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. Mickey Weedon

    If you hear voices from some space daddy in the sky.
    If you worship some dead guy on a stick or some spagetti monster...
    If you think we rode on dinosaurs
    If you think our earth is 6000 years old.
    Then you nuts!
    Religion Sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    July 7, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • just one dering

      Do you know a lot about sucking?

      July 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • vortex1964

      It sounds to me like you make a compelling argument. I would just like to add, science has been wrong in carbon dating. There have been instances where live mollusc have been carbon dated in the millions of years but here they are today alive and well. I mean like just picked up out of the ocean. As far as riding dinosaurs, that would be cool, seeing we were not there, who knows what happened about then. We surmise and hypothesize without true knowledge. We look through the prism of time without getting a clear picture. Finally, your are mistaken, I don't worship a dead guy. Jesus Christ rose from the dead and death has no hold on him. We look to the Resurrection from the dead and fellowship with God the Father. A true Christian knows that this is not our home. We are merely passing through. We share the love of Christ in hopes that people will come to know our savior. If you chose not to accept, well that is your choice.

      Your right religion does not hold the answers. Jesus Christ the son of God does. I appreciate you expressing your views or dialogue like this would never happen. God bless you and have a good Day.

      If you hear voices from some space daddy in the sky.
      If you worship some dead guy on a stick or some spagetti monster...
      If you think we rode on dinosaurs
      If you think our earth is 6000 years old.
      Then you nuts!
      Religion Sucks!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      July 7, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
  2. Wynn Silence

    Check out Michele Obama tell Barrack on a you tube video. All of this for a dam flag!
    CNN is the first to stand in the away of a fee country.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Good because I dont want to pay for it.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:03 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      Making this a "fee country" is the Republican way.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:38 pm |
  3. Matt

    Some of the replies on here are just idiotic.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:57 pm |
    • Theseus

      Ya, Bible this, God that... just embarrassing.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • Idio Tic

      Yo Moma

      July 7, 2013 at 2:17 pm |
  4. Bootyfunk

    jesus supported slavery. he recommended beating slaves that disobey "with many stripes." so i wouldn't exactly say he was a shinning example of good ethics.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • vortex1964

      I would like to know the scripture reference to what you just stated. I know Jesus did not address slavery but Paul the apostle did. Those that supported slavery were from a wide variety of religions, ethnic backgrounds, lands and social economic backgrounds. So, Christianity did not have a sole stake in it. As for what Jesus, preached," he preached, love thy neighbor as they self. God gave you free will to pick and chose to do what was right, but man has chosen to do wrong, whether a christian or pagan. In the end God only knows the intent of mans heart in what he does, so he will judge rightly.

      Please post the scripture referenced to,"jesus supported slavery. he recommended beating slaves that disobey "with many stripes.". Thank you.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:11 pm |
    • Bootyfunk

      sorry, but not only did jesus accept slavery, he fully supported it. btw, why do you think jesus did not support slavery? what did he say to that effect?

      Luke 12
      47 And that slave, who knew his lord's will, and made not ready, nor did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes;
      48 but he that knew not, and did things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. And to whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required: and to whom they commit much, of him will they ask the more.

      jesus was a product of his time, not the son of a god. you say christianity didn't have a stake in slavery, but that's just not true. there are rules in the bible for selling and buying slaves, even specific rules on how to sell your own daughter into slavery. there are rules in the bible for how hard you can beat your slaves, what countries you can take slaves from, etc.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm |
  5. Mr. Thanatos

    God is a 12 year old boy who burns ants with a magnifying glass.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:50 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      But not dogs.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
  6. stephen48739

    Matthew 22: 17 – 21 'Tell us, therefore, what do You think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?" But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, "why do you test Me, you hypocrites? Show me the tax money." So they brought Him a denarius. And he said to them, "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's."
    In my interpretation of this scripture, "things that belong to Caesar include the payment of taxes and the loyalty of a patriot".
    To cheat the government, by avoiding taxes, or to refuse to serve one's country, when the call goes forth, to protect and defend our loved ones, are contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:45 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Yes jesus said "Do what you are told and go kill people if your country tells you to."

      July 7, 2013 at 1:51 pm |
    • Retired RN

      Well stated and my belief as well. Our son is career military and volunteered to serve a year in Afghanistan. When others do not support our troops even though disagreeing with Washington, they are not truly patriots or Christian.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      So to be a patriot or christian you are required to blindly do as you are told. OK that sounds about right.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • I'm a Realist

      religions are the biggest tax che-ats. Time they pay their fair share. Separation does NOT mean a free ride. They use our roads, water system, police,... They are lea-ches and we all have to pay their share. They acc-umulate property wealth in prime real estate areas.

