July 4: Baby Steps away from Civil Religion

The gist of recent comments on this blog has been that pastors need to take baby steps to move churches away from civil religion. On the assumption that that’s what most people will need to do, here are some ideas for pastors:

1. Be the pastor. Take charge of the service. Don’t allow special interests to dictate worship—ever.

2. Begin every conversation about this subject with something like, “Let’s remember: the purpose of worship is worship, not celebrating the national holiday. Church is a Christian gathering, not a civic/patriotic gathering. We cannot do anything in Christian worship that would exclude any non-American Christians who might happen to be there.”

3. Under no circumstances allow the pledge of allegiance. Don’t feel forced to challenge the pledge in principle. Simply say, “In worship we pledge ourselves to God alone.”

4. Don’t compare the red of the U.S. flag or the blood shed in battle to the blood of Christ, or war deaths to Christ’s sacrifice. At best, that cheapens Christ’s death.

5. Do not allow the singing or playing of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” or “Onward Christian Soldiers” or anything that calls itself a national or armed-forces hymn. That feeds militarism. Avoid “America the Beautiful” and “America (My Country ‘Tis of Thee)” because they are not truly hymns, as they celebrate a nation rather than God. (They both directly address “America” in personification.)

6. If your church must sing something related to the national holiday, try “Let There be Peace on Earth” or “This is My Song” (to the tune of Finlandia) or something similar.

7. If you must allude to the national holiday, keep it brief, and try to focus on anything other than what people expect. Be creative! Possible themes: justice, peace, nonviolence, interdependence, etc.

8. Use and blame the lectionary! Preach on the texts of the day, not the civic holiday.

Any other baby steps?

17 Responses to “July 4: Baby Steps away from Civil Religion”

  1. Scott Kohler says:

    This is helpful follow-up to the previous comment.

    I have a few thoughts.

    First, expanding on your third step, about not challenging the pledge in principle: the civil religion is so deeply entrenched in our people’s minds that direct challenges usually create more frustration than engagement. I think in general it is best to preach the message we do believe, the cross we do “pledge allegiance” to, rather than attack the message we don’t believe. There are contexts in which those negative messages may be able to be discussed, but worship may not be the best time for that approach.

    Second, a couple of Richard Hays-related remarks. His comment about the New Testament – “It’s about God, stupid” – holds equally well about worship. I’ve also got in trouble here about keeping out of the “community service” on Canada Day (July 1) – “it’s about God” might be a good message for the organizers to be reminded of.

    Hays’ article (and the many variations of it that can be found in audio on the internet quite easily) “The Conversion of the Imagination” is helpful on the necessary shift in church thinking that is needed. We need to give (and pray for God to give) our churches a new thought world that will speak more powerfully than the “God and country” thinking they are basically born with. This is bound to take a long time. The paganism Paul met in Corinth was every bit as much “in the air” as the civil religion is in America (and to an only slightly lesser extent in Canada). 18 months in Corinth, and you wonder what kind of progress was made – judging from the letters, a lot of work was left to do. That’s both encouraging and discouraging.

    Finally, the prevalence of dispensationalist readings of the NT (and especially the Sermon on the Mount and Revelation) has pretty much de-clawed the Bible in this discussion. In this view, the Sermon is something other than relevant to our church, and Revelation becomes the bleachers for those who want to be spectators to the destruction of a future world that has nothing to do with us. So much for the shocking revelation that the conquering Lion is actually the slain Lamb.

  2. Another step: 9) Never cancel church for the national holiday’s Sunday morning parade!

    Unfortunately, I know a few churches that will be doing this come Sunday.

  3. MJG says:

    Brian—You’ve GOT to be kidding. Make that #1. Unbelievable.

    Scott—”Conversion” is the key word. Makes me think also of Stephen Chester’s fine monograph on conversion in Corinth—a process. But you are right to point us to RH’s “conversion of the imagination” motif. It needs to start with the ongoing conversion of seminary professors and pastors.

    “Bleachers”—love that analogy (and hate it at the same time).

    You are right to say worship is the place to do worship right with a positive affirmation (“Let us worship God”); explain, develop, etc. at other times.

  4. I believe the discussion most safely begins in the leadership. Whatever form of lay leadership the congregation utilizes, the preacher has influence there, first. If serious conversations can be held at that level, it is no longer just the bully pulpit.

    This assumes, of course, that 1) leadership studies together at serious levels, and 2) leaders actually lead. When the key leaders agree and speak with a common voice, the congregation is much less apt to respond negatively and/or destructively.

    Personally, I’ve found the positive approach of dealing with the biblical concepts of “aliens and strangers” and “kingdom” to be helpful so when the discussion turns to America it’s already established that that is not our primary allegiance nor citizenship.

  5. Jeremy Van Kley says:

    I am a recent seminary grad and will be starting my first lead pastor assignment on July 11. I had the option to start on the 4th, but chose the 11th instead because of all the complications that go along with national holidays and worship services. I know I will have to face this sooner rather than later (but at least not in my first service!), and this discussion is extremely beneficial in helping me and my fellow new pastors think and dialogue about how to address these issues rather than simply avoid them. Thanks for the wisdom and insight! Very much looking forward to your book, Dr. Gorman.

  6. kat says:

    due to even my getting complaints for nothing patriotic on flag day, we’ll be doing “my country, ’tis of thee” and “o beautiful for spacious skies” as gathering hymns before worship. we’re totally ending with “lift every voice and sing” because this pastor has her priorities. and while you say no armed-forces hymns, we sang as gathering the naval hymn (“eternal father, strong to save”) a few weeks ago as a prayer for those working in the gulf. re appropriation can be a good thing.

    next sticky topic: flag placement. oooooooo.

