American Flags in the Sanctuary

 
As a grammar, middle and high school student in the 1950s and 60s, pledging allegiance to the American flag was as much a morning tradition as brushing my teeth. Every student was expected to participate. This was not a problem, because I was happy to do so. With millions of other students throughout the nation, I placed my hand over my heart and was proud to publicly affirm my allegiance to the nation I loved and respected.

The flag also occupied a prominent position in the Protestant church which I attended with my family on Sunday mornings. As was the custom in most American churches of the time, the flag was placed in the chancel or sanctuary, sometimes besides the altar.

The American flag, however, has not always been a fixture in American sanctuaries. When it was introduced, it came for reasons specific to historic moments. For example, American history scholars agree that flags became more common in American churches during World War I. Those who refused to place flags in their sanctuaries were accused of being pro-German. In the 1910s, Klansmen donated flags to southern churches and insisted that they be displayed in sanctuaries. During World War II and the fervent anti-communism of the 1950s, the failure to display flags in sanctuaries was considered un-American.

The presence of the American flag in church sanctuaries has annoyed Texas-born and raised Duke University Professor Emeritus Stanley Hauerwas for most of his adult life. As a noted commentator on religion and politics, Hauerwas often says things that shock people, especially his fellow Christians. For example, in an address at Princeton Theological Seminary to Youth Ministers, he startled the young adults gathered before him by asking them to consider the implications of flags in sanctuaries: “How many of you worship in a church with an American flag? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt. How many worship in a church in which the Fourth of July is celebrated? I am sorry to tell you your salvation is in doubt.”

That’s not the kind of comment meant to win friends and influence people. I imagine some walked out in anger. That’s probably what would happen in most churches today if the pastor suggested that the flag be removed from the sanctuary. I can imagine what he/she might be told: “We’re Americans. We’ll display the flag and sing patriotic songs as long as we wish to. And if you disagree, you can find another congregation to pay your bills.” Clergy know that this is a third rail, a hot potato, not to be touched unless one wants to incinerate one’s career.

But perhaps what worries Hauerwas the most is his conclusion that through the centuries, Americans have come to accept the proposition that there is no dissonance between loyalty to one’s nation and loyalty to one’s faith, as if national identity and Christian identity were in perfect harmony. As if there were no difference between the goals and policies of Empire and the purpose and mission of the Church.

When Christians consult their sacred scriptures and traditions, however, it becomes obvious that they can’t have it both ways. From the Ten Commandments to the sayings of Jesus, the bible is clear that there is only one entity to which the faithful may pledge their ultimate allegiance: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and of Jesus. Faithful people are prohibited from pledging their allegiance to both a nation (as symbolized by a flag) and to God (as symbolized, for Christians, by the Cross). “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other”. (Matthew 6:24)

At some point in every Christian life, a decision must be made between serving God through Christ and serving the state. Christians cannot do both. When churches bring the American flag into the sanctuary, they risk forgetting that Christians cannot be Americans first, nor even equal parts Christian and American, but must put God ahead of everything. We should never assume that being a good Christian is compatible with being a good American.

Whom shall we serve? That’s the question with which every Christian community must wrestle. Shall we pledge ultimate allegiance to the Lord of American Civil Religion and place its primary symbol in our sanctuaries? Or to the inclusive and universal Christ who alone deserves our ultimate loyalty and trust. To worship at the altar of the God who suffered at the hands of the Roman Empire or at the altar of American nationalism?

When the Church allows its sanctuaries to be used by the state to display its most important secular symbol, it has lost its way. For the Church to be the authentic representation of the Universal Prince of Peace it must never allow patriotic symbolism, no matter how well intentioned, to intrude on the worship of God. To do so is nothing less than idolatrous.

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