October 19, 2017

The Wrong Song For the People of God

godcountry.jpg[Check out the previous IM post, “With God On Our Side.”]

One of the results of working with international students, and especially of having them in worship services you’re leading, is a new appreciation of how some commonly accepted elements of American Christian culture sound to those who aren’t Americans.

Take, for example, those patriotic songs at the back of your average American hymnal. They sound somewhat unusual when you look out into dozens of African and Asian faces.

This morning, the worship service I attended featured a very tasteful remembrance of those who had given their lives in the service of their country. We also sang this song, a song I’ve known since I was a small child, and a song that I’ve never really considered very much until I realized students from other countries were being asked to sing it with us in the context of worship.

O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties
Above the fruited plain!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful for pilgrim feet
Whose stern, impassioned stress
A thoroughfare for freedom beat
Across the wilderness!
America! America!
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!

O beautiful for heroes proved
In liberating strife.
Who more than self the country loved
And mercy more than life!
America! America!
May God thy gold refine
Till all success be nobleness
And every gain divine!

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!
America! America!
God shed his grace on thee
And crown thy good with brotherhood
From sea to shining sea!

There’s a lot I have always liked about this song. It has a recognition that we live in a blessed country and a flawed country. I can imagine someone like Martin Luther King, Jr. saying we should strive to live out what this song is about. If you can connect your own belief in God with your belief that every nation has received some blessings and opportunities from God, then this song has some meaning you can always affirm.

The song invites God to refine, shed grace and mend our country. I believe many Americans who are Christians could, within their own beliefs, sincerely add these requests to their prayers, and even invite those of other nations who happen to be with us to do the same.

At the same time, there are some aspects of the song that now stand out to me. They’ve always been there, but I now see them in a much clearer way as I think about the song appearing in so many Christian worship services.

1. The song is addressed to America. The prayers in this song are in the context of addressing America in a personified way. In the context of worship, this is indirect at best and idolatrous at worst. None of us believe that “America” is an entity we can or should address in anything other than a poetic and secular manner.

2. Who is the God being addressed in this song? There is nothing in the song that distinctively addresses the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Dealing with a generic deity in Christian worship is always problematic, but inviting non-Christians and internationals to do so is simply wrong. It is the kind of “God as you think of him/her” rhetoric you would expect to hear in a Unitarian/Universalist gathering.

3. The theology of the song has many problems.
Examples:

God shed his grace on thee, And crown thy good with brotherhood, From sea to shining sea! God’s common grace doesn’t come in response to our good. It’s incredibly misleading to glibly sing this, leaving the impression that we’re really doing pretty well, and with God’s help, we can do better.

A similar sentiment in the next verse.

May God thy gold refine, Till all success be nobleness, And every gain divine!

Thankfully, the best line in the song provides some some balance.

America! America!, God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, thy liberty in law!

4. The song has a utopian and Ameri-centric vision of the future.

O beautiful for patriot dream, That sees beyond the years.
Thine alabaster cities gleam, Undimmed by human tears!

Unless you are a particular kind of postmillenial theocrat, I’m not sure there is any way a Christian can believe that we can, even with God’s help, bring “alabaster cities” without human tears into existence. The reference to the City of God, where God wipes away every tear and banishes pain, is unmistakable. The song promotes a kind of American eschatology that we can’t Biblically promote.

Someone could suggest that any nation might take the essence of this song and transfer its message to any culture. In some ways this is true, but if you look at all the verses to this song (available here) it’s easy to see that this song celebrates God’s past, present and future dealings with our country as unique. In many ways, the song is an example of the American belief that our nation is the new people of God, subduing the wilderness and bringing about the promised land. As one commenter has pointed out, the “freedom” celebrated in this song comes at the expense of the freedom of native peoples and by some very specific sins on the part of Christians. Do we acknowledge those aspects of the story?

