Mourn on the Fourth of July: Inside the Christian anti-patriot movement
Mark Van Steenwyk leads his Mennonite Worker Community in Minneapolis.
July 5th, 2013
05:40 PM ET

Mourn on the Fourth of July: Inside the Christian anti-patriot movement

By David R. Wheeler, special to CNN

(CNN) - Like many congregations, The Mennonite Worker Community of Minneapolis held a worship service and picnic this Fourth of July - but instead of extolling the virtues of America, they called attention to its faults.

The annual service is “a sort of anti-patriotic holiday,” says Mark Van Steenwyk, whose community focuses on simplicity, prayer and peacemaking. Singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” is out. Reflecting on the contradictions between the gospel and the American Dream are in.

“We thank you, O God, for the good things we enjoy in our lives," reads a prayer the Mennonite community recites each year, "but lament that our abundance has brought destitution to sisters and brothers throughout the Earth.”

Anti-patriots like Van Steenwyk say their movement, which has grown more vocal in recent years, is simply an honest way to read – and live out – Jesus' teachings on nonviolence. But it's hard to look at groups like The Mennonite Community and not see an implicit criticism of God-and-country cheerleading by mainstream Christians and ripples of centuries-old church-state tensions.

Some anti-patriots come from pacifist Anabaptist traditions, such as the Mennonite Church. Others come from evangelical backgrounds but have rejected their counterparts' often unreserved patriotism and embraced liberal-leaning communities like Red Letter Christians and JesusRadicals.com.

They may differ on theological details, but they hold at least one belief in common: You cannot serve both God and country.

A Suspicion of the State

Anabaptists such as Mennonites and the Amish were persecuted by state churches in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, and their descendants bear a lasting suspicion of human authorities.

Many an Amish and Mennonite home keeps a copy of "The Martyr's Mirror," a book thick with testimonies of Anabaptists burned at the stake of orthodoxy. The book's subtitle refers to the martys as "defenseless Christians," a nod to Anabaptists' belief that when Jesus called on Christians to turn the other cheek, he was quite serious.

For that reason, Anabaptists historically do not participate in warfare — or celebrate military victories.

American Anabaptists have been fined or jailed for their pacifist beliefs during wartime. Four Hutterites died from harsh treatment while imprisoned as conscientious objectors during World War I, Bach says. Anabaptists didn’t receive official permission to perform alternative service until World War II.

READ MORE: Bolivia’s isolated Mennonite community

“Some members of Anabaptist groups today are more acculturated and celebrate patriotic holidays just like the rest of the nation,” says Jeff Bach, director of Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies. “None of the Anabaptist groups are anti-American. They are typically grateful for the religious freedom permitted in the United States.”

Still, in 2011, Goshen College, a Mennonite school in Indiana, banned the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at sporting events because, according to the college’s president, the lyrics were too violent.

Serving `the King' 

It may be difficult for some Americans to understand why their countrymen would disassociate themselves from patriotism. What’s the harm in celebrating Independence Day, anyway?

But nonpatriotic Christians believe the burden of proof should fall on the other side: Why should peace-loving believers celebrate a bloody revolution? And American history after 1776 isn’t exactly pacifistic either, Van Steenwyk says.

“It is easy to judge Islam for the actions of a relative few militants. Yet when millions of Americans — a vast majority of them claiming the Christian faith — were complicit with slavery, indigenous genocide, and continued economic exploitation, we suddenly see them as separate from our faith,” says Van Steenwyk.

Jesus called his followers to Christian service and humility, which are the opposite of nationalistic rituals performed on the Fourth of July, says David Swartz, author of “Moral Minority: The Evangelical Left in an Age of Conservatism.”

“A heightened devotion to the nation can cause a lot of confusion abroad when people see claims of a Christian America alongside a long American history of slavery, economic inequality and overheated Hollywood sexuality and violence,” says Swartz.

Kurt Willems, who runs the progressive Christian blog Pangea, has also joined the rising nonpatriotic chorus. The Anabaptist from Seattle writes an annual post explaining why he no longer celebrates Independence Day.

“Each year I receive comments about how I should leave this country if I ‘hate’ it so much,” he says. “I love Americans, but I’m not willing to compromise my values as a servant of my only King, the nonviolent revolutionary — Jesus.”

Making Toby Keith Proud

Many Christians trace the latest wave of evangelical interest in pacifism to author and activist Shane Claiborne, who worked with Mother Teresa in the slums of Calcutta, ministered to Iraqis during the war in Iraq and now leads a Philadelphia community called The Simple Way.

“My philosophy on patriotic things would be: A love for the people of our country is not a bad thing, but why should love stop at the border?” says Claiborne.

There have been some nonpatriotic gatherings in major cities, such as the Los Angeles Catholic Worker’s “Mourn on the Fourth of July” peace march in 2008.

Still the nonpatriot movement remains small, and finding local communities can be challenging, Van Steenwyk says.

“Everyone knows that other folks think like them, but it isn’t like there are a lot of congregations that self-identify as being nonpatriotic.”

That’s especially true for evangelicals, who lead the country in patriotic fervor.

More than 80% of white evangelicals believe that God has granted the United States a "special role" in history, according to a survey released June 27 by the Public Religion Research Institute.

In a stat that would make Toby Keith proud, more than two-thirds of white evangelicals say they are "very proud" to be an American, outstripping every other religious group polled.

So it's not surprising that some conservative Christians find the nonpatriotic alliance of progressive evangelicals and Anabaptists troubling — even dangerous.

“All Christians everywhere are called to love and serve their nations,” says Mark Tooley, a president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy and a United Methodist.

READ MORE: Celebrating the Fourth of July

“The stance of some evangelical elites influenced by neo-Anabaptist beliefs is often one of ingratitude, and whining, while ignoring the teaching of the universal Church, which has always recognized the God-ordained vocation of the state, and the Christian’s calling to serve as responsible citizens,” he says.

Tooley also disagrees with the nonpatriotic Christians on about military force, which he says is required to maintain order worldwide. Nonpatriot Christians are naïve not to consider the ill effects should the United States abdicate military power, he says

“What would the alternatives be if the USA didn’t exist or withdrew from the world stage? Almost certainly a more dangerous, more anarchic, more repressive, less prosperous world with less opportunity for the poor to escape poverty,” Tooley argues.

No Middle Ground? 

Some patriotic pastors argue for a middle way: honoring America without succumbing to chauvinism or ignoring the country's wrongs.

“Do I agree with every major policy of our government? No way,” says Kyle Vanover, pastor of Cyrus Chapel United Methodist Church in Catlettsburg, Kentucky. “But I’m proud to be an American, and I believe God has truly blessed this land.”

Van Steenwyk, however, says there is no middle ground.

Jesus’ identification with the poor, love of enemies, and refusal to take power are incompatible with the “entire political and economic system” of the United States, he says.

“Let’s face it — the Sermon on the Mount makes for lousy foreign or public policy. We can’t have it both ways.”

David R. Wheeler is a journalism professor and freelance writer living in Lexington, Kentucky. You can follow him on Twitter at: @David_R_Wheeler

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Amish • Belief • Christianity • Church • Church and state • Faith • Foreign policy • Mennonite • Military • Politics

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