Marion looked across the table at his wife and smiled. “I’m picking up some interesting skills, working at the library,” he said.

Marion and Julie didn’t often get to eat lunch together. Their busy schedules did not mesh well for shared meals. Breakfasts were eaten on the go, along with other morning preparations, including packing their lunches. Dinners were often separate because one of them had an evening meeting or the other had to drive the children to a dance class or a soccer game. Only on Saturdays and Sundays did they get to eat together, and Sundays the children were usually there as well. That made Saturday lunches special.

“Special skills?” Julie asked him.

Marion nodded. “So many people come in trying to research their family trees, I feel that I’m becoming a professional genealogist. They always ask for help, although some of them know more about family research than I do. In fact, a few of them have taught me a trick or two. It’s gotten to the point that I’m tracking down people in my spare time—living or dead, it doesn’t matter: I can find them.

“Yesterday, for example, I remembered a woman I knew back when I was in graduate school. I got to wondering how she is today. So I did some research. I found out that she got married about five years after our wedding. On the application for the wedding license, her husband wrote that he was a professional musician.”

Julie grinned at the phrase but said nothing. Marion went on, “So, I looked him up, and you’ll never guess what he plays—kettledrums! He’s with a symphony orchestra.”

“Here I pictured him in blue jeans and playing guitar in some rock band.”

“No, he wears a suit and a bow tie. He also teaches music at a college.

“The two of them have a son who’s in high school. He even made the national news. It seems that one day he stood up in the cafeteria and sang the national anthem. The school administrators gave him a detention for it.”

“That doesn’t seem fair.”

“No—a lot of people don’t think so. That’s why it made the national news. He wasn’t being disrespectful to the anthem, he sang it properly, as a show of patriotism.”

“The schools are getting so liberal these days. People support a football player for kneeling during the anthem, and then they punish a kid for singing it the right way.”

“It turns out that the next day, dozens of students got up during lunch and sang the anthem. They wanted to support him. But the school didn’t care. They started putting extra teachers on lunchroom duty to make sure it didn’t happen again.”

Julie shook her head. But instead of saying more about the high school student, she asked a different question. “Now, should I be nervous that you’re looking up old flames when you’re at work?”

“Old flames?” he queried.

“Someone upon whom you once had a big crush.”

Marion looked across the table at his wife and smiled. He decided not to mention the high school yearbook photographs he had also discovered online.

(There really have been cases of high school students being punished for singing the national anthem in the high school cafeteria. But the rest of this story is fiction. J.)

American Civil Religion

When I was in college, I took a course on American Civil Religion. The course was taught by a sociology professor and a religious studies professor, and students majoring in both departments participated. I earned an A in the class, in spite of the fact that I disagreed with both professors about the definition of Civil Religion, stating my case in classroom discussions, in my major paper for the class, and on the final exam.

Civil Religion is a blend of religious beliefs and favoritism for one’s nation. The nineteenth-century concept of Manifest Destiny is an example of American Civil Religion. Manifest Destiny was the conviction of white Americans that the entire continent, “from sea to shining sea,” should be dominated by the United States of America, even at the expense of Native American tribes and the country of Mexico. Treating the blood of soldiers shed in warfare as a sacrifice to God for the nation (as is done, for example, in the Battle Hymn of the Republic) is an example of American Civil Religion. The idea that the United States is a city on a hill, shining its light to the rest of the world so the other nations can follow our example of “liberty and justice for all,” is an example of American Civil Religion. This is especially true when that idea is combined with the belief that God intended the United States to be that beacon to the nations and that he will bless us so long as we continue shining our virtues into every dark corner of the world.

Singing “God Bless America,” not as a humble prayer but as a demand, is an example of American Civil Religion. Saying during the Cold War that we were battling “godless Communism” is an example of American Civil Religion. Singing patriotic songs that are not Christ-centered or Biblically based during a church service is an example of American Civil Religion.

