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. Trypax

    Jesus' last commandment: "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends." John 15:12-13 How did He love us? So much that he DIED for us even though he was perfectly innocent. Even though it was expected of the Messiah, he did not use violence to overthrow the oppressors. Instead, he died and asked his followers to do the same. He did not ask us to kill. It is pretty clear what Jesus expected of His followers, and they obeyed his command for 300 years. Despite what Mr. Tooley says above, the Church did NOT condone military service before the Council of Nicaea. In fact, Christians were expected to refrain from military service. You don't here about early Christians revolting against Roman rule, but instead of Christian martyrs dying without ever raising an arm in defense. Pacifism seems to have been a deep seated belief of the early Christians; it is most sad that the Church forsook this in exchange for official Roman recognition in 325.

    Furthermore, pacifism doesn't call for the US withdrawal from the world. Quite the contrary, it calls for deep involvement in the world to prevent problems early on, to stamp out the causes of threats before a military response becomes the only apparent option.

    One final thought: Jesus said "Love your neighbor as yourself." how can a Christian soldier say to an opposing soldier, "I love you so much I am going to kill you."? Can such a statement ever make sense?

    July 7, 2013 at 8:19 pm |
    • Ned

      Pax doesn't work so well when people are trying to kill other people on a extremely large scale. It'd be nice if the 'enemy' got that memo.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:24 pm |
    • timverba

      Ned – I think you miss the entire goal of Christianity. The goal is God's heavenly kingdom not man's earthly kingdom. The response of true Christians would be to shield those being killed by negotiating with the perpetrators of such evil acts, and then laying down our lives if need be by standing in front of the bombs and bullets without violent retaliation. It is possible by the examples of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr and Nelson Mandela. I admit it is a difficult response to learn and practice, when we have pride and want, instead of humility and faith as our hearts. Turning the other cheek is a very active response.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:59 pm |
    • Benny

      An invisible, unproven goal that sounds too good to be true is indistinguishable form an imaginary goal, wouldn't you say?

      July 8, 2013 at 12:41 am |
  2. truth

    "And like all of us, my faith journey has had its twists and turns. It hasn't always been a straight line. I have thanked God for the joys of parenthood and Michelle's willingness to put up with me. In the wake of failures and disappointments I've questioned what God had in store for me and been reminded that God's plans for us may not always match our own short-sighted desires.

    "And let me tell you, these past two years, they have deepened my faith. The presidency has a funny way of making a person feel the need to pray. Abe Lincoln said, as many of you know, 'I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.'"
    -Barack Obama

    July 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  3. TrustKnow1

    A shame that so many people are ignorant and bigoted! Jesus practiced peace and refused to support the corrupt ruling government of the time. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) practiced the peaceful teachings of Islam with confrontation to be used as a last resort. The Powers That Be of the NWO are carrying out a bloodthirsty agenda of global domination by means of a policy of Never Ending War! Think more... Follow less... The truth is out there!

    July 7, 2013 at 8:18 pm |
  4. Txjew

    The nations are as a drop in the bucket, as a mote on a scale – Isaiah 40.

    July 7, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • sybaris

      Oh no! He quoted from the Bible! It must be true!

      July 7, 2013 at 8:14 pm |
  5. Frank

    I think that this type of religion is all fine and good. The trouble is that if all Americans followed that thought we would all be speaking german and believing in Norse gods and 1/2 this nation would be under the lash of slavery by the German perfect race.

    July 7, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
    • sybaris

      So we'd be trading one fantasy for another.

      Your point?

      July 7, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  6. Cynthia

    I don't understand Christians – evangelical Christians.
    Most Catholics are alright on this issue – but many evangelical Catholics are beginning to see it the way evangelical Protestants do, as a gesture of unity.

    I don't understand why the anti-earth movement is so important to Evangelical Christians? Why do they allow themselves to be used as platforms for Limbaugh, Palin and O'Reilly to launch tirades against the planet and environmental conservation groups? Why even get involved? Why spend money, time and resources denying that global warming is made much worse by excessive human activities? Why deny that climate change due to extraneous human activities is doing just as much harm as abortion?


    Love not the world neither the things of the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (her).

    July 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
    • sybaris

      Quite simply willful ignorance is the hallmark of religion and the "entertainers" you mentioned.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
  7. Rick

    the greatest threat to the church in america is people who believe that America is the greatest nation in the world.

    July 7, 2013 at 8:09 pm |
    • Cynthia

      IOW, in the tradition of SunTzu's Art of War, your greatest enemy is yourself, your pride, and your refusal to continuously detect and admit faults that should be corrected.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm |
    • Benny

      That would be the GOP and Tea Party bunch who declare that the USA is tops among nations. You know, the same folks who ridicule liberals for pointing out how great largely secular countries outperform us in health care, education and standard of living, correct?

