God and Country

First Presbyterian Church of Hartford City, Indiana sanctuary. (Credit:  TwoScarsUp / Wikimedia Commons)

First Presbyterian Church of Hartford City, Indiana sanctuary. (Credit: TwoScarsUp / Wikimedia Commons)

It is not uncommon in the United States to see both the Christian cross and the American flag displayed in the sanctuary of Christian churches. What does it mean to place two such powerful symbols side by side when one stands for a world religion and the other is an expression of nationalism? Does the state circumscribe one’s faith, and/or does one’s religious convictions transcend national boundaries?

The tension between church and state takes various forms.

You may have heard it as a joke in which the wag asks, “What would get the preacher in more trouble: removing the flag or the cross from the sanctuary?”

I saw it recently expressed as a pun in a bumper sticker (on the back of a retired minister’s pickup), which declared “I Stand for the Separation of Church and Hate.”

It turned up the other day in a hymn sung by a congregation to honor a young minister for, among other things, her commitment to peacemaking and social justice. The lyrics of “This Is My Song” (sometimes called “A Song of Peace”), written by Lloyd Stone and sung to the tune of Finlandia, proclaim that love of one’s country does not preclude reverence for other lands and peoples.

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine;
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine.
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

In the spirit of Walt Whitman’s inclusive democratic self, we can imagine—with the aid of our better angels—a national identity unencumbered by xenophobia.

RLI

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