On Christianity, Patriotism, and Christian Patriotic Music

Happy 4th of July y’all. Today I thought I’d tackle a well-worn topic: Christianity, patriotism, and Christian patriotic music. Hopefully I can bring something new to this familiar discussion.

Most Christians don’t have a problem with saying the Pledge of Allegiance loudly and proudly, singing “God Bless America” in church, or giving a singing group a standing ovation in concert for a stirring patriotic number. However, there are some Christians who feel uncomfortable with demonstrating love and pride in America. They argue that since this country is neither our true home nor the primary object of our allegiance, patriotic emotion is misplaced, perhaps even bordering on idolatry. Consequently, patriotic songs should have no place in the church or in a concert by Christian singers.

Yet a third group of Christians will try to strike a balance by saying that we should not sing patriotic songs in church (even songs that make reference to God), but that patriotic emotion in general is a good and healthy thing. Dr. Russell Moore had a podcast a couple months ago suggesting this “compromise.” At first, I thought I might agree with him, but then I was reminded that our own church isn’t even evangelical and uses a very stodgy 1940 hymnal, but you can still find patriotic songs in there which we break out around national holidays. And in an evangelical context, there are already plenty of services with “themes” to them and a wide range of music in general. On reflection, it therefore doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to have a service with a “patriotic theme” in which songs like “God Bless the USA” and “America the Beautiful” are sung, perhaps as special music or perhaps with the congregation. As long as prayers to God for our country or the blessings of God on our country remain in focus, it can be an uplifting and appropriate thing, perhaps not unlike a Thanksgiving celebration.

However, I have now heard several different people use this illustration to demonstrate the possible down-side of mixing the patriotic with the sacred: Suppose that you are sitting in a concert or in a church service, and somebody sings a powerful song about the cross. Perhaps you see people nodding and taking in the lyric, perhaps singing along quietly, and applauding appreciatively when the song is finished. But for a patriotic song, it’s not uncommon to see people standing up and holding hands, becoming very emotional, loudly singing along if the song is familiar, and giving a rousing ovation at the song’s end. The conclusion is that something must be “wrong” with this picture. It shows that people are more easily stirred to emotion by thoughts of country than by thoughts of God, thereby illustrating that a patriotic song can “defeat the purpose of the gospel.”

I have a couple of problems with this line of argument. First of all, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with patriotism. Dr. Moore makes a good analogy to honoring one’s father and mother. It’s possible to become so obsessively disconnected from all acknowledgment of our country that we make ourselves the equivalent of children without an ancestor. It’s not a good thing to cut ourselves off from our roots. Once that happens, our own independence can become a kind of idol in itself. Of course, this is true in many areas.

But there’s another observation I’d like to make, and it’s this: Patriotic songs more naturally lend themselves to open, spontaneous emotional expression than many songs of the cross, even strong ones. When we hear a lyric about the cross, it encourages personal meditation and reflection. Each of us thinks about the price paid for his sin while he listens, if he’s listening attentively. The kind of joy we feel at that type of song may not necessarily be the kind that causes us to leap up and cheer. We may well be more inclined to stay in our seat and be quietly, thankfully joyful. However, a patriotic song stirs specific emotions within us that connect us with other people and inspire us to rise together. Some patriotic numbers have the added impact of a martial theme, which can bring along all sorts of standing/marching connotations with it. It’s a natural instinct. It makes sense. Also, I think it’s worth noting that a patriotic song will affect all Americans in basically the same way, while a deeply moving song about the cross can have a very different impact on each person in a group, depending on that person’s individual struggles. This naturally makes it more likely that you’re going to observe a concerted, massive response in response to a patriotic song. The thing to remember is that observable emotion by itself is not an end in itself, and we should be careful not to place too much weight on it.

I think that if you’re looking for strong crowd response to a specifically Christian song, it’s much more fair to go to a song like “These Are They” and compare. The reason is that this is also a song of country in its own way: It unites people not in earthly citizenship, but in heavenly citizenship. It nails all the same emotional places that a patriotic song would touch, just with a deeper meaning. For those of you concerned about overly enthusiastic crowd response to patriotic songs, I invite anyone to watch the two videos below and tell me whether you feel this crowd’s response to “These Are They” is any less dramatic or fervent than their response to this patriotic medley:

“These Are They”