As a young pastor, I once visited a church and saw two flags flying over the sanctuary: one was an American flag, which I knew, and the other was a Christian flag, which I had never seen before. Curious, I looked around and saw no flags—inside or out—at the Christian Reformed church where I grew up or at any of the churches I had previously served.
I hurriedly transferred both flags from the sanctuary to the fellowship hall, fueled by my youth and, perhaps, an inflated sense of my own authority. The man approached me after Sunday worship with what appeared to be a military bearing. He went by “Bruce” at first, but I found out later that he was a commander who had retired after a long career in US naval intelligence.
Surprisingly, Bruce apologized to me, which was a pleasant surprise. He mentioned that he would be getting new flags this week and would also polish the brass stands because he knew they looked shabby. Everything will be perfect by next week. Bruce mistook my apparent distaste for my decision to relocate the flags.
Bruce and I spent the subsequent thirteen years getting to know one another quite well. Even though he taught me a lot (including proper flag etiquette), he managed to evade my initial inquiry, “Who or what are we worshiping here?” Even now, I long for his presence.
For the following forty years or so, I hoped to have figured out how to rearrange places of worship without anyone’s input, but I never ceased wondering. Today, I find myself inquiring about it. Indeed, the significance of this question has only increased since its initial introduction. It seems like the evangelical church in the United States is increasingly embracing a dangerous combination of Christian faith and patriotism, an ideology that I don’t see anywhere in the Bible or Jesus’ teachings.
Two of Tim Alberta’s best-selling books deal with Christian nationalism. In December’s Atlantic Monthly, the author shared an intriguing story about his father’s Brighton, Michigan, evangelical Presbyterian church. While Tim was growing up, the church he attended with his dad went from having a few hundred to several thousand members.
On Sunday mornings, Tim’s dad would often mix religion with patriotism. An example of this would be a parent leading the congregation in a resounding ovation if a soldier appeared in worship attired in full dress uniform. However, what Tim recalls with greater clarity is that the church would give a visiting missionary what he terms a “golf clap”—a term for weak applause. Timothy also started to wonder, “Who or what are we worshipping?” when he was quite little.
The fact is that many of us are curious about that. The Holland Armory hosted a discussion in late November with the title “Confronting Christian Nationalism.” I went to that meeting. Doug Pagitt, an evangelical pastor who calls himself “a proud, concerned, and hopeful American,” gave the speech. Further, he helped form Vote Common Good, an organization that urges “people of faith to engage in civic life.”
Our location in Ottawa County, which Pagitt described as being “at the center of the swirl,” was the driving force behind the turnout that evening. Most readers of the Holland Sentinel are aware that a coalition of Christian evangelicals from Ottawa County, known as Ottawa Impact, recently defeated the Republican incumbents on the county board. The group’s members were extremely worried about how the state and local governments were handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pagitt challenged the audience to consider the inner workings of organisations like Ottawa Impact and the people who voted for and remain loyal to them, pushing for “empathy and engagement.” Pagitt did the right thing by challenging the audience to consider the inner workings of organizations like Ottawa Impact and the people who voted for and remain loyal to them.
I thought it was a well-rounded presentation overall, and I also think we should “learn to talk about politics,” “resist us vs. them” terminology, respond with “empathy and engagement,” and make “civic involvement a discipleship project.” Even though I know I could be doing more, I like to believe that those are the things I have dedicated my life to.
Besides being a citizen of the United States, I am a preacher and a Christian. The first three identities—husband, father, and long-distance runner—have demanded a great deal of my attention and energy for the better part of my life. I also have other identities. Sometimes, it’s hard. It also shouldn’t be.
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