Wednesday, July 04, 2007

A Quick July 4th Thought

It's no secret that I'm increasingly suspicious of American Christians who wear their patriotism on their sleeve these days, but I often have difficulty articulating how patriotism may rightly be expressed. I often catch people by surprise when I make comments on how some people use the American flag, for example. I get upset if people display flags that are tattered or ripped. A flag should be well maintained if it is going to be on display. Similarly, if a flag is going to be flown at night, there should be a spotlight on it.

These are signs of respect, and I do think that Christians should have a proper respect for the country they find themselves in, especially if that country treats them as (comparatively?) well as America does. But I see two major problems: 1) people who identify Christianity and American patriotism too closely, and 2) people who put on the facade of patriotism without stopping to think about what they're saying or doing.

But, again, what does a "proper" respect for our country look like? Richard Mouw, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote a piece several years ago that he recently reposted on his own blog. The whole thing is worth a read, but here's an excerpt that, among other things, deals with the issue of flying American flags in church sanctuaries. First off, Mouw tells his readers that it is good and proper that church worship gatherings are distinctive according to the culture and nation in which they take place....

It is one thing, though, to incorporate our national context into our worship. It is another to foster non-Christian loyalties as we worship. And there can be no question that the danger of alien loyalties is a real one in dealing with the relationship between Christian worship and civic symbols.

Take the flag question. Strictly speaking, there is nothing wrong with having a national flag in a place of worship. As a reminder of our national “place” and as a stimulus to reflect seriously on what it means to be Christian citizens, a flag can be a rather innocent symbol.

But it is difficult to assess this issue properly without also reckoning with the constant danger of nationalistic pride. We are often asked to offer to our nations the kind of allegiance that we should direct only to God. A national flag seldom serves as a mere reminder of the fact that we are citizens of a specific nation. It is a powerful symbol—even a seductive one—that can evoke feelings of loyalty and pride that are not proper for Christians. And when a national flag stands alongside the so-called Christian flag, we can easily be led to think that God and Caesar have equal importance in our lives.

When we come together for Christian worship, we are acknowledging our identity as members of “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Pet. 2:9). And we need to be reminded that other racial and priestly and national loyalties are constantly competing for our allegiance. Our worship services are gatherings in the divine throne-room, where we acknowledge that our true loyalties belong to God alone. Nothing in our liturgical content or setting should detract from this expression of fidelity.

On this July 4th, it is good and proper for Americans to remember the good things that we enjoy by living in this particular nation. These are gifts from God, and not everyone in the world is privileged to enjoy them. But let's not equate being good Americans with being good Christians. Our loyalty to God is higher than our loyalty to our country, and if our country asks us to do things that are contrary to what God asks us to do (which I have to say I think happens a good deal more than a lot of well-meaning American Christians want to think), then our loyalty to God comes first.

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