Independence Day worship services put faith and patriotism in the same place at the same time for the same purpose, and finding the right balance isn’t as easy as we want to admit.
LifeWay Research last week proved the point in the release of a survey it recently completed of one thousand Protestant ministers regarding their attitudes toward July Fourth worship services. Much of the information is about what you’d expect but the more you drill down some surprising details come to light regarding the uneasy connection between patriotic themes and biblical faith in the nation’s evangelical churches.
First, almost every church gives at least some attention to the patriotic themes of the day.
“Our nation’s birthday weekend celebration impacts almost 9 in 10 church services,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of LifeWay Research. “As people remember veterans, service members and patriotism, it is natural for churches to seek to apply theology to these cultural activities.”
Not surprisingly, more conservative denominations give more attention to expressing patriotism as part of worship around Independence Day than other, less conservative groups.
Denomination also plays a role in pastors’ views on the importance of patriotic elements in worship services around the July Fourth holiday. Pentecostals (82 percent) are most likely among Protestant pastors to agree on their importance, while Baptists (67 percent) are more likely to agree than Lutherans (51 percent), Methodists (50 percent) and Presbyterian/Reformed (47 percent).
Finally, the survey confirms the general observation that age and region tend to affect the inclusion of patriotic themes in worship on the day.
Pastors 65 and older are more likely to say it’s important to incorporate patriotic elements in worship services the week of July Fourth (78 percent) than pastors 18-44 years old (44 percent). Pastors in the West (67 percent) are more likely to hold that view than pastors in the Northeast (55 percent) and Midwest (54 percent).
On a personal level as pastor of a local church, I find it a challenge every year to figure out how best to handle July Fourth Sunday. On one side there are compelling reasons for churches to do all they can to worship in an environment that proclaims our American heritage:
- The Christian faith and biblical values had a profound impact on the beginnings of our nation. John Adams, maybe the most devout of all the founding fathers, spoke for most of the rest when he affirmed that “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity. I will avow that I then believed, and now believe, that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God.” Independence Day worship celebrations serve the vital purpose of keeping the distinctively Christian beginnings of America in public view.
- The free exercise of religion has played a pivotal role in our history. Indeed, there wouldn’t be an America if not for the first settlers’ search for that privilege. The First Amendment enshrines the freedom of religion as the foundation of all other freedoms. Every year on this day pastors should place that principle in front of their people.
- Jesus called us to honor the government even as we worship God. “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” he says in Mark 12:17, although there are many times I wish the Lord would have been a little more specific about just how to achieve the balance.
- I’ve always been blessed to serve churches with many active and retired military people, and I know from first-hand experience the authentic faith and personal integrity that motivates the men and women who serve in the nation’s armed forces. Churches should provide on Independence Day each year the opportunity in public worship to recognize them and encourage them as they integrate their faith in God with their service to our nation.
But there’s another side of the issue that churches would do well to think through as they celebrate the day, and if we’re not careful the religious observation of July Fourth can become something less than biblical worship:
- The American tradition of civil religion is something we all need to be wary of. Civil religion is a version of Christianity used in public functions as a way of providing a religious overlay to government and political functions without actually giving credence to biblical content. For instance, the phrase “In God we trust” on our currency is civil religion. As is the “under God” clause in the Pledge of Allegiance. Many political leaders take their oaths of office on a Bible. I’m not saying civil religion is necessarily a bad thing; indeed, any reminder of God and biblical truth in the public square can be a blessing. I’m simply saying that these kinds of words and phrases when used in government-endorsed functions serve a political purpose not a religious one. The problem is how civil religion can cover the distinctiveness of the Christian gospel with a veneer of political correctness and civic responsibility. If in an Independence Day worship service, for instance, an American flag is more prominently displayed than the cross, that’s a sign that biblical religion has been set aside for the sake of national pride. I see nothing wrong with decorating our churches with a modest amount of patriotic reminders of the day’s significance, but we place our higher allegiance in jeopardy when we don’t pay careful attention to how we use symbols that inform worship. To say that is no disrespect to our nation or our flag; it’s to affirm that Christian worship always affirms the superiority of the cross to all nations.
- Today, persecution against Christians is endorsed by the government in a variety of ways, creating such spiritual dissonance that worship on July Fourth Sunday can send mixed messages. In my church’s Celebration of Freedom service last Sunday, for example, we watched videos of two Christian business owners who took principled stands regarding specific business practices. In both cases state government authorities sued—their legal actions were subsequently upheld through lengthy appeals processes—resulting in the business owners held liable for criminal behavior. This is what persecution looks like in twenty-first century America: Christians determined to live according to their convictions lose their livelihoods because of a political and judicial system that will not tolerate biblical standards. It’s a new kind of challenge when local churches hold a worship service where love of country is integrated with the reality of Christian persecution.
- Patriotic worship services run the risk of becoming de facto political rallies, usually on the conservative side. If Bible-believing people aren’t careful, they may come together for worship to celebrate America’s Independence Day and the service become an opportunity to detail everything that’s wrong with America. It can then easily move into the need to elect the right people to public office who can restore the country to what it used to be. I’m not denying the need for Christians to be politically active and, especially, to support public officials who will defend unborn life and traditional marriage. What I’m passionate about, though, is for our churches to keep our eye on Jesus. Politics won’t save us; only Jesus can do that. Worship services that lose sight of the priority of Jesus for the sake of political expediency will end up with empty worship on one hand and poor politics on the other. We best serve our nation in the same way we best serve our Lord: by keeping our focus on him.
So how does a local church achieve a biblical balance between faith and patriotism, especially for the Independence Day worship service? I can only say how our church went about it last Sunday. We included a variety of patriotic elements but maybe the one that engaged our people the most was the color guard that presented the American flag. The group of four men was from a local veteran’s transitional housing ministry; in other words, they were homeless. Two were in their sixties, two were in their forties; one was African-American and the other three were white. All have had a rough life since their military service. I’ve rarely been as moved as I was when I saw the pride and care they gave to their duty on Sunday morning. They represented the American flag with the highest standards. But they represented something beyond the flag, something having to do with hope, redemption and service beyond their circumstances. Their participation raised the atmosphere in the worship service beyond patriotism–although it certainly included that–to a level closer to what the Bible calls the gospel.
We sang some patriotic songs but later went simply and naturally into great biblical worship, with people singing the glories of God and raising their hands in praise and thanksgiving. The sermon focused on how we’re to live as faithful believers at a time in our nation’s history when the truths of God’s Word are no longer honored in public life. We focused on 1 Peter’s encouragement to Christians of all eras as they undergo persecution:
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. (1 Peter 5:12-13)
During the closing song, it was no surprise to me when a young adult came forward and prayed to receive Jesus as his Lord. The reason I wasn’t surprised is that, as important as was the celebration of our national heritage in the service, the gospel had played even a greater role. And I think that’s how it should be.