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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Ask the Matriarch - Patriotism and the Church

With Canada Day this past Sunday and Independence Day in the U.S. yesterday, issues of patriotism are on many of our minds. Our question this week is how do we, as religious leaders, deal with pressures regarding expressions of patriotism within the context of worship. Read on...

How have you handled pressures for expressions of patriotism within worship and elsewhere in your congregation? Around the Independence Day holiday in the U.S., many congregants feel strongly about the need to sing patriotic hymns and anthems during worship. Even when it's not a patriotic holiday, some desire to have the American flag on display in the sanctuary. How have you handled that in your setting? For those of you not in the U.S., does the pressure towards patriotic expression exist in your setting? How do you deal with it?

Muthah+ responds:
Ok, I am an Episcopalian.  I also once served a parish that had been founded as an Established Church in 1692 in colonial Maryland, so I come from roots in the Church of England where patriotism and religion are bound together.  I am also a staunch supporter of the US Constitution and believe firmly in the separation of church and state.  I am also the product of the Vietnam era and really oppose the jingoistic hijacking of religion by those who hunger for political office or who promote partisan politics.  

I have no problem with singing patriotic hymns in a service.  We regularly pray for those who are serving in the armed services and name those who have died in action.  We do display the US flag as well as the Episcopal Church flag and process with it at important services. I believe this all stems from the 'established church' history of the Episcopal Church. We seldom have special services for Memorial Day or July 4th but we may choose to use prepared liturgies for those days.  Most parishes don't but perhaps sing a patriotic song.  But I do have strong reservations about highly militaristic songs being used.  Battle Hymn of the Republic or Onward Christian Soldiers give me the willies.

I also think that it incumbent upon me as a preacher to address various issues in our nation in my sermons.  I am careful to bring the Gospel to those issues without taking any partisan political stand.  At present I believe that the impasse we have in our Congress is a problem for both parties.  What I try to keep before the congregation is a way to make decisions and to hear alternating concepts.  Besides, I know that other preaching colleagues will come from a different perspective and that in itself will allow for balance.  I NEVER support a particular candidate from the pulpit even when they are members of the parish.  But I do encourage my folk to vote.

 I never stop the Gospel just in my nation.  The Gospel helps me take the issues that we as a people need to look at in our nation to the whole of the world.  The Gospel is always about peace and I use that as my rule of thumb when dealing with national issues in my sermons and liturgies.  

With various vacations and travels, we didn't hear from other matriarchs this week, but I will toss in my two cents. Though I grew up in congregations where both the Christian flag and the American flag were displayed (and in Vacation Bible School, we even pledged allegiance to both flags and the Bible), I feel fairly strongly about not displaying the American flag in the sanctuary. In my current call, when we visited the congregation during the discernment process, the American flag was in the Fellowship Hall, not the sanctuary. We (my husband and I are co-pastors) were then surprised to learn a few months into our call here that the American flag was typically moved to the sanctuary for Memorial Day and the 4th of July. We talked with the Pastor Relations Committee about our objections to this, and then we had a series of pastoral conversations with individuals in the church who were likely to feel a bit hurt by the absence of the flag (primarily widows of WWII vets). They understood our reasoning (as Baptists, our congregation has a strong sense of separation of church and state, which is why it came as a surprise that the flag was brought into the sanctuary for these national holidays), and they appreciated the pastoral concern for their feelings. We proposed displaying the flag more prominently in the Fellowship Hall for these holidays, and everyone seemed to find this acceptable.

We do make a point to pray regularly for those serving or having served in the armed forces, as well as their families, as well as those serving in the military of other countries (as well as those civilians in harm's way in other countries). My husband and I pick the hymns for worship and don't select patriotic or militaristic hymns; our Choir Director typically doesn't select patriotic anthems either. We've had no complaints. I feel like people who are looking for patriotic speeches or music can find that in so many other places, they don't really need it in church, though we certainly do discuss and pray about issues of national import. I'm not entirely sure how I would handle it if I were in a congregation that was more divided about these issues, or where there was a strong sentiment towards having expressions of patriotism within the worship service. I'd be very interested in hearing how others have dealt with this.

