I read recently that some young Muslims in the United States are complaining that what goes on in their mosques is not “American” enough. They say that the patterns of worship and religious education seem designed to preserve the connections to the countries from which their Muslim communities emigrated, while these young folks want their faith to guide them in their lives in America. Shouldn’t their leaders be doing more, they ask, to help them understand how their faith applies to the country of which they are now citizens?
I say: Good for them. I hope they succeed in getting a positive response from their elders.
In his 1984 book, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America, Fr. Neuhaus insisted that a sustainable public morality in the United States requires a broad consensus on the kinds of values associated with “Judeo-Christian” thought. Otherwise, he wrote, we are condemned to living with one “temporary accommodation” after another. And this sort of consensus can hold, he argued, even for groups which do not subscribe to explicit biblical teaching. He noted that recent immigrant adherents to Eastern religions—he had Hindus and Buddhists particularly in mind—tend not to draw “lines of moral confrontation . . . against the prevailing Judeo-Christian ethos.”
It tells us a lot about the changes in American religious life over the past three decades that Neuhaus paid no attention to Islam in referring to the pluralistic mix in the United States. But we can hope that young Muslims will fit the pattern he suggests, by entering into shared broad consensus with those influenced by Christian and Jewish thought.
Just before I came across that report about the concerns of the young Muslims, I had joined a conversation in which some Christian friends were complaining about too much “Americanism” in their local churches. “America the Beautiful” had been chosen as one of the hymns on the Fourth of July service in someone’s congregation, a subject that led someone else to express distress at the presence of an American flag—next to a “Christian” flag—in his place of worship.
As a product of the 1960s, I have my own nervousness about expressions of patriotism in church. Sojourners magazine was originally given the name Post-American, and in my own activist association with that magazine in those early days I responded positively to Jim Wallis’s message that some of us in the evangelical world wanted to proclaim a “post-American Christianity” to a “post-Christian America.” There are times when it is important to boldly counter the excesses of patriotism with reminders that our supreme allegiance should be to a Kingdom that transcends the kingdoms of this world.
But I have to remind myself that the key word is “excesses.” If I were to attend a worship service in Nigeria and see the national flag on display in the sanctuary, I don’t think I would recoil in theological horror. When I attend churches in another country I do not expect everything to be exactly like it would be when I worship in southern California. I’m not offended when English is not the language of worship, or when the hymns are different from the ones we sing back home. Nor does it bother me when the folks in those churches pray for their own political leaders and not mine. For similar reasons, I don’t think folks from other countries and cultures should be offended when our local worship in North America demonstrates an awareness of the social-political context in which our worship takes place.
Love of one’s country is a lot like a love of one’s parents—it is not irrelevant that we talk about “fatherland” and “motherland.” It is a good thing in a family to thank God for kinfolk who have nurtured us. And it is a good thing to thank God in a church service for the nation that has blessed us in many ways. Again, excess is the danger to be avoided. When people spend too much time telling us what wonderful parents they have, it can get tiresome. When we boast too much about our nation, the problems go beyond tiresome. And things get even worse when we refuse—both with kinfolk and our national identities—to look at serious faults.
We need patriotism and self-criticism, pride and reflection. In the Church, a modest expression of the first and the second are warranted, so long as we remember that which transcends them both. The hopes of the young Muslims above strike me as fitting. I wish I would have asked my friends who complained about patriotic expressions in their local services what they think about young Muslims singing “America the Beautiful” in their local mosques.
Richard J. Mouw is president emeritus of Fuller Theological Seminary.