On Religion

Rare is the Church of England worshipper who needs a pew copy of “Hymns Ancient and Modern” in order to sing No. 578, which is often performed with great pomp -- trumpets and all -- in the rites that symbolize the old glory of Great Britain.

The first verse: “God save our gracious Queen, long live our noble Queen, God save the Queen! Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us: God save the Queen.”

That works in England, which has a state church. However, some flashy church-state rites at the Kennedy Center recently raised lots of American eyebrows, inspiring online shouts of “Idolatry!” In particular, critics focused on an anthem performed by the First Baptist Church of Dallas choir and orchestra during the “Celebrate Freedom Rally.”

The first verse, sung before a speech by President Donald Trump, proclaimed: “Make America great again! Lift the torch of freedom all across the land. Step into the future joining hand in hand. And make America great again.”

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist in Dallas, was just as blunt during his remarks at the D.C. rally.

“God declared that the people, and not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States and they chose Donald Trump,” shouted Jeffress, an early Trump supporter. “Christians understood that he alone had the leadership skills to reverse the downward death spiral our nation was in.”

Jeffress later defended the anthem, which was based on the Trump campaign slogan. It was not “sung in a church as a worship song on Sunday morning,” he told The Christian Post.

However, others were just as offended by the fireworks, flag-waving and political sermonizing during this year’s “Freedom Sunday” services at First Baptist. A typical response came at the “Ponder Anew” blog in the Patheos public-square forum.

“First Baptist Church in Dallas bowed before a red, white and blue altar,” wrote Jonathan Aigner, a former Southern Baptist who now leads music in a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation. First Baptist is known “for its close association with conservative, Republican politics. Pastor and CEO Robert Jeffress ... preaches a purely American gospel, commingled with convenient snippets of Holy Scripture. So it’s not surprising that this church would dedicate their Sunday gathering to American Jesus.”

An evangelical humor site, The Babylon Bee, offered this blunt headline: “Dozens Accept America As Lord And Savior At First Baptist Dallas Service.”

In this satire, an imaginary worshipper was quoted as saying: “When the massive flag unfurled behind the choir singing ‘Make America Great Again,’ I couldn’t deny my need any longer. ... I surrendered my life then and there to the United States of America. May this great country change my sinful heart and make me into a new person.”

On one level, it’s easy to see this controversy as yet another example of the divisions the Trump era is causing among American Christians, including conservatives who voted for the thrice-married billionaire as a way of opposing Democrat Hillary Clinton, said culture scholar Gene Edward Veith Jr., author of “Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture” and numerous other books.

The Kennedy Center event “certainly confirmed stereotypes and the media narrative that evangelicalism is nothing but an expression of right-wing Republicanism,” he said in an interview.

However, it’s significant that many of the online arguments focused on questions about authentic worship and what could be called “fake worship.” This echoed decades of “worship wars” debates between advocates of popular, entertaining forms of “seeker-friendly” services and those who want to defend traditional, even ancient, forms of worship, said Veith.

“On one side, you have people who believe that church leaders can pretty much do whatever they want while trying to appeal to the culture around them,” he said. “It’s like they are creating an entirely new, rival liturgy that competes with what Christians -- including other Protestants -- have considered ‘worship’ through the ages.”

So while it’s easy to see political tensions in this media storm linked to President Trump, said Veith, “this story also seems to have poured gasoline on the flames of the old worship wars. ... That may be why some people used the word ‘idolatry’ to describe these wave-the-flag rallies.”

(Terry Mattingly is the editor of GetReligion.org and Senior Fellow for Media and Religion at The King’s College in New York City. He lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.)

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