The Fallacy of Patriotic Worship

white and red flag
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Though I’ve never seen combat, my entire adult life has been marked by war. 

The week after Jonathan and I got married, he flew to Baghdad in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. This was 2005 — the height of the U.S. war in Iraq. My first year of marriage was spent with my husband deployed with an Infantry unit, and me back home in Michigan, away from all military connection. And I won’t lie — that was a hard year. That year and his combat experiences irrevocably changed him, and changed me because of it. About halfway through that deployment, one Sunday afternoon I got an email from him that said, “I got hurt, but I’m okay.” I panicked, not knowing what that meant or what the future held. Later that afternoon the phone rang, and when I saw the caller ID said “US Army,” I immediately breathed out a sigh of relief… a phone call was a welcome alternative to the dreaded knock at the door. There are many things that happened during that deployment that, even as the spouse at home, have indelibly left their mark on me. War is tragic. War changes people. 

He left for his second deployment when our oldest was 2 months old. Unlike the first deployment, I spent the second in community with other spouses of deployed Soldiers. I felt much less alone that time, because the things that we went through, we went through together. During that year I felt deeply the sacredness of our experiences, the heaviness in the air and the exchanged glances that spoke the words we would not say. Experiences from that deployment indelibly left their mark on me. War is tragic. War changes people. 

Home From War

His third deployment was when our kids were all in elementary school. My experience was different yet again, because this time I had a close community of support, but most of them were through my work, not his; they were civilian families removed from the day-to-day reality of being a nation at war. And because Jonathan went to a different (far more remote and dangerous) location than most of the officers and Soldiers in his unit, none of my friends’ spouses were there with him; most of them could FaceTime their spouses daily while our communication was very limited and uncertain. Experiences from that deployment indelibly left their mark on me. War is tragic. War changes people. 

And still, because of the non-combat opportunities that have been presented to him during his career, I am thankful of the unexpected blessing of far fewer combat deployments than many of his peers, especially back in those early days.

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During Jonathan’s second deployment in 2008, I vividly remember one morning at a ladies Bible study for Army spouses. That week, the news was flooded with headlines about the milestone of 2,000 American service members killed in combat in Iraq. One woman confidently said, “I know that God is on our side in this war, because otherwise, we would have lost a lot more than 2,000 people by now.” That was when I knew that my understanding of war — and of God — was different than hers. Sure, 2,000 US service members had been tragically killed, but so had tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians — hundreds of thousands to date. 

I want to be clear about something: The experiences and sacrifices of a military spouse are not the same thing as the experiences and sacrifices of a service member. I would never ever equate what I have been through to what my spouse and hundreds of thousands of others like him have been through. But as a military family, the trauma of war is a part of the fabric of who we are at our very core. 

And that is exactly why, as a pastor, I so fiercely separate patriotism from worship. My need to detach love of country from love of God is hard-fought, hard-won, and relentless. 

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying we shouldn’t observe national holidays. Patriotism has a place. Armed Services Day and Memorial Day and Independence Day and Veteran’s Day have their place… and that place is not in worship. 

Worship is a sacred time, when we come together in the name of God, to proclaim the Word, to fellowship, to pray. It is when we remember our call to be people of peace, looking to the model of the Prince of Peace. It is when we gather around the Table to remember a Christ who engaged in nonviolence even when his life was threatened… even as he was executed by an occupying political regime. I prefer not to focus worship on secular holidays as a rule (see also: Mother’s Day and Father’s Day) for this reason; they tend to detract from worship of God and place our trust in humanity instead. I am a Christian because of the goodness of God, not the fallibility of humanity. 

That doesn’t mean we don’t honor the emotions people feel on these days. During the pastoral prayer, I might offer prayers around the theme of that day (since each of these days have different purposes!), being sure to include prayers for God’s beloved in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Korea, Vietnam, Germany, Japan, and everywhere else soldiers and civilians have died in combat with the U.S. We pray for the veterans who are struggling, for the families who bear many burdens. We pray for our leaders to make wise decisions; we pray for the injured. We pray for a day when swords are turned to plowshares and for wars to cease. 

Unfortunately, too many churches conflate “patriotism” with “Christianity” so much so that it seems as though they worship the United States — and war itself — on these particularly patriotic weekends. They sing “God Bless America” without asking who literally has died and are still dying so that we might experience “God’s blessing.” They change the altar colors to red, white, and blue, and hold up the American service member as their Sacrificial Savior instead of Christ. They sing patriotic songs with lyrics honoring our nation and not our God. They seem to forget that God is just as present in the people of our “enemies” as God is present in the people of the United States. They worship the god of war without assessing the cost and acknowledging our culpability in the loss of life that war always brings. 

Yes, though I’ve never seen combat, my entire adult life has been marked by war… far more deeply than I usually talk about. And yet, I am called as a Christian to strive for peace. So the next time one of these patriotic holiday weekends rolls around, as a military spouse and a minister of the Gospel, I ask that we take the opportunity to pray for peace, to pray for veterans, to pray for loved ones of casualties of all nationalities… and to worship only God. 

7 thoughts on “The Fallacy of Patriotic Worship

Add yours

  1. Thank you Sara and blessings from down here in the Rio Grande Valley.
    Excellent article and much food for thought.
    As pastors, we are in a way, students of history and with that thought in mind, your article reminded me of a couple of very important quotations from two rather recent figures in history.
    The famed English writer, historian, lay-theologian, poet and philosopher G.K. Chesterton once said: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.”
    And probably the greatest United States President of my life, Dwight David Eisenhower told us: “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” President Eisenhower also revealed this truth: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road. the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”
    But the book of Revelation tells us when all war will finally come to an end. Praise be to God!

  2. I left one preaching appointment because of this very issue… and it seems to becoming even more predominant and zealous. Whether it always is or not, it seems certain to me that patriotism has become the leading idolatry of this nation.

  3. Thank you Sara for your reflections and wisdom. I, served 7 years in USArmy Medical Service Corp and then graduated from seminary and ordained a Presbyterian minister. In all my years I worked hard at preserving the separation of church and state in my pastoral care, worship, and teaching. The work continues…thank you

  4. I suggest you look at the Book of Common Prayer 1979 of The Episcopal in the section “Prayers for National Life”. None reflect a breast beating nationalism; most give thanks for the bounty we have received as a nation and ask that we may live up to our obligations as a nation. I see this as appropriate and healthy!

  5. Thanks! This has been the way I have approached this question as a pastor. I honor and acknowledge the individuals and the sacrifices, but as you say, we look to the day when war is taught no more.

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