A week after the September 11 terrorist attacks, I had lunch with some of my students at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. As part of their program, first-year students are required to visit churches in the area. Over lunch that day, they were discussing what they had witnessed in northern Virginia congregations on the Sunday after the attacks.
“At the church I visited, the congregation sang ‘America the Beautiful’ as a prayer on their knees,” one student reported.
“We sang nothing but patriotic songs,” another remarked, “It was disturbing. There was no mention of Christ.”
“The flag came in the procession before the cross,” another groaned.
“That’s nothing,” one young man said. “At the church I visited the priest carried in the flag, put it next to the altar and announced that it would stay there ‘until this whole thing is over.’ Then he said, ‘If you don’t like it, you are in the wrong church.’”
I listened with sympathetic interest to their observations and anxieties about the mixture of church and nationalism that surfaced in the wake of the September 11 horrors. I, too, had stories. As a member of the senior staff at Christ Church, a large Episcopal parish in Alexandria that is five miles from the Pentagon, I knew what it was like on the inside. Within hours of the attacks, well-meaning parishioners had called the church requesting that Sunday worship be changed to include such elements as a full military color guard, the singing of the national anthem, the playing of taps, and patriotic bunting draped about the church.
While the senior staff agreed that it was theologically and spiritually inappropriate to turn Sunday Eucharist into a patriotic requiem, we found it difficult to resist the tide of nationalism—and even militarism—rolling through our congregation. After much soul-searching, we compromised and chose “My Country, ’Tis Of Thee” to be sung at the offertory. And the flag was carried in as part of the procession. However, even that nod toward patriotic fervor disturbed me. September 11 did not cause me to flee to the flag; I found myself on my knees before the cross. I could not understand what the church members wanted—or why they wanted it. When I heard my students’ reports, I at least understood that I was not alone with my fears that the church was wrapping the suffering and bleeding Christ in a flag.
Whatever personal comfort I found around the refectory table that day, many disturbing theological and pastoral questions remained. How was I, as a leader in a congregation, to address questions of faith and nation, of church and state, of reconciliation and military action? How to be both pastoral and prophetic? Was I called to be both comforter and transformer at the same time? What is the role of congregational leadership during terrorism and war? The task was overwhelming—I had never felt more inadequate in ministry. September 11 was calling me to be a better leader, to maintain theological clarity, and to rise to the spiritual challenge ahead.
Know Where You Stand
The first aspect of effective leadership in a crisis is understanding where you, as a leader, stand theologically amid the questions. The priest who planted the flag next to the altar knew his mind on these issues. I may think he is wrong, but it is clear what he thinks.
Many midlife and younger churchgoers and leaders have spent little time thinking about their theologies of Christ and culture. It has been 30 or 40 years since many congregations and denominations have seriously addressed issues of church and state. When I was a girl growing up in a Methodist church, the conflict between flag and cross created intense debates as we grappled with both the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. As a baby boomer, as a leader in my congregation and my denomination, I have found that those debates were formative in my theology and my spiritual life.
Today’s religious leaders—a host of people like me—were children or teenagers during the last major historical point of crisis over faith and nationalism. The answers—or nonanswers—to questions of church and state drove many of us away from traditional churches. Or at least, the issues and arguments caused us to wonder about the relevance of religious belief in the public arena. Could the gospel reconcile racial divisions? Did the Christian story truly proclaim peace? Was the institutional church committed to Jesus’ message of transformation?
Because of the church’s inability to lead during a time of cultural crisis and violence, I suspect that many of today’s lay leaders and clergy feel ambivalent or angry about the current outburst of religious nationalism. For weeks, I felt a deep hostility toward my congregation and at odds with the conflation of flag and faith that I witnessed. At times, I wondered if I was suffering theological insanity as I realized how much my feelings and ideals diverged from those of others. My confusion drove me back to theological reflection—asking myself what I believed about the relationship between Christ and culture, what the Bible says, and what my life experience has taught me. As I thought, prayed, and studied, my sense of call and vocation became clearer.
