Sunday, August 8, 2010


This is a true story.

It was the early 1960s, and the American flag stood off in the corner of the sanctuary of the church I served. One morning the custodian reported that the flag, because of its severe age, had become tattered and worn beyond repair. The senior pastor (I was the assistant at the time) told the custodian to dispose of it according to the flag code, and so it was burned.

“I never liked having the American flag there,” the senior pastor said. “It really doesn’t belong in the church.” And so it came to pass that the American flag was not replaced. This elicited not one comment, positive or negative.

Shift the scene to the height of the Viet Nam War six or more years later, when I am senior pastor. Along with my associate, I’ve been outspoken against the war. Now someone notices there is no American flag in the sanctuary, which must mean that the pastors had it removed in protest of American policy.

Lengthy conversations ensue among elders and pastors and parishioners about the flag. The session says no flag, some vocal members say yes, the American flag. And after a while, the session relents and orders two flags, one American and one Christian, directing that they be placed in the sanctuary with the Christian flag in the place of honor over the American flag. That elicited even more strident comments with implications that church leaders were communist or at the very best “pink.” The flags nevertheless remained in that arrangement.

Now, I tell this story to illustrate the problem with the national flag in the sanctuary and why I agree heartily with the senior pastor’s wisdom almost half a century ago. The American flag does not belong in a church’s place of worship.

There are, however, people of strong conscience and good will who would support the display of the American flag in American churches. They remind us how grateful we should be to live in a country which provides and protects freedom of worship. The Stars and Stripes in our sanctuary is but a friendly reminder of that fact. Without the freedom guaranteed in this country, our ability to worship freely could and probably would be severely curtailed. So it is only a proper show of appreciation.

The argument is, I think, a feeble one. Christians have found themselves time and again in countries with uncaring and even hostile rulers, subject to discrimination and vicious persecution. Yet they still managed to worship God in spite of no support from government.

The other point is that it is difficult to see Old Glory displayed in a sanctuary without thinking politically (in the worst sense of the word). Just as the church members during the Viet Nam War read the absence of the American flag as something nefarious, and wanted it put back to show support for a governmental foreign policy, the symbolism of the flag speaks of national virtues, not Christian ones.

Balancing the American flag with the Christian flag (a red cross on the blue corner of a white flag) does not help. The Christian flag was invented by a Sunday school teacher, using the red-white-blue of the Stars and Stripes in his design of a banner to provide symmetry in the sanctuary. It may do that, but it perpetuates, and in a way blesses, the use of the American flag, and adds little more.

The real problem with the display of the American flag in a Christian place of worship is that it becomes a symbol competing with other liturgical symbols. It speaks of another loyalty that sometimes conflicts with the Christian’s highest loyalty to God. Liturgically, nothing should be in the worship space that competes with or distracts from the whole hearted worship of Almighty God.

This does not mean that Christians should not express loyalty to our country and show patriotism. Of course we should. At the same time loyalty and patriotism do not require universal and eternal consent—dissent built on Christian foundations can be truly patriotic.

So let’s get the flags out of the sanctuary—both of them. Use the space for symbols that speak of God’s grace and love shown in Jesus Christ.

Do you have an American flag in your place of worship? A Christian flag? What do you think, should they be there?


  1. Dear Don,

    Thank you for another fine post. Here is one from the Sojourners blog.

    Blessings on you, your family and your ministry.

    Grace and Peace,

    Flag vs. Font: Pledging Our Allegiance

    by Debra Dean Murphy 07-07-2010

    “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” (The Book of Common Prayer)
    “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands … ” (The Pledge of Allegiance)

    When we enter into the worship of the triune God, we give witness to the truth that we are citizens of a commonwealth wider than that of the nation of our birth. We are, as members of the body of Christ across time and space, Christians without borders. We pledge allegiance not to any earthly power or principality but to the sovereign God of the universe. In the liturgy we enact a story of salvation that subsumes all other stories. In baptism we are granted a new identity that transcends all other identity markers. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer insisted, “Those who are baptized no longer belong to the world, no longer serve the world, and are no longer subject to it. They belong to Christ alone, and relate to the world only through Christ.”