Perhaps the reason a song like “America the Beautiful” persists in worship among evangelicals is a simple, but deeply rooted problem: We- the church- don’t know who we are. We have lost our identity, and in the world in which we live, it is always easier to take hold of national identity than to live out the identity of God’s people.

God’s people come from every nation, tribe and people. We do not place our hope in any nation, but in Jesus Christ alone. We are a people in the midst of the nations. Our identity comes from our redemption through the blood of the lamb. We are called to live out our continuing identity found in the Word, the waters of baptism and the table of the Lord. This is not our home, and it is not our hope, even with religion added in.

Among many evangelicals, however, there is only the thinnest of memories left of what it means to be the people of God in the midst of America. It is much easier to equate being an American with being the people of God, and that is a significant loss.

Comments

  1. I have a real problem with lines like “a thoroughfare of freedom beat/Across the wilderness.”

    Oh my, how would the aboriginal people who suffered at the hands of European colonists all over North and South America respond to lines like that?

    Whose freedom?

  2. Thanks for a great point. I amended the essay and noted that the insight came from the comments.

  3. This is a hymn that I wrote last year. I wrote it as a generic hymn that Christians from rich nations can sing. It’s based upon Ode To Joy:

    God has brought us to this nation
    brought us to a land that’s free
    (but) when we look upon its people
    sin and death are what we see.
    No one seeks God, no one hears him
    everyone has turned away,
    slaves to sin, trapped in rebellion
    save this land O God we pray

    God has brought us to this nation
    brought us to a land of wealth
    (where) we enjoy all forms of goodness:
    peace and order; joy and health.
    (But) Satan’s lies they can deceive us
    to believe we earned it all
    God has blessed us in our nation
    but we need to heed his call.

    God has brought us to this nation
    where we have so much to gain –
    fortunes, friends and education
    many dreams we can obtain.
    (But) nothing can replace our saviour
    who laid down his life for us
    Jesus Christ is Lord forever
    in him do we place our trust.

    God has brought us to this nation,
    (where) we can freely worship him
    with no threats or swords to harm us
    faith to grow and souls to win.
    But the Gospel is distorted
    Satan sends his wolves to roam
    Save us Lord and give us wisdom,
    strength and faith to bring us home.

    God has brought us to this nation
    so we can obey His Word,
    hear His Gospel in our churches,
    (His) Spirit in our hearts has stirred.
    (Yet) we have bought a lie of Satan
    (we) listen to man’s thoughts instead
    So the Cross is gone from preaching
    and God’s word remains unread.

    God will one day judge this nation
    when Christ Jesus comes again.
    When the skies will open for him
    watch the Son of Man descend!
    And the church of true believers
    from all peoples shall ascend.
    Resurrection! Life eternal!
    Give God glory without end!

    (Can be sung to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy or any other song with an 8.7.8.7. metre)

    © 2006 Neil McKenzie Cameron, http://one-salient-oversight.blogspot.com/

  4. I visited a Catholic mass with some friends yesterday and we sang it there too! It’s always been one of my favorites, but singing it during worship has always seemed a little fishy.

  5. You don’t know how encouraging it is to hear an American say this. So much of what we hear over here from American evangelicalism seems to carry a whole cultural package with it. Sometimes we have to work hard to separate the 2 things and be open to the good without taking the rest on board.it certainly makes it a lot less digestible even across the relatively small cultural gap between america and Australia. Not that we don’t have our own national religion here (mainly materialistic hedonism), but the church is such a small minority there’s a lot less danger of getting the two confused. I had never realised until I read this (and BHT)today, that America’s Memorial Day and Pentecost coincide. what a way to distract from the source of real power and transformation to the “gospel” of self-effort!
    Bless you in all you are going through. I’m sure I’m not the only one regularly encouraged by your ministry-of-blog!

  6. BTW I forgot to post this about the copyright of the song:

    This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License.

    (ie you can sing it at church for free)

  7. Actually, most European Christians (of all stripes) are puzzled by the American tendency to mix religion and patriotism; while we have our national anthems and other traditional songs which express patriotic sentiment we don’t normally sing them in the context of a church service or other worship setting.

