Was Robert Jeffress and First Baptist Church Dallas’ “Freedom Sunday” Worship Service Idolatry?

Freedom Sunday worship service at First Baptist of Dallas, June 25, 2017.

Several critics have denounced the “idolatry” of “Freedom Sunday” worship June 25 at First Baptist Church in Dallas, pastored by Robert Jeffress, who prominently campaigned for Donald Trump during last year’s election.

The critics include Messiah College historian John Fea, a United Methodist pastor, and a Presbyterian church music minister. Click their respective links to read their perspectives, each of which is unique, but all are agreed in accusing First Baptist of “idolatry” for venerating America on “Freedom Sunday” a week before July 4.

Watching the video of this service, I confess I cringed when fireworks were literally ignited on the church stage while the choir sang patriotic medleys. As a Methodist traditionalist, I am discomfited by movie screens in sanctuaries, much less the Broadway/Hollywood style of entertainment that seems to influence many megachurches. Personally I prefer liturgy, creeds, venerable hymns sung from hymnals, organ music, robed preachers behind pulpits, reverence and solemnity.

My own worship preferences likely place me in a minority among today’s active Protestants in America. And my worship preferences admittedly are mostly subjective, shaped by my upbringing. But I also think there’s a theological case for a form of worship that is in some continuity with the universal church across time and culture. Yet the megachurches whose flashy style is not my preference no doubt also proclaim the Gospel to millions who would not heed traditional worship.

Worship style for Protestants is debatable. The seriousness of idolatry is not. This allegation against First Baptist by several critics cited literal American flag waving by worshippers, patriotic music, including military service songs and the National Anthem’s first stanza, that don’t mention God, an armed military honor guard presenting the colors, and asking military veterans to stand during their respective service songs.

Per the singing of “God Bless America,” the Presbyterian music director sarcastically blogged: “What better anthem to begin patriotic worship than Jewish/agnostic American composer Irving Berlin’s tribute to that good ol’ unnamed, generic American pseudo-deity?” Julia Ward Howe was a Unitarian, but her “Battle Hymn of the Republic” about Christ’s return appears in the United Methodist Hymnal, among many others, and deservedly so. No doubt other hymn writers are less than personally orthodox, yet their hymns point to God with language in sync with Christian orthodoxy.

More dubious than “God Bless America” in worship are songs that were featured at First Baptist like “It’s a Grand Old Flag” and “This Is My Country,” which are stirring music for civic pageants but don’t point to God. On Sundays close to national holidays, hymns like “America (My Country Tis of Thee)” and “America the Beautiful,” which appear in several denominational hymnals, seem more appropriate thanks to their divine references. “I Vow to Thee My Country” is a beautiful English hymn describing duel loyalties to earthly kingdoms and God’s Kingdom that deserves more American usage.

Per the armed honor guard that presented the colors at First Baptist, it seems in my view likely inappropriate for worship, since it has no traditional role in Christian liturgy, although fine for military funerals or civic events held in churches. Pacifists of course object to any presence of weapons or military regalia in a sanctuary. But mainstream Christianity affirms the military, wielding the sword for legitimate government, and rightly deployed, as God-ordained.

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SOURCE: Juicy Ecumenism
Mark Tooley became president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD) in 2009. He joined IRD in 1994 to found its United Methodist committee (UMAction). He is also editor of IRD’s foreign policy and national security journal, Providence. Follow Mark on Twitter @markdtooley.