What to the Christian Nationalist is the Fourth of July Sunday? – Word&Way

A few years ago, I wrote a piece for Church & State magazine about how I often skip church on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July. That year, our nation’s birthday occurred on a Sunday, which promised to infuse an extra dose of patriotism into services supposed to be about our global God.

“Worship on this Sunday looks different; it is fair to question who and what is actually being praised,” I wrote. “To celebrate an ‘exceptional’ nation while claiming to worship the God who ‘so loved the world’ misses the story completely; it eviscerates the truth we profess.”

I did attend church yesterday. I figured with the Fourth being on Thursday, it was pretty far removed. And I was pleased that at my church it was like any given Sunday. We sang about and to God, prayed for people in our community and around the world, celebrated baptisms, and heard a sermon completely unrelated to any national days on this week’s calendar (including National Gingersnap Day on July 1 and or National Fried Clam Day on July 3).

But since Beau Underwood and I in Baptizing America criticized the Christian Nationalism that often shows up in churches around the Fourth of July, people have sent me notes and even bulletins about patriotic services this year. A church in a St. Louis, Missouri, suburb was set to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee.” But the wildest part on the bulletin was the start with the “Call to Worship.” They would say the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag. The service wasn’t livestreamed so no word on if an angry Moses threw down the Ten Commandments in response.

To better understand the heretical danger of Christian Nationalism and its pervasiveness in our churches and culture, it’s important to pay attention to such moments. So this issue of A Public Witness will take you to Sunday’s service at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. It’s an influential megachurch led for 49 years by radio preacher and Southern Baptist Convention president Charles Stanley. His chosen successor, Anthony George, became the senior pastor in 2020 and has been active in denominational and national politics. He’s on the steering council of the Conservative Baptist Network that’s trying to push the nation’s largest Protestant denomination further to the right. And he hosted Herschel Walker for campaign events at the church during the football star’s failed Senate campaign in 2022.

FBC Atlanta is larger and wealthier than the average church in the United States. That means it can put on a better show for the Fourth of July, with a bigger choir, special guests, and even fireworks (as well as pay for the necessary insurance). But it gives us a glimpse into similar rhetoric and theology seeping into churches across the country. So what was Sunday like for this influential church? Don’t stand too close to Moses.

As congregants walked into the sanctuary at FBC Atlanta on Sunday, they were greeted by 20 U.S. flags across the stage. With this backdrop as if set for a presidential announcement speech, the music leader opened the service by welcoming everyone to “Freedom Sunday.” The choir decked out in red led a medley of patriotic hymns: “America the Beautiful,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”

While singing along, many people in the sanctuary waved U.S. flags, which were all the same and thus likely had been distributed for people as they entered like one might with candles for a Christmas Eve service or crackers and juice for a communion service. In case the 20 flags on stage weren’t enough to well up the patriotic spirit, people could participate in this sacramental expression with their own elements.

The church’s pianist brought some special music for meditation during the service: “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” The choir then sang the anthems of five branches of the U.S. military (apparently the Space Force isn’t Christian enough yet). As they sang, a uniformed representative from the branch stood on stage to salute while congregants waved their little flags. They did need to tweak the Navy’s song a bit, though, because of that line declaring, “Through our last night on shore, drink to the foam.” The good ole’ Baptists instead sang, “Through our last night on shore, hail to the foam.” Apparently it’s okay to baptize imperial military forces as long as we don’t acknowledge the beer drinking!

As the anthems ended and with five uniformed members on stage saluting to a standing ovation, sparkler fireworks shot up from along the edge of the stage. Senior Pastor Anthony George then prayed to continue honoring the military. After thanking God for “the freedom that we have because of the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus on the cross,” George thanked God for U.S. soldiers and “the blood that has been shed” by them “to keep us free.”

Screengrab from the worship service at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 30, 2024.

Another time of special music followed, featuring Christian recording artist and former American Idol contestant Danny Gokey (who has been vocal with his defense of Donald Trump, his opposition to COVID-19 vaccines, and his support of candidates pushing Christian Nationalism like Doug Mastriano). Last year, Gokey released an EP with three songs to encourage Christians to be patriotic, so FBC Atlanta brought him in to sing the tunes with the church’s choir providing backup: “Brave,” “My America (I Still Believe),” and a cover of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” In the first, he exhorted the congregation to “stand up and be brave” because “we are the people, the red, white, and blue.”

After the song, Gokey said it was “an honor to be here today to celebrate our country because, you know what, I love the United States of America. I still believe in the United States of America.” And the crowd cheered his confession of faith. Urging people to support the military, he worked in quotes from Ronald Reagan and the Book of Revelation. Gokey the sang about how “I still believe in us, my America.” Before ending the mini-concert with Greenwood’s anthem that’s now part of a Trump-endorsed Bible, Gokey declared, “Do you still believe? Come on, faith is seeing things inside first before we see it manifested in our country. Amen?”

That was all the music in the hour-and-a-half service. Each song centered America during this time of worship. After a video about the U.S. being “one nation under God,” George returned to the flag-filled stage for his sermon, at which point the service took a more partisan turn, injecting MAGA politics as the third flavor in the God and country Neapolitan dish.

