Sadly, many U.S. churches are confused about this issue. As a result, this Sunday will be another confusing day when many American church-goers will be hit with a message that is unbiblical in every way.
When I was growing up, I accepted this odd mixture of Christian religion and civic religion without paying much attention to it. I was a patriotic little kid, so I was happy to see various patriotic songs in the Baptist Hymnal on the backs of the pews where I sat every week. I was happy to see a U.S. flag on stage areas much of the time (sometimes flanked by the weird notion of a “Christian flag“).
As I’ve thought about the implications of this odd mixture of patriotism and Christianity, it makes me sick. The U.S. flag has no place as part of a church, just as the flags of various other civic nations have no place in churches, either. If you have loyalties to a government or a state of some kind, that’s your business, but it has no place being given a place of honor in God’s house.
The truth is that those of us who are Christians have brought too much of “the world” into the church. Glorifying and emulating the “American dream” isn’t a biblical thing. Patriotism isn’t appropriate for a church to promote. And American exceptionalism certainly isn’t.
It didn’t start to bother me too much until I was in my mid-20s and attended a large Baptist church here in Birmingham during a Fourth of July weekend. It was a bizarre spectacle. There were flags draped everywhere and there was a processional of people carrying U.S. flags down the aisles at one point. It felt far too much like a Nazi rally at Nuremberg for my taste — and it started me thinking a lot about why patriotism had ever been connected with Christianity.
Americans aren’t the first people to believe they are somehow special and that there is a bond between church and nation. Throughout history, governments have fostered this belief. The Holy Roman Empire is an obvious example, but the people of pretty much every country have believed that God (as they understood Him) was on their side.
Even the Nazis believed that God was on their side. If you look at pictures of German churches from the Nazi era, you’ll find many of them flying the Nazi flag, such as this one at a cathedral in Cologne in 1937. Although few would argue that the U.S. government is as evil as the Nazis were, it makes just as little sense for American Christians to glorify our civic religion as part of our Christianity as it did for German churches to glorify the then-current civic religion there.
Most conservative Christians remain steadfast in their desire to connect their church life with their civic religion, so I know this will anger some people, simply because it goes against things they’ve experienced all their lives and still hold dear. But more people are starting to realize that our allegiance to God has nothing to do with some people’s allegiance to a state.
God isn’t an American. He doesn’t love America anymore than He loves Balochistan or Nepal or Germany. He made and loves every single one of us. It’s offensive to Americanize Him or His loyalties.