Christian Worship, American Idolatry and War

What happens in worship makes a difference in the lives of worshipers. Polls
have indicated that there is a correlation between frequency of worship and positive
behaviors. Regular worship attendees are more likely to become involved in volunteer
service. They are also more likely to participate in overseas charitable giving. A smaller
percentage of weekly worshipers engage in promiscuous sex or abuse drugs or alcohol.
One study indicated that over 60 percent of adoptive parents attended worship weekly.
Comparable results were found in studies done on both sides of the Atlantic (See the
studies listed by Rodney Clapp, “On the Making of Kings and Christians,” in Todd E. Johnson, ed., The Conviction of Things Not Seen: Worship and Ministry in the 21st Century (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2002), 113-115).

In matters that pertain to the relationship between faith and nation studies
point in a different, more disturbing direction. Harvard University political scientist
Samuel Huntington cited two surveys – one of 15 mostly European countries and the
other of 41 countries – which found that the more religious a people are, the more
likely they are to be “very proud” of their country. The United States ranks very close to
the top of both characteristics. Huntington concluded, “Americans are overwhelmingly
committed to both God and country, and for Americans they are inseparable.”(Samuel
Huntington, Who Are We? (Simon & Schuster, 2004), 365).

Inseparable? Other polls seem to support Huntington’s claim. Prior to the
beginning of the war in Iraq, a Gallup Poll conducted in October 21-22, 2002, found
that 54% of the public supported the invasion of Iraq. The same level of support was
shown among those who attended church weekly (55%) as was found among those who
never attend church (55%). Those who identified themselves as part of the religious
right showed the highest level of support for the invasion of Iraq (63%). The researches
reported, “Gallup data suggests that devotion to a religion doesn’t necessarily dictate a
commitment to peace…” ( “Protestants and Frequent Churchgoers Most Supportive of Iraq,”

Several years later another Gallop survey conducted from early 2005 to February
2006 showed results that were even more discouraging. Among those with no religion
62% answered that they believed it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq. Of those
affiliated with a non-Christian religion 58% said the war was a mistake. A smaller
percent of those who identified themselves as Christians agreed, with 52% of Catholics
and just 45% of Protestants saying it was a mistake to send troops to Iraq. The study
showed that the greatest opposition to the war came from black Americans who also
tended to be highly religious and predominantly Protestant. When only whites were
considered fully 50% more Protestants supported the war in comparison to those with
no religion. “In general,” the report stated, “the more frequently an American attends
church, the less likely he or she is

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to say the war was a mistake.”(“Faith and War: Conflict for Religious Americans?” .

More disturbing still are the results of a survey by the Pew Research Center
about whether the torture of suspected terrorists can be justified. This study found that
the greatest support for torture – those who believe that it often or sometimes can be
justified –was found among those who attend worship services at least weekly (54%)
and especially among white evangelicals (62%). In contract, support for torture was
found to be significantly less among those who seldom or never attend religious services
(42%) or are religiously unaffiliated (40%). White non-Hispanic Catholics and white
mainline Protestants fell between the other groups, with 51% of Catholics and 46%
of mainline Protestants expressing support for torture. ( “The Religious Dimensions of the Torture Debate,” The researchers couldn’t account for the differences between the results of the various religious groupings based on

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theological differences. Instead “party and ideology are much better predictors of views on torture than are religion and most other demographic factors.”( 23 “The Torture Debate: A Closer Look,”

If, as Huntington claims, for Americans commitment to God and country are
inseparable, it should be no surprise that those who most frequently participate in
worship also are the people who most readily support the nation in war and support
violent measures that are presented by national leaders as necessary for the security
of the country. Indeed it is likely that Americans who regularly attend worship have
had considerably more exposure to events designed to inspire nationalistic fervor that
those who do not attend worship. The crowds at Fourth of July parades or Memorial
Day ceremonies pale in comparison to the numbers of those who go to church on
an average Sunday. It is not possible to know exactly to what extent the presence of
nationalistic elements in worship led to the support of war or torture. But given the
widespread use of these elements a correlation seems apparent.

Anecdotically speaking, it strikes me that conservative evangelical churches are
the ones that more often incorporate into worship the most pronounced expressions
of nationalism. This is especially the case for those churches that identify themselves
with the religious right. I cannot help but believe that the strong support for the war in
Iraq and for the torture of terrorist suspects is related to the use of hymns, rituals and
symbols that elevate and celebrate America in worship. Of course the interplay between
nationalism in worship and the political affiliation of the church members is not easy to
untangle. On the one hand, those who are part of a certain political party may be more
predisposed to blend nationalism and Christian faith. On the other hand, those who are
accustomed to incorporating elements of nationalism into worship may be more prone
to join one political party than another. Regardless of which is the chicken and which is
the egg, the result is idolatrous.

The war in Iraq is ending –though the conflict in Afghanistan continues- and
torture is not being practice by the U.S. at the present time. Nevertheless, countless
churches persist in celebrating national holidays in worship, singing patriotic hymns,
displaying the American, sometimes even reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and
otherwise elevating America to a place of special honor. In all this the devotion to God
and loyalty to America are mingled and meshed. As a result affections are reinforced
that suggest, contrary to the words of Jesus, we can serve two masters (Luke 16:13).
It is, I believe, crucial that all elements of nationalism be removed from worship.
Otherwise, the church is complicit in preparing its members to be predisposed

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to give
their support to the next war and to future acts of violence that are done in the name
of national security. In face of the allure of the nation, Christians must say as Jesus did
when tempted in the wilderness, “Away with you Satan! For it is written, ‘Worship the
Lord your God and serve only him’” (Matt 4:10).

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