George has a history of preaching conspiratorial politics drawing more from talk radio than the Bible (and he criticized A Public Witness reports in two sermons in 2022 for noting this). In the past, he’s peppered his sermons with anti-vax rhetoric and claims of Christian persecution in the U.S. along with attacks on immigrants, Black Lives Matter, environmentalists, and President Joe Biden. “Freedom Sunday” went even further in portraying the support of Donald Trump as a Christian responsibility.

George started his sermon by adding to the praise of the U.S. military as instruments of God. He argued he and the congregation owe to veterans “an eternal debt of gratitude for the freedoms that we have in this country.” He also urged Christians to “continue growing in gratitude for our warriors,” adding it was “refreshing” to see “a resurgence of gratitude and honor and even reverence for our warriors that seems to be renewed in our day.”

“We [Christians] ought to be the most patriotic of all the citizens in our country,” George said. “Our nation’s founding was a miracle. God’s providential fingerprints are all over it.”

George even insisted Christians must celebrate America during worship services or else they’re not being good Christians.

“Our citizenship is part of our witness no matter what these 21st century, modern, progressive evangelicals want to do by taking the flags out of churches, by never singing about our country on a Sunday morning, these people can just wrap it up and head to the hills,” he declared.

Talking about the importance of teaching children to be patriotic, he recalled with joy how he said the Pledge of Allegiance to the U.S. flag every day at school and played the National Anthem in his school band before football games. He argued to much applause that someone who doesn’t stand for the National Anthem is not “a real man.”

George’s sermon moved right from framing the U.S. as a Christian nation to advocating for various conservative political talking points. He also seemed to suggest Christians should back Donald Trump.

“We need to support our advocates, those who are standing up today for our freedoms which are in jeopardy. Many of them are imperfect people. Some of them may even be a little bit foul-mouthed and ill-tempered. And some of them may even be outright obnoxious. But if they are standing for our freedoms, we need to stand for them,” he said to applause. “As we all know, our greatest threat in this country is not barbarians coming over our unattended southern border, it’s the barbarians inside our borders who control our country. That’s the biggest problem we have.”

“A lot of Christians I know, they’re waiting for Jesus to be on the ticket,” George added. “So a lot of Christians say, ‘Well, we’re just going to disengage because the options are so imperfect.’ But what they don’t understand is if we disengage we will soon lose the right to engage at all.”

George went on to attack “the media,” “the deep state” (“it is a real thing”), “the woke agenda,” and transgender people. He praised the U.S. Supreme Court for its ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, as well as the new decision striking down Chevron (a 40-year legal precedent that empowered the federal government to enforce regulations protecting the environment, public health, and workplace safety) that George praised as stopping “the renegade, tyrannical federal agencies” because “freedom matters in this country.” He also praised Louisiana for requiring the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools, Oklahoma for also pushing initiatives like the Bible in public schools, and Tractor Supply for ending its support for DEI initiatives, LGBTQ rights, and fighting climate change. And the congregation cheered.

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The Fourth of July Sunday offers us a peak into the heretical danger of Christian Nationalism that confuses American and Christian identities. All the worship songs centered and lifted up the United States. The courageous sacrifice of military veterans was conflated with serving God and even the sacrifice of Jesus. And all of this in an election year was mixed in with a clear wink and nod to which political party and presidential candidate to support as a supposed act of Christian responsibility.

Such worship services may seem harmless even if a bit cringey. But it always is dangerous to mix the gospel with the preaching of another kingdom. Christians are being discipled to merge their faith with their patriotism and politics as if there is no difference between pledging allegiance to a nation and giving our allegiance to God. As Jesus taught, we cannot serve two masters.

FBC Atlanta is not merely an influential congregation; it also is emblematic of services that occurred across the nation yesterday — not just in evangelical congregations but also in mainline Protestant ones as we documented in Baptizing America. As we suggested in the book, try “the Martian test.” If a Martian who knew nothing about us showed up at FBC Atlanta on Sunday, who or what would that creature think the congregation was worshiping? The Martian would go back and write about the red, white, and blue gods on stage that the people worshiped while also shooting off some explosives as if preparing for war.

As congregants left the American worship service on Sunday, they received a free Cracker Jack box with information about the church printed on it (no word on if the toy was a flag-waving White Jesus figurine). Its red, white, and blue boxes and association with baseball made the Cracker Jack gift a fitting end to a morning of celebrating America.

Screengrab from the worship service at First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on June 30, 2024.

I love Cracker Jacks as much as anyone. That molasses-caramel flavoring of popcorn and peanuts is a delicious treat. But it makes for a lousy staple for your diet. Despite the fact the company tried in the past to promote it as a health food, its main ingredient is sugar followed by corn syrup. Christian Nationalism may taste good, but it’s actually not good for us. Let’s not forget that cavities can make it hard to eat meat and diabetes can lead to blindness.

I’d like to think our Martian visitor yesterday would’ve loved the box of Cracker Jacks even while being confused by everything else. If only more Christians felt similarly.

As a public witness,

Brian Kaylor

A Public Witness is a reader-supported publication of Word&Way.

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