The gospel of Jesus Christ is living water for our dry, thirsty souls. Nationalism poisons the well. For citizens of the Kingdom of God, our political, national affiliation is not the most significant thing about ourselves. And yet, America has a long history of co-opting Christian language and worship for nationalistic, political ends. Craig Watts, the pastor at Royal Palms Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, FL, probes the reality of American Civil Religion that has permeated our churches in Bowing Toward Babylon(Cascade, 2017).
Several practices of American civil religion have permeated Christian worship in US churches: The placement and honoring of American flags in the sanctuary, celebration of national holidays, the singing of patriotic songs, etc. Watts makes the case that, “rather than being innocuous practices, expressions of nationalism in worship constitute manifestations of misdirected worship that lead to the spiritual malformation of worshippers” (11). In other words, the symbols and story of America (or any nation) is at odds with the Christian story, where Christ calls a new humanity from every tribe, tongue, and nation. Drawing a long prophetic tradition, Watts calls America, Babylon— a metaphor for an empire or nation where God’s people are tempted to succumb to majority practices and the worship of national gods.
Watts’s argument unfolds in eight chapters. In chapter one, Watts asserts that when nationalism and patriotism (or any extra-biblical in-group identifiers) permeate Christian worship, it weakens our bonds with the church universal (i.e. our connection to the church in Iraq is deeper than our connection to the unchurched in America). Chapters two and three probes the characteristics of American nationalism and how it infiltrates the church (i.e. ideology of American expansion and exceptionalism, the co-opting of Christian language in the political sphere, the inclusion of nationalistic liturgy in Christian worship).
The rest of the book explores in more detail peculiar American practices that have weaseled their way into the church. Chapter four looks at the sacralizing of nationalistic holidays It is telling that many churches honored our war heroes on Memorial day weekend a couple weeks ago, but failed to mark the significance of Jesus’ ascension (or even Pentecost a week later). Watts argues that by attending to the wrong calendar (the secular calendar, instead of the liturgical calendar), we are inhabiting the wrong story:
When nationalistic holidays are celebrated in worship the Christian story is altered by the inclusion of another story, the adoration of the church becomes divided. Who are we as a church becomes obscured when a calendar is observed in church that honors persons, events, and values that have little or nothing to do with the sacred narrative and loyalites that bind us together with others who follow Jesus where ever and whoever they are. Affections not suitable to the whole people of God are fostered in services of worship that are shaped by nationalistic holidays. (75).
Watts then describes the origins and myth of the big three national holidays (Independence Day, Memorial Day and Thanksgiving) and the ways their inclusion in Christian worship.
Chapter five focuses on how the American flag became an idolatrous symbol. Chapter six explores the history of the pledge of allegiance and how its inclusion in worship invokes a commitment to the nation (not God). Chapter seven describes how patriotic songs and hymns displace God as the center of worship.The closing chapter explores how baptism and the Eucharist provide a counter-narrative to the Babylon of American culture.
Watts is not against patriotism in all forms. He acknowledges the value of personal patriotism. We can love our country; however, as Christians, our patriotism is relativized by our ultimate allegiance to Christ. This is a great insight and Watts does the church a service in probing the ideological content of nationalistic, liturgical practices. The god in the Declaration of Independence is vague, and the unexamined God is not worth worshipping. Watts does a great job of showcasing the way nationalism is a different story, contrary to biblical faith.
What Watts is doing is arguing for an integrity of Christian witness which counters empire and resists capitulation to nationalism and civil religion. I am reminded of Hauerwas’s axiom, “The first task of the church is to let the world know that it is the world.” I agree in large part with the critique that Watts raises here. I appreciated his insights to how American nationalism infiltrates and co-opts Christian worship.
Should we sing patriotic hymns? Should we acknowledge nationalistic holidays in worship? Or pledge allegiance? I question these practices too. Watts’s position is that “songs and gestures that can be done in a conscientious way by people without faith have no legitimate place in Christian worship”(26) because they do not proclaim the truth of God in Christ or deepen our attachment to Him. However, I wonder if the recognition of our shared national identity and history does have more of a place in Christian worship than Watts allows.
I agree that appropriating national symbols in an unexamined way is detrimental to our formation, but I think there is a space in worship to acknowledge history and our American identity. What I hear in Watt’s is a call for the public witness to Christian truth and the privatization of patriotism. But honoring the sacrifice of vets and their families in a worship service involves really seeing the people gathered. I think there is space to appreciate personal sacrifice for our country and our shared national heritage in worship, as long as we note which story we are inhabiting as we reach for national symbols and give pride of place to the gospel story.
Given our current quagmire of faith and politics, this is a timely book. I recommend this book for pastors and lay Christian seeking to navigate the ways the church relates (and ought to relate) to the state. I give this five stars. ★★★★★
Notice of material connection: I recieved a copy of this book from Wipf & Stock in exchange for my honest review.