Although I am an Episcopalian, I am deeply influenced by the Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms and the profoundly paradoxical relationship between God’s reign and earthly political states. I confess that a “wannabe” Quaker lurks within the recesses of my soul. After rereading Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, bits of St. Augustine’s City of God, the Gospel of Luke, and the book of Romans, I found myself spiritually steadied and “in line” with historic Christian tradition. Knowing my heart and theological passions helped me over the feelings of anger, ambivalence, and doubt. This confidence enabled me to see better what I might teach and preach to those whom I am called to serve. My views, feelings, and beliefs were not wrong—they were simply different from those held by the most vocal segment of the congregation. And I needed to recognize that, because of years of theological training and reflection, I as a leader had something to say and teach at a time of crisis that could serve as a loving corrective to some of the misunderstandings of flag and cross.
Know Where Your Tradition Stands
Knowing I was not crazy helped. But being reminded that I am a Lutheran-Quaker-Episcopalian did not solve all my ministry problems. The second aspect of effective leadership is to understand where your tradition stands. In this sense, “tradition” means both the grand narrative of the denomination and its local expression in a particular congregation.
Some denominations have better theological resources than others to sort out issues of faith and the flag. Baptists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Anabaptists have well-developed and clear theologies of church and state. For those groups, September 11 provided an opportunity to return to tradition and to understand fundamental aspects of denominational or congregational identity.
But much of American religion—especially Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, and Methodism—is not so clear about religious nationalism. Part of my anxiety arose from the realization that I belong to a denomination that has no unified theology of church and state. The Episcopal Church in the United States speaks with two conflicting voices: one declaring that the church should never address any political concern from its pulpits; the other contending that the church serves as a kind of national temple where people of all faiths can pray with dignity and decorum.
Thus, my denomination vacillates between complete avoidance and total embrace of nationalist piety. On any given day, the Episcopal Church might eschew addressing justice issues as inappropriate; or it might surrend
er a major pulpit to the president of the United States. Although this inconsistency might seem an incomprehensible theological mishmash to others, it makes a modicum of sense to Episcopalians. Our tradition is that of comprehension, the church of irreconcilable opposites, both Protestant and Catholic. Contradictions are part of our identity—the church of the via media. Part of our strength is our willingness to live with our dizzying diversity.
In my parish, however, the grand denominational narrative of the “middle way” has often given way to one side of the debate. Founded in 1767, Christ Church was the home parish of George Washington and, later, of Robert E. Lee. For most of its history, it has functioned as a faithful congregation worshiping in a chapel of American civil religion. As long as “faithful congregation” and “American civil religion” did not conflict, things went along swimmingly—that is, up until the 1960s and 1970s. At that point, Christ Church began to lose members—as did thousands of other mainline congregations—when the flag seemed at odds with racial justice and international peace.
Christ Church waved the American flag against civil rights and conscientious objection to war. Historically, we have a miserable record of race relations. In one infamous incident during the Vietnam war, an Alexandria judge, who also served as senior warden of the vestry (governing board) at Christ Church, threw the book at some Episcopal seminarians arrested for conducting a “peace Eucharist” and blocking an entrance to the Pentagon. Members of the younger generation left in droves. The only congregants who stayed around were their World War II parents and grandparents, many of whom were war veterans, whose theological perspectives and life experience kept faith and flag together in a way reminiscent of the 1950s.
When baby boomers started returning to church in the 1980s and 1990s, they generally turned a blind eye to our forebears George and “Bobby” (as the boomers and genXers irreverently call them), whose memorial plaques and portraits grace our walls. They also ignored the flag-waving of the senior generation. In short, the congregation had a polite generational cease-fire regarding church and state during the last two decades of the 20th century. After September 11, 2001, however, polite silence became difficult to maintain. And both sides of the generational divide struggle to understand what has happened in a way that is consonant with their life experience.
Thus, the local expression of my tradition is one of civil religion, a tradition ignored, rejected, or scorned by the largest and most rapidly growing segment of the congregation—but a tradition still celebrated by the building’s architecture and tourist brochures. In short, the congregation’s church-and-state tradition is changing (and has changed), and congregants are confused, hurt, and at a theological loss to know where to turn. The only people with clarity are the “flag and faith” members—or the few Lutheran-Quaker-Episcopalians like me.
Some of the congregation wanted to sing the national anthem. After all, one of our celebrated 18th century parishioners—Francis Scott Key—wrote it! The tide of American history, profoundly confusing the New Israel and the United States, is our history too.