    In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, a renewed nostalgia for the pledge of allegiance and the American flag emerged in the culture at large and in churches across the country. These were potent symbols around which Americans could unite in their sorrow in spaces both secular and sacred.

    In the post-9/11 context of American Christianity, a kind of hyperpatriotism continues to be evident in worshiping communities across the theological and liturgical spectra, revealing, at best, a deep confusion about the relationship between church and nation and, at worst, a willingness to set aside the church’s historic confession that Jesus — not Caesar — is Lord.

    Nationalism in the years since World War II has come to be linked ever more closely with consumer capitalism. Citizenship in the modern Western nation-state is predicated less on the cultivation of a virtuous populace and more on ensuring access to the market and the (endless) creation of capital. The market, in short, has become the template for the citizen’s relationship with the state.

    Insofar as the church in America has willingly (though at times unwittingly) underwritten the doctrine of the consumer-citizen and encouraged an idolatrous devotion to the nation, it has betrayed its distinctive, baptismally-derived witness as a politics in its own right.

    Baptism initiates us into a community whose mission is to communicate to the world a “deep vision of the extravagant splendor of God” (Marva Dawn). Our task is to witness to this God and not any other god. The god who presides over American civil piety, as acknowledged in the pledge of allegiance, is a vague and nebulous deity — a cipher, really, whose content can be determined by the parochial interests of a nation determined to guard its own power and interests.

    By contrast, the triune God in whose name we are baptized is a God made known through the people of Israel; in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth; and in the ongoing mission of the church. This God seeks to renew and restore the whole created order, not to preserve powerful republics. This God calls us to a life lived after the pattern of Jesus, and through baptism our lives are united with his and are offered back to us as gifts so that we might become conduits of the love, mercy, and justice that is the Trinitarian life of God.

    Debra Dean Murphy is assistant professor of religion at West Virginia Wesleyan College. She blogs at Intersections: Thoughts on Religion, Culture and Politics and at

  2. No Other Gods: Why national flags don't belong in church.
    By Celeste Kennel-Shank

    When I first heard the announcement to rise for “the presentation of the colors,” I didn’t understand what that was. We were getting ready to begin a worship service for Christian journalists attending the annual meeting of the Associated Church Press, and we were anticipating the arrival of the speaker, retired Rear Adm. Barry Black, chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

    I had previously seen color guards in secular settings, but had not heard that name for the display. And I had never seen a procession with the U.S. flag in church before. I certainly wasn’t expecting four uniformed members of the military, two with U.S. flags and two with rifles, to come in the door and process to the front of the church.
    During the presentation of the guns and flags, one person walked out in protest. Others said afterward that, even though they stood during the presentation of the colors, the display made them uncomfortable or offended them. After I saw what the presentation involved, I sat down, closed my eyes, and prayed. I prayed for each person in the sanctuary, especially for the four members of the armed services, and for the United States. When I opened my eyes, the men and woman bearing flags and rifles were processing out of the church.
    I sat because I didn’t want to participate in revering these national symbols—especially in a church sanctuary, where God alone is to be given glory and honor. The addition of rifles to the flags especially emphasized military might. Yet even without guns, to present a U.S. flag during worship—or to have it hanging in the sanctuary—shows devotion to country in a place dedicated to devotion to God. As Jesus said in a different context, no one can serve two masters.
    In a nation where many gods vie for our allegiance, we should be clear about which one we serve. During Communion, often in the front of a sanctuary, we remember a Christ who allowed his body to be broken and blood to be shed rather than raise arms against his enemies. To exalt a national symbol in that same space is to challenge the lordship of Christ.
    There’s nothing wrong with loving one’s country, in the sense of appreciating the good in its people and the beauty in its landscape. Yet rather than displaying a national flag in church, we show that love more appropriately when we feed the hungry, tend the sick, and care for creation.
    Even using the U.S. flag as a symbol of the highest ideals of the United States muddies our theological and political declarations. Many citizens of this country—including, of course, many Christians—are in stark disagreement on what the flag means and what our nation’s highest ideals actually are.
    Christians should be clear that to love a country is not the same as to honor its government or military, represented by the national flag. In Romans 13, Paul writes, “there is no authority except from God”—which doesn’t necessarily mean “authorities” always do God’s work in the world. (Jesus’ comment to Pontius Pilate in John 19 is related: "You would have no authority over me, unless it had been given you from above.”) Governments can be good or bad, or both, but they are not holy. The U.S. government, which through the Constitution allows more freedom of religious expression than do most governments, is still a human institution. We should not confuse what we are to render to Caesar with the complete reverence and submission we owe to God.
    God alone is holy and deserves our undivided allegiance. When we gather as Christians, we join our voices in praise and lament with our brothers and sisters in every nation, under every kind of government. Let’s not confuse or forget whom we are worshipping when we come before our God.

