Friday, July 1, 2011

When Patriotism Becomes an Idol

by Pastor Paul Wolff

Whenever the patriotic celebrations come around there is temptation to display our patriotism in the worship service by singing patriotic songs and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Some try to sanctify the secular pledge to the flag by combining it with a pledge of allegiance to the cross and/or the “Christian flag”. There may be a place for patriotism, however, the Christian worship service is neither the time nor the place for this.

The problem is not with patriotism nor with the Pledge of Allegiance. I love my country and I do not hesitate to say the Pledge of Allegiance with my hand over my heart on nearly all occasions, but not during the worship service. The divine service was instituted by God for the purpose of delivering forgiveness and salvation to us through His Means of Grace (i.e. the Word and Sacraments). Whenever we add elements to the worship service which don’t deliver the Means of Grace we take our attention away from Christ, which makes these added elements idols.

Not only is nationalistic patriotism NOT a Means of Grace, it isn’t even commanded by God. Though God rules in the secular world (the Kingdom of the Left Hand) and in the Church (the Kingdom of the Right Hand), He doesn’t require patriotic pledges. If you look in the Small Catechism under the Table of Duties for Citizens you will find that what is required of Christians for good citizenship is to pay our taxes and submit to those in authority out of love (except where such authorities require us to break God’s commandments, then we must obey God rather than men). This is another reason why it is inappropriate to require the Pledge of Allegiance in the worship service.

One more thing to consider is that not all Christians are Americans. Most Christians are not Americans and have no desire nor reason to pledge allegiance to the American Flag. God’s Word and Holy Baptism are universal. They are for everyone. Communion fellowship is restricted to those of the same confession (Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist, etc.), but while an African Lutheran (for example) can commune in an American Lutheran church, he would not pledge allegiance to the American Flag.

Patriotism, too, can be a good thing or a bad thing depending on the actions of the State. When Patriotism is used to support truth, justice, and a benevolent government, then it is a good thing. When Patriotism is used to support wicked and unjust governments then it is a great evil. An example of the latter is the German army in World War II. They were not all Nazis, but their patriotic support for the National Socialists (Nazis) was a great evil. This particular example does not necessarily explain the “why” or “why not” of patriotic pledges in the worship service, but it just shows that some discretion is necessary.

Not all Americans are Patriots, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. Many people just want to live their lives in peace and fulfill their Godly vocations, and there is nothing inherently sinful about that. Because of this, and the fact that patriotism is not commanded by God, we ought not make anyone feel guilty for not being particularly patriotic, nor should we make anyone feel as if they are a better Christian just because they are patriotic. This view is unpopular in some circles, I know, but I am a minister of the Gospel of Christ, and I am much more concerned about the Spiritual well-being of God’s people than their patriotic feelings. I do not wish anyone to confuse the Gospel for patriotism, because they are not the same, nor are they related. There is no salvation to be found in national patriotism. Salvation is only found in Christ Jesus.

In the First Commandment God says, “You shall have no other Gods before me.” When we add practices to our worship service which God has not commanded, and which do not deliver the Means of Grace, we are placing a false god before the True God. This also applies to the Pledge of Allegiance. While the Pledge is not necessarily idolatrous in its proper context (though it can be), it does become an idol when we place it in the worship service. It does no good to try to sanctify the Pledge with a pledge to the Cross and/or the “Christian Flag.” These also are not commanded by God. We confess our faith in God’s work of salvation when we confess the creeds, and there is plenty of Biblical examples encouraging us to do this, but nowhere in Scripture is there a separate requirement to pledge allegiance to the cross. As to the “Christian Flag,” I am not even sure where that comes from. Christianity is not a national identity like being a citizen of the United States. Christians are citizens of every nation on earth (even where it is illegal to do so), so I don’t know what it means to pledge allegiance to the Christian Flag, but if there can be a proper context for doing this, the worship service is not it.

You may well find me pledging allegiance to the U.S. flag on patriotic holidays like Independence Day, September 11th, etc. but it won’t be in Church. I look to Christ alone for forgiveness and salvation, and the worship service is where these precious gifts are delivered to Christ’s people. There is no salvation apart from Christ even in the greatest country on earth. Some may accuse me of being a hypocrite, but that just shows their misunderstanding of God’s rule in the Kingdom of the Left (secular society) and the Kingdom of the Right (the church). God rules in the world as well as the church, but salvation is not found in the world, but only in the Word and Sacraments as administered in faithful Christian worship services, and we are well served when we keep this distinction clear.

1 comment:

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