      It's not separation when we have to pay their share. It's also not separation when they receive billions in grant money,, our tax dollar. They now get to promote their religion with tax payer dollars.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
  7. dike

    This is what makes the USA great... Freedom. The soldiers fought for this freedom. I find it disrespectful to mourn this day but that is my opinion. I wish these folks picked another day to do this instead of the 4th.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
  8. edmundburkeson

    These are the Christians of which every liberal fantasizes. Christians who will lie down in front of a steamroller and offer no resistance.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Just lie down right here edmund. Don't worry god wants you to.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      It seems to me that they are standing up for what they believe. But I guess if they don't stand in your line it doesn't count.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:44 pm |
    • Peter

      Have you always been an idiot, I wonder? Nature versus nurture... were you born with a deformed brain, or was it subsequent damage?

      July 7, 2013 at 1:46 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Yes he has always been an idiot.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
  9. President Camacho

    Religion is a joke invented to control the masses like sheep. The sooner we learn more about our actual universe, the sooner we as a species can evolve into something greater.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  10. lamb of dog

    Adam2jesus wants freedom to be a dictator.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  11. One one

    In this passage, Paul is basically telling believers that god will reward them by taking vengeance on non-believers and punishing them with everlasting fire and destruction. So, where is the message of love and peace to your enemies ?

    2Thessalonians:6-9, "6 Since it is a righteous thing with God to repay affliction to those who afflict you,
    7 and to give relief to you who are afflicted with us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire,
    8 giving vengeance to those who don't know God, and to those who don't obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus,
    9 who will pay the penalty: eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might,” “10 when he comes to be glorified in his saints, and to be admired among all those who have believed (because our testimony to you was believed) in that day.”

    July 7, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
    • David DeForge


      er, wait a tick...

      July 7, 2013 at 1:31 pm |
    • j

      The message of love is that God so loved the world that He, God made a way for all mankind to be spared judgement. The reality is that no matter what God has done in love there are those that will reject Him and those who have hated God and abused Gods chosen people will be punished. You are either under Gods grace or you are not.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
    • One one

      @j, the bottom line of your religion is...believe or god will torture forever. That's sick and twisted "grace"

      Fortunately, it's all BS so I don't worry about it.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:06 pm |
    • RichardSRussell

      One of the great ironies of our time is J using the word "actually".

      July 7, 2013 at 2:41 pm |
  12. coderjones

    god is the worst invention of man kind

    July 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
    • j

      Yet God is the salvation of mankind

      July 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Or is he?

      July 7, 2013 at 1:29 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Dogs are the salvation of mankind. They help with stress.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:30 pm |
    • j

      There is nothing that will relieve the stress of spending an eternity in hell

      July 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      I've never heard anyone say "god is mans bestfriend". And really I don't think he is. Some of the things hes done are pretty bad. The worst thing my dog has ever done is pee on the floor.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:34 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Well I will find out. My dogs doesn't believe in god so he will be with me.
      Also silly J. Your empty threats mean nothing to me or my dog.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:38 pm |
    • j

      God is mans best friend. As to god which idol are you referring to?

      July 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm |
    • mark troiano

      coderjones, I would submit that communism, fascism, and totalitarianism are far worse than the belief in God. And if you want to talk about slaughter of humans, the number of those killed by these ideologies blows away those caused by religion

      July 7, 2013 at 1:41 pm |
    • j

      In truth your dog is smart enough to believe in God. Only man is granted the freedom to reject God.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:42 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Ok dog whisperer whatever you say.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:48 pm |
    • Peter

      j, do you have any advice as to what I should do if my dog doesn't believe that Jesus Christ is his one true savior? He's a bulldog, so he's not exactly the smartest breed, and he keeps insisting on following the path of Secular Humanism. No matter how hard I try to save his soul, he just won't listen to me. Have you had any past success in converting other dogs? You seem to be well-versed in their spiritual beliefs, so I was hoping you might be able to help me! Thanks, and God Bless You!

      July 7, 2013 at 1:49 pm |
    • j

      Your bulldog must be the smarter between you two. The bulldog knows his creator and where a bulldog belongs, apparently you do not.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:54 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      He should be following secular dogism.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:55 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Maybe J could use some help from your bulldog.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:56 pm |
    • j

      Those God loves God chooses. I already know God, your animals already know God the only ones here that appear to be lost are ... you.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:58 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      Those god loves god chooses? I think your lost inside your own brain J.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:00 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      You know god about as much as you know my dog. And the only thing you know about my dog is the stuff you made up in your own head.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:01 pm |
    • j

      god is an idol God is eternal. What idol are you talking about?

      July 7, 2013 at 2:02 pm |
    • lamb of dog

      I dont ever use a G for god. The fariytale doesn't deserve it.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:07 pm |
    • Peter

      @ Lamb, yeah he looked into Dogism, but found the dogma to be a bit too much (sorry.) Also, humans seem like divinity in their ability to make dog food and water appear, and occasional rewards of actual meat.

