The last Sunday in June and/or first Sunday in July is one of the several Sundays through the year when, in the US, many churches have to wrestle with the pressure to sing national or patriotic songs in the worship service. Some embrace it whole-heartedly, happily singing the praises of our great nation. Others forbid it full stop; save the love of country for civil and secular ceremonies, let the Church be the Church. But if you and your congregation stand somewhere in between, you need a set of principles by which to decide what to allow, and what not.
We have to discern between hymns and spiritual songs on the one hand and national and patriotic songs on the other. Church music is always sung to or about God. They’re usually explicitly Christian, naming Jesus, or Christ, or the Trinity (if a song just says “Lord” or “God” that could be too generic, reduced to a theological least-common-denominator that could be sung just as happily by non-Christian religious adherents). Patriotic music, similarly, is always sung to or about the country. If you’re going to sing patriotic music in church, you have to make sure that it is still also church music, you have to find the overlap between church & patriotic music.
A number of hymnals have patriotic music, which may make this discernment process easier, depending upon how much confidence you place in the hymnal’s compilers.
Another approach, recognizing the fact that the Church spans all countries and ages, is to make a point of singing national songs that are neutral about what country they refer to, and therefore could be sung by any Christian in any country. This thought also takes into account the possibility of visitors from other countries, and also accounts for the principle of common prayer and worship – that we should not pray or sing things that alienate one part of the Body of Christ from another part. This stricter criterion would rule out songs like O Canada and America the beautiful and God save the Queen.
Now for a few specific examples to help you think through what you want or don’t want happening in your congregation.
My country, ’tis of thee
The last verse of this song is a prayer to God, recognizing him as the “Author of liberty,” which is a point in this song’s favor. But everything else about it is open to potential trouble: expressing love for one’s country is not necessarily an idolatry, but its language of love is basically the same as how many psalms and songs address Jesus, which can suggest an idolatrous form nationalism (or support an idolatry already present). The other big problem here is that “Great God our King” is so very generic. Almost any monotheistic religion on the planet could sing this with integrity, there’s nothing specifically Christian about it.
The Star-spangled Banner
Like the previous, the last (second) verse mentions God, but in a cursory manner almost to the point of meaninglessness. As this is the official national anthem in the US, this really belongs in civic ceremonies, not a worship service. The Church is here to lift high the cross, not declare on behalf of America “then conquer we must, when our cause it is just” (verse 2).
O God of earth and altar
Although not usually printed in the “National Hymns” section of hymnals, this is a strong, even jarring, prayer for one’s country. It doesn’t name its country, which makes it handy for whatever country you’re in. The universal dominion of God makes it a good choice for national observances, though not everyone will necessarily appreciate its somewhat penitential tone.
God bless our native land
This is a good hymn for national days: it’s explicitly a prayer for the country, doesn’t name the country so it can be shared by all Christians, and still acknowledges the “one family The wide world o’er” (verse 3). It’s set to the same tune as “My country ’tis of thee” and “God save the Queen,” so it feels patriotic, even though the words aren’t the popularly known lyrics.
O beautiful for spacious skies
I have vague memories of singing this song in elementary school and wondering what “beautiful forspacious skies” look like. Childhood misunderstandings aside, this song is a little tricky to understand: “God shed his grace on thee” sounds like it’s past tense, and therefore a praise for the country which not all may see in the same way. But if you finish the verse “and crown thy good with brotherhood…” you find that the verb form is not past/preterite but imperative: it’s a request, a prayer, that God would shed his grace and crown with good. Verse two potentially runs into the danger of confounding national heroes with saints, and verse three can be a bit unclear distinguishing America from the heavenly Jerusalem, so those are some cautions before appointing or allowing this song in church.