    I also believe that one of the main reasons songs like this are sung (and similarly erroneous songs without patriotic themes are sung in European churches) is that most people really don’t think about the words of the songs they sing, and don’t want to, either; when I try to point out such things I generally am viewed as a troublemaker.

  8. Jeremiah Lawson says:

    I don’t see how any patriotic song is appropriate in any church setting. Psalm 2 is still Psalm 2 and the United States of America is still one of “the nations” even if I really love living here and having been borned and raised in the United States.

    Of course if Ray Charles sings the song I don’t mind listening to it. Like a lot of songs this is a song where who sings the song can matter as much as the song being sung. If Celine Dion sings “I Drove All Night” I like it as little as I would like Celine Dion singing “Tom Sawyer” … though for sheer comedy value Dion singing any Rush song would be something.

  9. Wow. Thanks!

    Oddly – up here in ‘liberal Massachusetts’, our public elementary school spring concert is the Memorial Day event. It’s all red-white-and-blue, and the principal’s husband wears his uniform to lead the pledge. But, it’s all patriotic/athiest until the principal and music directory step aside and our wonderful Catholic teacher leads ‘God Bless America’ with the students. Q & I chuckle to ourselves because we realize this is a secularized unitarian/deist amerikanner tune, but we appreciate the efforts of this teacher (and the principal and director) to keep some kind of God in the curriculum.

    BTW: One_SalientOversight, you’re fun. I like your song. Maybe once I get back into an Anabaptist community I’ll be able to get some of your verses into the song book… 🙂

  10. Anthony Link says:

    Really appreciate your blog as well; I have never liked the singing of patriotic songs in worship for many of the same reasons but let me suggest that having American flags as part of our worship furniture is also problematic. Thankfully the church I’m in now doesn’t sing those songs and has fags from all over the world hanging in the sanctuary, meaning of course, the gospel for all nations.

  11. “Thankfully the church I’m in now doesn’t sing those songs and has fags from all over the world hanging in the sanctuary…”

    I says pardon!?!

    So many comments, so little time.

  12. Just read a trackback that said I “ripped” the song.

    ***crickets***

    I don’t think so.

  13. Mike Taylor says:

    Wolf Paul wrote:

    “I also believe that one of the main reasons songs like this are sung (and similarly erroneous songs without patriotic themes are sung in European churches) is that most people really don’t think about the words of the songs they sing.”

    So very, very true — unfortunately. This Sunday in my Church (a Baptist church in rural England) we sang a 1980s song, “When I look into your holiness”. The transition from the verse to the chorus goes: “When my will becomes enthroned in your love / I worship you”. Not “When my will becomes subsumed in your love”, or “when your love becomes enthroned in my will”, or any of a hundred possible formulations. Instead, the song looks forward to a day when my will is enthroned in — becomes king of — God’s love.

    Let’s be charitable and assume (surely correctly) that this was slip of the songwriter’s pen rather than something more sinister. What shocks me is how very many people must have failed to notice this appalling foul-up in order for us to be given this song to sing. The original writer made the mistake, and didn’t see it on a re-read. Whoever had pastoral responsibility for the worship in the writer’s church must have passed it for congregational use without noticing. The congregation can’t have spotted it, or at least must have kept quiet. Since the song has been recorded, it must have been adopted by a Christian A&R man, who also failed to notice that song predicates our worship of God on his enthroning our will. Then someone in my church decided the song was a good one to sing, and AGAIN didn’t notice.

    I mean to say, huh, what? This is not a subtle theological error; it’s not like the “emptied himself of all but love” line in And Can It Be that some but not all theologians object to because of the implication that in the incarnation Christ put aside his divinity. No: it’s a huge, howling, grotesque inversion of everything the discipleship is. And yet people sing it without batting an eyelid.

    Someone help me out here.

