(Lack of) Patriotism in the International Church

The Sunday after 9/11 my English Ward sang the American national anthem in a show of solidarity with our American friends. This was an entirely appropriate gesture; after all, the Queen had ordered the same at Buckingham Palace that week.

It may surprise you to hear that I have never heard the British national anthem sung at an LDS church in England. Once we sang God Save The King: I protested that it was a bit silly singing “King” when we had a “Queen” but was told that the last song in the Hymnbook referred not to the British monarch, but to Jesus. Total rubbish.

I have, however, heard America the Beautiful sung, and the Battle Hymn of the Republic is a favourite in England. (The “Republic” referred to is, of course, um, well, the French republic?)

One might have expected some kind of patriotic show here in England this Sunday. After all, the rest of the nation is mourning the London bomb victims and a sensible (i.e. not nationalistic) show of patriotism would be both comforting and entirely appropriate. Sunday was also a day of commemoration for the end of World War II, so the time was ripe, I think, for a small display of Britishness at church.

Well, no. It didn’t happen. No national anthem. Not even any prayers, or minutes of silence for Thursday. One would have thought that nothing had happened this week.

I expected as much, which is why my son and I went to the local cathedral before heading to the LDS church. There was a service of remembrance taking place both for VE/VJ day and for London’s terrorist attacks. It was very moving and I’m glad we went.

Why are British Latter-day Saints so reticent to display any modicum of patriotism at church, or to engage with current events? (I can imagine church after the whole of southern England sinks into the sea, the Queen is assassinated, and Scotland is carried off by aliens: a lesson on genealogy, and talks on keeping the Sabbath holy.)

Is it because:
1. Mormons are not patriotic? No, witness the uber-patriotism of our American brothers and sisters.

2. Britons are not patriotic? Possibly. We are not given to much flag-waving per se, but Sunday was an exception.

3. The Brethren do not approve of British patriotism? Absolutely not. Most of those who ever come to speak here are almost always massively Anglo-philic. Had President Hinckley been in our congregation on Sunday I can imagine that he would have been first to make mention of current events. I remember Hugh Pinnock, the Area President, chastising the Saints at a Stake conference in England for not being more patriotic. He also admonished them to show more respect for the Royal Family. Coming from an American GA this rang true. Had an English leader made the same comments, we would have squirmed in our seats.

4. The show must go on? Maybe. I’ve noticed, even in America, that it takes a lot to get a Ward’s meetings to divert from their usual course. I was in America a year after 9/11 and I was sure someone would mention it in church, but no-one did.

So what’s the deal? I can only think it is this: British LDS are deeply uncomfortable in showing any form of patriotism at church (they are often patriotic at home) because they simply have little or no experience of doing so. In other words, they’ve never done it, so to do it now feels weird. And why have they never done it? Because for years, the only country that has ever been officially and consistently reverenced in the church is the USA.

Whilst we are commanded to be loyal citizens, the rest of us live in the shadow of America/the Promised Land/Zion. Our patriotism, then, seems a little hollow. Why sing God Save the Queen, when we know God damned the King in order to establish the United States, the place of the Restoration, the New Jerusalem?

Our failure as international Mormons to feel comfortable in our own skins and to engage our own communities is unfortunate. I am sad to report that in the United Kingdom on Sunday perhaps the only faith community not to offer prayers for our country were the Latter-day Saints. I imagine there were exceptions, but I doubt that Sunday in my ward was an isolated event. How sad. On days like these I would prefer not feel it necessary to go to another church to seek spiritual support as I’m a proud Mormon who values my own faith community. But I’m also a sentimental old fool, and I like communal acts of faith and patriotism. So if we’re bombed again, you’ll know where to find me: at my Anglican cathedral lighting candles.


  1. In my experience, Latin American LDS congregations are equally reluctant to engage in patriotic displays. No Latin American national anthem or other patriotic song is to be found in the Spanish-language hymnal, so it’s perhaps not a surprise that songs aren’t sung. But many wards seem to have an ongoing debate about the extent to which they should support the USA or their own home countries.

    My favorite instance of this was a fast and testimony meeting in Venezuela in 2002, at the height of the social conflict over president Hugo Chavez. Several members argued that the church liked and supported Chavez. The evidence was that they’d been to the Caracas temple, and the temple session always included a prayer for Chavez. So the church supported him.

    Other members argued that the church opposed Chavez, who had already established a clearly conflictual relationship with the USA. Since the church was restored in the US, church headquarters is in the US, and Zion was to be built within the US, it followed that the USA was God’s chosen country, and Venezuelans should only support pro-USA politicians. One man actually said that Chavez was the best president for Venezuelans ever, but that Mormons couldn’t support him because Mormons’ first political allegiance was to the USA.

