Patriotism and Politics in Worship
It is perhaps a sign of the times that I have recently received many questions about worship and politics. We live in an era of divided loyalties and deeply polarized rhetoric on many political issues. As I approach these questions, I am convinced that one of the worst things that can happen to worship is that it becomes politicized in ways that obscure the themes of God’s glory, the gospel of Jesus, and the work of the Spirit. In the United States, newspapers regularly offer us accounts of this happening in congregations on both ends of the political spectrum.
At the same time, there is no such thing as worship that isn’t political. The very act of public worship and praise offered to God (rather than an emperor) is a profound statement of ultimate allegiance. And no topic presented on network news should be very far from our intercessory prayer life. Maintaining silence on some cultural and political topics communicates as much as speaking about them. We must do more to discern together the nature of faithful biblical worship in our time.
One significant resource we have to draw on as we discern the spirits together is the trans-national perspective of the body of Christ. So while most of the questions in this column pertain to worship in the United States, the perspectives and insights of RW readers from all parts of the world are not only welcome, but needed. I invite your letters to the editor on these themes.
Q: Many people in our church lead intercessory prayers. Recently, several of them have prayed for our nation’s military. But I can’t ever remember praying for other concerns related to war. Isn’t this shortsighted?
A: Prayers for military personnel are a very good thing. We should pray for the safety and virtue of every member of the military, especially those known and loved by members of the congregation. It is not a good thing to avoid this in prayer, which some congregations have done in order to avoid any appearance of condoning war.
But prayers for military personnel are only the beginning. We should also pray for the church and its witness to the Prince of Peace in the affected part of the world. We often forget that the church of Jesus Christ spans the world and is usually present in countries on both sides of most wars. I remember, for example, how comforting and challenging it was a few years ago to be in a congregation that specifically prayed for the life and witness of the small, but very much present, Christian churches in Iraq.
We should also pray for all civilians affected by war, for all nations involved, and for their leaders and military. No matter what side we favor, Jesus’ words “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44) challenge all of us to expand the range of our prayers .
Q: I’ve been asked to plan a patriotic service. How do I go about this?
A: This question could quickly polarize most churches. To suggest such a thing is a deep offense to some. To oppose the idea is a deep offense to others.
I would begin your process by prayerful study of the two Scripture themes that feed into each way of thinking.
Scripture teaches the value of government as an instrument for justice, commands obedience to governing authorities (Rom. 13:1; also Titus 3:1), and commands that we pray for those in authority (1 Tim. 2:2). These are commands that we should obey enthusiastically. We also should express gratitude, where appropriate, for God’s provision of nations that freely allow religious expression and promote other freedoms. Planning a service of gratitude and intercession is both appropriate and pastorally significant.
At the same time, Scripture teaches that “our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). The scope of God’s activity is worldwide. The church extends into nearly every country on earth. Nothing we do in worship should take away from appreciating and celebrating the breadth of divine activity. And there is no doubt that some patriotic expressions in churches so identify God’s ways with a particular country that it is hard for worshipers (especially children) to imagine that God could be at work anywhere else. (In fact, just after writing this, I noticed in one of North America’s leading newspapers a story about a congregation whose worship space features both an overwhelmingly large American flag and a small cross). While we must respect and pray for governments, we must never worship them, or convey that our ultimate allegiance is to anyone else but Jesus.
So as you plan, keep the event a worship service. I would not name any church service a “patriotic service”—which would almost inevitably be understood by some as a celebration of a given country. While Christians may well choose to participate in a civic, patriotic festival on a national holiday, to label a church service as “patriotic” invites the practice of civil religion, which can easily distort our view of the church.
Second, weave both scriptural themes into the service you plan. Read from both Romans 13 and Philippians 3. Pray both for your country and for other countries. Express gratitude for God’s gifts to your country and to others. Some other “both-and” approaches include the following:
- If your nation’s flag is to be represented, then look for a way to represent all the nations of the world.
- If songs will be sung that are identified with a particular country, look for ways to sing songs from other parts of the world as well.
- If you acknowledge or pray for military veterans, then also pray for those who served in the military in other countries.
Ideally, the presence of both themes will heighten and sharpen worshipers’ appreciation for each.
One good test for any service you plan is to ask this question: would Christians from all parts of the world be edified and nourished? Would they recognize both appropriate and genuine gratitude and intercession for your nation and government, appreciation for the “holy catholic church,” and genuine concern for all the peoples of the world?
Q: A casino is being built near our town. A prayer leader in our church prayed for divine intervention to stop it. Is this really appropriate for worship?
A:I assume that you are worried that prayers of this sort politicize worship, and divert the attention of worshipers from actually praying during the prayer.
These are valid concerns. Ideally, as we worship we should not find ourselves thinking, “Wow, I’ll bet the person two rows up is really steamed about that reference in the prayer.”
However, our faith has undeniable political ramifications. Faithful Christian living demands that we make our prayers (and then our voting and participation in civic matters) more intentional and concrete than is often the case.
The place to begin with a situation like this is to realize that intercessory prayers in worship should ideally be the prayers of the church, and not merely represent the voice of one individual. This means that the church needs to probe, test, and own its prayer life.
When faced with a controversial subject, look for ways to discuss the topic prayerfully first. Church councils, in fact, could regularly discuss the question What should our congregation be praying for in the context of our city or town? These discussions should welcome multiple points of view, test them against scriptural teaching, and look for ways to hone how each concern is articulated. Such a discussion might lead, for example, to public prayers that ask both that God would prevent the destructive practices of gambling but also provide ways for Native American or First Nations peoples (the sponsors of many casinos) to flourish.
Incidentally, most denominations have produced significant studies of many politically charged topics such as abortion, warfare, gambling, and capital punishment. One way to read these documents is as a churchly guide to intercessory prayer. Though they are never perfect, they represent a broad-based attempt to discern together how to engage the world in Jesus’ name. They are a good place to start when working locally to discern how best to pray in worship.
O God of Every Nation
This hymn is appropriate for use in worship when references to war, political topics, or national concerns are desired but polarization is not. (PsH 606)
1 O God of every nation,
of every race and land,
redeem the whole creation
with your almighty hand.
Where hate and fear divide us
and bitter threats are hurled,
in love and mercy guide us,
and heal our strife-torn world.
2 From search for wealth and power
and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower
destruction through the night,
from pride of race and nation
and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation,
eternal God, we pray!
3 Lord, strengthen all who labor
that we may find release
from fear of rattling saber,
from dread of war’s increase.
When hope and courage falter,
Lord, let your voice be heard;
with faith that none can alter,
your servants undergird.
4 Keep bright in us the vision
of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division
give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious
when truth and justice reign,
and Christ shall rule victorious
o’er all the world’s domain.
Words: William Watkins Reid, Jr.,
Words © 1958. Ren. 1986 The Hymn Society. Admin. by Hope Publishing Co, Carol Stream, IL 60188. All rights reserved. Used by permission. Permission to reproduce these words must be obtained from Hope Publishing Co., www.hopepublishing.com.