Planning worship around Independence Day in the U.S. is tricky in the mainline Protestant church, which for most, today’s worship service and regular church practices arose in the time after WWII, as did the appearance of flags in the church. I grew up in a small liberal American Baptist congregation that was clear on its separation of church and state and never had flags in the sanctuary, but I remember visiting other friend’s churches and being curious as to why there was an American flag along with a Christian flag in the worship service. While we are glad to honor our country, we know that first and foremost we are called to honor God. When I have traveled in other countries and visited other churches, I have never seen their nation’s flag in their sanctuary. It is unthinkable. But in the U.S., sometimes you are chastised if you don’t have the flag. It is unique to America, yet many American Christians feel that one must have the flag in the sanctuary, that if we don’t, somehow God will not bless America (and if we ask God to bless America, do we ask God to bless Afghanistan and Canada and Russia as well?)
In my previous congregation that I served, we were fortunate to have many members from countries all over the world, but also we had several families from Canada. Because Canada Day is July 1st, I started a tradition on the first Sunday of the month, that before the announcements, before worship began, we would sing “O Canada” as well as the “Star-Spangled Banner.” These songs are not for worshiping God. These songs are for making us feel patriotic, and really have no place in the worship service.
But there is something about celebrating our diversity, and celebrating the freedom to do so. As much as I didn’t like having the flags in the sanctuary or singing our patriotic songs in worship, when our praise should be directed towards God and not any earthly kingdom, nor ignoring God’s call to people of all nations, there was something genuinely fun and celebratory about singing both national anthems. It defused the patriotic overtones that God is only on the side of the U.S. that is often found and instead became a celebration of the people. And once we allowed ourselves to celebrate the people, our nations, our heritage—we were then able to celebrate God’s presence among us all.
We need to continue to separate church and state—and it needs to begin in the worship service. But separating church and state does not mean doing away with the celebration of our country or countries, our peoples and our traditions—it means that we recognize that is in fact what we are doing. We are not asking God to specially bless our country because we know God does not do that (even in the prophets it mentions that God has covenants with other countries and peoples). We are not perpetuating the myth that God is on our side and not on anyone else’s. We are simply celebrating a tradition of love for our country. But we need to be clear about what we are doing and why.
Many of the patriotic traditions that have seeped into the worship service occurred in the time after WWII, but those generations are fading and we have forgotten why we do this. Instead, we sing these songs and have the flags because it has become tradition, and we begin to uphold the myth that somehow America was specially ordained by God out of other nations. Instead, let us separate out the myth from fact. Let us celebrate our country, remembering the great diversity of people who live here and who come together for church on Sunday, and then let us worship God, who is God of us all.
May God bless America, and Afghanistan, and all countries, but more importantly, may we be a blessing to others because we remember that God is God of all people.