    So the point of this rather lengthy comment is to provide parallel evidence for your argument, Ronin. I think you’re probably right about why you didn’t see patriotism at your ward… Probably the same reason I don’t see it at mine.

  2. I side with #4. The status quo of LDS church services is deeply rooted in our minds. We are used to certain things being certain ways, and any variation of that is resisted. I think the only reason that the current level of patriotism in American LDS churches is present is because of tradition. If those songs were not in the hymnbook, and it were not part of our tradition to sing them, I think you would find strong resistance to singing patriotic songs in church, even among the most patriotic.

  3. Weezer1223 says:

    In Ensenada, the Stake has a HUGE Mexican Independence Day Celebration. Kids dress up like like soldiers in the Mexican war of independence, there’s a ton of food and dancing. So, at least there they were pretty big into celebrating partriotic holidays.

  4. The most schizophrenic singing in an LDS worship service I ever encountered was in early July in Cardston, Alberta, my wife’s hometown.

    The service began with our singing “America the Beautiful”, we sang “The Star Spangled Banner” at halftime, and closed with “O Canada.” It’s convenient that Canada Day falls so close to Independence Day, although that just sharpens the distinction between what our patriotic forbears did and the Canucks did not.

    September 11 got (and continues to get, on anniversaries) mention in my ward here, but the nearness of our meetinghouse in Brooklyn to the WTC site perhaps explains that.

    On the other hand, I usually choose a Spanish-language branch to attend on the Sunday nearest the 4th of July so I can avoid the singing of the patriotic songs. (Maybe I’d feel different about this, Ronan, if every ballgame did not include both The Star Spangled Banner, and, since 9/11, God Blees America, when we ought to be singing only about “peanuts and cracker-jack.”

  5. One thing that I have long found interesting is how it seems to me that General Conference seems to happen in a vacuum or bubble, depending on which image you want to use. There is almost never any reference to what is going on in the world, and 99 percent of the talks could have been given at any other General Conference. The main exception has been a few remarks from President Hinckley about terrorism/war and the death of Pope John Paul II.

    To get back to the topic at hand, I admit I am somewhat uneasy about patriotic displays, even the singing of the national anthem (although I do it, if you can call what I do singing). In this country (the USA), patriotism has partly coopted by one political party, and all too often patriotism is equated with support of President Bush (whose leadership, I believe, is a disaster). I do support and love my country, but that’s not the same thing as supporting what it does, but many people around here don’t seem to know the difference. And I’m not opposed to praying for our soldiers, but I also think we should be praying for the peacemakers in our world. For that matter, we should be praying for the terrorists and insurgents too. They need God’s blessings more than we do.

  6. Can it have something to do with the fact that every Mormon is expected to become half an American?

  7. Some of us love our country AND support most of what it does. I spent a lot of my time outside the US including the Near East and from my perspective the US is doing more good in the world than any other country I’m aware of.

    The more time I spend traveling outside the US the more I realize just how great the US government is (comparatively speaking).

  8. When I converted to the church I realized the one sacrafice that would be very difficult. I was raised a United Methodist in Oklahoma (Bible Belt). The only good thing about that church was the music…the 200+ member choir, orchestra, hand bells, etc…and every week! I become LDS and immediately have to tolerate the once a quarter heardache after being put through another attempt from the ward choir.

    Where is the rule that only songs from the hymnal are allowed in meetings. Doesn’t it say somewhere that ‘good’ or ‘appropriate’ music is also permissable? I understand tradition, but some changes might just be necessary. Perhaps it is left up to the Bishops, although I distinctly remember hearing something about Elder Packer taking “Come Thou Fount…” out of the hymnal, which would suggest that song choice is decided much higher up the eclesiastical totem pole.

    I attended a Dallas ward just prior to leaving for the mission and was surprised to hear several songs sung that were not in the hymnal. It was a nice change, but only happened a couple of times.

    Now, when I was in downtown LA serving a mission, I realized that there are various ethnic ways to sing a LDS hymn, thus making the experience different, unique, and without a doubt memorable, but that is perhaps another subject all together.

  9. I realize that the UK is very much different than the continent; however, I have had several European friends, visit during the summers. In Missouri, every other house has a flag in July. My friends, but especially the French, were appalled at such nationalistic fervor. For the continent, at least, I do believe that there is a conscientious movement to suppress nationalistic behaviors. Like I said, I have very little experience with the Brits, but from the news I read, it is not uncommon to sport the Union Jack. So maybe it is simply an affair with monotone?

  10. I recall a Flanders & Swann skit that discusses how other countries have great nationalistic songs, but what does England have . . . “Jerusalem.” That being said, I’ll sing an inspiring version of that hymn to myself this Sunday in honor of a great nation.

