I like the 4th of July . . . when it lands in the middle of the week. That way, I can fairly easily get away with not including any patriotic songs during worship on one of the Sundays closest. Memorial Day, always observed on a Monday not long before the 4th, is a lot trickier. I usually observe both patriotic holidays by including something appropriate in a prayer during worship, but I try to avoid singing songs like “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee” or “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies.”
When the 4th of July is in the middle of the week, I can get away with not including one of those patriotic songs. Nobody says a word. The same cannot be said for Memorial Day, or when the 4th of July is near (or worse yet, on) a Sunday or when Veterans’ Day is near or on a Sunday. At least a couple of people will actually ask me about my “mistake” or “oversight” by not including a patriotic song during worship. Others grumble more quietly, keeping their unhappiness to themselves. The songs, I am reminded, are in the hymnal, after all.
I have, on occasion, tried to explain why patriotic songs are not appropriate in worship, but my arguments mostly fall on deaf ears. I try to explain that we are not a state religion. The church, instead, must be clear about its ultimate loyalty to God, and Christ and the Holy Spirit, and that there are times when good Christians need to recognize the tension in the relationship between God and country.
Just because “My Country” and “O Beautiful” are in the hymnal in our pews (actually, just one of the hymnals; the hymnal that was published in 1957), doesn’t make those songs appropriate for worship. Patriotic songs are problematic in worship because they undercut the whole purpose of worship, which is to orient the faithful to God, to focus us on God.
I am profoundly grateful to live in a country where I am able to worship God openly and freely. But, I don’t think it’s a good idea to show my gratitude by worshipping my country. That’s what patriotic songs do—they show loyalty to and worship of country. I show my gratitude by maintaining distinctions, by appreciating that loyalty to God and loyalty to country are different things.
And one is more important than the other.