Stanley Hauerwas, America and war (and a question about flags in churches)

Stanley Hauerwas, America and war (and a question about flags in churches) February 11, 2012

Two nights ago I stayed up late composing a post for this blog about Stanley Hauerwas’ most recent book War and the American Difference: Theological Reflections on Violence and National Identity (Baker Academic, 2011). I ended with some questions about American flags in Christian sanctuaries of worship. Before I was able to post it to this blog, my computer crashed. I lost it completely. Fortunately, I didn’t lost much else that wasn’t already backed up on some other medium. Now I have a new PC and am ready to try to reconstruct that blog post. Thanks for your patience in the meantime.

I admit to having something of a bias against Hauerwas and that for two main reasons. First, I have seen and heard him operate on discussion panels (e.g., at American Academy of Religion meetings) and was not impressed. Second, I read his Gifford Lectures (published as With the Grain of the Universe) and was not impressed. In fact, I thought his argument there that Reinhold Niebuhr’s theology was not Christian was “in left field,” so to speak. Fortunately, it was refuted by Gabriel Fackre in Christian Century.

I am now reading War and the American Difference with a group of students and others outside the formal academic setting. One of the students chose it for our discussion and I as glad to be given the opportunity to give Hauerwas another chance. So far (having read up through Part I) I’m pleasantly surprised. What I mean by that is his argument seems very well-researched and expressed and even profound (which is not to say I agree with every aspect of it).

Hauerwas’ startling thesis (of course it’s “startling,” right?) is that “war remains for Americans our most determinative moral reality.” (p. 34) Lacking any common belief or value system, America, he says, has adopted war as the “glue” that holds us together. War is treated as “sacrifice” in a religious sense. And we are increasingly constantly at war because being at war draws us together. We need war for our American identity.

I have wondered for some time why it is the case that for the past several decades it seems America is constantly involved in some armed conflict somewhere in the world: Grenada, Panama, the Balkans, Haiti, Somalia, Kuwait and Iraq, Iraq again, Afghanistan, etc. I can’t remember a time during the past three to four decades when America was not either involved in a war militarily (beyond just sending advisers) or talking war with some specific country. Now we are hearing rumors of possible war with Iran as we are winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Hauerwas argues that the “war against terrorism” is an endless war and that one of its main purposes (unconsciously?) is to keep Americans identified together in the same way that a country with an established religion holds together (more or less, of course). War has become our established quasi-religion.

Of course, H. is a pacifist, but one does not have to be a pacifist to see some cogency in his analysis of American wars. He is attempting to peer behind all the public rhetoric and even the conscious justifications of war by those who wage it and defend it to see what is really driving this apparent need always to be at war.

I am half convinced. I remember watching a religious leader, an evangelical pastor who heads up a national network of churches, being interviewed about America’s invasion of Iraq (“Shock and Awe”) when it was beginning. He said that anyone who criticized the war is a traitor. I had the strange feeling then that he meant “heretic” just as much as “traitor.” It seems that during the past few decades, any criticism of our American war efforts have been greeted with the same condemnations as a blatant heretic would be treated in an orthodox church. Has America become a quasi-church? Hauerwas thinks so and I think it’s work asking and considering.

One sort of case study (for me) is American flags in church sanctuaries. I have discussed that here before. But now I’m asking this question and would be interested in hearing answers. Why is it so important to have the American flag in the sanctuary? Beyond the bare fact that it has always been there (tradition), what makes it so essential that it be there? I’m asking this, of course, of people who do think it’s important or essential for the American flag to be in the worship sanctuary. I have met them and heard them talk, but I have not asked them this face-to-face. (One gentleman in one church said that if someone removed the flag he might do something violent about it. In anther church some people in the congregation kept returning the American flag to the worship space when the pastor moved it elsewhere in the church building.)

IF the purpose is NOT to mix Christianity with American nationalism, what is the purpose? Or, if that IS the purpose, how is that defended? Are there any thoughtful theological defenses for the American flag being there and remaining there?

I am thinking, for example, of the fact that we (Americans) gather in all kinds of placed without American flags present. Does anyone insist the flag must be everywhere they gather? What about movie theaters? I haven’t seen an American flag in one and I haven’t heard anyone argue that it ought to be there. What about restaurants? What about grocery stores and malls? What about concerts, plays, live theater performances (on or off Broadway)? My question is why Christians who are so adamant about the American flag being in the sanctuary (and it must be up front, of course) are not equally adamant about it being in all those common spaces?

