Sometime when I was in seminary, I first heard the term “civil religion” and started to understand that some people had a problem with the American flag in a church sanctuary. The flag- and its companion, the “Christian” flag- have been in every church sanctuary I’ve ever been in, and both flags are in the chapel where I lead worship today.
Where I live today, it wouldn’t surprise me at all if there are churches with the Confederate flag in the sanctuary.
In the culture where I live, a pastor of a typical church who removed the flag would be fired. A pastor who started a process aimed at removing the flag would be starting a process to find another job. Removing the flag would be seen as something like a declaration of atheism or endorsing Al-Queda. Or both. Multiplied. By 10.
One of the reasons I like Shakespeare is that he had the ability to see all points of view with some kind of sympathy. I think I’m a bit like that, for better or worse, and if applied to the flag-in-church issue, it comes out something like this in the minds of those who want the flag displayed in church sanctuaries.
1) We’re grateful for the right to worship freely in this country, so we display the flag as a way to say we’re appreciative of that right.
2) We don’t worship the flag, and it’s rare that you would see any reference to our salute/pledge at all. You could come to 99% of the worship services in any church and the flag would receive absolutely no attention.
3) If the government is wrong on an issue like abortion or if it attempted to restrict our ability to speak out against homosexuality, we would quickly say the state is wrong and the Kingdom of God is right. In other words, the presence of the flag doesn’t assume that the state holds a higher authority for us than the Bible.
4) Nor does the flag’s presence assume we all support the policies of the government. There are many churches that display the flag, but many of the members believe the war in Iraq is wrong.
5) Don’t assume that the flag means we see ourselves as citizens of the nation rather than as citizens of the Kingdom. This may be confusing to someone from another culture, but it wouldn’t be if they asked for an explanation. We are clear on this.
6) The Bible tells us to be good citizens and to show proper respect to government, and that is all the presence of the flag does. Tha’s good, especially for children.
Because this is the usual approach to the flag issue among the Christians I know, I don’t suffer under a great need to see the flag removed. It could be a lot worse, and it probably is in some minds, but of all the hills a pastor has to die on, I wouldn’t recommend this one.
But there are times that I have problems.
For example, at some public ceremonies in church or the chapel, the flags lead in a procession. This would include things like graduations and Vacation Bible School If you don’t know what that is, I don’t think I can help you.
When the American flag is brought in leading that procession, with the Christian flag behind it, there is a problem. At a church I recently spoke at,the flagpole in front of the church had both flags flying, with the American flag on top. Problem, at least in terms of what the symbols are saying.
Flag etiquette is clear that this is proper, but for Christians, it is symbolically blasphemous. In fact, when the flag is used in any way other than as a passive part of sanctuary decoration, symbolic contradictions almost always emerge. Pledges, salutes and so forth are close to acts of “veneration.” (Those who criticize Catholics for bowing, etc. to statues might want to take pause and thing about the parallels.)
Another problem arises with the fact that, even when simply passively present, the flag identifies the congregation with the nation of America in a way that, at least visually, takes clear precedence over other loyalties. My Chinese friends, who understand patriotic symbolism very well from their culture, would never look at the flag and assume that its presence means Jesus is Lord and America is not. It will appear to them that the claims made in the church all happen under the permission and watchful eye of the state.
That’s the wrong message.
In actual fact, there are so many abuses of the flag by “God and Country” zealots, that ordinary Christians who don’t share those fanatical sympathies look as if they agree with all the inflamed rhetoric of the flag wavers.
In good conscience, leaders of churches should at least move the flags out of the main worship space. They can be respectfully be displayed in other places in a church facility if members of the congregation feel it is important to show proper respect and gratitude. The use of the flag in symbolic superiority to the “Christian” flag and the Bible should never happen. (In fact, what is the “Christian flag” anyway?” Get rid of it as well.)
As I said, in most rural American cultures, this is a deep generational issues that goes all kinds of emotional and sub-rational places no one really wants to visit. But it is an adventure in evangelical symbolism, and it can provide an important moment to say that symbols convey a message. Our message should always be Jesus Christ: King and Lord, with no competition from any other loyalty.