Liturgy and Patriotism

I suspect that almost all Christian congregations acknowledge patriotic holidays in some way as part of their liturgies. All the same, I was somewhat taken aback by a survey that indicates that among Protestant pastors 61% felt that it was important to mark the July 4th holiday not simply with prayers for the nation but with “patriotic elements” in the service.

Perhaps I am over-interpreting this, but it seems to me that a “patriotic element” means more than asking God to bless our nation; it implies showing a kind of honor and reverence (dulia if not latria) to the nation. This is perhaps borne out by the view of a majority of Protestant Pastors that their congregations love America more than God.

america god

I suspect the numbers aren’t all that different among Catholics in the United States, since we spent the first 70 years of the twentieth century trying to prove that we loved American as much as if not more than anyone else. If the incorporation of patriotic elements into the liturgy is any less frequent in Catholic congregations, this may well be more a matter of having a relatively fixed liturgy than it is of a difference in our underlying attitude.

So, is there a legitimate place in Christian worship for the expression of patriotic sentiment, in which we offer honor and praise to the nation, ritually display flags, preach sermons that give America a providential role in world history, or sing songs like the Star Spangled Banner (which does not even mention God)? Are these legitimate acts of inculturation, or does it somehow corrupt the liturgy of a body that is supposed to transcend national boundaries, actually encouraging parishioners to love America more than God? If the trick is to strike a balance, where is that balance found?

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30 comments

  1. Sometimes the excision of a “patriotic” touch is a cause for distraction. What keeps worshipers on track? In my community that includes a number of active and retired military people, my choice is America the Beautiful, all four verses, for exit. Then we’ll see if people love being the first out of the parking lot above loving their country. 😉

    1. @Todd Flowerday:

      my choice is America the Beautiful

      Is it really?

      Cause you don’t come off as someone who would support turning the liturgy into the insufferable USA!USA!USA!-fest.

      Anyway, a foreigner in a foreign land, I am, obviously, opposed to this kind of liturgical “inculturation.” Without question, I would likewise be against my people doing it in my homeland. Which, as far as I know, they don’t. Thank God.

      1. @Elisabeth Ahn:
        I would be the last person to support turning the liturgy in to an “insufferable USA!USA!USA!-fest,” but I agree with Todd’s choice. At my parish we adhere to the proper texts for the liturgy of the day, and pray for the nation (and all nations) in the Universal Prayer. However, after the liturgy is concluded, “America the Beautiful” may give expression (and help to form) a healthy sense of patriotism, under God and aspiring to a vision of the Reign of God.

        To my mind, “America the Beautiful” is not some sort of banner-waving self-congratulatory anthem to American exceptionalism, but a prayer that is deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian pattern of anamnesis and epiclesis. I realize that the first half of each stanza commemorates not necessarily what God has done, but rather the primary themes of the nation’s story (the contradictory story of indigenous peoples notwithstanding). But then the second half each stanza asks God to act upon the nation in a way that both acknowledges the sovereignty of God and the imperfection of the society that emerged from this history. What other “patriotic” American song does this?

        Because deep down we Americans (I wouldn’t presume to exclude myself, in spite of my professed anti-nationalist views) MAY love country more than God, people may be inclined to break ranks with “tradition” and stay to sing all four stanzas. If they do, they may find their nationalism tempered and forged into a healthier patriotism that sees beyond gleaming alabaster cities of world fairs to a vision of the new Jerusalem.

        I’m definitely a liturgical “purist,” but on this one, I’m with Todd.

      2. @Kevin Vogt:

        they may find their nationalism tempered and forged into a healthier patriotism that sees beyond gleaming alabaster cities of world fairs to a vision of the new Jerusalem.

        You sound like a hopeless or rather, hope-filled idealist.

        🙂

        I am too.
        But not on this one.

        I don’t believe nationalism of any kind has any place in our liturgy, and especially not at the Eucharistic celebration.

        ETA: Guess this means my answer to the OP’s question,”If the trick is to strike a balance, where is that balance found?” would be: when in doubt, don’t do it.

      3. @Kevin Vogt:

        Nice altarpiece. However I find the eye in the triangle on the sun to represent God the Father creepy …Masonic symbols don’t belong in a Catholic Church.

    2. @Todd Flowerday:
      The music director at the church I attended today (OF) must be on the same page. The recessional was America the Beautiful, all four verses, for the exit. Most people stayed, though the priest didn’t leave the sanctuary until the fourth verse.

      The other hymns were not patriotic, though I wasn’t familiar with any of them (but one was set to the tune of “To Jesus Christ Our Sovereign King,” so I could sing along with it).