  14. Michael, very good thoughts. I have to fight tooth and nail to keep the patriotic songs out of worship on Memorial Day weekend and on the 4th Weekend. This year is was even more important because this past Sunday was Pentecost and there is no reason why the Church should trade down from celebrating the coming of the Spirit to the worship of a socio-political state.

    What really alarms me is when I point out how songs like this equate American Expansionism with the Kingdom of God and Evangelicalsâ„¢ refuse to acknowledge that it’s there (how one misses the link when the song has a line for American cities to be “undimmed by human tears” is beyond me).

    So, thank you for saying this.

  15. Since I pick the songs, our church doesn’t sing songs to the country on Memorial DAy or memorial day.

    I’ve been at Burton 5 years, as of May 20th, and I think our older folks put our lack of patriotic singing in the category of “strange things about our pastor we will never understand but will live with.”

    Michael, welcome back to the SBC.

  16. Couldn’t agree more with Michael–thanks. Now, what about the American flag in most churches, although in a couple of the “mega” churches in our area, the flag isn’t there, but just try moving it out of the sanctuary in most mainline or so-called evangelical churches, and you have a battle on your hands. As Michael and others note, people just don’t see the tendancy toward idolatry in such songs or in having the flag in the sanctuary–and this in our so-called Christian nation. Let’s hit our knees, or, better yet, fall on our faces before God to seek forgiveness.

  17. How right! First, when viewed from the opposite hemisphere, and now, from north of the 49th, the patriotism in religion in the US has always been kind of strange. Especially as the US is not supposed to have an official religion. It is not surprising to seea picture of Elizabeth II in an Anglican church, for instance, as she is the head of that church after all. And the most ‘patriotic’ song commonly sung in the Anglican setting is Parry’s “Jerusalem”, which certainly does not approach anything like that which has been mentioned here. From the perspective of the third world, where I grew up, it seemed as if, for many in the US evangelical world, nothing much happened between the death of St John on Patmos, and the arrival of the Pilgrims in 1620. Maybe that sounds like hyperbole, and I realise it is not nearly as bad as that (in general), but that is what many an Afrian Christian sees when looking to the US.

    Although govenment and fatherland should be in our prayers often, and love for country is important, it is not part and parcel of the gospel message. If you view it as such, forget about aking the gospel successfully to the other nations and tribes of the world.

  18. I was poking through the hymnal our church never uses anymore (Hymns for the Family of God, Paragon Associates, 1976) to look over the patriotic songs. The only one I could recommend for worship is the Battle Hymn of the Republic. The rest are more patriotic than biblical, and some don’t even mention God (even a generic version of Him) at all.

    This one, fr’instance, #693 “This Is My Country”:

    This is my country, Land of my birth;
    This is my country, Grandest on earth!
    I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold;
    For this is my country to have and to hold!

    What the hell is this doing in a hymnal?

  19. Interesting post. I have mixed feelings about this song. I think your points about its use in international congregations are good.

    However, I think you are running into problems here:

    1. The song is addressed to America. The prayers in this song are in the context of addressing America in a personified way. In the context of worship, this is indirect at best and idolatrous at worst.

    and here at BHT, where you say:
    Even the prayers are addressed to that entity rather than to God.

    If your point is simply that America should not be the addressee of a song sung in church because, as a nation it’s an inappropriate subject for members of a transnational community to sing, that’s one thing. But if your assumption is that all Christian hymnody must address God and only God, that seems problematic.

    If the congregation is forbidden to sing prayers or hymns that address personified inanimate entities, how could that congregation sing Psalm 100, which begins: “Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth”? The psalms frequently address nature, or specific natural features, directly. My personal favorite is Psalm 114, which in the KJV reads:

    What ailed thee, O thou sea, that thou fleddest? thou Jordan, that thou wast driven back?

    Ye mountains, that ye skipped like rams; and ye little hills, like lambs?

    (It’s the use of the word “skipped” that I love here; for all I know it’s a mistranslation, but what an image!)

