A few years ago, I walked out of church on Fourth of July Sunday. Actually, I didn’t even make it into the sanctuary. Walking in from outside, I heard the congregation singing “America the Beautiful,” and I turned around before even making it to the doors.
“Who is your God?” I thought, turning my back to the church. “Is it the God of heaven, or is it your country?”
Always on the lookout for nationalism dressed up like religion, I had long been wary of patriotic fervor in church; I thought it looked suspiciously like worship. So whenever I heard the pledge of allegiance recited in church, I kept silent, hands to my sides. And whenever I heard “America, America,” sung in church, I assumed the congregation was ascribing the same dedication and honor it would to “Jesus, Jesus.” Every year, my refusal to sing along was my silent protest.
But this year is going to be different. This year, when the congregation starts to sing “America the Beautiful” or “God Bless America,” I’m not going to walk out of church. I’m going to sing along.
My change of heart came when I actually looked up some of the words to “America the Beautiful,” originally written by Katherine Lee Bates in the late 19th century. Here is a stanza from the original:
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!
Here is another stanza from a popular variation of the original:
God mend thine every flaw,
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law!
To my surprise, I found that “America the Beautiful” doesn’t seek to place the U.S. as its object of worship, but does something that other hymns don’t: celebrate that God is active on earth in the present, not sitting passively in heaven. Like the biblical authors who affirmed that “the Most High rules in the kingdom of men” (Daniel 4:25), this song honors God as not just the God of the heavens, nor just the earth in general, but of specific nations and peoples.
This is in contrast to many other popular church songs. Take this popular 20th century hymn:
This world is not my home,
I’m just a passin’ through.
My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.
The angels beckon me from heaven’s open door.
And I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.
Patriotic songs like “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” refuse to limit God and His purposes to the heavens alone. They certainly celebrate the merits of their nation—and I can see how that could be off-putting for many—yet they also express a passion for their nation that goes beyond a vague sense of thankfulness. They insist that the God of the heavens is also the God of every nation, including America, and that He is active in ruling the nations. They not only thank Him for their country’s beauty, but also plead with Him for the country’s restoration (“God mend thine every flaw”), echoing the cries of Daniel, David and the psalmists, who looked forward to the day God’s kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.
This kingdom, Jesus said, is like a mustard seed—literally rooted to the earth and its kingdoms, not hidden in a disembodied heavenly realm (Matthew 13:31-32.) From His agriculture-themed kingdom parables to His death as “King of the Jews” and, ultimately, to His bodily resurrection as a living, breathing human, Jesus’ kingdom vision points us upward, but keeps us tethered to the earth.
No, America does not have the same covenant significance as Israel, but God-centered patriotism doesn’t nullify or supersede God’s promises to that historically important nation. Rather, it is by linking ourselves to the earthly nations we were born into, and over which Jesus is Lord, that we can actually offer ourselves in service to Israel’s original mission given by God, one of spiritual and social transformation in every nation (Acts 1:6-8.)
It turns out that it is possible to take part in patriotic Fourth of July festivities without setting up our country as an idol. In fact, the hope for God’s Kingdom will actually lead to, not away from, patriotic expressions. By singing lines like, “America! America! God shed his grace on thee,” we are asking God to do what He is already set on doing—bring justice and righteousness to every nation, as any good king would do.
I’m aware there are still many Americans who mistakenly worship their nationality instead of their God. They sing of America as a perfect nation and ignore its many flaws. Perhaps they even see Fourth of July weekend as a chance to express their devotion to what they really worship. Yet this could be precisely because they don’t have a Kingdom-centered patriotism. Not knowing exactly how God relates to their nation, they are tempted to worship the nation itself. So by critically embracing, and not drawing away from the pomp of this year’s Fourth of July, perhaps we can be a part of redefining patriotism in the church. We may even give those outside the church a fresh perspective on what it means to be an American and a Christian.