The 2016 presidential election brought politics and faith together in a way that excited some evangelical voters but made others uneasy. Then-candidate Donald Trump courted the evangelical vote in an astonishing and unprecedented way, and the melding of Christianity and nationalism created a most unusual marriage.
Trump’s nationalism combined with the effort to win evangelical voters gave some Protestant leaders, like the Southern Baptist Convention’s Russell Moore, pause. Other leaders, like Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Texas pastor Dr. Robert Jeffress, placed themselves firmly within the Trump camp, which paid off come Election Day.
Jeffress appears to have doubled down on this nationalistic take on Christianity. This past Sunday at his church, First Baptist Church of Dallas, the congregation celebrated Freedom Sunday.
— Dr. Robert Jeffress (@robertjeffress) June 25, 2017
The service took place, complete with church members waving little American flags, the choir and worship team leading the congregation in patriotic songs, and fireworks. You read that right — fireworks.
People waved American flags during the service.
The last time I checked, the waving of the American flag was a sign of support or loyalty to the nation. Jeffress had no problem allowing such an act to take place in a church sanctuary–the place where Christians worship God as a form of expressing their ultimate loyalty. Patriotism is fine. Flag-waving is fine. But I wonder if any of the congregation felt uncomfortable that all of this took place in the church sanctuary on a Sunday morning.
One of the songs that the congregation sang was Woody Guthrie’s folk song, “This Land Is Your Land.” For those who don’t know, Guthrie wrote the song as a godless alternative to “God Bless America.” The original verses will make your head explode, and even if you don’t have a problem with patriotism in the church, the inclusion of “This Land Is Your Land” should make your blood boil.
All of this begs the question: what place does patriotism have during a church service? Granted, First Baptist of Dallas’s service appears to be way over the top, but can a church service focus on nationalism or patriotism?
It’s a tricky question, really. Mentioning holidays like Independence Day, Memorial Day, and Veterans Day during the service is fine. Praying for our country is wonderful — and vital. Talking about our freedom is great, especially if the sermon or discussion centers on our freedom in Christ. But an entire Sunday morning service turned into a festival of patriotism turns America into an idol.
A Sunday morning church service should serve as a reminder to believers that our true citizenship isn’t in America or anywhere else on this planet. Our foremost allegiance is to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and our primary citizenship is in heaven. Our temporary, earthly American nationality doesn’t even come close.
When we are born again, we are united to Christ, our King, and we are delivered from the domain of darkness and transferred into the kingdom of the Son of God so that now it can be said with glorious and profound reality, “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20).
Therefore, wherever we live on earth, whatever country, whatever tribe, whatever family or clan, we are pilgrims, sojourners, refugees, exiles in all of those. Our first identity is with the King of the universe, not any country or nationality or political party or governmental regime.
America is emphatically not our primary home or primary identity. That should be spoken. It should be felt and it should be precious. We should never be ashamed of identifying, first and foremost, as citizens of the kingdom of Christ, the kingdom of heaven.
Therefore, Piper concludes, our worship services should reflect our place in God’s kingdom. Thanking Him for our blessings and our freedom as Americans is wonderful, but anything else — whether it be the Pledge of Allegiance, a patriotic song, or any other element of a church service that turns the focus on America and away from the Gospel — emphasizes the wrong allegiances.
There’s nothing wrong with loving your country, and being a good citizen is actually something the Bible commands of us. I love America, and I believe that patriotism is a wonderful thing. But it’s a secondary thing, and our heavenly community towers infinitely above our national identity.
As we enter our churches this Sunday morning (or whatever part of the weekend your church service of choice happens to fall), may we focus primarily on our allegiance to the God who created us, redeemed us, and loves us more than anything else. May we never forget the primacy of our belonging to God and His kingdom. Let’s save our unbridled excitement at being American for Independence Day — there’s plenty of time that day to celebrate!