What Doesn’t Belong to Caesar?

As I’ve acquired a deeper and more theological view of American history, I’ve grown deeply ambivalent about uber-patriotic church services.  There’s a pep-rally atmosphere to it, a partisan spirit that seems deeply at odds with the Great Commission’s leveling admonition to disciple all the nations.  We’re glorying in our team, simply because it’s ours.

There’s an idolatry in it.  The Christian flag is on the speaker’s left, and the American flag is in the superior position, on the speaker’s right.  Now, I have issues with the ‘Christian’ flag, too — modeled after the American flag as it obviously was — but if we’re going to have a flag with a cross on it, why are we displaying it in the inferior position?  Is Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords, or is He subservient to the American government?  “Well,” people say, “that’s what the law requires.”  So it does.  Once upon a time it required burning a pinch of incense to the emperor as a god — a different way of indicating the same thing.  Christians used to know how to handle that kind of requirement.  What happened?

The pledge — which we say in church — is to the flag, and to the republic for which it stands.  That’s right, a bunch of professing Christians stand up, put their hands over their hearts, and pledge allegiance to a piece of cloth, and they won’t even blink.  I mean, it’s not like it’s actually a graven image; it’s sewn.  That’s totally different.  The finial on the flagpole is a golden eagle, not a golden calf — again, totally different.  This is your god, who brought you out of the land of Britain.

We are Christians.  Support of the civil magistrate is required of us.  In a certain way, then, there is a form of patriotism that is also required of us.  But we must have no other gods before Yahweh.  If we actually pay any sort of attention to what we are doing, is not our participation in the cult of the flag a blasphemous idolatry?  The words “under God” in the Pledge don’t wipe all this away; they make us like the ‘good’ kings of the northern kingdom in Israel — Jehu destroyed Ba’al worship at Yahweh’s command, but he did not take away the high places and he continued in the ways of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.  Yahweh doesn’t much appreciate ‘true’ worship mixed with idol worship — because that’s not true worship.

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Then there are the comparisons between what we’ll do for America versus what we’ll do for the church.

America is an ideal, a culture, and it has its forms, which we conservative evangelicals respect.  When we have a July 4th service — and boy, do we put on a show for those — we do not remix the Star-Spangled Banner to some contemporary jingle so the young people can “relate.”  We don’t do this to America the Beautiful either, nor to God Bless America.   We stand when the national anthem is played, and we put our hands over our hearts.  We say the pledge, in unison, without a second thought.

Aside from the issues about the Pledge already noted, I’m happy with all this, in its place.  I think it’s great, and I don’t want to seem ungrateful that we’re willing to show genuine reverence somewhere.

But this in a church service, from people who won’t do anything approaching this level of reverence for the Christian faith?  Something is out of balance.

We won’t say the Creed in church because it might be vain repetition, but we think nothing of saying the Pledge.  We change our songs like they were dirty socks — an apt metaphor for some of them, I admit.  We can’t resist the temptation to ruin a centuries-old, grand, well-constructed song by resetting the chorus to some advertising jingle.  We forsake the music of the past just because it’s old, but we’d never think of doing the same with our iconic American music.  We stand for the national anthem without being told, but will we stand up for the reading of Scripture? Dream on.

We tell ourselves that this is because the truth of Christianity transcends all these low, material, ritual things.  We tell ourselves that.  But the truth is a little different. The truth is that our Americanism is profound, meaningfully incarnated in the life of our community.  Our Christianity is so weak and shallow we don’t even meaningfully incarnate it in church, let alone in the public square.

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