    Our ward in NYC had a fireside a few months after 9/11, where a wider variety of music could be shared (than a Sacrament meeting) that was appropriate to the mourning and loss we felt. Maybe you could suggest something similar for your congregation?

    “I will not cease from mental fight,
    Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
    Till we have built Jerusalem
    In England’s green and pleasant land.”

  11. Ronan, I think one of the tragedies of terrorism is that the victim’s become so conflicted about the response. Forgiveness v. revenge v. getting on with things v. grieving v. wanting to be courageous v. being scared. I’ve often wanted to be the person who reacts appropriately in every situation, but I’m usually the opposite. I’m sure that the people who did the music and talks on Sunday in your ward were feeling very conflicted as well…and ended up with what wasn’t a very satisfactory response. Perhaps time will temper the discomfort and British Saints will develop a more comfortable reaction.

    I know this may be of little comfort to you and the Saints in England, but your American brothers and sisters are grieving for you and empathizing with you.

    And now, perhaps an inappropriately amusing story, but it’s a little too precious to pass up: A good friend of mine was asked by her Seminary Teacher to be the class pianist. She didn’t want to do it, but of course wouldn’t turn down a church assignment, so she told the teacher that the only hymn she could play was “God Bless the King.” This was, of course, untrue–she had been playing the piano her whole life precisely so she could play the hymns…just like all of us good little Mormons. Well, the Seminary teacher, wanting to support her talent said that was okay, and they sang “God Save the King” every single morning for the whole school year!!! The funny part is that the teacher never turned the page to figure out that the song “My Country Tis of Thee” was set to the same music. So, if it makes you feel any better, a seminary class in Cache Valley Utah has sung the hymn enough to make up for any lack of interest in it on the other side of the pond. :o)

  12. I’m not a fan of overly patriotic displays in Church, though I don’t mind patriotic hymns in July. On the weekend of the 4th in our ward we sang “America the Beautiful” and “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in Sacrament Meeting. That’s fine.

    I really don’t like singing the national anthem in Church, though. In priesthood meeting on July 3, someone suggested we sing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Without really thinking about it, I blurted out, “That’s not a hymn, it’s the national anthem.” Apparently my one sentence declaration was persuasive, and we sang “Battle Hymn of the Republic” instead.

    All that said, yesterday I found myself thinknig we should sing “God Save the Queen” in order to stand with our British brothers and sisters during a dark hour.

  13. By the way, apropos of Americans sending their condolences to London, see this website: http://www.livejournal.com/community/london_hurts/ –started, as the graphic indicates, by 9/11-ish Americans sending special e-hugs to London. Needless to say, the Londoners quickly ate the well-meaning Yanks for breakfast…

  14. “Why sing God Save the Queen, when we know God damned the King in order to establish the United States………..”

    Wasn’t that King George III, aka “German George”, hardly a Brit? You guys should have done in the royals then and beat the French to it. Now you’re over two hundred years late.

    But seriously, doesn’t the UK church have its own hymn book? I sure hope you’re not using the sad USA hymn book. We don’t even have Amazing Grace. To add insult to the injury, there is one John Newton hymn in the USA book, but it’s a clunker and a half.

  15. The “German George” was George I, king from 1714-27, previously Elector of Hanover. When Queen Anne died, he inherited the throne under the Act of Settlement.

    Steve, how many John Newton hymns do you think the hymnbook needs? There are four in the Episcopal hymnbook. And while I wouldn’t mind having Amazing Grace in the hymnbook, it’s nowhere near the top of my list of favorites. And I would hardly call “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” a “clunker and a half”, although some people think the Haydn setting is hopelessly compromised by its association with the Nazi regime, an opinion I don’t share.

    Incidentally, most Episcopal churches where I have played the organ sing God of Our Fathers whose Almighty Hand on the Sunday closest to July 4. Perhaps because it’s number 78 in the LDS book, and not back in the 330s, I’ve never seen it programmed for July 4 in the wards I’ve attended (except when I did it myself), despite its patriotic text and trumpet fanfares.

  16. john fowles says:

    Ronan, just for your comfort, you should know that in my ward on Sunday (in SLC), people prayed for the British and their country, and for the survivors of the deceased over there.

  17. Many American Mormons confuse patriotism (which somehow becomes support for Republicans and war) with doctrine. MANY July Testimony meetings are filled with people bearing their testimony of their country! It bothers me, but it really bothers my immigrant spouse.

    In my experience in church meetings in the 4 countries on 4 different continents that I have lived in, only Americans regularly bring nationalism into the meetings.

    It does seem appropriate, however, to acknowledge crisis, especially if it happens in your own back yard.

  18. Michelle says:

    not me,

    You don’t really explain how American Mormons confuse patriotism with doctrine.

