No Battle Hymns for the American Church

What kind of “battle hymn” can the Church have?  It cannot be one that applies only to a single nation, unless the Church is limited by certain national boundaries.  It cannot be a truly militaristic one, since the Church does not conquer by the blood shed by real swords, or real bullets fired from actual guns, or by taking the physical lives of her enemies.

The Church is indeed Militant, but that means something altogether different according to the Gospel than it would mean in the civil square.  The Church is militant because she struggles, fights, and endures under the cross in the world, and in the face of temptation from the devil and the flesh.  Our warfare is not against flesh and blood–not against other human beings, for whom Christ came, died, and rose from the dead–but against our own sinful nature, the devil, and the world–all of which have the goal of tearing us from Christ’s promise.

This is true generally, but it is even more important to emphasize in a time when religious and secular (which does not mean “bad,” but simply “according to the age”) goals sometimes get confused or entangled.  It is easy to confuse something like “real Americanism” or “true patriotism” with Christianity or what remains of a civic-religious morality.  If it appears that those currently in authority in the United States or the wider cultural moment are opposing “the way things were,” or promoting things that formerly were never mentioned in polite company, it becomes all the easier to bind together an appeal to a prior, generally assumed morality with an increasingly frenzied flag-waving.

The problem is not necessarily patriotism, or national pride, in themselves.  One can, and should, be grateful for the gifts inherent in a nation such as the United States where Christians can gather openly and freely to hear the Word of God, receive His Gifts, and worship Him in return.  But such freedom also opens up the danger of assuming that the liberty we enjoy in the United States is somehow related–or even identical–to Christian liberty.  It’s inherent in such quasi-Christian statements as “Only two defining forces have ever offered to die for you: Jesus and the American soldier.  One died for your soul. The other died for your freedom.”  (Which is partly a paraphrase of a lyric from the Battle Hymn of the Republic: “As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free.” On the Battle Hymn, see below.)

American Christians especially enjoy such Christian-Nationalism (which ought to be a contradiction in terms) when the Lord’s Day falls on or near national holidays such as Memorial Day or Independence Day.  Citizens may indeed sing national songs and enjoy the celebrations that go along with those holidays.  But citizens who are also Christians cannot bring the celebrations of the localized State into the universal Church, which spans time, space, and national boundaries.

It is strange enough to display the national flag in Christian sanctuaries (literally, “holy places”).  Though it may not seem strange to most American Christians, consider the dissonance if the foreign embassy of one nation were to display the flag of the country on whose soil it finds itself.  It has never happened, and it will never happen, because the embassy is considered part of the sovereign nation which it represents, and not the nation that hosts it.  But the flag is mostly inert.  It is far worse for Christians, within the services of the Lord’s House, to sing songs of praise to the nation.  There is a reason why Lutheran Service Book has only three songs in the “Nation and National Songs” section (964-966): because patriotic or national songs have difficulty not blurring the lines between praise of God and praise of the nation–or even supplanting praise of God with the praise of the nation.  If the United States were identical to Old Testament Israel, we wouldn’t have to worry so much, since Israel was the nation of God (and the Biblical type of the eternal Land of Promise to be fulfilled in the Messianic Kingdom).

But the United States is not and cannot be Israel, because the Church is universal, made up of all the baptized believers within every nation, from every tribe and people and language.  Therefore, the songs of the State, while perfectly acceptable at baseball games, backyard cookouts, and national celebrations, have no place whatsoever within the services of God’s House, where the Body of Christ gathers to receive His Gifts and sing His praise.

It would be bad enough if those songs were limited to The Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful.  Again, no songs of praise to the nation belong with the praise of God.  But it gets worse when there are openly blasphemous and idolatrous songs such as The Battle Hymn of the Republic.  I suspect that most people know only the chorus (“Glory, glory, hallelujah/His truth is marching on”), plus, perhaps, a few other words, so they don’t realize what this song is really about.  It was written by Julia Ward Howe, a committed abolitionist (which is certainly good in itself); but she was also a a Unitarian and Transcendentalist, as well as a firm believer in the (divine) righteousness of the Union’s cause during the Civil War.  The actual lyrics of the song align the action of God and Christ with the fight of the Union soldiers, and declare unequivocally that God’s vengeance is being carried out by the Union.  This is the worst of the sort of theology Bob Dylan identifies in “With God on Our Side” and the slogan “my country, right or wrong.”  Any unambiguous proclamation of God’s action in the world, in nations, through governments, must necessarily be false, because He has not told us what He is doing in the world.  He has only told us what He is doing for the world through Christ.  However rousing the melody is, the Battle Hymn has a history and a context, and it does not make sense apart from that history and context.

Do we still believe that God’s rule in the civil realm is different from His rule in the Church?  If not, we will not only lose a proper understanding of the role and limits of the State, but we will also lose the pure Gospel and Sacraments of the Church.  They both have their proper place–understood correctly–but the history of both Church and State is strewn with the destruction caused by mixing them together.  (For the unaware, read Michael Burleigh’s accounts in Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes of the idolatry that ensues when the State co-opts the Church or religion.)

[For further reading on the history (and heresy) of the Battle Hymn and Julia Ward Howe, see here, here, here, and here.]

Timotheos

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3 thoughts on “No Battle Hymns for the American Church

  1. “And he shall set up an ensign for the nations, and shall assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth.”

      • As the hymnwriter says, a multitude comes from the east and the west to sit at the feast of salvation. Christ is the ensign to whom the people return. He is the King to whom the peoples and nations will flock as loyal troops rally around a flag (TLSB note on Isaiah 11). I agree with the thrust of your post and suggest it could (and ought) to be communicated more clearly, often, and unflinchingly to the faithful. Christ is our head and King, and our citizenship is in heaven. The American idea has challenged this truth tremendously.

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