    Celeste Kennel-Shank is a Sojourners contributing writer.
    Sojourners Magazine, August 2010 (Vol. 39, No. 8, pp. 10). Commentary.

  3. Three more thoughts:

    1) Maybe we should add to the list of interim pastors' list of tasks to include the removal of flags from the sanctuary. An installed pastor's removal of the flags might lead to their being removed. :-)

    2) My wife's college chapel had a creative alternative-- sometimes it is easier to add things than remove them. They have the UN flag next to the American flag on one side and the UMC flag next to the Christian flag. An alternative to the UN flag could be the earth flag.

    3) Christ the King might be a good Sunday to discuss this topic. Carolyn's hymn, "Our Lord, You Stood in Pilate's Hall," offers a good contrast between our Lord and other rulers.

  4. I never knew those stories, I was a kid when the whole war thing was going on. I agree, though, the flag has no place in church. We are supposed to be bigger than any one country. It also seems to me that if we want separation of church and state to work for us (that is for the state to not tell us how to worship) we should strive to maintain that separation by not using the church to promote the government, however wonderful and supportive it may be.

  5. I have made my comment in chapter 1 of my book, 'The Great AMEN of the Great I-AM'. Although I understand the need to keep separated the Church from the Nation, once that need is met then I believe it is a part of what freedom is for the Church to declare its commitment to the authority of the State in her life among the nations. The beauty of freedom is that it overcomes the deep splits inherent in our culture's understanding of our society and laws. Freedom must function both as to the separation and the integration of the one with the other, if things like Nazi-isms are not to occur.

    Dr. John McKenna

  6. Thank you, Don, for sharing your story, and for your stand against war. After Sept. 11, as a guest preacher, I regularly invited congregations to remember we are citizens of the Kingdom of God first, and of the United States second, so we dare not pray only for "our own (people, nation- you name it)." For that reason- that we are citizens of the KOG first- I don't believe we ought to have an American flag in the sanctuary. I think doing so gives the impression of nationalism rather than patriotism. And I concur that dissent with our country's involvement in war can be very patriotic.

    That said, I find it difficult to remove the flag from the sanctuary (it would be easier never to have placed it there in the first place!). I regularly ask myself whether that's a point of contention that I want to take on, when there's so much more work to be done. I also don't know how much/for how long a person needs to have credibility before doing so.

    Thanks for raising the question!

  7. There really is no Christian agenda other than anti-government sentiment, no matter whether we say we're children of God by Baptism, not Americans. Isn't "In God We Trust" on our currency even?
    Removing flags is a way of stirring things up rather than (middle-of-the- road) tolerance and discussion between two (seemingly) at- odds camps.
    I can indeed have allegiances to my country and to my God at the same time.

  8. Thanks for your comment, JB. I also have allegiances to my country and to my God at the same time, but I recognize that they are different intensity, and where they conflict, my allegiance to God outranks the one to country. If I see them as evenly balanced, then country becomes a competitive god (small "g") aspiring to be the God (large "G"). I think it's best to be clear about this up front, instead of drifting along with the ambiguity of simultaneous ultimate allegiances.
    Thanks again for your comment.

  9. Exactly. Remembering that I grew up with "better red than dead" argument of the '60s too...
    It's not something to be confronted unless the occasion arises.


Thanks for joining in the conversation!