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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Adam Aziz, executive pastor at Metro Tab Church, and members of the church music team sing during a July 4, 2021, celebration at Metro Tab.

Around a dozen people stood in front of the stage at Metro Tab Church on Sunday, each holding a various piece of U.S. currency, from a single cent to a $100 bill.

Steve Ball, lead pastor at Metro Tab, asked each of them to read the words inscribed on the back of the coin or bill.

"In God We Trust," each person repeated.

"This country was established on religious freedom," Ball told the crowd gathered for the July 4 "Freedom Celebration" at the church. "And this country was established on Judeo-Christian principles that we believe in. Somebody paid a price to get there and to keep it there. And now they want to take it off. They're willing to take 'In God We Trust' off our currency. They're willing to stop us from saying the pledge and take God out of the pledge. That's the agenda."

Some churches across the Chattanooga region celebrated Independence Day within their Sunday morning worship services, a tradition around 50 years old in parts of the Christian faith. While those in the congregations and the pastors leading them said the services are a chance to celebrate freedom and thank God for creating a country where people can worship freely, researchers who study evangelicalism said the explicit marrying of church and state are part of the larger culture of Christian nationalism, an ideology under increasing scrutiny.

Current and former members of the military were honored during the Sunday morning service at Metro Tab, along with reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." The screens near the altar showed the American flag and a picture of the Twin Towers. Many in attendance wore outfits that were a collage of red, white and blue.

Tony Doyley, an associate pastor at Metro Tab, said being American gives people the opportunity to celebrate their religion.

"Our country was founded on religious freedom, so it gives us a chance not only to celebrate the freedom we have as a nation, more importantly it gives us the chance to celebrate our freedom in who we believe is our lord and savior, Jesus Christ," Doyley said. "So when we incorporate the two, it's because of him we have the freedom as a nation, it's because of him we have individual freedom so we can celebrate this way."

Abba's House celebrated its "All American Day" on Sunday morning with a piccolo-led band and the history of how Francis Scott Key wrote what would become the national anthem.

Ron Phillips, pastor emeritus at Abba's House, told his church to take the long view at what is happening and what other nations, specifically China and Russia, are doing. For his sermon, Phillips taught from the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk about the need to live by faith.

"Make no mistake about it, if we don't live for the Lord, if we don't do the right thing, he will allow a nation worse than we are to smite us," Phillips said.

Christians need to ask God to move in their lives, he said.

"When you take the long look, we win," Phillips said. "We have hope."

Lauren Kerby, visiting fellow at Princeton University's Center for the Study of Religion and author of "Saving History: How White Evangelicals Tour the Nation's Capital and Redeem a Christian America," said God and country are intertwined in the evangelical tradition to a degree not seen in other Christian traditions and religious groups in the country.

"White evangelicals have a really close relationship to the idea of the United States," Kerby said. "The idea of the separation of church and state is generally rejected, which could mean a variety of things. They really see Christianity as a core part of the nation and their relationship to the nation as a core part of their faith and practice."

Church-led celebrations of the country rose in popularity in evangelical circles in the 1970s as a response to fears the nation was in decline with the rise of gay rights, the legalization of abortion and the desegregation of public schools. At the time, conservative Christians saw their values better reflected in the Republican Party, and groups such as the Moral Majority advocated for greater political participation among Christians.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez, professor of history at Calvin University and author of "Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation," said freedom events at churches are political events, though average churchgoers may not recognize the ways in which political ideology and faith are baked together.

For many, the celebration is viewed as Christianity, Du Mez said, not necessarily an expression of Christian nationalism, an ideology prioritizing Christianity in regulating social life and believing in the superiority of the nation.

"For many people in these communities, this is just part of the air they breathe, this kind of Christian nationalism. So much so that the words 'Christian nationalism' won't necessarily be familiar to them," she said.

However, the researchers said there are themes that run throughout the branch of Christianity and Independence Day-themed services. These include descriptions of history with a particular emphasis on the views of white Christian men that often play a prominent role in white evangelical circles, Kerby said. This history, with the perception that the country was explicitly founded to be a Christian nation, provides a kind of blueprint for contemporary action in hopes of restoring that heritage.

There are expressions about how Christians are being persecuted in America, as well as calls to action to get involved, either politically or in social settings, to promote their flavor of Christianity.

On Sunday, Ball told his congregation they must stand up and fight for what they believe, describing how Christians are in a "war" with Satan and people who want to manipulate others. The pastor said he was shocked over the past 15 months with how people were unaware of "what's going on" with the COVID-19 restrictions.

In April 2020, Metro Tab sued the City of Chattanooga and then-Mayor Andy Berke for COVID-19 restrictions that prohibited drive-in services. The church alleged the restrictions violated First Amendment rights of Christians. Berke dropped the ban the next day and the church dropped its lawsuit later that month.

"There's some folks who have paid the price for our religious freedom, for our spiritual freedom, for us to have business and commerce and to do trade in this country without restraints," Ball said. "Somebody has paid the price, a high price, so we could do what we do. And I believe America is the greatest nation on the planet, don't you? If you don't, go somewhere else. Don't stay here and corrupt what we've got."

Kerby said there is a tension in the evangelical community between the desire to celebrate the nation as an example of Christian prosperity and its perceived Christian heritage, while also professing despair about the ways in which America is rejecting some conservative Christian values.

For example, the celebrations may proclaim America to be the best country in the world despite many in attendance believing America is perpetuating a great social evil by allowing abortion.

The Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, which featured explicit Christian symbols, increased scrutiny on Christian nationalism and how its hypermasculine expressions can be dangerous. Yet, the wider recognition of Christian nationalism, and any criticisms that follow, feed the persecution narrative the faith tradition promotes, Kerby said.

Hank Brown, an assistant at Metro Tab, said his experience as an Air Force veteran showed him the ways in which Christians are attacked in other countries, which is why worshipping in thanks on Sunday, July 4, is important.

"We are going to lift God and then we'll lift America. We're going to lift God first," Brown said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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