Rational responses to nationalistic worship don’t work

By John D. Pierce

Thoughtful Baptist theologian Roger Olson of Baylor University, in his commentary at ethicsdaily.com today, addresses again the troublesome practice of Christian congregations conducting worship services that elevate nationalism above the worship of the Creator and Savior of all people.

The title, “How you can phase out nationalistic worship and survive,” raised doubts in my mind before reading the commentary. I’ve seen many pastors try to tamp down such civil religion expressions to their detriment.

The problem is that rational responses don’t register with those whose actions are emotionally driven.

Once, in a conversation with a Christian school headmaster, I mentioned the clearly visible symbolism of a higher allegiance to nation than to God by the raising of a Christian flag below the Stars and Stripes on the school flagpole. I might as well have spoken Swahili or recited Dr. Seuss.

He couldn’t grasp the problem at all — although the school claims the lordship of Christ as its basis, purpose and priority.

I’ve heard pastors explain in great detail the historical and theological case against reducing the worship of God to a patriotic rally. Though highly logical and clearly biblical, it made no difference to those who can’t separate the two allegiances.

All that registers is, “You don’t love America like I do.”

The reason is simple: a rationale response, no matter how well developed, doesn’t answer emotionally driven beliefs and behaviors.

Olson offers great wisdom to ministers in suggesting they learn of the church’s practices prior to accepting a call. However, I wish I had more confidence in his following suggestions for moving congregations away from nationalistic worship.

Because rational responses don’t work when encountering deeply and long-held practices that are rooted in feelings over thinking. And compromises work no better than explanations.

At least that’s what I’ve witnessed and heard.

In many churches, the pastor can ignore Pentecost but not the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag on Independence Day. I know of one church that, due to leadership change, forgot to hold the Lord’s Supper for two years and nobody noticed. Yet all hell broke loose when the American flag was not in the sanctuary one Sunday

Here’s hoping there are more successful stories related to this emotion-packed issue than I’m seeing or hearing. I want to believe that Olson’s advice can serve ministers better than causing them to update their resumes sooner than planned.

But be assured that no well-crafted sermon or thoughtful treatise on church-state separation can override the deep passion of those who cannot separate God revealed in Christ from a red, white and blue suspendered Uncle Sam.

For many pastors, those patriotic-priority Sundays that reduce worship to a nationalistic rally have only one constructive response: vacation time.

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