President Donald Trump spoke at a Dallas church Saturday following the choir performance of a song called “Make America Great Again.” And as the President addressed the audience, he made a comment that caused the entire room to erupt.
“In America,” said Trump, “we don’t worship government, we worship god.”
In response, everyone in the room stood clapping and started to chant, “God is great!”
Well, not really. What they actually chanted was “USA! USA!”
The interesting circumstances of that event should be noted as well. It was a church choir performing in a church building under the leadership and direction of church leaders, and at the center of this “Celebrate Freedom Rally”, was a politician there as a politician talking about politics.
Many Christians consider such a thing fairly normal.
The concern for blurring the line between love of God and the love of country could be traced back millennia but American exceptionalism has brought the issue to new heights. Now, the recent presidential election has often added more heat than light to current discussions.
Blatant mixing of faith with nationalism has long preceded recent developments. Probably the most obvious example is the presence of an American flag in houses of worship.
But what is it doing there?
Churches that do place an American flag within their spaces of worship often include the Christian flag as well. The sentiment, no doubt, is that the church is located within the United States, and is an American church, and therefore the flag is an appropriate representation of what the church is.
Of course, the argument goes, churches often recognize and celebrate established institutions like Mother’s Day and the marriage of a man and a woman. Can we celebrate every good thing except our country?
But there are problems with these arguments.
Imagine you are visiting a church, and at the front of the sanctuary you saw a banner that read, “God bless the Ford Motor Company!” Now, the church is located in a blue-collar town where a Ford plant hires a sizable portion of the population, and has been known to give generously to charitable locals causes, including a “Feed-the-Need” program ran by the church. The plant manager himself attends the church and tithes there.
In much of every way, the church’s ability to serve the poor, preach the gospel, and continue in the city is a result of the Ford production plant’s continued success, and the people who attend the church receive employment and business from Ford. The congregation has an incredibly high regard for the company, and as such, everyone at the church has a Ford vehicle.
And as you arrive at this church on Sunday morning, you park your Toyota Camry between a couple of F-150’s and enter the building, taking a seat on a row dedicated to Henry Ford himself. You look up and, stretched across the stage, is that blue banner with white letters, “God bless the Ford Motor Company!”
And as the service begins, you read the bulletin and find out that it’s Ford Sunday, where the church celebrates how God has blessed them through the company’s presence and generosity over the decades. You open their hymnal to the assigned song, “Ford, the Beautiful” and sing, “Ford Motor Company! God shed his grace on thee!”
If you’ve heard about the good that Ford has done in the city, you can probably appreciate the church’s admiration, and can see that the impact of the company has been beneficial to the church and its people.
But something is terribly off. Such a church would come off as nearly cultish. Its conception of God is bound up almost entirely in its conception of Ford. Anyone who didn’t drive a Ford or perhaps —God forbid— worked for Chevrolet, would naturally feel alienated and distant from the community of this church.
This scenario is not too distant from how many churches blend Christianity and American nationalism.
Of course, patriotism and a love for one’s country is a good thing. Let’s sing songs about the Great American project, the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for our country, and the freedoms we enjoy. This 4th of July, let’s wear American Flag rompers, BBQ every kind of meat known to man, and blow up a bunch of fireworks (just not in the city limits please) in honor of the incredible blessings we have in the United States.
But none of that belongs in our gathered worship services.
Why? Because the church is a trans-national embassy. If an American, patriotic atheist feels more at home at a church than a Christian visiting from Brazil or Nigeria, something is wrong. If bowing the knee to Jesus Christ on Sunday morning first requires a tip of the hat to America, we’ve effectively added works (salvation by American allegiance) to the free grace of God in Christ.
Syncretism, or the blending of two or more systems of belief, is especially dangerous for Christianity when the system being blended with Christianity is itself a good thing. But as good as the American Project is (and no doubt it’s benefits have been denied to many groups of Americans), the Christian’s ultimate hope is not in the continued exceptionalism or even the existence of America.
Pledging one’s allegiance to Christ is what binds a church together. But the presence of an American flag or a patriotic song in a church context signifies an additional pledge of allegiance that the Bible never endorses.