    Obviously, geographic features like the sea and the “little hills” are made by God. They are concrete; they exist. Addressing them is not quite like addressing a social body, or addressing a nation as a geographic unit.

    Still, if you really believe that “America the Beautiful” is close to idolatrous simply because it is addressed to America, I think you’d have to work to show why that’s the case, when it is clearly acceptable to ask questions of, and give commands to, inanimate personified creation. To put it simply: no, America isn’t God, and America can’t hear us or respond to the song. But neither can the mountains, the hills, the sea, or the earth as a whole.

  20. RahabToo says:

    The sermon I heard yesterday reminded us of America all right. He explained from scripture how the wrath of God by abandonment, Romans 1:18-32, is the current experience of America. That sober sermon insisted we look at our nation the way God does.

    Rising above our culture has always been the difficult charge of us Christian.

  21. I am pretty sure that Anthony Link meant to say:
    “Thankfully the church I’m in now doesn’t sing those songs and has flags from all over the world hanging in the sanctuary, meaning of course, the gospel for all nations.”

    FLAGS!!! FLAGS!!! FLAGS!!!

    That was one unfortunate typo!

  22. Mike Taylor noted:

    “This Sunday in my Church (a Baptist church in rural England) we sang a 1980s song, “When I look into your holiness”. The transition from the verse to the chorus goes: “When my will becomes enthroned in your love / I worship you”. ”

    The word should be “enthralled”, not “enthroned”. Somebody really goofed! Btw, I had to google for that, because as I sang it in my head, I wasn’t sure what the lyric was supposed to be.

    Sorry for the back to backs. I’d have put them in one post if I had noticed them together.

  23. I didn’t grow up in a church as my parents are agnostics. But I did grow up singing this and other songs in several patriotic settings. I was shocked to discover (when I became a Christian) that it was a “hymn” … it seems very oxymoronic. How can a song that is so blatantly patriotic/militaristic also be a hymn to a God/saviour that came to spread peace?

  24. Hello,I am new to your blog site but would like to make a comment or two.There are some excellent thoughts and points made here and has been interesting to follow along.
    Patriotism and Christianity.
    Are these exclusive ideologies?
    I think this point could be discussed into quite some depth.Is it wrong for a Vine abiding,Spirit filled, hearing and doing,followshipping with the Father believer to have a heartfelt love and appreciation for a country whose heritage and foundations are based on the belief that there is a Creator that cares for and is involved with those that recognize Him?
    Is this feeling Patriotism? or something else?
    How do we know that anything we love has not become idolatrous in our heart?( I sense for some a car, house,even a loved one can edge betwen us and God at times) And what should be allowed at a church meeting? And should everything done in a church meeting be considered worship? What of all we do outside the church building? Is any (or all)
    of that to be considered worship?
    America the Beautiful was penned as a poem by Katherine Lee Bates in 1893. As far as I can determine, this was a wonderful God fearing women.
    There are even more verses in her original version.
    I think you have totally missed the intent of her poem/song, and you have misinterpreted the meaning of her prose.
    If my understanding is correct,this song is about America. It is not intended to imply that God only sheds grace to the USA,but is recognizing that He has and is asking for His continued blessing as we the citizens work to practice Godly virtues(mercy, brotherhood, unity, on our knees, etc.)I believe the reference to alabaster cities is looking ahead to His return(many Christians of this time period believed they were experiencing the 1000 year period prior to His coming)and at this time in our history,it was recognized that there was only one God.
    I realize that we will forget our true history if we don’t work at remembering.
    Today is Memorial Day. A day started to remember the fallen in the Civil War, and has grown to recognize all who have given the supreme sacrifice in their duty to this great country. We remember the fallen, not the cause or political agenda.
    As we all do this today, may we also thank our Creator that with His guidance and influence on the past and present leaders of this country, we have become the shining light to the nations of the world, a beacon in a time of darkness. May we also remember His greatest commandment, to love Him and serve Him by loving our neighbor.
    thank you for your time, DanL

  25. DanL,

    As an Australian I quite often cringe at the Americanization of Evangelical Christianity. The thing is, Christianity is not and never will be American. I’m Australian. I live in Australia. I love my country. I don’t have the same level of affection for yours. During the Olympics I support Australia and any team or individual competing against America.