    Also, it seems completely reasonable to me that people might bear their testimony concerning this country in July, being that it is the anniversary of our Independence, the same independence that allows us to worship our God and even have a testimony meeting in the first place.

    Elder Ballard defines testimony as

    “A testimony is a witness or confirmation of eternal truth impressed upon individual hearts and souls through the Holy Ghost, whose primary ministry is to testify of truth, particularly as it relates to the Father and the Son.”

    The history of this nation, the fact that it is the New Jerusalem, and the fact that prophets have prophesied of the blessedness of this nation make it completely reasonable that many people, citizens and noncitizens, might have received a confirmation of these truths. Why would immigrants be bothered by this?

    It’s important that we don’t confuse politics and personal leanings with self-evident truths — the Church was started in this country for a reason — and we should be thankful for the rights and freedoms that allowed the Restoration to take place.

    Testimonies concerning the divinity of this nation don’t imply or require that other nations are somehow less. It’s not a zero-sum game, people.

    With that said, I’m still looking forward to hearing Steve sing O Canada in sacrament meeting.

  19. Testimonies concerning the divinity of this nation don’t imply or require that other nations are somehow less. It’s not a zero-sum game, people.

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying. I don’t doubt that God had a hand in the formation of this country and our Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, and I am truly grateful for the God-given rights that are recognized here. With the possible exception of Canada, I wouldn’t have chosen to live in any of the other six countries that I have had the privilege of visiting.

    But … just as I don’t agree with some Protestant churches in their “once saved, always saved” doctrine, neither can I accept the view, which some people in the Church appear to hold, that because some aspects of our country came about through inspiration that that means that whatever the United States does now is beneficial for the world. I do not believe in “my country, right or wrong,” nor do I believe true patriotism means that I must put my loyalty to my country over my loyalty to what is good for all of God’s children. I see true patriotism as transcending nationalism.

    If immigrants or non-Americans are offended by what they hear in the Church, it’s because of people who go beyond the doctrine. Yes, the founding of our country and the drafting of our keystone documents did involve a degree of inspiration. But is that reason for us to be arrogant about our country, to say it is the best country on earth? No.

    In fact, somewhat the opposite is true. I believe that because of the above, and because of the material blessings we have received, we have a higher obligation than many other countries do. We have an obligation to seek humility. We have an obligation to set the example of living the ideals behind our Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights.

    Unfortunately, I believe, we as a nation have been arrogant. We should have been the first to ratify the Kyoto accord, not the last major holdout. We should have been the first country to insist that prisoners at Guantanamo be accorded the rights of the Geneva Convention. We should be the country that leads in per capita foreign aid, not the one that falls far behind other major industrialized nations. We should not be the superpower that insists other countries accept international jurisdiction but that be willing to face outside scrutiny. Instead, we have manufactured evidence so that we can take another country to war unnecessarily. I fully understand why people in other countries are offended by what they see as arrogance. I similarly understand why the Church has trouble gaining respect in some country because of its strong American ties.

    I hope this doesn’t sound like an anti-American tirade, because it’s not. I also recognize the greatness of this country as well as basically good and generous nature of the American people. But I believe we can do better.

  20. Well said EricG. We do have a higher responsibility, and wanting America to improve and be more morally consistent does not constitute a lack of patriotism, rather it shows that we want to be true to the founding principles of our country.

  21. Michelle says:

    “[n]either can I accept the view, which some people in the Church appear to hold, that because some aspects of our country came about through inspiration that that means that whatever the United States does now is beneficial for the world. I do not believe in “my country, right or wrong,” nor do I believe true patriotism means that I must put my loyalty to my country over my loyalty to what is good for all of God’s children. I see true patriotism as transcending nationalism.”

    That’s fine – EricG – but it really wasn’t what I was talking about, or what not me clearly stated. I was responding to his attack on people bearing their testimony about this nation, which, given our history, is totally appropriate. I wasn’t responding to a comment about bearing testimonies in church regarding the divinity of the current military actions or declaring the supremacy of this nation from the pulpit.

    In other words, I don’t disagree with you. Being “true to the founding principles of our country” have nothing to do with bearing our tesimony about our country’s divine start (which is what July is all about).

  22. I’m not sure how one “bears a testimony” of a nation: I know that the United States is true??

  23. Well, it really annoyed me that the U.S. warned its citizens to stay away from London in the aftermath of the bombings, at the same time the British government was trying to calm the fears of the Londoners by encouraging people to go back to work and go about their daily lives.

    As far as I’m concerned, this warning was a slap in the face to the British government and its people who have sacrificed much to support the U.S. over the last few years in the fight against terrorism (and whatever it is we’re doing in Iraq).

    God bless all of the brave people in London, and my heart goes out to those who have been affected by this tragedy.

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