The choir at First Baptist Church Pontotoc bounded from one anthem into another as members of the armed forces entered the sanctuary displaying their flags.
The U.S. Stars and Bars billowed across a giant video screen while men from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines lined up across the front of the church, pointing the flag masts out over the beaming congregation.
Around Independence Day worshippers expect some recognition of American pride, and this weekend many area churches are infusing their services with patriotic themes.
However, appearing too nationalistic can alienate others who see God-and-country celebrations as political endorsements.
James Bowley, chair of the department of religious studies at Millsaps College in Jackson, said combining national identity and religious faith goes back to the beginning of recorded history.
The ancient Israelites blended worship of Yahweh with kingship in a way that sometimes led to tumultuous consequences.
The marriage of a state-sanctioned cult and governmental power, Bowley said, creates confusion about who ultimately is in control. He noted that Islamic theocracies in the Middle East face this challenge today.
Many of America’s founding fathers were men of faith, and today 75 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christians.
Those facts lead some to concluded that the United States is a Christian nation, but according to Brent Walker, executive director for the Baptist Joint Committee, that isn’t necessarily so.
Walker, whose Washington-based organization advocates for a clear separation of church and state, said that while it’s true that if you “count noses” most Americans are Christians, “the Constitution enshrines not Christianity but religious freedom,” and “paradoxically, the U.S. is geographically Christian because it’s not constitutionally Christian.”
Still, for many, faith and patriotism naturally go together.
Faith is the underpinning of freedom, said the Rev. Gene Henderson, and the liberties Americans enjoy are rooted in the favor of the almighty.
“No nation can rise without God,” said Henderson, who is currently preaching at First Baptist Church Tupelo.
Although Christians are ultimately “citizens of another kingdom,” he said, God has ordained the United States, and disobedience puts the country in danger of losing God’s favor.
As it does each year, First Baptist Tupelo is marking Independence Day with a musical celebration and by tailoring the sermon to suit the occasion.
Henderson described last week’s sermon, titled “Can America Survive?,” as a commentary on societal ills that could be inviting “the righteous judgment of God.”
“We’re not singling out any person, or group, but we’re saying that all are called to repentance,” said Henderson.
At First Baptist Pontotoc, the Rev. Ken Hester’s message last week was patriotic but more lighthearted.
“In our country, we have the freedom to complain, to be critics, and many of the critics out there are Southern Baptists,” Hester said amid a roar of laughter.
Referencing Jer. 29, in which the Israelites are admonished to pray for the leaders of their Babylonian captors, Hester said many people feel like the country is going in the right direction and many don’t, but, in either case, “We need to be people who pray for our leaders.”
Some say it’s the ability to be critical that gets lost when churches identity themselves too strongly with nationality.
“At the end of the day we’re there to worship God, not to pay homage to Ceasar,” said Walker of the Baptist Joint Committee.
Quoting civil rights leader the Rev. Gardner Taylor, Walker said churches have to leave themselves some “swinging room,” meaning they have to stand at a critical distance from government in order to maintain their prophetic voice.
However, Walker believes there’s still room for patriotic celebrations in church.
While Jesus made it clear that his followers have allegiance both to God and county, Walker said, “he didn’t tell us exactly how to do it.”
One way, according to Walker, is to use worship as a context for celebrating religious freedom.
At Pontotoc, the names and photos of church members who had served in every war since The Civil War rolled across a screen.
Boyish World War II sailors smiled brightly and dusty, sunburned soldiers squinted into the Middle Eastern desert as the choir thundered out “Because of the Brave.” The sniffling was audible.
“These people sacrificed so that we could enjoy freedom, and we see a similarity between their sacrifice and that of Christ, who died so that we might have life,” said the Rev. Mickey Gentry, music minister. “There’s no pledging to anything except to Jesus Christ.”
Henderson of First Baptist Tupelo said the point of the observances isn’t to force church and state together but to “recognize that America was founded on Judeo-Christian values, to give gratitude to God for our freedoms, and to acknowledge that, through disobedience, we face the possibility of losing some of those freedoms.”
Pontotoc First Baptist’s choir plunged headlong into yet another anthem.
“First to fight for the right and to build the nation’s might,” they sang, and the sun shone through a huge stained glass image of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, onto the black and gold flag of the U.S. Army.
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal