Why Our Church Doesn't Have An American Flag
A few years ago, I stumbled into the buzzing lobby of a church during July 4th weekend. I was making my way toward a seat in the back as the church orchestra began to play. The wooden pews creaked as the congregation stood to sing “God Bless America.” I cringed. Every element of the service was an ode to patriotism. The choir earnestly sang military anthems as red, white, and blue banners adorned the sanctuary. The sermon was something about honor and courage. This type of church service is still not that uncommon in the U.S. when July 4th nears.
Perhaps more entrenched in our nation’s churches is the American flag that hangs at the front of many sanctuaries year-round. I once heard a story from a good friend whose brother had graduated seminary and was hired as the lead pastor of a church in Florida. During his first month, he decided to remove the flag from the sanctuary and the church board immediately removed him as pastor. There’s no doubt that the American flag is a powerful symbol to Americans for a variety of reasons. I vividly remember when my family received a folded American flag from the United States Navy when my grandfather passed away. I recall the profound sense of patriotism after 9/11 when nearly every house in the neighborhood flew the stars and stripes in their front yards and placed flag stickers on their car bumpers. But despite being a meaningful national symbol, the American flag has no place in a church.
“The KKK stands for two of the greatest gifts that heaven has bestowed, namely the Holy Bible and the American flag…”
— A 1922 letter composed to a Methodist minister by 10 white-robed Klansmen
There's a complicated and troubling history to how American flags became a staple item in our nation’s churches. Many churches began to display American flags during WWI because the flag was a way to test the loyalty of immigrant churches and their pastors to the United States. After D. W. Griffith's film Birth of A Nation, the KKK experienced a 1920’s revival rooted in bigotry toward black and immigrant communities, and they used the American flag as a principal promotional symbol. Their propaganda efforts included visiting churches to distribute Bibles alongside American flags. As the flag and the Bible began to hold hands, more churches incorporated flags into the sanctuary during WWII as a way to honor and remember those fighting in war. Patriotism and Christianity continued to soar in post-WWII America, and in 1954 Eisenhower added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. Churches bought more flags.
“The tacit dominate narrative of our [American] society is military consumerism. It is propelled by greed and anxiety and violence. And that narrative is a lie. It cannot produce life.”
— Walter Brueggemann
Not long after Jesus’ death as his followers were attempting to live the way of their Rabbi, Peter said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality…” Jesus’ ministry days involved teaching good news for the poor, healing those shamed by society, including those excluded by his religion, and loving those considered unlovable. In Acts, Peter realized what was often misunderstood by the disciples: God loves everyone with no distinctions. This is what Paul called a grace that “brings salvation to all people." It's important for us to remember that God’s love is not partisan, American, or anything but sheer grace for people of every ethnicity, nationality, identity, culture, and heritage. Even as we celebrate the 1776 signing of the Declaration of Independence, we must not forget that this document that proclaims "all men are created equal also includes Thomas Jefferson’s terrifying description of native peoples as “merciless Indian savages.” This declaration is a far cry from the words of Genesis that declare “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” God ‘s creative love includes all of humanity, and when churches merge Christianity with nationalism, the messages being sent is that there is some partiality in God. This partial God can easily begin to justify our beliefs, our partisanship, our wars, and our prejudice. After all, Nazi banners were commonly displayed outside or draped over the altars of churches in Germany. In Acts, Peter communicated that Jesus’ inclusive message of love extends to all people. When this kind of Christian faith is embodied, love for all people works to prevent nationalism or any divisive movement whose goal is for one group to hold power or privilege over another. As Christians, it is imperative that we embody Christ’s love and shape our institutions not for power but for generosity and harmony with the vulnerable, marginalized, immigrant, and outcast.
At best, an American flag in a sanctuary symbolizes that the United States occupies a place of high value for a community. At worst, it communicates who and what we really worship as Americans. We do not have an American flag in our church, but we’re not free from the idolatry of nationalism either. I hope that as Christians we will continue to be challenged by God’s radical love and grace that has no boundaries and shows no partiality. And may our spaces of worship communicate the same message.