      1. @Jack Wayne:
        Nearly everyone stayed here, too, including clergy. Otherwise the closest we got to explicit patriotism was the word “free” in Bob Hurd’s “Flow River Flow.” And the deacon preached on discipleship.

        Wish I’d remembered I have “This Is My Song” at hand. Great tune and text.

  2. I am very picky in regard to this. I do believe we need to acknowledge we are Catholics in America, but nationalism in worship can have many negative consequences. If the 4th of July falls directly on a Sunday, I would do a little more than I will for this weekend. Because of the 4th being Monday, we are keeping it “American” by using hymns that originate in this country. We will mix appalachian hymns (Southern Harmony, Sacred Harp) with newer songs (Taste And See by James Moore) and conclude with Mine Eyes Have Seen The Glory (no one ever leaves for that one either). Interesting to note is how easy it was to find selections that supported the readings and the propers for this Sunday. How many people know that God Of Our Fathers was comissioned for the centenial of our country and Gift Of Finest Wheat for the bicentennial (and the Eucharistic Congress)? I know some that will use God Bless America as a closing song… I just can’t go there.

  3. We have three tall flagpoles outside the church on which are the flag of the USA flanked by the Vatican flag and the state flag. Whenever someone asked the pastor who put them there why the flag is not on the altar, he pointed to the flags outside, and said “That’s it.” Since his tenure, we’ve had some upheaval, and a now-gone pastor put the US (and Vatican) flag on the altar. I doubt angelic hosts could get it off now. The pastor who put it there performed an asperges on his first 4th, before the Offertory, while the congregation sang the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

    Edifying.

    Abortion is legal and respected. Torture has been practiced and will be again, promises one candidate (with much Christian support). When budget cuts are needed (under one theory supported by many Christians, that’s always), the poor take the first hit, and usually all the others. It is illegal to be some human beings. In guns we trust.

    Also edifying to some, no doubt. But hardly a situation that fits into Eucharistic celebration.

  4. We once had a pastor who was a former military chaplain. On July 4th, we had a complete honor guard with both the US and Papal Flags brought forward before Mass – not kept in the Sanctuary…

    Then, he would pray for those who were descendants of those who fought during the American Revolution and each war thereafter, as well as current government officials and members of the military. It was very well done..

    Had another pastor who was originally from Ireland. He spoke about his acceptance into the US and why he chose to become a citizen. He also spoke about the need to be Christ for one another no matter where we were, and that although he was now a US citizen, he would never give up his Irish heart…

  5. While I was at my last parish there was always music on the secular holidays. On Memorial Day, the start of the summer travel season, we sang Eternal Father, Strong to Save (MELITA), ON 4 July we sang God of Our Fathers (NATIONAL HYMN), and on Thanksgiving we sang America the Beautiful. The folks had not sung the first two hymns before I got there, and they embraced both as part of their communal prayer.

  6. I confess: I picked Battle Hymn of the Republic for the closing hymn this weekend. But it somehow seems less specifically nationalistic, and the text does work with the readings, the third verse, especially:

    “He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
    He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat;
    Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet;
    Our God is marching on.
    Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Glory! Glory! Hallelujah!
    Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Our God is marching on.”

  7. # 5!

    I would hope no flags any any sort would ever be on the ‘Altar,’ but rather someplace near the sanctuary, and at that, for holidays only.

  8. I think we are at a critical time in our nation’s history when Catholics must reaafirm they can be good citizens as well as good Catholics. And while I would not turn the Mass into a pep rally, on civic holidays I would be all in favor of celebrating our American citizenship as well as our heavenly citizenship. The US flag prominently displayed, perhaps a color guard present, even the National Anthem can be welcomed into the Eucharistic liturgy, because they are partly symbols of who we are… and nobody does symbols better than Catholics. We need to ask God’s blessings on our country, but I think we need first to show we love our country, and if anyone will defend and protect what is best about America, it is Catholics. We welcome our ‘country’ into our churches, as we’d like our God to be welcomed into our country.

  9. Our parish has visitors and tourists from every nation under the sun during the summer months. I couldn’t imagine their horror if they heard us singing patriotic American songs. Like Ron, we nod our head to the 4th of July weekend by singing only American songs. With Elizabeth, I just can’t imagine singing patriotic hymns on Sundays, especially with so many non-Americans present.

    John Swencki thinks we need to affirm we’re good citizens–I agree, but by speaking out for the poor, the unborn, the alien, the elderly, the orphan, etc. Actions speak louder than words (e.g. songs).

    I’d love to hear what people in other countries do. I see “O Canada” in my old copy of Catholic Book of Worship. I see “Land der Berge” in my old Austrian Gotteslob. I have to wonder if they’re sung, and if so: when?

