By The Rev. Brian Kaylor
On the Fourth of July, which fell on a Sunday this year, I didn’t attend church. As a Baptist minister who loves weekly communal worship, this was unusual. But my spiritual health requires that I annually skip on the Sunday closest to that national holiday.
In many church hymnals, you’ll find patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and even “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Much like special sections for Christmas and Easter, there’s a whole nationalism section for singing on this patriotic Sunday. In churches across the country, the American flag stands on the chancel (a modern tradition in the U.S. that started to promote the world wars), but it receives special notice during this service. Worship on this Sunday looks different; it is fair to question who and what is actually being praised.
At their worst, the services around Fourth of July mix in partisan politics. For example, last year at First Baptist Church in Dallas, the “sermon” delivered by Mike Pence included more references to Donald Trump than Jesus, with flags in the sanctuary appearing to outnumber the Bibles. Such an extreme case at a megachurch (or “magachurch”) illuminates the problems with the creeping conflation of God and country prevalent to a lesser degree in many congregations.
Patriotic songs sometimes ring out in churches on other Sundays, like Memorial Day weekend, and churches might add the Pledge of Allegiance to worship when a local Boy Scout troop is present or during Vacation Bible School. But none of those moments compare to the quantity and rhetorical intensity of the Christian Nationalism we find around July 4 – even in many moderate or progressive churches (with notable exceptions, like the historic peace churches that include the Mennonite congregation I attended when living in Virginia).
As a result of this ongoing idolatry, I’ve been skipping this Sunday for several years. Sometimes I go camping with my family. Being in creation draws me closer to God than singing the National Anthem. Other years I find myself in another country – like Canada, Jamaica, Thailand and Turkey – for meetings of the Baptist World Alliance. Worshiping in those settings with fellow Christians from around 50 nations is a far cry from singing about God blessing America. It paints a stark reminder of how different American Christianity can be from its global counterparts.
But this year things feel worse than usual. The Fourth of July was on a Sunday, which heightens the temptation of churches to go all out, and it increases the expectations of many in the pews for a service cheering on a single nation. I feel for pastors and music leaders who face these pressures but feel unable to resist. Challenging potent cultural idols without becoming an occupational martyr is a difficult needle to thread.
Additionally, this July 4 Sunday came just two days shy of the six-month anniversary of the violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol where we saw Christian Nationalism in a deadly partnership with white supremacy, partisan selfishness and conspiratorial delusions. As I watched those insurrectionists carry Christian flags, Jesus signs and Bibles as they beat police officers and shattered windows, I lost the little patience I had for the softer versions of this extremism. No matter how talented a church’s musicians might be, nationalistic tunes hit the wrong note in religious sanctuaries.
White Christian Nationalism isn’t always deadly, but such triumphal and exclusive impulses are always dangerous. The attack on the Capitol and the slaughters at Mother Emanuel Church and Tree of Life Synagogue remind us that ignoring Christian Nationalism is not an option.
Faith leaders should recognize how seemingly innocuous practices, like those employed on the Fourth of July, help make the radical ones more acceptable and common. Our sanctuaries serve as incubators for the ideology that attacked our very democracy just over six months ago. We may sing “Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory” in a church sanctuary on July 4, while insurrectionists sang that battle hymn inside the Capitol on Jan. 6.
This mixing of church and state in our houses of worship creates serious theological problems. Some call this special service “Freedom Sunday.” As a Christian minister, I find this horrific and revolting. For Christians, our true freedom is discovered on Easter morning. To celebrate an “exceptional” nation while claiming to worship the God who “so loved the world” misses the story completely; it eviscerates the truth we profess.
All this troubles me not only as a pastor but also as a citizen. When we confuse being a good American with being a good Christian, we aid political efforts to codify one religious perspective in our public schools, health care systems and more. We assist in redefining religious liberty to give preferential treatment to Christians, which undermines the very principle that such freedom belongs to all. Bluntly put, when we do not support religious liberty for all, then we do not believe in religious liberty at all.
So, all this meant I had to be absent from church on Sunday, July 4. It was not only good for my soul but also for our democracy.
The Rev. Brian Kaylor, a Baptist minister with a Ph.D. in political communication, is president of Word&Way and the author of four books.