Can Patriotism Become Idolatry?
How the stories we celebrate shape our lives.
The church I grew up in has these gorgeous stained glass windows that line every wall of the sanctuary.
Rain or shine, light explodes through them every Sunday morning, bathing the faithful in a kaleidoscope of color. But as beautiful as they are, what I love most about them is the story they tell. Beginning with creation on the far left of the sanctuary, these windows continue on across that sacred space retelling the story of the Exodus, proclaiming the centrality of the cross and celebrating Pentecost before finally and boldly declaring the hope of the Second Coming.
They’re a beautiful memorial to the story of our faith, iconic reminders of who we are and who we are called to be. But in the midst of that stained-glass story is a peculiar sight: Straddling the magnificent cross in the center of the sanctuary, there are two flags: one Christian, the other American.
It’s a scene that plays itself out in churches across the country.
In fact, it was hundreds of miles away, while talking to my former pastor about where we would move those flags for an upcoming service, that I realized just how bizarre and, well, kind of disturbing that flag-draped scene really is.
Now, to be fair, though aggressively tacky, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with a Christian flag hanging in our sanctuaries. After all, it reminds us where our true allegiance lies. But it’s that reminder of allegiance that makes the other flag so profoundly out of place. That other flag, the one with the stars and stripes, capped by the same bronze eagle that once was the icon of the Roman empire, demands our allegiance, even the lives of some of our brothers and sisters, and yet we worship a God who asks the same of each and every one of us.
We can’t have it both ways. We can’t fully serve two masters.
But boy do we try.
And it is in that trying, that we often end up losing our focus on Christ and finding a new object of worship: patriotism.
I’m not sure there is a clearly defined moment when patriotism becomes idolatry because it happens in such subtle ways, but you definitely know it’s occurred when you stand in the front of your sanctuary and contemplate where to move the stars and stripes so as not to offend anyone during worship.
Unfortunately, that struggle is not unique. I can’t count how many pastors have told me they leave the American flag in their sanctuaries simply because they’re afraid of the vitriol that would be unleashed by some of their parishioners if the flag moved. I’m left dumbfounded every time I hear that story from yet another pastor somewhere in America.
How far have we fallen as a Church, how lost are we in patriotic idolatry that we’re worried about offending people if we remove a symbol from our sacred space that demands our allegiance to something other than the God we’ve come there to worship?
God bless America?
How about God save the Church?
You see, we once were a people who, under the threat of death, boldly professed allegiance to a kingdom that was not of this world because Jesus, not Caesar is Lord. And yet here we are some 2,000 years later. We’ve brought the brass eagle home to dwell among us.
But there need not be an American flag hanging in the front of your sanctuary for the sin of patriotic idolatry to haunt your church. Flag or not, patriotism becomes idolatry when American ideology becomes the narrative that defines our lives, when being a good American is no different than being a good Christian and vice versa.
Stories shape our lives. That’s why as Christians we adorn our sanctuaries with stained glass windows and devote so much time and energy (or at least we should) to reading and studying the Bible. The story of our faith—whether it comes directly from the Bible or from the story of the Church that followed—keeps our focus on God and shapes our identity by reminding us of who we are and who we are called to be.
What makes patriotism an idol in the Church, and not just bad theology or bad story telling, is that the political ideology it brings with it can push out the need for Jesus and leave no space for the Gospel. Sure, there are some hints of Jesus still lingering around, but when “Americanized Christianity” takes over and the Gospel gets refined in the fires of patriotism, the story of the empire ultimately wins out and becomes a new story of faith.
It begins with a flag planted in the sanctuary that no one really questions because America, we’re told, is a Christian nation. So, it’s OK to adorn our sanctuaries with patriotism and incorporate the celebration of American holidays into our worship on our holy days because we’re just affirming God’s special relationship with this holy land. Once America has been properly sanctified and the truth of that claim elevated beyond questioning, we’re called to take back our country for God. Before you know it, discipleship and patriotism have become indistinguishable.
We may continue to profess allegiance to Jesus, but our lives tell a much different story, one in which the Gospel has become supplanted by American political ideology such that theology seems strangely like a political agenda. When this happens, debates begin to rage about caring for the poor, the sick and the immigrant, debates which would be incomprehensible in any other era of the Church. When patriotism becomes an idol, the poor can become our enemies, the alien among us can become someone to be feared and the outcast can become someone we actively seek to marginalize. When patriotism becomes an idol, the “other” whom we despise is the least of these.
Now, you may or may not have an American flag in your church. And even if you do, planting the stars and stripes in the sanctuary won’t instantly transform your congregation into patriotic idolaters, but the iconography in our churches tells a story by memorializing in glass and steel and thread and fabric who we are and who we are called to be. Because of the truly radical nature of the Gospel, there is no space for the flag next the bread and the cup on the altar of salvation. They are two radically opposed visions for the world.
We have to choose which story we are going to be a part of.
That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate the beautiful chapters in America’s story and the actors in that story whose love and devotion for their fellow man is worth our admiration. We can and we should. But we must remember that as Christians, our true story is one without political boundaries and national identities, where swords are beat into plowshares and the poor are blessed.