At Progressive Field the other night for the Indians’ latest shellacking of the Tigers, I was standing in line at the concession stand when it came time for the national anthem. As the music started I doffed my cap, and watched as all the men around me did the same. Everything came to a halt: a silence settled over the milling crowds, people stopped in their tracks, the sandwich makers and beer vendors ceased their activity. I was impressed with how respectful everyone was as we listened to a young woman butcher “The Star-Spangled Banner” over the PA system—a guy in line in front of me even took it on himself to motion at strangers passing by to take off their hats. It was like being in church, and was probably as close to being in church (or any kind of worship setting) that many of the folks at the park that night would be for a good long while.
But who needs church when we have America? When we can get our sense of belonging, our commitment to a common purpose, and a reinforcement of our sense of collective virtue at the ballpark, where no one minds what you wear or how much you drink or what kind of language you use, why bother with church?
Well, let me tell you what else I saw. Over the shoulder of the guy teaching people to be respectful by taking off their hats, I could see into one of the glass-walled team shops. Prominently displayed there was a shirt bearing a gigantic cartoonish image of Chief Wahoo, the Indians’ “mascot.” This version was even worse than the official red-skinned, grinning Indian logo. It looked like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon from the 1930s, an offensive caricature that we should have grown out of in the past eighty years.
Right there in a nutshell was the problem with patriotism-as-religion: as we honored America with great reverence and pride, we were somehow able to ignore the woolly mammoth of our national sins standing in the middle of the room. Our forebears, for all their wisdom, perpetuated the enslavement of millions of Africans and endorsed genocide against millions of native Americans, with the happy result that now we can spend thirty bucks to mock the descendants of our nation’s victims and excuse it by saying we’re just “supporting our team.” Patriotism-as-religion has no beef with this.
In this it closely resembles religion-without-justice. Any time we manage to divorce our worship of God from acts of justice, inclusion, peacemaking, and delivering love, we open the door to sin and evil. “As servants of God,” Peter admonishes his readers in his first epistle, “live as free people, yet do not use your freedom as a pretext for evil” (1 Pet 2:16). Much of the rhetoric I have heard coming from this year’s election circus tells me that this remains a live option in 2016.
The First Amendment provides a corrective to the excesses of patriotism-as-religion. The words of the prophets and the teachings of Jesus do the same for religion-without-justice. The question we as a church and as a nation have to answer is this: will we avail ourselves of these correctives, or will we choose instead to worship the false gods of nationalism and cheap grace?