    Having said all that, most Australian churches do not have Australian flags in them. Our culture is one that does not have an outward expression of patriotism. There are Christians in Australia who are busy “Australianizing” Christianity, but that is to their, and the Gospel’s, detriment.

    As iMonk has pointed out, the church is somewhat confused about its relationship with the nation it is in. Of course we should pray for our nation, but focusing upon our nation all the time does not help.

    So what about Memorial Day? Should churches remember the sacrifice of American soldiers during wartime? Well, let me ask you this – what if these soldiers were not believers? Should the evangelical church celebrate the memory of those who died and went to hell?

    The other problem is the assumption you’ve given about America being a “shining light” to the nations of the world. That’s phrase that Jesus used of his disciples being the light of the world. Reagan spoke of America as a light on the hill – another phrase that Jesus used to speak of his disciples.

    America is not a shining light to the world. It is an example of many good things, and many bad things, but it is not a glowing example of God’s goodness that the world can embrace.

    It is Christ, the Gospel, that is the beacon in a time of darkness.

  26. Our (Catholic) parish has always been careful about not including patriotic songs during worship: I don’t know if this is due to our pastor’s conscientiousness or the bishop’s. But it’s common on national holidays for our pastor and the deacon(s) to process out immediately at the end of Mass, signalling the end of the worship service, and for the choir and musicians to then launch into a patriotic song. This happened quite a lot after 9-11. It seems a little legalistic, but it actually makes for a clear demarcation between the end of worship and the congregational singing of a patriotic song.

    We’ve also gotten to hear the “Marseillaise” at the end of the recessional on a French national holiday and once after a Mass dedicating the restoration of some stained glass windows gifted from a French parish, so it’s not just American nationalism appearing post-worship.

  27. One_SalientOversight,
    some excellent observations.
    The evangelical protestant church in America often
    causes me to cringe as well!
    And what exactly should be happening inside churches on Sunday (or any gathering time) is and will be an ongoing debate.
    The use of biblical phrases to make my point is a blatant attempt at emotional prejudice, and I apologize. Please forgive me.
    To understand why a church would have a patriotic or nationalistic song in their hymnbook, or even dare and sing one as a congregation, is to know American history in its true context.
    I won’t go into detail but encourage you to read
    “The Light and the Glory” by Peter Marshall and
    David Manuel.
    Jesus said in John 15:13,”Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for a friend”.I fail to see that this applies only to believers.So to honor/recognize this sacrifice is noteworthy in our Lord’s own words.
    To honor the fallen is not to honor war or their “cause”.
    I think the “confusion” of the American church and the American nation is a result of the unique foundation and beginning of America. No other country anywhere has tried to honor God in all its original decisions save Israel.
    America today is often far from what I believe our forefathers intended, and like all nations will be judged one day.
    With all of america’s faults, it is still the primary destination of all who want a better chance in this world.I believe that this is a result of God blessing this country.
    This Grace and Blessing is not exclusive to only America, yet because of this rich blessing, America has an obligation to use this to help the rest of the needy in the world today.
    Agreed that many Christians get confused where Gods’ gospel ends and American policy begins(or vice versa).
    The church has many serious “confusions” today.
    Issues such as eternal security, or even what is required for salvation, or the importance of the pursuit of holiness, or even how we should live as citizens within nations.
    To claim that the poem of Katherine Bates, penned in 1893, is a song not worthy of American christians in 2007, is to fail to recognize the heart of the author or the deeply Christian roots of this country. I agree much needs to be corrected within the confines of American Evangelical Protestentism, but criticizing a wonderful song such as this one would be a pitiful place to start.
    You can find history of the song and of K. Lee Bates easily with a google search.Please do so, you may be encouraged by the faithfulness of a believer from an era past from ours.
    Our beacon is Christ, and may we all let our light shine for Him. Thank you.