So, if you have experience to share, please do so in the comment section! And our queue is empty once again, so this is still a great time for sending in a question for the matriarchs to discuss. Email us at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. I'm sorry I didn't have a chance to respond in time to this. I actually disagree about the idea that there are plenty of places to hear patriotic music, or rather more specifically to sing patriotic hymns. The ones included in the hymnal we use (Chalice Hymnal, published by the Disciples of Christ) stress our freedom as a beautiful and complex responsibility, and I think it's good to point to that. I don't, however, make the service about the 4th of July (or Memorial or Veteran's Day, for that matter). The past two years in this call we've had a sing-along prior to the service, then moved on to a Call to Worship and Opening Hymn.
    This church does have flags (US and Christian) in the sanctuary, and I'll admit that hasn't been a battle I've been willing to undertake. At least they are off to the side where they are not a focal point.

  2. The newish ELCA hymnal includes "This is My Song," set to the tune Finlandia, which expresses God's love for all the nations. I used to copy it out of the Methodist hymnal for use on Memorial weekend, I was glad it's now in the book. While I agree with Muthah about Onward Christian Soldiers, I actually enjoy Battle Hymn of the Republic, I know more about the history of it, its roots in abolition. I also use Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing, and talk about its place as the Black National Anthem.

    I fought the flag fight on internship, felt pretty burned by it, have not been willing to engage it here, especially as the flags are by the doors, not prominently displayed.

    My home church had a tradition of including readings from the Founding Fathers, including letters between John and Abigail Adams, around July 4, which I did one year but have not made a tradition.

    It's like Mother's Day & Father's Day; I include it in the prayers or some part of the liturgy, but keep the focus on Jesus.

  3. My congregation is in a small mountain town where the Fourth of July is a huge event. We need to be relevant, and we need to be commenting on what's happening in the life of our community. Plus, we get the summer visitors who pop in for a couple Sundays a year, and they want to hear the patriotic hymns they remember from attending that church 60 years ago. So we belt them out, and for balance, I try to craft a service that conveys very clearly, "This is CHURCH." This year, the run-up from 1 Samuel, in which the people of Israel demanded a king, was a big help. When the music — the part of the service in which congregants participate most enthusiastically — is what they believe is appropriate, they're content to let me refocus the rest.

    We have no fellowship hall, and our back wall is pews and windows, so our flags lurk off to the sides of the sanctuary most Sundays, but on patriotic holidays, I avert the demand to elevate them to the chancel by moving them to the front porch. We once had an interesting debate about positioning the American flag to the right of the "speaker": Is the preacher the speaker (their belief) or is worship the congregation addressing God (mine)? It was a dumb dispute, but also a good opportunity to unpack some relatively deep-seated beliefs. I've used the Battle Hymn and Onward, Christian Soldiers for the same purposes, and I've been heartened to learn that people are able to separate bombast and triumphalism from some very valuable ideas contained in those songs.

    On an amusing note, my daughter, who as a toddler had a very large, very BAD opera-singer voice, used to stand on a pew and warble, "They are traveling through the village where the great big rats ate George."

  4. Oh my, that's hilarious, Suzy!

    The most satisfying solution that I've seen is the tradition in my current congregation of having a very wonderful Memorial Day service on actual Memorial Day. It's in the sanctuary and then moves to the nearby cemetery. It's a chance to sing all the songs, including the National Anthem (which was sung at the cemetery). Local veterans groups and a community band participated. It provides a service to the community -- that is, that we take the holiday to "remember" things that are important to us and specific reasons for which the holiday was set aside.

    After last Sunday's worship service, two different people expressed their extreme displeasure that there were no patriotic hymns sung "again!", the "again" referring to Memorial Day Sunday, it turns out. Neither one was satisfied that the opportunity had been there on the actual Memorial Day holiday to celebrate in song. Neither was willing to take their complaint to the organist/music director who chooses all the hymns, all the time.

    I totally do not think that patriotic or nationalistic symbols belong in church, but then I also think that more than one cross at the front of a sanctuary misappropriates that symbol, too. Those are not fights that I take on!

