We Have Dual Citizenship

In the United States, the annual celebration of Independence Day on July 4th comes with all the cultural trappings—grilling out, gathering with friends and family, and blowing things up. Independence Day is as central to the American calendar as Easter is to the Christian one.

To honor America, pastors and churches often integrate patriotic elements into their worship services on the Sunday closest to the big day. And, with it, the inevitable controversy ensues about whether such elements in worship express love of country or play footsie with idolatry.

Few things elicit more emotion than love of country. Most Americans are proud of this country they call home, though we may express it differently and at different times. Many of us have friends or relatives who have served in the armed forces, and we are incredibly grateful for their service. I, myself, am very proud to be an American. And I express my patriotism publicly! (Fun fact: we would read the Declaration of Independence to our kids on July 4.)

But for Christians, our citizenship is a bit more complicated. We are dual citizens of the Kingdom of God and the country in which we live. While we may (rightly) love our American citizenship, our Kingdom citizenship always comes first. In fact, we are ambassadors of that Kingdom. An ambassador’s job is to promote the welfare of the land to which they belong and act in the interests and priorities of the country they represent. Christians represent the Kingdom of God while living in this land.

So I don’t think it should surprise anyone that I believe our love of God should surpass our love of country. All Christians would agree with this statement. The difference between us often lies in 1) neglecting to see how often our loyalty to our nation competes with our loyalty to God and 2) not knowing how to express our pride for being an American in a way that is faithful to the Kingdom.

A study of 1,000 Protestant pastors released in 2021 from Lifeway Research shows the majority (56%) believe it is important to include patriotic elements in worship services the week of July 4. This is down slightly from a 2016 study (of the same size and demographic) that reported 61%. More than a quarter (27%) strongly agree with this. However, about two in five pastors (42%) disagree. Thirty-eight percent of the pastors surveyed expressed concern that their congregation’s love of country surpassed their love of God.

How much patriotic emphasis in worship is too much? How much is too little? Should there be any? Are we mixing two kingdoms? Here are a few of my thoughts.

America and God

2015 Lifeway study of Americans and their thoughts about the nation found that 54% disagreed that “America’s best days are behind us.” In the article on this study, I wrote:

“‘God Bless America’ is more than a song or a prayer for many Americans. It is a belief that God has blessed America beyond what is typical for nations throughout history. I am sure that would spawn many theological conversations, but it’s important to note most Americans think God has a special relationship with their country.”

When Christians focus too heavily on patriotism, there is a danger of loving America more than God. There has been a pronounced decline in patriotic sentiment from 2016 to 2022, according to Lifeway studies. In 2016, 53% of pastors said, “Our congregation sometimes seems to love America more than God.” The current study dropped to 38%.

Courtesy of Lifeway Research

The recent study reflected a decreasing priority of patriotic elements among younger pastors. Two-thirds (65%) of pastors aged 18–44 said worship services do not need patriotic additions. The same group was least likely to agree that displaying an American flag in a Christian worship service was appropriate.

It’s important that Christians create a distinction between love of God and love of country. America does not have a special relationship with God. It is not his chosen people. It does us well to see ourselves more as exiles in a foreign land seeking that flourishing of that land (Jer. 29:7) than viewing our nation as a type of Israel. God marked out one people for himself in the Old Testament: Israel. And, through the death and resurrection of the Jewish Messiah—Jesus—God has opened that designation to people of all the nations of the world who desire to be reconciled to him in Jesus. America is not God’s chosen people—we who are citizens of the Kingdom of God are.

Reflect on Worship Services

Followers of Jesus: This should cause us to reflect carefully whenever worship services don’t explicitly focus on the Lord. Any time our worship deviates from the focus on the only One for whom that worship is intended, we should tread very lightly (We shouldn’t forget God has said he won’t share his glory—Isa. 42:8.). We should protect the focus and purpose of Christian worship—and Christian worship is to worship Christ.

I’ve been an interim pastor at many churches. I’ve participated in patriotic celebrations in these churches and appreciated the intent. At those churches I serve as a pastor, it has not been our practice to emphasize patriotic holidays during worship services. We acknowledge them, pray for our nation and leaders, and are thankful. However, we are also cautious because, as I see it, some churches have overemphasized patriotic celebrations. This has led to confusion about where “God Bless America” stops and “All Hail King Jesus” begins. If you pay careful attention the next time you’re having a conversation about Christianity and culture, you can hear the fruit of this confusion. People often conflate their national identity with their faith identity. To be American is, to some extent, to be Christian. And for some, part of being a faithful Christian is being a patriotic American.

As evangelicals, we sometimes overlook something our friends in the liturgical traditions have known for centuries—the worship service is a formative time. Our worship forms us, and our worship is an expression of our formation. This is why the Anglicans have the phrase lex orandi, lex credendi, lex vivendi, which means, roughly, “What we pray is what we believe, [which is] what we live.”

This is important because when we gather for worship, we enter into a profoundly formative space where our hearts and spirits are open to receive from the Lord. When we mix elements of patriotism in a moment designated for formation from the Spirit, we can end up instilling confusion within people, discipling them into a cocktail of a Christian-branded American sort of civil religion.

The relationship between our worship services and our patriotism can be tricky. It’s interesting to see what pastors think about the topic. Based on the data from Lifeway Research, you’ll likely get a mixture of patriotism and worship this weekend.

A third of pastors (34%) say they plan to include other special ceremonies to honor America, from special music to recognizing in some way those who serve or served in the armed forces.

The American Flag

A consistent mark of patriotism throughout the year in churches is displaying the American flag. Two-thirds (67%) say displaying the American flag throughout the year in worship services is appropriate. However, this has declined from 74% in 2016.

Courtesy of Lifeway Research

“Some denominations offer specific guidance regarding displaying the American flag, but most congregations decide on their own whether it’s present,” Lifeway Research executive director Scott McConnell said. “Because a national flag is a symbol, it often means many different things to different people. So, discussions around the reason for its presence in many churches can be just as diverse.”

“In the last six years, many pastors’ concerns about patriotic idolatry in their congregations have faded,” said McConnell. “Like any idol, the temptation to prioritize, worship or depend on our nation over God can resurface at any time.”

Our Primary Citizenship

First-century Philippi in northern Macedonia had a significant Roman military presence. Citizens there knew the Roman army’s presence was to protect them from danger. Yet, as Paul wrote the Christians in Philippi, he reminded them: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Phil. 3:20). There should never be a mistaken identity as to where our loyalties lie.

If God today sent me and my family anywhere from Albania to Zimbabwe and led us to become citizens rather than resident workers, I hope we would do it. I hope you would, too. Geopolitical boundaries don’t define the Kingdom. Every nation, tribe, people and language represent its citizens. We serve a global God on a global mission to reconcile the entire world unto himself through Jesus Christ, our King. And he invites us to join him on that mission.

If you follow Jesus, never forget we are not citizens of this world. We are missionaries living with a green card in the country of God’s choosing. But our land is heaven. Our King is Jesus. Our allegiance is to the Kingdom of God. That’s not simply a metaphor for Christian niceties we like to say. It is a present reality that we walk out daily in loving tension with the land to which God has called us—as we await the return of our king.

So this Independence Day, be sure to worship God. It’s good to love your country, but take care not to confuse the two.

This article originally ran at The Focused Pastor and is republished here with permission.

Charts and graphs courtesy of Lifeway Research.