  28. Maybe I’m a bit of a coward, but I go with the halfway approach that is suggested by o.h.. We did sing one “America” song on Sunday, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. We did at the very beginning, before our call to worship to subtly make the point that no this is not worship. The flags remained in the entryway where I put them a couple of years ago and no one has ever said anything. (That’s a whole other issue).
    We certainly do in America too often confuse God and country. Just take a look at what happened to Greg Boyd when he preached on the myth of Christian nation. How do we pay respect to our country without idolizing it? And as someone pointed out, should we be thankful for those who gave their lives and now suffer a Christless eternity? Should I have refused the invitation by the local VFW and American Legion to participate in their Memorial Day ceremony today and not offered a prayer?
    And perhaps the bigger problem that iMonk has drawn our attention to is how little attention we pay to the lyrics we sing. One of my teachers once said that 85% of a congregations’s theology comes from their music (where that figure came from is beyond me, but there is no doubt our theology is shaped by our hymnology and praise songology).
    Thanks for another thought-provoking essay.

  29. DanL:

    I believe the point of Michael’s essay is not to criticize the song/poem by Katherine Bastes nor to say that it is not worthy of Christians in 2007, but to question its appropriateness in a worship setting (and yes, I think that the focus of the church’s Sunday morning meeting should be worship).

    The Church as the Body of Christ is a global, trans-national organism — is that the proper context for the expression of patriotic sentiment?

    When we meet as the Church, do we meet as Christians who also happen to be Americans, Austrians, Canadians, Chinese, etc., and anyone of any nationality will feel right at home as long as they are also Christians; or do we meet as Americans who also happen to be Christians, and people of other nationalities will just have to put up with us as we sing the praises of our country?

    And as someone has pointed out not even all Americans will be able to identify with the romanticized view of the nations’s founding embodied in this particular song.

    TeresaH:

    That, btw, is the difference between “America the Beautiful” and the Psalms: the Psalms address these inanimate objects to call them to give praise to God or to ask rhetorical questions; while “America the Beautiful” addresses the country singing its praises. It is that aspect which legitimately raises the question of idolatry. Of course the question has to be answered on a case-by-case basis; but there’s something to be said for avoiding in a worship context anything that even raises this question.

    I agree that there are plenty of other things which tempt us to idolatry; the difference is that we don’t sing songs to these things in Church — at least not in any churches I have attended in the US or elsewhere.

    Carl:

    I believe that if you offered a prayer to God in the name of Jesus at the VFW and American Legion, then you were a true witness and did nothing wrong.

    As for remembering those who died for their country: Again, I believe the important thing is to remember that the Body of Christ is not an American body. In the church I attended last year the pastor frequently remembered the victims of the Iraq war in the pastoral prayer: but he didn’t just remember the fallen American soldiers but those of other nationalities, including Iraquis who may have died for an absolutely misguided cause. Of course we may remember some with pride and others with sadness, and in the case of a contemporary war it becomes as much a time of praying for the survivors; but as long as on Memorial Day we remember both the dead of the Union and of the Confederacy, the dead of on all sides of the World Wars, making it an occasion to pray that God would grant wisdom and humility to the leaders of the world that they would avoid armed conflicts I think it is entirely appropriate.

    Rambled enough, time to go to work.

  30. This post makes some good points. I don’t believe a recognition and thankfulness for our country should be entirely absent from worship, anymore than recognition and thankfulness for any other thing with which we have been blessed. But I do recognize the dangers of mixing our expression of allegiance to our country with our expressions of allegiance to Christ, in worship.

    I would point out, though, that the phrase “undimmed by human tears” doesn’t necessarily mean that no human tears are present or involved in the making of this nation or in the pursuit of the ‘patriot dream’ of freedom. I have always taken that line to mean that plenty of human tears & suffering have been involved with the history of our country but that America and the dream of freedom have not been dimmed by them, or the suffering and sacrifice they represent. Some might argue about whether or not this is the case, but I don’t think it can be clearly understood to mean that no human suffering has been involved in our history or that future glory will come about without human tears.

  31. DanL: Marshall and Manuel’s “Light and the Glory” is not American history in its true context. The authors have taken the pious public statements of the Founders and extrapolate from them a degree of piety that the colonists rarely or never demonstrated in their actions. The book takes the words of hypocrites, assumes they were humble, and claims this is the foundation of America. The authors believe God predestined the U.S. to be a great nation and achieve His will; I believe the U.S., more often than not, is an example of God using all things for the good of those who love Him.

    I love the ideals expressed by the founders of my country, but I know the difference between the ideals and the reality. (I love the right of habeas corpus, for example; I just wish we practiced it.) I believe these ideals will never be achieved without the work of the Holy Spirit. The U.S. is a work in progress. To glorify it — just like we might glorify a man — now, before God’s work is finished, seems premature.

    Our churches don’t have hymns that glorify the Church; nor should we. As far as I know we don’t have hymns that glorify saints. Yet our churches have, and sing, national hymns. What else is this but idolatry?

  32. What a country!

    Our national anthem was penned by a Roman Catholic. The Battle Hymn of the Republic used Biblical metaphors with all the grace and cunning of a literate Unitarian to cast the Union army as a fresh Incarnation.

    The Pledge of Allegiance was created by a Baptist socialist pastor — although his socialist so overwhelmed his Baptist that he lost his pastorate. It’s a prayer to The State, unified by force, a shotgun wedding of unwilling but subjugated partners.

    Finally, Ms. Bates lived for many years in what those folks called a “Cambridge marriage” — with a female partner.

    I guess I’m one of those post-mil theocrats, but I don’t see the future as bright for centralized empires. Given human depravity, God’s Kingdom is best served by a decentralized civil order that places most of the responsibilities on local entities (fathers, elders, jurors, magistrates). When I pray “for kings, and those in authority,” I start with the most important governing officials, local jurors, and work my way down to the least important magistrate, the prisoner of the White House, whose handlers permit him very little wiggle room. May he use what little liberty he has for the glory of God.

  33. Enjoyed the article.

    I have to ask Americans:

    What is the point of a flag in your church?

    As an outsider – I have a hard time seeing these things displayed, (or sung) out of humility, love, and acceptance.

    “Thank you God, that we’re so much richer, better, freer, and kill better than the unwashed masses” – doesn’t really sound like anything Jesus taught.

    If we’re just thanking God for what we have, why not hang some Mercedes symbols in the lobby?

    THEN – invite everybody to bring their gold jewelery in, melt it down, and form it into some object – so we can look on it to see how blessed we are!

    I heard a calf works well……

  34. It was not overly interesting to go through this whole stack of reactions although is is, of course, the expression of the right of free speech.
    So, here are two remarks of mine just for the taking:
    1. Has it occurred to see this poem as a prayer?
    A simple prayer of somebody who is deeply in love with her country and ask God to spread his love, care and protection over it.
    2. Why I write this?
    It looks like the following has nothing to do with the foregoing but read and think quietly:
    As a Dutch Canadian I visited a family of Dutch immigrants. One of them did not have a good word to say about America: “they are nothing but murderers”. “Killing is the only thing they know”, and so on and on.
    Finally I got up and told him: “I know that we were liberated by the Canadians, but that was only possible because of Amarican rifles, American trucks, Amarican jeeps, American tanks, American ships, American planes and American lives.
    Because don’t you forget (and this to a very strick religious person!): They died so you could live”.
    This obvious referral to Christ shut him up!
    Therefore, no matter how this poem is disected for hidden meanings and values, I, as a survivor of the war, feel this poem more as a prayer than as a national anthem, despite it’s beauty.