“When we were kids,” a church member said, “we pledged allegiance to the Bible and the Christian flag.”
Well “we’ didn’t. The look on my face gave away my confusion. “Pledged allegiance to the Bible?” I asked.
“You should know it. It is in the Bible.”
This person was my age and grew up in the county next to the one I am from. The so-called “Christian flag” was familiar to me. But the church in which I was raised did not have them. In fact, the American flag was not displayed in the church auditorium either. The “Pledge of Allegiance’ was said in Boy Scouts and school. And I believed every word of it. But it was not part of my religious upbringing. The American flag was not in the Bible. It was not allowed to be a symbol used in Christian worship. We didn’t use crosses either for that matter.
The distinction between the religious and secular worlds is important to many Christians including my conservative church. If saying the secular “Pledge of Allegiance” was not “scriptural,” then a pledges based on it could not be either.
The Blurred Lines
It is commonplace in the South to see the secular world and evangelical Christianity occupy the same space. Most of my neighbors cannot understand the world in any other way. Others of them are afraid of what separating the sacred and the profane would mean. Would we lose something vitally important to the well-being of the community?
A pro-Trump insurrectionist carry the Christian flag into the Senate Chamber is not surprising. The fear turned violent. It often does. Pledging the right thing to the wrong thing does not improve the wrong thing. Thinking our will and God’s are one and the same is bad enough. But think God’s will and someone else’s are the same is devastating to the community. It should not happen.
Francis Bellamy, the author of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, is also the author of the Pledge of Allegiance to the Bible. Many people know that the historic pledge to the flag did not include the phrase “under God.” Congress included that phrase later.
The Christian flag was designed by Charles Overton and Ralph Diffendorfer in 1907. Overton thought about the significance of having a national flag on the pulpit. A Christian flag would “remind people of all nations and cultures of their allegiance to Christianity.” The flag proved useful on foreign missions. Protestant churches outside of the United States use it frequently.
Overton’s point, like Bellamy’s, was to keep from mixing allegiances. The United States chose to keep church and state separated because of the mixing of allegiances that was practiced in the “Christian monarchies” of Europe. The religious wars of the Reformation made all European wars religious in nature. “God with us,” the battle cry of the Kaiser’s army, fits into the heritage of Constantine’s Cross and the words “by this sign conquer.” The words whose first letters in Latin are IHS are displayed on too many altar crosses today.
Samuel Johnson famously said, “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” He did not mean all patriots are scoundrels. But it is true that scoundrels can learn the right words to make themselves appear patriotic or religious (or both). It is difficult to discern the motives of a person who claims to love you. That individual knows the right words even when not knowing the definition.
The mainline and evangelical churches that have mixed these allegiances for generations set our people up for this fall. Much like my congregant who believed the pledge to the Bible was in the Bible, American Christians too often believe that Christian history, as one colleague says it, “ends with the death of the last Apostle and begins again in 1776.” And so now, we have Christians committing seditious acts in the name of patriotism and Jesus.
A New Pledge Drive
It is time to stop. Church leaders who deny this mixture by claiming it is not “true Christianity” are not helping matters. It is time to stop pretending that the church should get out of it’s own way. The church needs a new pledge drive. We should stop pledging allegiance. The secular world can say the Pledge of Allegiance all it wants. I say the church should stop imitating the secular world in this way as well as others. The church should discern and become the church. The Kingdom of God is not of this world. But it is within the world to advocate for the powerless and the rejected. Stop rejecting people and seeking secular authority. The church should advocate healing of suffering. It cannot cause suffering to others.
If we pledge anything at all, let it be to love, kindness, joy, goodness, and mercy. We do not pledge to withdraw from the world. We pledge to stay and help.