At the risk of being labelled "anti-American", I also believe we are often as idolatrous with the United States as the Romans were with Caesar. I also believe Jesus calls us away from this idolatry. Proving this thesis would take far more than a blog and some good men have already done this* so I will keep a limited focus here.
As the Church has creeds, hymns, symbols and sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist so nations have defining practices and proclamations such as constitutions, anthems, flags, and pledges. I'd like to focus on the possible problems with Christians participatin in the song God Bless America.
Did you know that the classic song is actually a prayer and that the first half of the song is rarely present when we sing it at events? Below is the full set of lyrics as written and edited by Irving Berlin in 1918/1938.
While the storm clouds gather far across the sea,
Let us swear allegiance to a land that's free,
Let us all be grateful for a land so fair,
As we raise our voices in a solemn prayer.
God bless America,
Land that I love,
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America, My home sweet home
God bless America, My home sweet home.
Jesus shows up on earth and calls himself Lord. This is a title belonging to Caesar. Jesus' gospel (or "good news") is a political statement that declares himself as the true ruler, the true Son of God that demands our allegiance. The Peace of Rome doesn't hold a flame to the Prince of Peace. Jesus ran a political campaign against Caesar that didn't look like any other political campaign because his heavenly kingdom doesn't look like any earthly kingdom. He wants our allegiance to his kingdom and his politic which says "love your neighbor" and "love your enemy." Jesus' politic is inclusive, not exclusive. Jesus' kingdom wars against the powers and principalities (which include the political authorities of this world) and calls us out of them. This is why we are to be considered foreigners wherever we live on earth. The United States is not our homeland because God's kingdom is our homeland and it is that homeland that determines our identity and conduct. After all, we operate under the rule of our King, Jesus.
So, God Bless America demands that we, as those who have pledged our allegiance to the United States, offer a deeply sincere prayer. We now see that this prayer is rooted in nationalism and favoritism for our own kingdom/nation (over and above others). What is that prayer specifically?
God, bless America, the kingdom that I love.
This asks God to join us in our favoritism.** This is us asking God to bless the kingdom that we are most fond of, the nation that we have pledged ourselves to (over his kingdom). Any time we ask God to join us in our kingdom instead of joining him in his kingdom we take a serious misstep. But this is an easy move to make. How often do we desire for God to accept our agenda? All the time! In all avenues of life we neglect God's already present agenda for our own. Nations/kingdoms are no different. Here, in this prayer, we ask God to join our agenda.
We are attempting to enlist God into our own earthly kingdom's cause. Doesn't that seem backwards? He has already called us to enlist into his heavenly kingdom through Jesus! He came calling us to repent because Christ Jesus is Lord! Yet here we stand, saying "No, you come over here!" Be assured, he won't (because a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand and thus Jesus stay in his God's kingdom and doesn't exchange it for submission to other powers/kingdoms/authorities).
Granted, the prayer doesn't only ask God to stand beside America (supporting her causes) but to guide her. Now, that's worth getting behind! Right? God should guide us. However, with the foundation that has been laid it's clear that we are asking God to guide us on our own terms. We want him to guide us as an enlisted member of our kingdom so that our causes (not his) would prosper under his infinite wisdom. He's our muscle not our master.
The prayer ends with the petition for God to bless our kingdom which we declare to be our "home, sweet home." The earliest version of the prayer featured the wording "Our own sweet home", once again showcasing the favoritism of the prayer. As stated earlier, for the Christian, no earthly land is ever to be considered a true home, let alone a home worthy of our sworn allegiance because our home is God's kingdom. This is why Jesus has prepared a place for us at his Father's house (John 14:1-3). We are sojourners, aliens, strangers, foreigners, refugees. The early church proclaims this truth and we should have ears to hear it. Most problematic is that the United States, even if claimed to be our home, is not God's home and it is precisely his home to which we are to belong. God does not belong to the U.S. Rather, the earth and all that is in it belongs to God (Psalm 24:1)!
To be clear, I find it very good to love where you live, to desire truly good things for the people you live around, and for the nation surrounding you to honor God and live out his justice (this is why we pray for our national authorities). I write this in attempt to continue searching for what an appropriate patriotism looks like for Christians. Understanding what it looks like for us to appropriately relate to earthly kingdoms can be difficult and it's a hard discuss an that is worth having.
Stanley Hauerwas states, "...in America, Christians just cannot distinguish themselves - what is means to be Christian, they assume it goes hand in hand with what it means to be an American. And that's just a deep mistake." In other words, the problem many American Christians face is that they are American before they are Christian. This is the nationalistic idolatry that we must guard ourselves against. He also wisely states that, "[the truth and declaration that] 'Jesus is Lord' is going to make my life quite dysfunctional in relationship to a good deal of American practice." Jesus disrupts our lives if we sincerely seek and obey him. Our national identities and practices are no exception to this.
What does this mean for us? It means we must wrestle out our salvation with fear and trembling, begging God to find any wicked way within us and to purge us of it and forgive us as we repent and begin to learn how to live in a land without giving it more than it is due so that we might fully give ourselves to Christ and his kingdom.
*A few books that I have found to address this issue in a reasonable and biblical manner are Myth of A Christian Nation by Gregory Boyd, Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne, A Farewell to Mars by Brian Zahnd, and The Myth of Religious Violence by William Cavanaugh (I've listed these in the order that they began to influence me and in the order that I think is easiest to accept the material within them)
**In 1834 Robert Montgomery Bird wrote a song with the same title (God Bless America!) that is equally, if not more, obvious in it's nationalistic favoritism claiming that "the only prayer we know" is God bless America... Forever!
***Emperor Constantine was the first ruling authority to become a Christian (312 A.D.). After his Baptism, the church went from being the oppressed few to the powerful many. He believed God was guiding his warfare and favored Christianity to the point of persecuting people of other religions in Christ's name. Constantine didn't come into the service of God but rather brought God's name into his own service.