  10. @Jay Edwards

    I believe the all-seeing eye has been part of Christian symbolism since at least the 15th century, well-before it was used in Freemasonry (who began using it as a symbol towards the end of the 18th century). In any case, it’s use as a legitimate Christian symbol predates its use in Freemasonry.

  11. Our parish sings “America the Beautiful” as a recessional on the Sundays of public holiday weekends. Again this morning, we sang verses 1, 2, and 4, with a special crescendo flourish of the organ as the last verse finished. The congregation immediately clapped with enthusiasm, and that bothers me. There are no whoops or hollers, but I expect to hear “Play Ball!” Let the competition against the others begin.

    In the bulletin, the pastor ought explain that the phrases “God shed his grace on thee,” and “crown thy good with brotherhood” are wishes, not statements of fact. The mood is optative, not declarative.

    I dislike the implied nationalism when “America the Beautiful” is sung in church. Suggestion: read Philip Jenkins, “The Great and Holy War.”

    1. @Joe McMahon:
      Clapping bothers me, too, but sometimes I think clapping is the body’s way of shouting “AMEN!” [Catholics dont have the nerve to actually vocalize the word 🙂 I’d happily pardon it for July 4th.

  12. I’ve always enjoyed and preferred “This Is My Song” (Finlandia) on such occasions. Even its placement in WORSHIP is significant: “Nation.”
    As many times as we’ve used it – in a place that might very well prefer other “patriotic” tunes – there has never been a complaint. The obvious is important: the whole celebration has to be tied together… preacher has to know what music has been chosen, music has to know what is going to be preached, so that a consistent message is being delivered and celebrated. Good God! I’m calling for working together, and not departments and individuals in isolation.

  13. “the view of a majority of Protestant Pastors that their congregations love America more than God.

    I suspect the numbers aren’t all that different among Catholics in the United States”

    the last 15 years have certainly proved that.

    1. @Peter King:
      Peter, I don’t know if they love America more or less, but they certainly know America better. Religious “literacy” is in the pits. When I hear some people talking about their ‘experience’ of God, it sounds like they’re talking more about some kind of Celestial Santa Claus than the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Christians are ‘supposed to’ love Jesus; but can you love someone you don’t really know?

  14. Protestant pastor here, but not American. This mixture of political ideology and the gospel makes me very sad. There seems to be some dissent, thanks be to God. I just wish there were more.

  15. I’ve always found it odd that the USCCB has approved propers for Thanksgiving Day, but not Independence Day. I shouldn’t find this odd, given that Thanksgiving is a pale reflection of the Eucharist. Thanksgiving (ideally) should be a reflection not only on the importance of family or community bonds, but also gratefulness for God’s providence.

    July Fourth is a day of patriotism, which contains elements of thanksgiving for those who have sacrificed themselves for our nation or who have served it. Yet this is not breaking bread in thanksgiving. For this reason, Mass propers for Independence Day would not mesh well with the thanksgiving and sacrificial meaning of the Mass.

    I can see why some priests would choose to celebrate a Thanksgiving Day Mass. Some, or even many, in the congregation are expecting a Thanksgiving “theme”. Mass isn’t about themes, but maybe a homily on this day can link a secular eucharist with our Lord’s sacrifice, thereby enriching the festivities of the day.

      1. @Dennis C Smolarski, SJ:

        Father, I am mistaken. I didn’t know there were propers for the Fourth. The Ordinary Form hand missal I use is British (CTS), so certainly neither Independence Day or Thanksgiving Day would be included there! I’ll be sure the look at the propers when I next go to a divinity school library and have access to all the vernacular missals.

        Thank you for the correction.

  16. We sang America the Beautiful. Once my wife and I were in Canada and the recessional hymn was O Canada.

  17. Padraig McCarthy : “I die the king’s good servant, and God’s first.” -Thomas More

    Exactly. That is the exact quote that comes to mind every year. If I thought I could get away with commenting on this quote in the bulletin, I would, as I hear comments from parishioners that reinforce what the OP mentioned. The snarky part of me always wants to end Mass that day by saying, “Wow, that was great singing, everyone! If God is as important, why not sing with the same gusto ALL the time?” Of course, I never do.

    When I first started, I tried using “Eternal Father, Strong to Save”, as that is less nation-specific and is written as a multi-verse intercessory prayer. However, I was regularly accosted by people who said that I was being unfair and biased, as that was the “Navy” hymn. Why was I “disrespecting” all the other branches of service by not using THEIR hymns? Despite attempts to explain my rationale, I was finally directed to start using “America the Beautiful” for the recessional. What really surprised me was being forcefully confronted about not using patriotic hymns on Labor Day weekend. In some countries, I can see this being a more patriotic event, but in the US, we don’t have quite the same history associated with that holiday.

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