My irascible sometime friend and former work supervisor, Tim, once went ballistic in my presence over the historic fact that U.S. presidents including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and in the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson on various occasions had issued public calls for “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.”
Tim—alas, now deceased—was a military man. He was quite intelligent, tolerably well-educated, and always in the grip of a steamy anger that was never far from the surface. He had been raised in a Catholic family but in adulthood described himself as “agnostic.”
He made no quarrel with presidential calls for fasting and prayer. He understood that even in a nation that prohibits “an establishment of Religion,” a leader may give voice to the general religious impulses of the people. But he did not think a chief executive should call for the country to be humiliated.
Tim was a notable narcissist, full of pride in himself and esteeming pride as a general virtue in all cases. He considered humiliation as the one thing to be avoided above all. Therefore, to call for humiliation of the whole nation was tantamount to treason. After all—the British, the Germans, and the Japanese had tried to humiliate us and we had not let them get away with it. Why, then, do it to ourselves?
With more time and more patience, had I been wiser and deeper, I might have helped Tim understand the concept of national humiliation in a larger context. But I did not.
In his sensitivity to that issue, Tim inadvertently put his finger on a key dimension of America’s church-state relationship. If we understand our nation’s affairs to fall within the Providence of a Power who calls each of us to approach life with Christ-like humility, then it seems proper for all of us, as a body politic, periodically to be humbled. To be reminded, that is, of our proper place in the world under the overarching care of God.
“Humiliation” in this sense may be what Lincoln had in mind when he said, in his Second Inaugural Address,
“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?”
That kind of thinking, I believe, is what Washington, Lincoln, and others meant when they called for national “humiliation.”
Past generations have mostly understood and assumed a close kinship between our lives as Christians and our lives as citizens. Alhough the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has always forbidden the government to prescribe forms of prayer and worship, nobody construed it to prevent Americans from expressing our religious affiliations and sentiments in our public lives.
Under such a general understanding, it seemed perfectly natural to Americans of the mid-twentieth century to salute our national sovereignty by displaying flags in our houses of worship and recognizing national holidays during regular worship services. But expectations and understandings are much different today.
Our pastor—no bomb-throwing activist, she—called our attention to three articles in the current online Alban Weekly dealing with churches’ sometimes uneasy relationship with Independence Day celebrations. She wanted to know what we thought about them. The leading piece, a nine-year-old reflection from Duke University’s Faith & Leadership website, titled “What to do about the 4th,” written by a retired Methodist minister named Ed Moore, mentioned some “local traditions” that he called “affronting.” These were: “an American flag draped over the Lord’s Table, the Pledge of Allegiance included in the liturgy, or the choir expecting to deliver a patriotic anthem.”
I suppose these “local traditions” must exist somewhere in Christendom, or Rev. Moore would not have called them out. But they must be exceeding rare. In all my years I have never seen any of these “affronting” cases included in the worship of any churches I have attended. Using the U.S. flag as a communion cloth or a chancel parament? Such a practice must be abhorrent both to Christians and to patriots (bearing in mind that many of us aspire to be both).
Some patriotic expression in worship space, however, has been a commonplace in most churches since the dim past. It might take the form of red/white/blue floral decorations on July Fourth (a practice Rev. Moore okays, faintly); or the display of the flag somewhere in the worship space; or the singing of a patriotic song such as “America the Beautiful” by the congregation on the Fourth, in place of a regular hymn.
The reason such practices come under the microscope of critical examination now is not that we somehow are better educated than our grandparents about the implications of the Establishment Clause. Rather, it’s because we now live in a society that is markedly less religious than theirs was. I believe we are the poorer for that. But it does not follow that those who still keep the faith must embrace a sharp divorce between that faith and our inner sense of national identity. There can be room for both.
In the church where I have been a member for the past forty years, we have never practiced extreme liturgical patriotism. Sometimes we sing a patriotic song or two on national holidays. We used to display a U.S. flag and a “Christian flag” in our sanctuary. We retired those flags a while back; I am not aware of any complaints about that.
But should we, at some future time, choose to restore flags to our worship space, that would not show that we had sold out our Christian faith to some crypto-fascist conspiracy. It would only signal that fashions, or group preferences, had shifted slightly.
Some wise person once decreed that sleeping dogs ought to be permitted their slumber. Despite any number of learned articles that may be written, already or in the future, I doubt that most American church people feel any great tension between their devotion to Christ and their loyalty to our country.
I’ll bet my combustible friend Tim, if he were here today, would at least agree with that.
Larry F. Sommers
Your New Favorite Writer
Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.
Price of Passage
Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois
(History is not what you thought!)