiny’ except as an explanation in history books of a very troubling period of national identity. It is the followers of Jesus who are to be a “Light on a hill,” not one chosen nation.
And our worship, with all that it entails in word, music, setting and symbolism, must reflect the God who is over all peoples, loving all peoples, redeeming all peoples and blessing all peoples.