I am an American. I am patriotic and I love our nation. I’m fascinated by her people, her history, her struggles as well as her moments of strength and vision.
I am a Christian. My first and greatest allegiance is to God. I am a citizen of the Kingdom of God expressed through the worldwide Christian communion. My worship and ultimate allegiance is, therefore, reserved for Christ alone.
I am a military veteran. I served as a naval officer for 22 years. In uniform, I saluted the national ensign with pride and respect. I display the American flag in front of my home. When it passes by, I stand, remove my hat and place my hand over my heart. The flag is a symbol of the nation I swore to defend.
I am a pastor. I am called by God to lead a congregation of Christian people in worship and to fulfill the mandate of Jesus to “bring good news to the poor … to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.”
All of these describe me. All of these demand that I be clear on the meaning and expression of symbols in a house of worship where I lead people to seek first the Kingdom of God.
Currently, there exists a simmering debate on the matter of expressed patriotism typically evidenced by the display of the American flag within a house of worship.
On the one hand, there are those who contend that there should be no representation of any nation in a church. They have a point. Our faith is not limited or defined by national borders. When we do that, we risk doing violence to the command of Jesus to “go and make disciples of all nations.”
On the other hand, our flag is dear to people. They love the flag with a devotion that frequently blurs into worship. Evidence of this is the way flags are displayed in and around worship sanctuaries.
Often the display of flags in our sanctuaries is incorrect according to historic Christian symbolic expression.
While other symbolic displays are found in our places of worship, both scriptural teaching and the example of Christian tradition dictate that no symbolic expression takes precedence over explicitly Christian symbolism, usually found in the symbol of the cross.
This is explicitly acknowledged in the U.S. Flag Code regarding the single case of worship aboard a ship at sea. A church pennant is actually flown above the “Stars and Stripes” during worship.
This exception is undoubtedly permitted because of First Amendment provisions regarding the “free exercise of religion” and the implicit doctrine of separation of church and state.
Subsequent to the flag code, which was written in 1923, the so-called “Christian flag” became a popular symbolic representation of the faith. This white flag has a blue field in the upper left corner in which is centered a red Latin cross.
It was intended by its creator, and understood by those who display it, to represent Christ and his universal kingdom. Yet, it is typically not given precedence in our houses of worship.
Symbols are meant to communicate, and how flags are placed is intended as a nonspoken message.
Therefore, the American flag is always placed in the most prominent position as a matter of correct precedence, thereby communicating that our country is the ultimate authority and all else is of secondary allegiance.
In every civic display of the flag that is correct, but when it comes to worship it is incorrect.
Because Americans value so highly the free exercise of religion and honor their flag, there must be some way to compromise between two seemingly non-negotiable positions.
I’ve already mentioned the way the Navy has addressed this. Yet, there are clearly broader implications for other venues of worship.
When and how should flags be displayed is a heated debate. I have even heard of a pastor receiving death threats for altering the display of the flag in the sanctuary!
So this matter deserves careful attention if it is to be resolved in workable compromise.
In my congregation, this is how we have dealt with this issue. The flags (both Christian and American) are only displayed upon special occasions, such as Memorial Day, Independence Day and Veteran’s Day.
When that occurs, I insert the following announcement into the bulletin:
The display of flags in our church this morning is to honor our nation and our American commitment to the separation of church and state. While we do display these flags in our fellowship hall, they are not typically on display in our sanctuary. When we do display them, it is to remind us to pray that our nation and her people will find their way to the Cross of Christ, which, as always, is the highest symbol displayed in any Christian gathering.
The United States Navy includes in its official provisions for naval chaplains that “during the Service of Divine Worship led by the chaplain, a triangular pennant of white with a blue Latin Cross is flown at the masthead above the American flag.”
A publication titled “Stars, Stripes and Statues” by the National Flag Foundation states that “No flag or pennant shall be placed above, or if on the same level, to the (speaker’s) right of, the United States flag, except flags flown during church services.”
If the official and/or legal issues about the position of the Christian flag in relationship to the American flag are not quite rigid and fixed, the theological confession that Christ is above all should be without question among Christians. Nothing receives more of our allegiance than Christ – not a country, nor its flag.
Will this approach resolve every tension between our patriotism and our highest devotion to Christ? Probably not, but it can be a good place to begin a healthy conversation that has too long and too often been neglected.
Charles McGathy was commissioned as a naval officer in the Chaplain Corps in 1984 and spent 22 years serving the men and women of the sea services on three continents and at sea. He retired at the rank of commander in 1996 and answered a call to serve as the pastor of First Baptist Church of Madison, N.C.