    I do think that the conversation (here and in our churches) is a good one. I get frustrated with trying to make decisions based on what "the pastor" or "everyone" either "likes" or "doesn't like."

  5. Joolie - I really like that founding fathers/mother(s) idea. Do you have a script or suggested readings you'd be willing to share?

    Martha - what are some of your faves from chalice?

    When I first arrived at my current call, someone asked me if she could remove the flag. Since she does a lot with sanctuary decoration, and is beloved and respected in the church, I was glad for her to do it. And also glad to refer a very occasional complaint (like 2 in 5 years, both from the same person) to her. I used to be VERY anti-flag-in-sanctuary, now I am more curious about it. I have not heard a compelling reason to have it in yet, but if I hear one sometime, I might be willing to have my mind changed about it.

    In past years on memorial day I have read the names of all the servicemen/women from our state who have been killed in the wars in Afg and Iraq during the prayer time. It's a long list. And I often offer prayers for those killed in those conflicts during regular services as well.

    Last year, on Sept 11, the choir director asked if he could do a setting of God Bless America with the choir. I was reluctant at first, but ended up doing a little research on Irving Berlin that turned out to be fascinating, so I preached on that and in the end I was happy with how the sermon turned out. (If you are curious, let me know and I'll be happy to pass it on.)

  6. interesting discussion... we worship in the name of the triune God and proclaim a gospel without boundaries; from my earliest involvement in church as an undergrad, I've always been so very against national-flag-in sanctuary, but a few years back when I was actively participating in the online forums of a mainline denom, someone asked "do you have a flag in your sanctuary?" and I thought, oh, no, what's to ask? But then someone replied, "yes, we do! In our sanctuary the means of grace - font, table, ambo, cross - are on a raised platform. The flag is on the same level as the gathered assembly, so the flag symbolically hears the prophetic word along with all the others.

  7. I am generally on the very liberal side of most matters, but in some of these my thinking has changed to one that others might consider more traditional. Somewhere along the way around 9/11, when the push for blatant patriotism was high, I had to sort things out in my own mind. I decided that it is okay to be proud of one's nation--at it's best when it realizes its ideals--as long as one also recognizes that others are proud of their country too (Finlandia was, for this very reason, one of the hymns we sang on July 1 when we used Independence Day propers). I think there is nothing wrong with celebrating the heroism of those who serve/have served our country, nor with rejoicing in the beauty of our land...again, as long as it is not to the exclusion of those in other places. And while the U.S. is far from perfect in many ways, I still believe that the freedoms we espouse, even when we don't necessarily put them into action consistently, are good ones. So, I don't have a problem with most of the national hymns nor with including various patriotic holidays in our worship. That said, my preaching always leans toward true freedom in God, the value and dignity of people in every corner of the world including our enemies, and the call to peace and justice for all. As far as the hymns are concerned, I also do think that there are few places we sing them anymore! One of my pet peeves, though, is the status God Bless America has acquired at sporting events, to the extent that people are reprimanded for not treating it like the National Anthem.

    As for the flag...ours was in a back corner of the church. A few months ago, the leather loop that holds it to the pole rotted through, and it hasn't been replaced. Not a single person has commented!

  8. I attended worship at a church on July 4th 2 years ago, where it was patently obvious that the congregation was THRILLED that the 4th fell on a Sunday... much more so than if Christmas were on a Sunday. They opened the service with - I kid you not - the National Anthem. We arrived just as they were starting, and I had to excuse myself and stand outside. The worship of country over worship of God was more than I could handle.

    Of course, this is a congregation who puts small flags to honor those serving ON THE ALTAR. I like the sentiment - but on the altar is a huge, major no-no in my book. Ah well.

  9. I am now retired, but served a very conservative church in Kansas for ten years. The church was badly in need of change, but I had to choose my many battles very slowly and carefully. As to national holidays, the only hymn I found acceptable was America the Beautiful, especially the verse which says "God mend thine every flaw."
    After (and I do mean after) the Benediction on July 4,
    I had our very talented organist play Stars and Stripes Forever on our wonderful pipe organ. That became a joyous tradition, and seemed to please everyone, as it was not part of the worship service.


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