      July 8, 2013 at 12:38 am |
  8. truth

    'Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.' – Mother Teresa

    July 7, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • sybaris

      That's disappointing. You would think MT would have not said something so biased and ignorant

      July 7, 2013 at 8:10 pm |
  9. Austin

    I never really heard about what the menenite thing was about but I am extremely impressed!

    July 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
  10. JM

    It would be nice if more evangelicals actually did what Jesus commanded that His followers do: love and serve others.

    Unfortunately, there seems to be a yee-haw, hate everyone fervor among many so-called 'believers' that is just nuts. They might call it patriotism but I call it trampling on the lives/freedoms of others. Jesus called it not noticing the plank in one's own eye while pointing out the speck in someone else's eye.

    It's astonishing how anti Christ's actual teachings these people can be.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
    • devin

      To a certain extent you are correct, but our (my) short comings have no bearing on the truthfulness of what Christ taught its implications for your life.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:03 pm |
    • sybaris

      Regardless, you don't need religion to be a good person

      July 7, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • JM

      What if God exists?

      July 7, 2013 at 8:13 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      If god exists he doesn't care much about what humans do in his name. Make sense?

      July 7, 2013 at 8:41 pm |
    • Benny

      What if some other god exists, and your doesn't? Personally, considering the number of gods there have been I don't like your odds and, if they're all as jealous as your guy, then they'd likely be more miffed at you for worshipping a rival than me for not.

      July 8, 2013 at 12:34 am |
  11. Hypatia

    Did they figure out they cannot keep hijacking patriotism for their own ends? Or are they all becoming one with Westboro? Whatever the case, they can mourn all they like. The rest of us are thankfully free to enjoy the 4th. And that, I suspect, is what bothers them the most because they cannot seem to do something without getting publicity for it. Kinda like Warren Beatty's observation about Madonna in "Truth or Dare".

    July 7, 2013 at 7:50 pm |
  12. Tim Wenger

    As a Mennonite Canadian, I support the separation of Church and State. I try to be loyal to both, but when the state asks me to do something that goes against my beliefs, like going to war or participating in unjust economic systems, my loyalty ultimately belongs to Jesus Christ, Lord of all.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm |
    • Athy

      So, Tim. How often do talk to your boss?

      July 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Austin

      thank God too. Otherwise we would have a worrisome outlook.

      We need our righteoss King.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Benny

      You actually want to be ruled by an autocrat? Move to Saudi Arabia then.

      July 8, 2013 at 12:31 am |
    • Dippy

      Righteoss? Look that word up in your dictionary. Actually you probably don't own a dictionary, so borrow one. Actually, you may not even know what a dictionary is.

      July 8, 2013 at 1:27 am |
  13. frontgate

    Mennonites are cowards anyway, so who cares what they think.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:46 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      I don't think that these individuals are any more cowardly (statistically) than anyone else in any other group. And I would think that some cowards have much to offer the world even though they do not have the particular virtue of bravery. Some brave people are incredibly dumb, and so they do wrong things without fear, which seems worse than being cowardly to me.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:53 pm |
    • JM

      Jesus turned the other cheek and was led like a lamb to the slaughter. Cowardly?

      July 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Austin

      cpt obvious. very good point. poised and innovative rebuttal.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:00 pm |
    • Benny

      Are lambs led to slaughter particularly brave, or just pathetic?

      July 8, 2013 at 12:29 am |
  14. dadguy

    lode of B S

    July 7, 2013 at 7:42 pm |
  15. oii


    July 7, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
  16. topcat

    evolution seems to be more and more true as we fill in the gaps. therefore genesis was false. so no fruit, snake or original sin. so no need for jesus.

    thank you, love to you all.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Evolution is fact. As genetic mapping provides more and more data, the 'gaps' are being 'filled' with incredible detail. The mystery is now in the fine details, not the general process.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:31 pm |
    • Robert Brown


      What can be demonstrated is that things change over time. What some scientist think, macro evolution for example, hasn't been demonstrated. If that is your reasoning to disregard God, you may want to find another reason, or better yet find a reason to believe in God. Love, peace, hope, & joy to you!

      July 7, 2013 at 7:44 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      "Macroevolution" lol

      Evolution is fact. The genetic information pouring into the picture leaves no room for doubt. You may as well believe you are a brain in a jar, which statistically, is more likely than the theory of evolution being incorrect. The model will be adjusted and tuned over the years, but that will just add greater color and description with greater precision.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • Robert Brown


      Are words like fact, law, & theory interchangeable?

