Should we celebrate national holidays in church?

Since the Fourth of July falls on a Sunday this year, it raises the question even more pointedly than normal about whether (or how) churches should recognize national holidays in their worship services. For some, celebrating the Fourth of July is an important (almost vital) expression of the fact that we are still in the world and our gratitude for the blessings that come from living in a country like America. For others, this serves as yet another manifestation of the church’s captivity to nationalistic ideals and its inability to realize fully that the Kingdom of God and America are not the same thing. And, I’m sure that many fall somewhere in between.

I got into an interesting discussion with some of the other faculty yesterday about what their respective churches would be doing. The answers spanned a pretty wide range. In one church, the pastor will be preaching on “freedom” from Galatians 5 and will be using the Fourth of July as a segue into that topic. Otherwise, the holiday will not be addressed in the service. In another church, the holiday won’t come up at all. But, several large churches in the Portland area make a very big day out of the Fourth , with services complete with flags, uniforms, and patriotic music.

This also connects with the issue of whether Christian churches should display national flags in their services. Mike Bird blogged on this a couple of weeks ago, calling for n annual “remove flags from your church sanctuary day” and arguing that this is akin to idolatry.  Nick Norelli, on the other hand, has argued that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with flags in church and that it’s not idolatry as long as you don’t worship them.

In both cases, the question seems to be about the extent to which churches should or should not participate in public displays of patriotism and/or nationalism. (I think Nick is right that we should be much more careful about throwing around the word “idolatry” in this context.)

What do you think? Are flags and national holidays legitimate in a Christian assembly, should they be banished entirely, or do you have a via media? And, what will your church be doing on Sunday? (Or, if you don’t know, what do you hope that your church will do on Sunday?)

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 29, 2010, in The Church and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 9 Comments.

  1. I celebrate the 4th of July but I don’t think a Sunday should be set aside to doing so. I cannot justify using our gatherings, which exists for the purpose of worshiping the resurrected Christ, for nationalistic celebrations. Our Sundays should be days where we leave all other allegiances at the door in order to reaffirm our solidarity as Christians under the authority of Christ.

    While I am not sure if I can go as far as saying I would never go to a church that displays the flag in the sanctuary it would take a lot of other positive aspects for me to overlook that. This does not mean I am not thankful for being an American, or for the soldiers who fought for freedom, or any such thing. It means that these things are not worthy to be mentioned during the time when we are gather to worship Christ.

  2. This is a really thorny one Marc, and one that I’ve personally wrestled with, as I had a spell with the Jehovah Witnesses some years back, and they absolutely forbid emblems such as flags, viewing such, as indirect worship of the nations, aka devil worship, book of Revelation etc.

    Now as I was originally schooled in the thinking of sociologists such as Durkheim, who rather like the JW’s, viewed religion (especially in relation to totem poles, in which I think we could draw a fair comparison with modern day national flags), as indirect worship of society (I admit that was a somewhat crude summary).

    Now on a practical level, two issues jump out for me personally.

    The first is in terms of proselytising. When I was last in North Africa, there were 2 English speaking channels – CNN & TBN. Now, I noted that as well as TBN forever pumping the line that the Muslims / Arabs will cause the apocalypse, everything seemed to be draped in US symbolism, such as the national flag. What message does this send the rest of the world? It should come as no surprise that many would associate Jesus and Christianity primarily with the US, when ironically our very faith originated in their lands.

    The second problem is a personal one for me, and I don’t know if you suffer this affliction in the US, but it revolves around middle aged women prancing around bare foot flicking everyone with their darned flags and ribbons.

    • I think you’ve got a great point about what this looks like to Christians in other parts of the world. How could this look like anything other than an unfortunate blending of nationalism and worship?

      Fortunately, my experience with middle aged women has so far involved very little “prancing.” I’m not sure I’m psychologically strong enough to handle that.

  3. 1) To say that having a Fourth of July “themed” service during gathered worship is a way of affirming that we are still “in” the world is not convincing. In worship we join with the saints triumphant (dead Christians in the intermediary state) and the church militant (and Xians from Palestine, Iraq, France, etc.) in our corporate devotion. Of course we are “in” the world, but we also share eschatologically in New Creation, which is far more concrete and real than “the world.” America is beautiful, but not the New Israel. We never had a “covenant” with God, and never were (or could be) a “Christian” nation. We struggle with that and don’t need to put things in place that make it seem plausible, imo.

    2) Hope Pres. is not acknowledging it (other than having a cookout that evening at one of our members homes). Some folks wanted to sing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” but as that song is most likely heretical, I demurred.

    3) I love the Fourth of July. I re-read the Bill of Rights and portions of the Constitution every year on that day. I make my older kids listen and we talk about what they mean, why they are good, etc. We don’t sing hymns while we do it, though:-)

  4. I think Pat has rightly picked up on the fact that my summary argument in favor of the pro-holiday perspective was pretty weak. That’s mostly because I honestly had a hard time coming up with a convincing sounding argument. Celebrating the holiday as individual citizens seems quite reasonable. Celebrating it in the context of Christian worship seems much harder to justify/explain.

    Does anyone have a compelling (or even mildly interesting) argument for why churches should celebrate national holidays like this during the worship service?

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