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

soundoff (1,599 Responses)
  1. JWB

    It is unfortunate that many faithful fellow Christians across all denominations from Penecostal to Universalist seem to believe simpler is better for answers to complex problems within our American Society all the while playing armchair quarterback and rebuking the very system that allows them to worship as they wish...Growing up within the Mennonite and Amish communities in PA, I notice a conflict of virtue..seperate from the outside but obtain income from them...To be the light and salt of the earth we must be in the world yet not of it which means active engagement working with those who do not believe as we do, even posters like I'm the Realist.....What we cannot do as many Fundies want to do is "reset the American Political Ideology" that serves their self interest and not of all Americans and places our Country's Virtue back to the early 20th Century.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • I'm a Realist

      virtues and morals improve as we continue through generations. Being held back by primitive man's concepts is destruction to all of us.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • Keeping It Real

      "Why are the 10 Commandments banned from the wall of an Alabama courtroom ?"

      For one, because the ancient Hebrew 10 Commandments are not laws of the U.S.

      The Ten Commandments:
      1: Have no other gods – NOT A LAW
      2: Make no graven image – NOT A LAW
      3: Don’t take the name in vain – NOT A LAW
      4: Honor the Sabbath – NOT A LAW
      5: Honor thy father and mother – NOT A LAW
      6: Thou shalt not kill – NOT UNIQUE TO CHRISTIANITY (long pre-dated it)
      7: Thou shalt not commit adultery – huge number of Christians commit adultery by LEGALLY remarrying
      8: Thou shalt not steal – NOT UNIQUE TO CHRISTIANITY
      9: Thou shalt not bear false witness – NOT UNIQUE TO CHRISTIANITY
      10: Thou shalt not covet – NOT A LAW

      July 7, 2013 at 1:26 pm |
    • Adam2Jesus

      Placing God and his teachings first in our lives and exercising them throughout our personal life and society is what is best for all peoples. Unfortunately, most have not studied God's teachings or even accepted the Lord Jesus Christ, to receive the Holy Spirit to comfort and to guide them, to teach, reveal truth and to bring God's Holiness and power between man and the Kingdom of Heaven. Those who have accepted the Lord, and received the Holy Spirit and the word of God's truth will be knitted together as one body, complete, not missing any part, in complete agreement with each other, and God's Kingdom, built up as partakers with Christ, as adopted sons and daughters, who with Christ will rule in his Kingdom.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      "Placing God and his teachings first in our lives and exercising them throughout our personal life and society is what is best for all peoples"

      Incorrect and pretty insulting to EVERYONE who does not belive what YOU believe.

      There is no evidence that any gods exist, there is a great deal of evidence disproving the bible, and there is a great deal of evidence that men created your bible, and used stories from previous cultures to create it.

      How does this make you feel:
      Placing Satan and his teachings first in our lives and exercising them throughout our personal life and society is what is best for all peoples.

      Placing The Great Pumpkin and his teachings first in our lives and exercising them throughout our personal life and society is what is best for all peoples.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:43 pm |
  2. I'm a Realist

    I think the anti-christ was jesus. He was a bit schizophrenic.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
    • Adam2Jesus

      I I rebuke you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:06 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      Oh no Realist...you've been rebuked...formally, and then the witch tried to use withcraft on you by invoking the name of his magic king. Thou shall not suffer a witch to live.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
  3. I'm a Realist

    perfect socialism –> christianity

    July 7, 2013 at 12:54 pm |
    • Adam2Jesus

      Perfect Peace, Love and Joy in God's Kingdom.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:33 pm |
  4. NYVeteran

    You have the right to be an unappreciative, self centered, pacifist because others gave you that right while you sat home contemplating your navel. While I fully support your ability to reap the benefits of the American dream without lifting a finger to help maintain it, I am glad the majority of Americans are not like you. You are welcome for your freedom you ingrates.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:40 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Freedom? To do as we are told? Thanks for nothing.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:41 pm |
  5. sworoth

    I am not one to get into a religious war, but I will say this fanatics like this give all Christians a bad name. They did not do this because they believed in something they did this for the publicity. If they had done this picnic of theirs on the 5th or the 8th, what attention would they have gotten? The answer is none, and where there is attention, there is money to be had.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:37 pm |
  6. Ben

    Peace is anti patriotic? Yikes! That's bad news for everybody but people who make guns and bombs.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:35 pm |
  7. I'm a Realist

    "a perfect god created this vast universe.." Sorry folks, a god that needed to rest and didn't clean up his mess with all those meteors and comets left floating around,, isn't perfect.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:29 pm |
    • AtheistSteve

      No doubt. The claims of the religious with respect to the creation of the universe revolve around two key yet stunningly simplistic ideas. 1) That the universe could not have come into existence from nothing and 2) that only a God can account for the complexity and organization of matter within said universe.