But it is not our only history. Our congregation’s history is also that of the returning baby boomers and generation X members who fill our pews. Their theological story—the way in which they respond to this crisis—will become part of local tradition and the larger story of our denomination. The faithfulness of the September 11 generation will be knit into the 225-year history of a congregation—as was their parents’ and grandparents’ theological interpretation of America.
And that is where good leadership matters.
Why Leadership Matters
Why not simply wave the flag and sing “God Bless America”? After all, patriotism seems to be helping millions of Americans to hold on to sanity and summon courage. Why not enlist the church in this moral defense of the homeland?
The issue for American congregations is confusion. As some thoughtful Christians—including C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton—pointed out during the 20th century, patriotism elicits feelings akin to religious ecstasy. Love of country can easily be confused with love of God. This confusion leads to profoundly negative outcomes.
Patriotism in churches fuels religious nationalism. Patriotism is so emotionally powerful that it can marshal masses to any cause, whether noble or misguided. Although our side believes its cause to be blessed by God, every side in every conflict and war has always believed that to be the case. When conflated with faith, patriotism becomes religious nationalism—a danger to both the secular state and the church. During the American Civil War, Abraham Lincoln plumbed the painful paradoxes of religious nationalism in his Second Inaugural Address: “Both [North and South] read the same Bible and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. . . . The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Some people may protest that the current conflict is different from the one about which President Lincoln wrote so eloquently—Christians and Muslims do not read the same book or pray to the same God. But most mainline Protestants reject theological exclusivity in favor of recognizing the commonalities of Christian, Islamic, and Jewish monotheism and have expressed hopes for the universal reach of God’s mysterious love. Religious nationalism is dangerous because it establishes American Christianity as normative by claiming (however subtly) that God is on our side.
Thus, patriotism enrolls the church as a soldier of the political order—the source of the very “evil” that President Bush decries. When the cross is draped with the flag, we become crusaders ourselves and give our enemies more reason to hate us. The echoes of Pope Urban II’s call to destroy the infidel, “God wills it!” ring down through the ages to our own day. Unless we live into our best theological nature, the present conflict may teach us how little Christians have learned from history. Sadly enough, we could become a mirror image of what we seek to resist.
Patriotism, with its corresponding religious nationalism, also distracts from God’s primary mission for the church: to love all peoples, to tear down walls of hatred and division, to reconcile those at war, and to serve the least among us. As an Episcopal bishop of Ohio, Charles P. McIlvaine, reminded his denomination in 1862, “Let not love of Country make your love to God . . . the less fervent. Immense as is this present earthly interest, it is only earthly. The infinitely greater interests of the soul and of the kingdom of God remain as paramount as ever.”
It matters because, in the words of Bishop McIlvaine, “the soul and the kingdom of God” are at stake. Congregations are not chapels of the state or the military. They are outposts of God’s mission. Our call at this moment is to serve grieving families, to give hope and courage to the fearful, and to pray, speak, and work for peace and its corresponding blessings of liberty and freedom. Our job is not to proclaim or seem to imply that our nation is blameless, morally pure, and God’s righteous empire. In the wake of September 11, congregations must remember their fundamental vocation of healing souls and spreading God’s reign of love.
What To Do
With the stakes so high, preaching and teaching take on new gravity. Congregations need to understand that this is not the time to “play church,” as the senior minister at Christ Church said in his sermon September 16. Bunting, taps, and the national anthem are important—but they are not churchly. They are appropriate in the civi
c arena. Patriotism provides deeply meaningful, but theologically distracting, symbols. This is no time for theological confusion. The “infinitely greater interests” of soul and God’s kingdom call our congregations to move beyond emotive symbols to faithful discipleship, peacemaking, and service to the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed.
As in the 1960s, what we do now will determine the faith we pass to our children and grandchildren. Will they see, believe, respond to God, and embrace a way of life that matters? Our response to terrorism and war tests our theological character, our spiritual integrity, and our moral commitments. This is not only a battle for freedom; it is also an old-fashioned war for our souls. Winning may be important; how we win is even more so. The next generation is watching.
So is the world. The response of our congregations leavens American politics and policies. With patience, we may emerge from this time of troubles a wiser and more compassionate nation—something, I suspect, for which many of our brothers and sisters across the globe have long prayed. Chastened and strengthened by God’s mercy and grace, we may help create a world where terrorism and violence no longer threaten the universal human hope to raise families, make decent and honorable livings, enjoy the world’s beauties, worship and know God, and love our neighbors.