      July 7, 2013 at 2:45 pm |
    • dolly taylor

      psalm 14:1 the fool says in his heart there is no GOD.

      July 7, 2013 at 4:44 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      More self affirming BS. The bible was written by men, and put BS in there to make you feel bad if you do not believe. It is meaningless. There is another that calls everyone that does not believe a swine...are you going to keep insulting people with your religion?

      July 7, 2013 at 4:49 pm |
  13. Dyslexic doG

    The use of supernaturalism to manipulate and control people is the world's oldest confidence scheme, it relies on the ritual abuse of children at their most impressionable stage by adults who have themselves been made childish for life by artifacts of the primitive mind.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  14. Daremonai

    I find the fact that talking about the faults of America is 'anti-patriotic' rather disturbing, esp since much of the language in the 'patriotic' community revolves around complaining about how various groups are 'ruining the country'.

    So I guess it is patriotic to define the country you love as only including like minded people, and unpatriotic to include the whole country, agree and disagree. Nice.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:24 pm |
  15. fastball

    Don't be pious on Sundays – and then forget everything for the other 6 days of the week.
    These 1-day-a-week holy rollers really get to me.
    I mean, most of the rollers get to me anyways...but don't be two-faced about it.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:13 pm |
  16. Rev. Mark Barber

    Some of the attacks on Christians here are as vicious and show how intolerant and narrow minded they are. One should consider whether when pointing a finger at another group that you don't have four pointing back at yourself. Or as Jesus put it: "why do you take notice of the splinter in your brother's eye when there is a beam in your own eye. You hypocrite! First take the beam out of your own eye and you will be able to see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother's".

    As far a critical thinking is concerned, nothing is more damaging to critical thinking than the new political correctness. The problem is people, not religion. You can get rid of all religion and you will still have people. As the atheist Sartye noticed in his writing: "Hell is people".

    July 7, 2013 at 1:10 pm |
    • Daremonai

      There are jerks in all groups, but to be fair, the burden of behaving better is generally on the shoulders of the stronger group. Christians hold a huge amount of power in this country, and them being nasty holds far more real world consequences then other groups. It may be hypocritical for other groups to stereotype or be vicious, but the impact of their words is so much smaller since they have so little to back them up with.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:27 pm |
  17. Adam2Jesus

    One one, we suffer on earth because of our own sins and because of the evil one known as Satan, Lucifer, and the Devil. There is a spiritual war and we can decide which side of the war to be on. If you decide to be on the "anything goes", "let's sin if we want to" side (thinking of Miley Cyrus), then you can't complain about disease, calamity and pain, financial hardship etc. For you make your choice to strengthen what is bad and evil in this world, or to strengthen what is good. When we sin, it separates us from God and his protections. When we reject God and tell him we want a "pagan King", a man to rule over us, he gives us what we ask for. So if you want something better in this life, you need to look to the one who can give it. Be faithful and obedient in God. For by that you will save your own soul, even though much else in the world falls into condemnation.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
    • Richard Cranium

      I looked for this god of yours for decades. He either does not exist, or he ignored me entirely.
      What I did find instead was where and how the bible came to be, the srtories that came before that were melded into the bible, the sections of the bible that were in it, and then were edited out, and the many, many other beliefs that have just as much credibility...which is none.
      There is no reason to believe the stories of your man-god-spirit creature. As a matter of fact, you must ignore logic and reason to believe, otherwise faith would not be necessary.

      Try joining us in reality instead.

      July 7, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
    • One one

      So, are you saying no one in heaven sins ? How can that be ? How ever it happens, god should be able to make it happen on earth just as he has done in heaven. After all, he can do anything right ?

      July 7, 2013 at 1:18 pm |
    • D

      Please! Leave that fantasy world you live in and come live with the rest of us in reality!

      July 7, 2013 at 1:32 pm |
  18. Andrew

    Pointing out your nation's faults does not make you un-patriotic. How is a nation supposed to fix itself if it's people don't point out what's wrong? Blind faith in something, anything, is a bad thing. That's how fanatics or dictatorships are made.

    However, I think to run around claiming you're"un-patriotic" is idiotic. Just an excuse to get attention for yourself.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  19. mark

    I have never and will never trust/take seriously anyone with serious religious beliefs that bring it into anything other than their own personal life. Keep it to yourself and I have no problem with you or your ridiculous ideas. Attempt to force them on me or anyone else and we have a very serious problem.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm |
  20. boofer

    I never thought I would say this, but this Christian group actually sounds semi-reasonable and realistic.

    That statistic of 80% of white evangelicals that think America is a gift from god really tells the story of how screwed we are if we listen to those lunatics.

    July 7, 2013 at 1:00 pm |
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About this blog

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.