      The first flawed argument completely ignores how a God would manifest out of this apparent "nothing". God is an example of special pleading when the claim that nothing can come from nothing does not apply to their God who seems to have appeared from nowhere.
      The second ignores the fact that the early universe was anything but complex. Shortly after the Big Bang the universe was an almost perfectly uniform expanding bubble of energy. Just about as simple and non-complex as it gets. Further when the cooling universe finally allowed baryonic matter to condense it was entirely comprised of hydrogen and a little helium. The 2 simplest elemental atomic structures, which still dominate the vast majority of all matter in existence. Gravity, the strong nuclear force and stellar supernovae, not God, are responsible for all the heavier atomic nuclei and resultant complexity of matter.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:55 pm |
  8. I'm a Realist

    this "christian" country bombed Iraq. Killed and mutilated half a million innocent women, children and men. All to retaliate for the lives of a few thousand in the towers. So christian.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:24 pm |
  9. I'm a Realist

    "jesus died on the cross for our sins".. now if that isn't the looniest thing ever said. Sounds like jesus needed a good therapist.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
  10. I'm a Realist

    tired of these chri-stains. Wish they would finally grow up.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
  11. I'm a Realist

    imagine if this world were run by cheristians? It'd be like slavery.

    christians call those who are mentally ill,, sinners. How barbaric.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:12 pm |
    • j.m. clark

      and so the vicious cycle of intolerance and misunderstanding continues.

      christians call you a sinner, you call them barbaric, and we go around and around, but what i see in this comment section is many faulting the christians for doing exactly what you and many others are doing here, which is ignorantly chastising a group of people that holds different beliefs from themselves.

      in the end, it's not the christians, or the athiests, or the muslims that's destroying our society, but instead it's those that refuse to respect or even understand others' right to live their lives on their own terms.

      while i'm not affiliated with any organized relegion, i can say that the figure known as Jesus Christ seemed like a pretty cool cat with a sound message. and i'd even go so far as to say that i think if everyone did pattern their life based, even loosely, on this message, which was one of peace and love, the world just might be a better place.

      July 8, 2013 at 5:16 am |
  12. I'm a Realist

    as once stated by a famous person,, "It's funny how christians are rude to their god. They are always asking and praying for things,, trillions. And worse, they do it more on their god's day off."

    July 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
  13. albie

    First off, who cares what they think. Second, Christianity in all its forms is the single biggest threat to this country.

    July 7, 2013 at 12:05 pm |
    • I'm a Realist

      agreed. Remember though, many christians believe they never evolved. I'd have to agree. Wish they would one day and join civilized man.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  14. I'm a Realist

    Imagine,, you're told from birth that planes are dangerous, they crash. People painfully burn in hot scorching fires when they crash.

    Makes flying uncomfortable to the point you might not ever fly in an airplane.

    yes, like your fear of living a complete life –> religion.

    Remember.. good deeds are done by good people, atheists and Realist included. Religion steals these good works and claims it as their own, taking a cash cut off the top.

    Be a Realists.

    July 7, 2013 at 11:56 am |
    • I'm a Realist

      trying to use a witchcraft spell on me?? Too funny.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:46 pm |
    • Ned

      Good thing it's not up to you to make that call, lol??. Stop cherry-picking the Bible to support your hatred.

      July 7, 2013 at 12:47 pm |
    • Adam2Jesus

      God does not steal, he does not lie, no sin can be found in his mouth. But he does recognize what good people do, yet good works alone will not give you entrance into the Kingdom of God, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. We cannot enter his kingdom wearing "grave clothes", but must be washed from our sins through the mercy and forgiveness given through Jesus Christ. Then not only can we be blessed with eternal life, but also reap the rewards of all our good works.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm |

    We applaud them

    July 7, 2013 at 11:55 am |
  16. Dug

    "Worker Community" does this remind any other readers of something else? Anyway these folks are typiclal of most of us who seek to make valid our own thinking by perpetually finding fault in that of others. Not terribly effective in solidifying our faith but it works quite well to divert us from questioning that which we have come to believe is beyond question.

    July 7, 2013 at 11:49 am |
    • Ned

      Now you are conflating the Mennonites with Communism?

      July 7, 2013 at 12:43 pm |
  17. Equally Stupid

    Really, no middle ground. To say that the United States is completely wrong is just as bad as saying that the United States is always correct. I appreciate the freedom of religion and the freedom of speech most. In many countries that is not a way of life. I am thankful for those who gave their lives or risked and continue to risk their lives for the freedoms we have.

    July 7, 2013 at 11:45 am |
  18. wassupUSA

    I don't know of any conservatives that use the phrase "economic inequality" or conservatives that try to make others feel guilty about actions that happened over 100 years. I stick by my original statement.

    July 7, 2013 at 11:41 am |
    • Ned

      You can stand by your erroneous statement all you want. It doesn't make it true, just that you're stubborn.

      July 7, 2013 at 11:57 am |
  19. I'm a Realist

    a four-leaf clover, your fingers crossed, your god.. Funny how they all return the same results.

    July 7, 2013 at 11:40 am |
  20. Colin

    "More than 80% of white evangelicals believe that God has granted the United States a "special role" in history."

    Of course they do. Religious people always feel that their particular sky-fairy has selected them to be special or chosen. That is a fundamental purpose religion serves, to give the hopes, dreams and prejudices of any given society an external validation, albeit a totally ficti.tious one.

    July 7, 2013 at 11:36 am |
    • I'm a Realist

      however it's religion which destroys critical thinking in children, and behaves as dictators controlling and destroying others.

      July 7, 2013 at 11:43 am |
    • Ned

      You seem overly obsessed with people's sex lives, lol??. And it's not nice to call God "the Diverse Beast".

      July 7, 2013 at 12:03 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.