Patriotic Songs in the Church?

Patriotic Songs in the Church?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, November 27, 2009 at 2:13pm

HERE IS A RECENT REQUEST: I am wrestling with whether or not it is okay to sing patriotic songs during the church service. I personally do not want to sing anything doctrinally unsound. So far I find it difficult to find any patriotic song that is doctrinally correct. For instance, in “God Bless America,” I mainly have trouble with the pledging allegiance part: “Let us swear allegiance to a land that is free.” I can see the idea of the song being a prayer, but I have trouble with swearing allegiance to anything but to God. It seems as if we are making America a false idol.

Also, songs like “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and “America the Beautiful” seem to be praising the USA, not God. In the latter, the line that says “and crown thy good with brotherhood” may portray to some that if you are good you will gain entry into heaven.

I have never had a problem honoring veterans or anything like that; I am just concerned that on “patriotic” Sundays we may come close to taking much of the focus off of God.

MY COMMENTS: First, you must follow your conscience in this matter, as in all others. Even if you have a moral conviction about something that is in reality a matter of opinion, you must still be true to your own convictions, without judging others on the issue. See Paul’s instructions on this in Romans 14 (and see my commentary on Romans for my explanation of this chapter).

Second, here are some considerations that may help you with your concerns. For one thing, I sometimes have problems with the specific wording of a particular hymn. In such cases, I feel free to substitute words or phrases that are doctrinally correct. E.g., in “To God Be the Glory,” a line says, “The vilest offender who truly believes, THAT MOMENT from Jesus a pardon receives.” This is clearly a faith-only assertion, and I simply will not sing it. I sing instead the words, “The vilest offender who truly believes, WILL SURELY from Jesus a pardon receive.” If I were leading the singing and using this song, I would use it as a teaching moment and have everyone sing the line with the new words.

For another thing, on the subject of patriotism in general, it is important to make a distinction between the land or country as such, and the government that is in power over it. I do love America the beautiful, and I pray that God will bless it. It is a marvelous country, one of the best in the world, no matter what government may be in charge at any particular time. I can love the country and hate its government. I can fight for my country and oppose its government at the same time. When I sing about America, I am thinking only of the country.

A third consideration is that we should distinguish between absolute allegiance and relative allegiance. Our only absolute, unconditional allegiance or loyalty is to God. This does not mean that we cannot “swear allegiance” or have loyalty and commitment to other things on other levels. The word “allegiance” simply means “loyalty.” My Webster’s unabridged says it is “loyalty or devotion to some person, group, cause, or the like.” E.g., I have loyalty to my alma mater, Cincinnati Bible Seminary. I have loyalty to my family, and to my church. I can swear my allegiance or loyalty to any of these. Likewise I can swear my loyalty to my country. None of these objects of my loyalty takes the place of God, though, who alone receives my absolute, unconditional loyalty. See Acts 5:29, “We must obey God rather than men”—when we have to make a choice between them.

Another consideration is that it is of course possible for any of these lesser objects of loyalty to become an idol; this is simply something against which all of us must always be on guard. We can see glimpses of this in the slogan, “My country, right or wrong.” I do not see singing patriotic songs as a form of idolatry, though. We can “praise” our country, i.e., call attention to its bounty and blessings, without the word “praise” having any religious connotations. For example, see how the Psalms praise the land of Israel or the city of Jerusalem, e.g., “Beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion in the far north, the city of the great King” (Ps. 48:2; see vv. 12-13).

One last thought, about “crown thy good with brotherhood.” Relax. I cannot see how anyone would make a connection between this line and salvation by works.

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