Cokesbury, United Methodism’s Publishing House, has republished a warning about patriotic excess on July 4. A Nashville United Methodist minister recounts his extreme unease over the unexpected performance by a visiting musician of Lee Greenwood’s famously soaring “I’m Proud to Be An American” during worship, to rapturous applause from the congregation.
The occasion wasn’t even near a civic holiday but during Lent. On the following Sunday the minister’s sermon chastised the congregation for having given the “emotional and enthusiastic act of praise” to the “nation instead of toward God,” and he “challenged the congregation to ask if we might have accidentally given our best to something that is less than God.”
I share the pastor’s objection to this song, especially in worship, but for somewhat different reasons. The Bible and Christian teaching warn against pride! It’s considered the dark counter to humility and gratitude. Pride exalts the self and human flesh. The proud set themselves up for a fall. God ultimately breaks the back of human pride, the Scriptures warn, which is the father of all other defiance against God.
Christians should not be proud to be American. They should be grateful and blessed. Thank God for America, pray for America, love America, serve America, implore mercy and divine blessing upon America. Celebrate and admire what God has achieved through America. Christians of every land should have this determined, appreciative and plaintive attitude about their country.
Last week there were a lot of social media photos of liberal churches, with their signage, marching in annual urban gay pride marches. Setting aside the issue of Christian sexual ethics, should churches march for pride? Christians are called to be chaste. Should they be proudly chaste? Chastity is a virtue like humility. Should Christians be proudly humble? Should Christians be proud to be Christian? Proud to be Lutheran, Catholic or Pentecostal? It all seems contradictory, since Christians aren’t supposed to exalt themselves or their affiliations.
Greenwood’s song, which I for years greatly enjoyed, although I thankfully never heard it in church, includes “God bless the USA.” If that lyric were clearly the focus, instead of pride, maybe it would almost be appropriate in some worship settings, like several patriotic hymns in the United Methodist Hymnal that stress divine lordship and blessing. In fairness to Greenwood, his song lauds gratitude, love, sacrifice and service.
Every July 4 there are many prim religious articles warning against the idolatry of nationalism, etc. Some of these polemics are actually unsubtly anti-American. (And I wonder if these same polemicists remind their congregations on Mothers and Fathers Day about Christ’s hyperbolic admonition to “hate” parents!!) But others are trying often inarticulately to warn justifiably against national pride. They are right in this aspiration. Christians should be grateful citizens, not proud, praying and seeking always the welfare of their communities, which is only possible by unmerited grace through divine blessing.