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Does patriotism have a place in American religious life?

As partisan tension rises, most pastors remain committed to celebrating the Fourth of July at worship services

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Attendees wave flags as music is played before then-Vice President Mike Pence made comments at First Baptist Church Dallas during a Celebrate Freedom Rally in Dallas, Sunday, June 28, 2020.

Tony Gutierrez, Associated Press

More than half of Protestant pastors in the United States say it’s important to recognize the Fourth of July holiday during worship services, but a sizable minority — 38% — worries their congregation’s love for America is sometimes greater than its love for God, according to a new survey from Lifeway Research.

The report showed that young pastors, in particular, wonder about the wisdom of encouraging patriotism from the pulpit. Nearly two-thirds of Protestant leaders younger than 45 said church services don’t need “patriotic additions,” researchers found.

The survey comes at a time when faith leaders from a variety of traditions are reconsidering the relationship between religion and patriotism. Some have been sounding the alarm about Christian nationalism, a belief system that includes the idea that you have to be Christian to be truly American, among other things.

Although Lifeway Research found that support for observing the Fourth of July in churches has declined slightly since 2016, activities such as recognizing veterans from the pulpit or playing patriotic music remain the rule, not the exception.

“While not a date on the Christian calendar, most Protestant churches adjust their worship services to acknowledge the birth of the United States each July,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research, in a press release. “For most churches, it isn’t just tradition. The majority of pastors agree it’s important to incorporate it into the worship experience.”

Over the same time period, pastors grew less concerned about their congregation loving America more than God. In 2021, 38% of Protestant leaders said worshippers’ love for America sometimes seems greater than their love for God, compared to 53% in 2016.

“In the last six years, many pastors’ concerns about patriotic idolatry in their congregations have faded,” McConnell said.

Lifeway Research also found that Protestant interest in patriotic displays doesn’t end after the Fourth of July. Most pastors (67%) said it’s appropriate for churches to display the American flag all year round.

“Pastors 65 and older (81%) and those with no college degree (79%) are among the most likely to see year-round American flag displays as acceptable,” the study said.

Overall, Protestant leaders generally agree that churches can embrace patriotism without putting congregants’ spiritual lives at risk. But McConnell noted that they also seem to recognize that it’s important to stay on guard.

“Like any idol, the temptation to prioritize, worship or depend on our nation over God can resurface at any time,” he said.

The survey was conducted in September 2021 among 1,000 Protestant pastors. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.