Generous Orthodoxy  

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Idolatry is alive and threatening the church

On the weekend before the Fourth of July, I attended a Sunday morning service at a very large mainline Protestant church in a Southern city. It was a great shock to me. I did not know that this sort of service still took place in the mainlines. The American flag was paraded in with great pomp. Two dozen World War II veterans followed, accompanied by the leaders of the congregation. There was a professional brass band, playing Sousa at one point. All the standards were sung, ranging from the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" to "God Bless America" and everything in between, with, of course, "The Star-Spangled Banner" followed by the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. The very long "sermon" had virtually no theological or Biblical content at all; it was a series of flamboyant anecdotes with a patriotic flavor and a series of passionate but historically dubious declarations about the supposed Christianity of the Founders. It was obvious that the congregation adored the whole thing.

Here's what really bothered me: I was inoculated against this kind of thing long ago, yet even so, I had to fight off lumps in my throat, tears and goosebumps at various points. We are fatally susceptible to this sort of hyper-patriotic mob psychology, especially when it is whipped up by brass bands, parades, drumrolls, flags, and fervor.

I don't remember ever being so distressed by a worship service. It is profoundly disturbing to realize that this is probably going on as a matter of course all over America. I went back into my files and found what I was looking for. I wrote this a few years ago. Here it is:

Chilling photograph of a Nazi “Christian” rally

In my files I have kept a photograph of a procession at the Gustav Adolf Church in Berlin in 1934. Two ranks of uniformed Nazi troops are arrayed outside the church, closely facing each other, giving the Nazi salute as the procession passes through the aisle formed by the space between the two ranks. The procession has two features: a large number of Nazi flags emblazoned with the swastika, carried proudly aloft, and an equally large number of Lutheran clergymen, looking stately, with the black of their pulpit gowns setting off their white preaching tabs.

(The photo actually shows about eight flags and four clergymen, but it is a closeup and one gets the impression there were a good many more. The clergyman in the lead, close to the camera, wears a very large, imposing pectoral cross and raises his hand in salute to the troops as he processes. It is hard to read his expression. Solemnity? Self-importance? Exaltation? Shame? One of the other clergymen looks as if maybe he would rather be somewhere else.)

Here is the clincher: At another similar occasion, the dean of Magdeburg Cathedral delivered this exhortation from the pulpit:

"[The flag with the swastika] has come to be the symbol of German hope. Whoever reviles this symbol of ours is reviling our Germany. The swastika flags around the altar radiate hope—-hope that the day is at last about to dawn.”