This time of year many churches in the U.S. celebrate the Forth of July. I expect Americans to celebrate, but I’m very uncomfortable with churches doing so. I’m not wanting to condemn anyone specifically; I am merely sharing what the mix of Christianity and American patriotism communicates to me. The way churches celebrate the U.S. comes across to me like people worshiping America, not merely being thankful. After all, we can and should be thankful for food, our jobs, our family and friends, etc. But we don’t post banners and flags celebrating these, nor do we sing songs about them (at least for the most part).
This year I was again in church the Sunday before the Forth of July (though not the church I typically attend). And this year I was just as disturbed as last year for the very same reasons. One of the men leading the service briefly mentioned how he remembered Pearl Harbor in the course of talking. I didn’t have any problem with this. I am interested in hearing his experiences and can appreciate his thankfulness for the U.S. I don’t have a problem with him sharing this part of his life in church. I don’t have a problem with Christians being thankful for the U.S.
But there were many other things which did bother me. I found it interesting that he talked about serving the U.S. (pointing to a U.S. flag) and then to serving God (pointing to a Christian flag). Matthew 6:24 immediately came to mind: “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other.” Yes, Jesus then mentions money as a competing master to God, but I certainly think it can be other things—such as patriotism—as well.
Honestly, the service this past Sunday felt more like a church of America rather than a church of Christ. It reminded me of some kind of organization like the Masons which preform religious like rituals but doesn’t really have much to do with Christ. Some of the songs which were sung were solely patriotic, such as “God Bless America”. To me the service felt as much like a service worshiping America than a service worshiping Christ. During the invitation I could easily imagine someone saying, “Come down and accept America into your heart.” After all, the U.S. had been praised all service.
I’m somewhat surprised that few others apparently see this. Most American Christians don’t see anything wrong with mixing Christianity and patriotism but to me, the fact that so many us are enamored with the U.S. reveals our lack of faith in God. We don’t believe he is really the source of all good things. We think we need more than just Jesus. I am finding this difficult to write about because my faith in God is weak. I may not have faith that the U.S. gives me freedom and security, but my experience challenges my faith that God provides these as well. But despite my own doubts, the message of Jesus found in the bible definitely points to the fact that we’re supposed to trust in God as the ultimate source for everything we need. And the church should be encouraging our faith in Christ as opposed to other things.
There is a popular photo and slogan which I’ve seen a couple of times: “One died for your soul (Jesus), the other for your freedom (an American soldier).” Again, it is a mixing of Christianity and American patriotism, and I believe it’s completely fails to understand the good news of Christ. I think the phrase refers to a popular but severely limited understanding of the gospel. This is: “Jesus died for your sins so that you can go to heaven and not hell when you die.” One of the problems of this gospel is that, once you state you believe or convert, then your belief in God is fairly irrelevant to how you live your life. But this is only a small piece of the gospel.
The truth is, Christ came to inaugurate God’s kingdom and invite us to be a part of it. Joining him will transform our entire lives now, not just to save our souls later on. Knowing Jesus won’t necessarily means that the circumstances of our lives will be better. They may in fact get worse. But the transformation Christ brings means that we can begin to see that the world is upside down. As we begin to align with true reality, God’s perspective, we will see that we are free and have hope in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves in. The good news is that Christ’s kingdom (not America) is a truly good nation, and his kingdom is in our midst already.
I definitely feel like there is an American gospel which falls into the category of gospel that Paul so strongly condemned in Galatians (1:8-9). The phrase above gives away the fact the people feel that good things in this life come from a strong U.S. This is the American gospel: “Praise God for America because our country allows us to have all these good things such as freedom.” Where does your hope really lay? For many Christians, it’s not actually in Christ but in the U.S. They seek the U.S. for their security and freedom. I don’t believe you can ultimately mix this with Christ.
The bible is clear on all that I’m saying. Those who follow Christ are being formed into a new people: “You are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” (1 Peter 2:9). Previous divisions such as nationality no longer separate us: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). And Paul clearly says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). It’s worth noting that Jews in Jesus’ day believed the messiah would come and make Israel free from Rome. They they believed that the freedom they would experience would be political freedom. Obviously God had something different in mind, something better.
American soldiers may be helping both those here in the U.S. and those in other countries be free from certain aggressors. But this is only a limited freedom. We can be thankful for these, but these freedoms aren’t ultimate and can be lost again. However Christ has truly set us free. And he has freed us not only from hell, not only from death, but from our sinful nature. We are free to align ourselves with eternal reality. When we enter into his freedom, no power on earth can enslave us. That’s a type of freedom only Christ can bring, not America nor any other country. So we can be thankful for the U.S., but we shouldn’t cross over into praise and worship of the U.S.
Who do you believe is really going to set you free and fill your soul: the United States of America or Jesus Christ? You can only choose one.