As American patriotism swells, pastors face a new challenge of balancing God and country.
“The role is difficult, demanding and thrust upon us,” said Heather Entrekin, senior pastor at ABC-affiliated Prairie Baptist Church, Prairie Village, Kan. “The pressure of patriotism tests our understanding of and commitment to the commandment to ‘have no other gods before me’ and to worship the Lord wholeheartedly.”
Pastors everywhere are reminding parishioners they are Christians first and citizens second.
Greg Hunt, pastor at First Baptist Church, Norman, Okla., said this doesn’t outlaw patriotic fervor, but it does mean guarding against temptations to fall into the patterns of civil religion.
Tension also mounts as some, even in the church, tout revenge instead of justice, and pastors struggle to offer a prophetic voice in a patriotic congregation.
The Sunday following the Sept. 11 attacks, David Crocker, pastor at Snyder Memorial Baptists Church, Fayetteville, N.C., preached about handling anger.
“I acknowledged the need for justice for the perpetrators, but also reminded the congregation of the need for forgiveness on a more personal level,” Crocker said.
Entrekin said it is sometimes difficult to speak prophetically among those she loves, respects and honors, especially if there is a gap in experience and perspective.
“As a woman, I have never had to face the obligation of military service,” she said. “As a baby boomer, I have not shared the experience of World War II.”
Entrekin said that only after the Sept. 11 attacks did she understand the panic and paranoia that many in her congregation must have felt after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
As part of a military community, Crocker said his church “feels the blood of patriotism” very intensely.
Finding a way to accept patriotic expressions within the church has been more difficult since the terrorist attacks on America. Some give the American flag a place of honor at church. Others sing patriotic hymns.
First Baptist Church, Martinsville, Va., does not sing patriotic or nationalistic hymns, but it does display the American and Christian flags in the nave of the church.
“We are not a nation in a church, but a church in a nation–a nation which is secular and pluralistic,” pastor Tom McCann said. “We recognize the cross, not the flag, as the symbol that unites us.”
McCann said the flags had not been in the sanctuary prior to the Sept. 11 attacks.
“We have not (yet) sung patriotic hymns but I feel like I am trying to hold back a flood,” Entrekin said. “I know this music brings comfort to many, but we sing it at football games, theaters, the National Cathedral worship service, everywhere.”
A 97 percent approval of military action, and American flags on almost every lawn, lapel and moving vehicle does not lessen the tension, Entrekin said.
Crocker contends that expressing patriotism, even in church, helps its members.
His church has not only sung patriotic hymns, but it has moved the American flag to a more prominent place in front of the rostrum since the terrorist attacks.
“The congregation expects to be given this way to express their deep feelings for our nation,” Crocker said.
Hunt said the patriotic hymn of choice has been “America the Beautiful.”
“We’ve resisted the use of ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ and even ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’ in worship contexts,” he said.
On Nov. 11, Hunt’s church will combine recognition of Veteran’s Day and “Flags of the Nations” mission day.
“This will provide us a dramatic way to both affirm national themes and the loving heart of God whose faithfulness transcends and encompasses all peoples,” Hunt said.
“Christ and the cross need to be our primary symbol,” Entrekin said. “Surely our community churches can be one place where we struggle among friends to keep the eyes of our hearts turned above all to God.”
Jodi Mathews is BCE’s communications director.