For the last year, my wife and I have sent our son at least one day a week to a local church’s preschool program, where they work with him on his shapes, colors, letters, and numbers. At times he even comes home having learned important Bible stories. But at his graduation ceremony two nights ago, I realized he’s picked up a few other things, as well.
During the ceremony, the graduating preschools performed several songs, danced down the aisles, received rewards, recited poetry, and at one point they recited The Pledge of Allegiance together.
On some level, reciting The Pledge of Allegiance probably seems as benign to most people as reciting poetry and singing songs. Most of us grew up saying The Pledge of Allegiance each morning in school, a normal, ehem, liturgical aspect of the day. But when my son, together with his classmates, recited The Pledge of Allegiance together at a Christian preschool, something occurred to me. My son doesn’t know the Apostle’s Creed, but he can recite The Pledge of Allegiance without thinking about it.
This wouldn’t surprise me at all if he’d gone to a secular preschool. It didn’t surprise me when my daughter could say The Pledge of Allegiance after her first week of kindergarten in a public school. It also wouldn’t surprise me in the least if we’d sent him to a Baptist or Pentecostal preschool, as they’re largely non-Creedal denominations. But the preschool my son has attended the last year is part of a mainline Protestant tradition where the Apostle’s Creed is a historic and contemporary part of the church’s liturgy.
Don’t misunderstand me. I am also responsible for my son not knowing the Apostle’s Creed. We pray together and sing praise songs together each night, but I have not taught him the Creed.
Still, watching my son recite The Pledge of Allegiance, I couldn’t help but ask several questions. In what world are we living in where a church feels teaching children The Pledge of Allegiance is more important than teaching them the Apostle’s Creed? Is our nationalism so embedded within our church culture that we don’t even think twice about teaching our children it’s their citizen’s duty to pledge allegiance to America instead of spending the little time we have with them teaching them what kingdom beliefs look like? Why would a church institution think reinforcing nationalism is of higher value than teaching the basic historical beliefs of the church?
By teaching my child to pledge allegiance to America, by teaching him to physically place his hand over his heart (a symbol of allegiance in the deepest part of our being), we assume that our nation ought to be our highest allegiance, well deserving of our praise, and, indeed, our lives. We reinforce the idea so prevalent in American culture that religion is this privatized preference while nationalism is a public debt we all owe.
And while I love my country and the privileges of living in this country, I don’t think the claim that our nation should have our allegiance is beyond question. I don’t think it’s a simple “given” that we should indoctrinate our children with the values and liturgies of the state when they haven’t first learned the political and social resistance offered in the Apostle’s Creed.
I understand we think teaching our children The Pledge of Allegiance is religiously benign. But I don’t think we’ve thought it through (there’s a reason so many people want to keep “under God” in the thing – they see the entire piece as a religious affirmation, while ignoring that the “God” represented by the phrase is ambiguous and lacks definition). Further, we don’t realize that oaths or affirmation of commitment like the Pledge actually form us, shape our character, and even direct our worship.
But maybe most telling of all is that we don’t realize how counter-cultural, anti-imperial, and politically subversive the Apostle’s Creed is. Maybe worst of all is that people are bored with the Apostle’s Creed, while they’re willing to pay millions of dollars to protect the amorphous “under God” in the Pledge. But let me take just a moment to show you how the Apostle’s Creed challenges all human political machinery.
When we say the Apostle’s Creed, we announce to the world that we believe the Almighty Maker of Heaven and Earth, His Son Jesus Christ (a crucified Lord), and the indwelling Holy Spirit who resurrects the dead, is the only One to whom the church owes its ultimate allegiance.
By claiming that the Father created the world, we announce that our nation, our existence, and our freedoms are not ultimately created or sustained human will.
By claiming that Jesus Christ is Lord, we state definitively that he rules us, and therefore no nation, governmental structure, or ruler can demand our allegiance.
By stating that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate, we announce to the world that governmental power and allegiance are always a threat to the Christian faith, and the closer we are tied to that governmental power, the less we are tied to Christ.
By claiming that Jesus resurrected from the dead, we announce to the world that neither death – nor those who wield death – can hold us or demand anything from us, be it our allegiance or our lives.
By claiming that Christ ascended into heaven where he sits at the Father’s right hand, we announce that he, and he alone, is the rightful ruler of the world, and therefore any temporal nation-state, like ours, claiming we owe it allegiance asks something from us which it has no right to ask, and asks from us something we have no right to give to anyone other than Christ.
By claiming that the church is “one,” we announce that the church throughout time and space (that is, geographic location…i.e. nations) is united, not by some abstracted idea of freedom, but by the Holy Spirit who liberates us from the claims of human structures and governments.
We announce in the Creed each week that the church’s primary human allegiances are not with fellow citizens of America, but with brothers and sisters of faith across geo-political boundaries.
By saying we believe in the forgiveness of sins, we do not just state a belief that God has forgiven us, but that God has empowered us to forgive others, including those who live on the other side of the trenches.
In our affirmation of the communion of saints, we assert that we have Holy Spirit empowered connections across cultures, races, political agendas, and national boundaries.
And by stating our belief in eternal life, we maintain that God’s politics and people will out-survive the temporal nation in which we live.
The Apostle’s Creed is nothing short of politically subversive. It challenges The Pledge of Allegiance. And its Triune structure and Christ-centeredness surpasses the oblong blur of a deity represented by the phrase “one nation under God.”
Saying The Pledge of Allegiance is not a Christian virtue or requirement. In fact, I think a case could be made that Christians shouldn’t say it at all (but I’ll not place that rule on everyone). Nevertheless, there’s something amiss in the assumption that it’s more important for a church school to teach my son The Pledge of Allegiance than to teach him the counter-liturgy of the Apostle’s Creed.
I’m not angry as I write these things. But I’m not surprised either. And that’s probably what bothers me most. How are we not surprised when the church feels it’s our job to reinforce nationalist identity? Why do we just automatically assume the two go together? Do we not realize how repugnant this idea would have seemed to Jesus and his earliest followers?
Certainly, some will disagree with me in this post. I’m genuinely okay with that. But I’m not comfortable with an assumed allegiance to a human institution. I’m not okay with the church treating the nation almost like a divine entity. I’m not okay with my kid ingesting nationalist identity without him first having the tools to resist it, challenge it, subvert it, and offer alternatives to it. Clearly, I’ve got some work to do.