Separating the State from the Church
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." ~ First Amendment
The establishment and exercise clauses of the First Amendment are well known. American Christians have never had to worry about the national government establishing an official religion for the United States. And although they have sometimes had to be concerned with government interference in the free exercise of their religion, it is generally true that Christians in America are free to worship God, organize churches and religious organizations, participate in religious services, and practice their faith in the manner of their choosing.
There is a greater threat to genuine New Testament Christianity and the sanctity of American churches than that of the government interfering with religion in the United States. That peril is the conscious and deliberate bringing and welcoming of the state into the church.
This disturbing phenomenon is more evident in a church's music than anything else. Many churches look for an excuse to sing hymns to the state, not just on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, but also on the Sunday nearest to Flag Day, Armed Forces Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, and special "military appreciation" or "law enforcement appreciation" days that they designate.
Here are portions of some well-known and well-beloved hymns that one might hear sung in the typical American church:
Holy, Holy, Holy
Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
Early in the morning our song shall rise to Thee;
Holy, holy, holy, merciful and mighty!
God in three Persons, blessed Trinity!
Holy God, We Praise Thy Name
Holy God, we praise Thy Name;
Lord of all, we bow before Thee!
All on earth Thy scepter claim,
All in Heaven above adore Thee;
Infinite Thy vast domain,
Everlasting is Thy reign.
Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great Name we praise.
O the Deep, Deep Love of Jesus
O the deep, deep love of Jesus, vast, unmeasured, boundless, free!
Rolling as a mighty ocean in its fullness over me!
Underneath me, all around me, is the current of Thy love
Leading onward, leading homeward to Thy glorious rest above!
Rock of Ages
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
Let me hide myself in Thee;
Let the water and the blood,
From Thy wounded side which flowed,
Be of sin the double cure;
Save from wrath and make me pure.
These are all hymns of worship. One does not have to be a Christian to see that these hymns are directed to God in general or Jesus Christ in particular. They all have a serious message about the nature of God or the person and work of Christ.
Now, compare these hymns of worship with the "patriotic" songs that one might hear sung in many churches on one of the aforementioned special Sundays:
My Country, 'Tis of Thee
My country, 'tis of thee,
Sweet land of liberty
Of thee I sing;
Land where my fathers died,
Land of the pilgrims' pride,
From ev'ry mountain side
Let freedom ring.
America the Beautiful
O beautiful for spacious skies,
For amber waves of grain,
For purple mountain majesties,
Above the fruited plain.
God shed His grace on thee,
And crown thy good with brotherhood,
From sea to shining sea.
We Salute You, Land of Liberty
We salute you, land of liberty;
You're the choicest land on earth.
We salute you, land of liberty;
You're the land of priceless worth.
Keep wide the gates of freedom, to people great and small.
We salute you, land of liberty; you are the greatest land of all.
This Is My Country
This is my country! Land of my birth!
This is my country! Grandest on earth!
I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold,
For this is my country to have and to hold.
Battle Hymn of the Republic
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
There is a radical difference between these two groups of songs. The latter are all hymns of state worship, and as such have no place in the church. Yet, most of them are not only sung, they are in the church hymnal. This is statolatry at its worse. The state must be separated from the church.
Instead of "I will praise Him!" it is "Of thee I sing." Instead of "We praise Thee, O God our Redeemer," it is "We salute you, land of liberty." Instead of "Blessed Jesus! Blessed Jesus!" it is "America! America!" Instead of "I am Thine O Lord," it is "I pledge thee my allegiance, America, the bold." Instead of "Jesus is coming again!" it is "Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord."
With the exception of the last song, the blasphemous "Battle Hymn of the Republic," which, as I pointed out a few years ago, is not suitable to sing inside or outside of church, these are songs that might be suitable for a holiday celebration or patriotic concert, but not in church. For example, when Jesus drove the merchants and moneychangers out of the temple, he told them: "Take these things hence; make not my Father's house an house of merchandise" (John 2:16). This, however, did not mean that commerce outside of the temple was forbidden.
But regardless of whether these songs may or may not be suitable in certain circumstances, the state must be separated from the church.
Some churches, unfortunately, go even further, and sing their request for God to bless America. Some of these churches take the country-western approach:
God Bless the U.S.A.
I'm proud to be an American where at least I know I'm free,
And I won't forget the men who died who gave that right to me,
And I gladly stand up next to you and defend her still today,
'Cause there ain't no doubt I love this land,
God Bless the U.S.A.
Others take a more traditional approach:
God Bless America
God Bless America,
Land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Thru the night with a light from above.
From the mountains, to the prairies,
To the oceans, white with foam
God bless America,
My home sweet home.
But instead of asking God to bless America — the abortion, pornography, and drug capital of the world — perhaps Christians should sing something like: "God, please don't judge America."
But regardless of whether a church goes this far or not, the state must be separated from the church.
What usually results from the singing of "patriotic" songs in church is that "America" is equated with the U.S. government, a government just as corrupt and just as evil as most governments in history. And once this is done, the veneration of the U.S. military as the defender of our freedoms soon follows. Although I have not personally seen it, I am sure that many churches would applaud if the Color guard from the local military base paraded down the main aisle during the Sunday morning worship service.
The transformation of many of this country's conservative evangelical churches into Republican clubs, VFW halls, and Armed Forces recruiting centers would never have taken place without the introduction of "patriotic" music into American churches.
It doesn't matter how much of a patriot one is or how much one likes patriotic songs, the question is the appropriateness of singing these songs in church.
Instead of worrying about the First Amendment, Christians should be more concerned about the First Commandment. The Lord demands that no gods be put before him — inside or outside of church. God will not give his glory to another (Isaiah 42:8, 48:11). The state must be separated from the church.
July 4, 2009
Laurence M. Vance [send him mail] writes from Pensacola, FL. He is the author of Christianity and War and Other Essays Against the Warfare State. His newest book is The Revolution that Wasn't. Visit his website.
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