Separation of church and state, or why I hate patriotism in Mass

The 4th of July is a wonderful holiday, and you’re not going to see me turning away a brat, baseball or fireworks today. Not to mention, I love me a good John Philip Sousa march as much as the next American. Indeed some of my happiest memories involve sitting in our neighbor’s backyard in Denton, Texas, listening to Sousa blast out of a boombox with the men grilled meats and the women folk fanned ourselves, drank wine spritzers in our lawn chairs and watched to make sure none of our many kids drowned each other in the three-foot high blow up pool.

But I have a real problem when patriotic songs make their way into the end of Catholic masses, which they always do this time of the year. Be it America the Beautiful or God Bless America, those songs have no place in a house of worship because separation of church and state was key to this nation’s founding.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating America and the amazing-ness that has thrived here because of some daring immigrants risked life and limb to escape religious and cultural persecution and come form this nation. (Whoa. Wait a minute. We used to welcome people fleeing persecution??) We have Ben Franklin and Abraham Lincoln and Abigail Adams and Phillis Wheatley and all the politicians, scientists, inventors and social justice activists who’ve fought to make this country great.

But anyone with any knowledge of history has to cringe when patriotic songs are belted out at Mass. Think about it: When we sing America the Beautiful, praising “… the land that I love,” are we remembering that we took – sometimes violently and sometimes through slight of treaty –  this land from American Indians who loved it first? (Here’s a great interactive map that shows how this happened in a four-second watch.)

Our country, IMHO, is the best in the world because we are still (barely) committed to true democracy and willing to fight for it. We’re the envy of the people from second and third world countries rushing our borders right now. (Prior to 2016, of course, we were the envy of all the world, but in a post-Trump world, the developed countries like Canada, France, Germany and Britain are no longer envious.)

But for nearly the first 100 years of our existence, the country’s plantations, infrastructure and major buildings – including the White House – were built on the back of black people who were owned by white people. And the land we built everything on wasn’t ours to take in the first place. We’ve had Jim Crow laws and the subjugation of women and the KKK and pricey avocado toast and, right now, we have a man in the White House who hangs out with dictators and jokes with the Russian president about Russia interfering in our elections. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve got children stockpiled in border detention centers without so much as clean diapers because our politicians from both parties can’t get their heads out their asses to find a solution.

As the Descendants sang 20 years ago in the refrain of their song ‘Merican :

I’m proud and ashamed
Every fourth of July
You got to know the truth
Before you say that you got pride (Full lyrics here.)

The 4th of July is wonderful and complicated. That complication is something people can discuss at their picnics, but it would be great if it didn’t bleed into our church buildings. When I walk into Mass in a world gone mad, I’m seeking one thing: the peace of Jesus, not God Bless America. Call me old fashioned, but I like my politics sans religion and my religion sans politics. Just like the Founding Fathers (and mothers) envisioned it.

But if patriotism must enter the church doors, then we must – as Christians – follow Jesus’ great command to love our neighbor as ourselves and ask God to bless everyone, everywhere, all the time, not just us. Let the choir say amen.




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