      July 7, 2013 at 7:55 pm |
    • Anom

      Evolution which for decades has claimed that there are several occurrence where species develop out of no known biological lineage. Sounds like creation to me. For me anyone that tries to explain this is only and always will be a theorist and never a scientist. Evolution is just another theory in the realm of science that does the best to explain the universe around us. Like all science we will learn more over time and one day some group of school kids will hear this is what man used to believe (if you can believe it) Enjoy your plum pudding and raisins (theory of atoms) with a side of gravity.(newton's (un)disputed law?).

      July 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • lol??

      Your comment is awaiting moderation.
      Sorry, but Lazarus didn't need it.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • Pixel

      Because certainly the creation story in Genesis just couldn't ever be symbolic, making a spiritual point rather than a scientific one, right? The truth of one does not preclude the truth of the other. Really, it doesn't.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:01 pm |
    • Austin

      evolution is an important topic BUT Jesus and the supernatural faith handed to the son's of God is more important.

      either way, with the human dominance on the globe, politics at hand, the truth or un truth about the resurrection is the single most important question on the face of the earth. if there is no resurrection, humans are the greatest threat to the earth and we need to see a clear solution. no foggy temptations defracting common understanding.

      and I am plased to inform you that I have experienced the supernatural Holy Spirit. and I know for a fact God is in control. and evil is on a crash course.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:05 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      It depends on the purpose of the writing. There is mystery all around us, everywhere. Gravity is amazingly mysterious. Science knows extremely little about the nature of reality. Even if the current popular theories are correct, we still only "know" about maybe 3% or 4% of the universe. We have much to discover, and we know hardly anything at all. But one thing we know almost better than any other idea in existence: the evolution of species. To "not believe" in evolution is similar to "not believing" that pi functions as it does in mathematics. There's too much knowledge to be willfully ignorant on the subject in this day and age.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:06 pm |
    • Cpt. Obvious

      Pixel, that is an interesting idea, but for it to have any real worth it would have to provide a measure of predictability. It is one of our myths, and in that way it tells us about ourselves, but it does not function on any higher level. If the bible were shown to function on a higher level, it would be recognized by someone intelligent enough to make the connections. But if it were the "word of god" these connections would be multiple and various and the book would have proven itself accurate in many ways......I would think. Don't you agree?

      July 7, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  17. Bishop Hairy Palms

    Most Christians are nothing like Christ and would probably crucify him again if he were to ever return from the dead. He won't of course.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:23 pm |
    • JH

      couldnt have said it better myself.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:41 pm |
    • frontgate

      Now that's true.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
    • dfdc


      July 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  18. Saraswati

    A day of self-criticism or mourning seems arguable if not valid, However, there is no reason to remove the celebration of what is good. If people want to establish a second holiday, they should do just that. If you remove all the positives in life there is nothing worth living for. There will never be a perfect time or perfect country. If you wait to celebrate until there is you are dooming yourself to a life of misery.

    July 7, 2013 at 7:04 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      I wonder if black Americans feel the same way towards the 4th of July as white Americans since they were not granted the same freedoms as whites on that day. Thus it would be natural for blacks to see the signing of the 14th amendment (July 9th), as ‘freedom day’ more so than the 4th.

      But I don't recall any black leaders making this point (of course they might feel this way but avoid the topic because of concerns about push back).

      July 7, 2013 at 7:12 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You may as well ask the same about women. After all, women were certainly not equal partners in this freedom. Some may argue that we still aren't.

      However, I am willing to celebrate the 4th, because it brought a new form of representative government to the world. The United States is no longer the best example, but the very fact that the sort of nation "of the people, by the people and for the people" has been embraced by other countries gives me hope that someday this sort government will one day be universal.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:18 pm |
    • jazzguitarman

      tallulah13; valid point about women but they were not listed as partial citizens in the Con st itution.

      I wonder if black communities honor July 9th?

      July 7, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
    • tallulah13

      You would have to ask them, Jazz, or maybe goggle.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
    • frontgate

      How about potbelly white guys who wear camouflage.

      July 7, 2013 at 7:49 pm |
    • Austin

      good comments from Saraswati and Tallulah ,
      just want to add that freedom is a right that only evil takes away. and things are almost to the point where evil in our government is enslaving good people to poverty. it is not an innocent chain of events. and the military is idolized off the charts, and freedom is credited to government.

      this is b.s.

      July 7, 2013 at 8:17 pm |
  19. us_1776

    The paranoid Christians have run the gamut from trying to claim this is a christian country to denouncing the country because of its tolerance of other beliefs.


    July 7, 2013 at 6:51 pm |
    • us_1776

      lol??, please go back to your bunker.


      July 7, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • db

      the only ones lacking tolerance is you!

      July 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm |
  20. rickapolis

    These guys are fine. It's the super religious, super patriot that is most dangerous.

    July 7, 2013 at 6:47 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.