Does patriotism have a place in the church?

Does patriotism have a place in the church?

As a small congregation in Holston was making plans for a Sunday service that fell before a patriotic holiday not too long ago, one member wanted to decorate the church in red, white, and blue.

The pastor, although a child of a World War II veteran, diplomatically tried to discourage the well-meaning gesture. After all, the pastor thought, what if an international Christian student from the local college were to come to worship at their church that day? What kind of message of universal Christian love would that send
the person?

But, some might argue, a patriotic salute during the service would simply recognize how the American military has helped preserve freedom to worship.

With July 4 nearing, other pastors and worship leaders may grapple with how to serve patriotic congregants while also remembering the Biblical and the United Methodist Church's teachings against war.

The Rev. Kathie Wilson-Parker, pastor of Main Street UMC in Tazewell District, said the issue is made more complex because many churchgoers tend to consolidate values that are dear to them. And in many cases, love of God and country are both important, she said.

"They tend to put it all in one box, and as pastors we want to keep the love of God primary,” she said.

Because worshipers often bring their patriotism in the church doors with them, she finds it sometimes hard to know the best way to show what represents Jesus. When Pentecost Sunday fell recently on Memorial Day weekend, most of her service focused on Pentecost, she said. But she did place a patriotically related litany reading from the denomination's “Book of Worship” at the end.

"I wanted to separate it a little bit fromthe rest of the service because it was a national holiday and not a church holiday,” said Wilson-Parker.

The Rev. Mike Hubble of Keith Memorial UMC, Cleveland District, said that patriotic holidays for him always present a slight dilemma. The reason, he feels, is that worshipers are both citizens of the United States and of God's kingdom, and that being in the kingdom of God sometimes conflicts with being a citizen of the earthly kingdom.

On Sundays that fall near patriotic holidays, Hubble often uses scriptural texts from one of the prophets or from a book such as Deuteronomy, in which Moses tells his people that devotion to God should be central to their lives. "I try to find what God's word says,” he says.

Hubble also never tries to preach whether America is right or wrong in any situation. “I don't think God blesses the United States of America any more than he does any people,” he said. “He loves and blesses all nations.”

Although he personally is against the Iraq War, the Rev. William Fowler of Church Street UMC, Knoxville District, feels that churches should periodically recognize American soldiers during worship. As support for his argument, he pointed out the Gospel story of the Roman centurion, in which Jesus praised the soldier's faith and healed his servant.

"I think the primary task of the church is to remember who your constituents are, and they sometimes are soldiers,” said Fowler. “Soldiers are part of the church.”

The Rev. Barbara Clark, pastor at Anderson Street UMC in Abingdon District, pointed out that, although the denomination's principles condemn war, the fact is that United Methodists are currently serving in the military, several as chaplains. In fact, Clark said she gained respect for military chaplains while serving on the church's General Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville.

"We are a part of this culture, so how can we deal with it pastorally when we disagree theologically with the war?” she asked.

Capt. David Knight, a Holston Conference pastor from the Big Stone Gap District currently serving as senior protestant chaplain at Nellis Air Force Base near Las Vegas, said he understands that a person's ultimate allegiance should be to Jesus. However, he supports patriotic services because they are a way of celebrating religious freedom and the sacrifices put forth to preserve that freedom.

"I can tell you from being overseas where people don't have religious freedom that it is something we need to thank God for,” he said. “We need to celebrate that.”

The Rev. Barbara Clark added that in her experiences serving at different types of churches, she has found that the smaller churches in rural areas are more inclined to want a patriotic service.

"Maybe there is more a sense of community,” she said.

John Shearer is a member of Church Street United Methodist Church, where his wife, the Rev. Laura Shearer, is associate pastor.

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