In class I argued that faith and patriotism can exist in the same mind without being Civil Religion. Pledging allegiance to “one nation, under God,” combats American Civil Religion by stating that God comes first before the nation. Praying humbly to God for blessings for the nation is a blend of faith and patriotism which is not Civil Religion. The Bible tells Christians to pray for kings and those in authority. Jesus allows us to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and give to God what is God’s,” and in Romans 13 Paul includes honor and respect, along with taxes and fees, as things we are required to give to our civil leaders.

Some practices of religion are on the border between faith combined with patriotism and the American Civil Religion. Having the American flag in the church building, especially in the central worship space, is ambiguous. (Europeans, especially Germans, are astounded that Americans bring the national flag into the church building.) Prayers before sessions of Congress or of a state legislature are ambiguous. In fact, the more ambiguous and inoffensive the prayer, the more likely it is an example of American Civil Religion. Glorifying our national leaders and attempting to prove that they practiced a conservative Christian faith can be American Civil Religion at work, rather than a genuine inquiry of faith or of history. Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln—all of our great leaders can be quoted in favor of Biblical Christianity and opposed to Biblical Christianity, depending upon who is doing the research into their lives.

I still believe that I can be a faithful Christian and a patriotic American at the same time. I do not believe that every expression of love for my country is part of the American Civil Religion. In fact, Civil Religion is idolatry that opposes true Christianity. Not every leader who says, “God bless the United States and God bless you” is speaking of the God who is known only through Jesus Christ. Discerning minds will detect the difference. Christians are to be active in the public square, sharing the hope that is ours through Jesus Christ. Our presence in the public square entitles us to love our country, even as we call it away from idolatry and invite its people to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. With that in mind, I can pray, “God Bless America.” J.


Memorial Day

Rethink recently published a post called “7 Sins the Church Doesn’t Acknowledge.” (You can read the entire post here.) One of the seven sins mentioned is Nationalism. Rethink says, “It’s a sin to put anything before God. That includes America. Our ultimate allegiance is to God not this country. Too many in the church place their American freedoms above God’s kingdom. This means that sometimes what is best for this country is not always what is Biblically correct.”

During this Memorial Day weekend, it is fitting to stop and consider the point at which nationalism becomes a sin. All patriotism is not sinful. The Pledge of Allegiance places the loyalty of the pledger to “one nation, under God.” Atheists and polytheists are free to skip those words if they choose, but believers can only pledge loyalty to the nation when they acknowledge that the nation is under God.

The line between godly patriotism and sinful nationalism can be discovered with one question: Who is serving whom? Are we demanding that God govern the world for the good of the United States of America, or are we calling the USA to be faithful to God? In the fall of 2001, as many Americans were repeating the phrase, “God bless America,” some Christians responded with the phrase, “America, bless God!” Certainly if “God bless America” is meant as a command, the words are flagrantly disrespectful to the Lord. If those words are meant as a humble prayer, they are not sinful.

National holidays and national symbols can be troubling within the church. European visitors are astonished to see American flags in houses of worship, sometimes near or behind the altar. Some preachers are careful to observe every American holiday—Mothers’ Day, Fathers’ Day, Memorial Day, Independence Day—in place of the normal Sunday observances established by tradition. I am not sure how many preachers are able to ignore these days entirely. If they do, I suspect they hear complaints.

The best approach is to use the national holiday as a bridge to God’s message. A preacher can mention mothers in the prayers and in the sermon without setting aside God’s Word to honor mothers. In fact, a creative preacher might even turn Mothers’ Day into a salute to the Bride of Christ, our Mother, the Holy Christian Church. (This is especially fitting when Mothers’ Day lands on Pentecost Sunday.) On Fathers’ Day, a preacher might acknowledge earthly fathers and then talk about the eternal relationship of God the Father and God the Son.

What of Memorial Day? We do not worship soldiers as saints and heroes who gave their life for their country, but we can remember those who died in battle without worshiping them. Moreover, we can use their example to point to the perfect Sacrifice, Jesus Christ, who gave his life in battle against sin and evil and death so we can be free from those enemies. We are at peace with God and are promised a truly prosperous Kingdom because of the sacrifice of Jesus. This message is as fitting on Memorial Day as it is any other day of the year. J.