When I was growing up, I worshiped in a newly planted and growing church. Our congregation was composed of a healthy mix of political and ideological views, but the issue of how patriotic our church was or if we should back certain political issues or candidates was never a concern. My family, a bunch of bleeding-heart radical progressives, were just as welcome as the rigid conservative libertarians in the congregation; in fact, they were our good friends. Church ministries, committees, and fellowship groups were diverse in political values, which didn’t seem to matter that much in our community. Because we didn’t inherit a building or have members who had been a part of the congregation for their entire lives, we were able to define our own traditions and be more intentional about what we included in the worship space. We did not have an American flag in the sanctuary.
After I left Texas (that’s right, there’s a flagless church in TEXAS. Pick your jaws up off the ground.), I was actually shocked to see how many churches, even those that professed to be progressive, kept the American flag in the front of the sanctuary. These flags are often backdrop to the table, the font, and can be perilously close to the cross. Having such a politically charged symbol of nationalism threatens the separation of church and state that defines our country and can serve as silent support for controversial state policies. The pastors and younger members of these congregations may not wish for Old Glory to reside in this sacred space, but are unable or unwilling to challenge a tradition that began in the 1940s and 1950s—a time when Christianity and American Patriotism went hand and hand. I would also venture to say that in the months following 9/11, the presence of the flag in churches was probably comforting to congregations. I know from many conversations that the families of fallen soldiers have also found its presence healing in their grief.
So, like most issues facing the church, the question of flags in the sanctuary is complicated. I credit the kind of politically diverse community of my childhood church partly to the decision not to place the flag in the sanctuary; there was no constant reminder of deeply entrenched differences between congregants that could trigger conflict. In my travels abroad, I have only seen flags in churches whose communities are actively involved in political conflict. Even in cultures that value public displays of religious identity, there are no flags in places of worship. I do believe that the church is an important political force in our nation, a power that we have yet to fully live into. The problem is that we’ve conflated Patriotism with Nationalism. The presence or absence of a flag in the sanctuary has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not the church believes in American values and or supports the democratic process that makes our country great, but it does communicate an allegiance the church has no business giving except to God.
July 4th Sunday doesn’t have to be defined by stars and stripes or a rendition of “God Bless America” or “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” I can’t think of a better time to retire the flag from the sanctuary and to reaffirm the Church’s Patriotism. Let us pray for America, but also for all the other members of our global community. Let us take pride in the fact that we live in a country that affirms our freedom to worship God as we see fit along with our Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and Atheist brothers and sisters. Let us celebrate that our faith traditions have helped our country bend the arc of history towards justice. Let us remember those who have fought and died for freedom on the battlefield and in the streets. Let us remember to render unto our nation what is appropriate, but give our glory and our allegiance to the God of the whole world.