  7. Sarah says:

    I was once at sweet, old, rural UMC church where the pastor had carefully crafted the July 4th service just as you suggest. At the end, just before the benediction, the 90-year-old matriarch of the church stood up and declared that she had an announcement, which consisted of the reading of all the names of men from that church who had died in military service. The congregation naturally responded by oh-so-spontaneously breaking into America the Beautiful.

    The adherents of civil religion are nothing if not determined!

    I hate to say it, but I think scheduling activities on civil holidays can sometimes help alleviate the problem–a picnic after the service or a gathering to watch fireworks may give the pastor enough space to declare a nationalism-free-zone around the worship service.

    It’s not ideal, but it might be the best a young pastor can do at Nowhere Midwestern United Methodist (That Means United States, Right?) Church.

  8. Scott Kohler says:

    It’s clear from the tenor of several of the comments in this thread just how much pressure there is on pastors to give in a little on this one. I have found that every time I find myself making small concessions to the civil religion, I regret it. We are here to live the cross as well as preach it, and that means we can expect painful moments.

    MJG, it is definitely true that the conversion needs to start with the pastors themselves, and Chuck, the discussions among lay leaders is a great suggestion. Even there, though, I have found resistance. In general, though, if you have good, supportive leaders, they will continue at least to listen and respect your convictions, and we don’t know how God might use those talks.

    So many of us manage to get through seminary without noticing the frequent incompatibility of the cross and the flag. In evangelicalism especially I hardly ever hear anyone mention the tension, unless it’s something along the lines of, “they took prayer out of the schools.” Is it because a supposed “Pauline” theology of salvation and the church dominates evangelicalism, yet they don’t see that Paul’s message is just as radically counter-cultural as Jesus’ in the synoptics and Revelation?

    Inhabiting the Cruciform God (especially the chapter on non-violence) has helped me see more of this in Paul than I had seen before.

  9. MJG says:


    Wise advice about lay leadership and language.


    Smart man! I feel SO bad for Methodist pastors (my tradition), all of whom have to start their new appointments July 1 each year. That’s just mean. You will be in a much better position to talk through these issues in a year, especially if you broach the topic gently step-by-step.


    You are right that reappropriation can be good, but boy does it take formation at the same time. Sounds like you’re making wise moves given the situation.


    A matriarch-led insurrection! Determined indeed. And more sage advice on how to deflect the nationalism from worship.


    Your courage is admirable, and I wish there were more with it. The lack of analysis and discussion in seminaries—of all stripes—is quite appalling, especially since I know that many of my colleagues in theological education share at least many of my concerns and even some of my perspectives.


    If I sound like I’m speaking out of both sides of my mouth here (response to Scott versus others) it is because I respect the need for contextual sensitivity mixed with courage. I think this is one of the absolute toughest issues for pastors in the U.S. After all, we’re battling people’s religion—their ultimate allegiances.

    Also, thanks for sharing these good ideas.

  10. Casey Taylor says:

    Thanks for collecting these responses/advice.

    I find that some folks criticizing “civil religion” advocate an abrasive stance toward parishioners. I find that since the instinct toward civil religion is so deeply entrenched, baby steps and good, long-term pastoral care is the way to go. Otherwise, we can alienate the people we seek to disciple.

    Sadly, one church in my community is advertising a patriotic service.

  11. MJG says:


    You are right about long-term pastoral care and discipleship. We are dealing with DEEPLY entrenched propaganda. Conversion is a miracle, especially in this instance.

    I’m sure there are thousands of such services coming this weekend. They should be boycotted.

    A decade ago I complained in writing after a well-known traveling choir did a presentation at our church that was very good until the hyper-patriotic finale. I wrote in praise and protest—strongly worded protest, with full theological rationale—copying our pastors and lay leader. The lay leader was furious, saying they would never return to our church. I thought, “good.” The choir leaders eventually wrote back and said, “Thank you; we have changed our script.”

  12. Scott Kohler says:

    In spite of my strongly worded comments, I agree wholeheartedly with these last comments by Michael and Casey about the sensitivity needed when addressing these issues. As their pastors, the people in our churches are people to love and disciple first of all. But there are times, as in your last comment, when it is best for the church if certain people decide to leave. This is all very difficult to do well, and most of my thoughts come from reflection on mistakes rather than perfect consistency in getting it right (which would be another miracle).

  13. Ben says:

    Thanks, Dr. Gorman, for addressing this issue and opening up dialogue with clarity and sensitivity. For US pastors, this is a big issue (unfortunately) indeed. I have found in my context that it is due, in part, to a lack of teaching/preaching on what it means for us to be citizens of the Kingdom of Christ. I am working to channel all the passion and zeal that I see for days like Memorial and Independence Day toward Christ and His Kingdom. It requires great sensitivity but I find that your #1 is desperately needed – be the pastor; be a shepherd; lead!

    Thanks, again!

  14. MJG says:

    (Pastor) Ben,

    Thank YOU. Lead on!

  15. Josh Rowley says:

    Michael, thanks for the practical theology here–excellent list. It seems that what we don’t say/sing is as important as what we do say/sing.

  16. MJG says:

    People might want to read this from my former Duke student who took Revelation from me as a student pastor. Be sure to read all the way to the end.


  17. Chad Holtz says:

    Great stuff as always, Dr. G.

    Thanks for the referral. It’s amazing how much The Revelation has informed nearly every aspect of my ministry since taking your course.

    peace to you!

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