Of course, my concern is that what is really going on in people’s minds, even if they are not fully aware of it, is that they mix and mingle American nationalism with their Christianity. How is that not idolatry? That is, how is it not idolatry to place the flag on the same level of importance with, say, the cross? (I know of churches where nobody would balk at the cross being removed from the sanctuary, but they would balk at the flag being removed.)

What does my question have to do with Hauerwas? Well, I would think it would be obvious. His underlying argument is not just about war; it is about civil religion. What he adds to the idea of Americanism as our civil religion is the idea of war as essential to that civil religion. My question is so far not whether he is right about war, as I don’t know how that can be proved or disproven, but about civil religion focused especially on the symbol of the flag.

It seems to me that it would be a very good test of idolatry (or lack of it) to remove the flag and see what happens. It seems to me that anyone who gets angry and insists the sanctuary must include the flag might be flirting with idolatry. Not necessarily conscious, willful idolatry, like bowing down to an idol or something, but idolatry in the sense of elevating a human symbol to absolute status alongside the symbols of the cross and the bread and wine and the Bible (as a symbol of God’s Word).

Do I have any takers? Does anyone care to explain why the American flag is essential to the Christian worship sanctuary? My mind is not made up about the issue of idolatry; I’m open to being convinced that is not the case, so please try.

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  • Bob Brown

    I believe Nationalism is one of the greatest obstacles to faithfulness to the Kingdom of God. The prophets biggest problems was overcoming the security that ‘God’s people’ put in their nation being ‘God’s Nation’. They could not believe that God would allow complete destruction of His city and His nation. BUT…God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed twice. The Apostles and Christians in Jerusalem were told to flee when the saw the Roman armies, Luke 21. When a nation has crossed a line and prayer no longer helps what shall the righteous do? Not one Christian was lost in 70 A.D. according to Josephus. Those who flee to the Mighty Refuge will escape what is coming to this nation and all the nations, since NOW the whole world and all nations are under the judgment of God.

    Henry Blackaby is right….America is under judgment right now. Instead of chanting USA USA, Americans should have fallen on the knees in repentance. Because the church didn’t hear the message, greater judgments are coming… (Google Jonathon Cahn, “The Harbinger” both on youtube and in a recent book to understand the message of September 11th.)

    Jesus came preaching ‘the Kingdom of God’. The Jews didn’t understand it because it wasn’t Jewish Nationalism. So they crucified Him. We MUST seek the Kingdom of God FIRST….as we seek the welfare of the nation where we live, Jeremiah 29:7-13.

    I pledge allegience to the Kingdom of God not to this nation. I’m a Viet Nam veteran so I’ve served this nation in promoting freedom. But now I serve the Kindgom of God and King Jesus because the freedom He gives is a much greater freedom.

    Take the flag out of the sanctuary!

  • Take it a step further. Why are they in Christians schools? The morning routine is a pledge to the American flag, THEN a pledge to the Christian flag (um…what?) then morning prayer. This is a pre-cognitive, liturgy that is shaping the imagination of the Christian youth so that even your question as an adult would seem offensive. “Of course, the flag belongs in the church!”

    Another question is, why do megachurches, for the most part, lack the flag and cross?

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t been to many mega-churches, but if I had to guess, I would guess it is because of an aversion to symbols altogether. That is, many such churches want to be all things to all people and not offend anyone.

    • That’s odd, because I’ve had the opposite experience. Megachurches I have attended seem to be able to produce the most extravagent nationalistic symbols. We visited the World Overcomers church in Memphis, where this statueis the first thing you see driving into the parking lot.

  • Josh T.

    Aside from the uncomfortable times in my own church home doing the Pledge of Allegiance (that just seems weird to me), I recall one particularly odd experience I had in a children’s church about 14 years ago where the leader (who was not ordained at the time) had an old and very large American flag placed on the wall behind the platform. When questioned about it, he basically indicated that the American flag IS a Christian flag (I think he meant something about the meaning of the symbols/colors). So I think for some people there may be some equating of the U.S. as a nation with Christianity or God’s will (Manifest Destiny) or something similar, such that the idea of the flag in the sanctuary is a pious and Christian thing for congregations in this country.

    This is just speculation on my part, of course.

  • This issue hit me when I was going to A Baptist seminary (Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in Mill Valley, California). The church I attended was a nice suburban Southern Baptist church. On one particular Sunday, I have forgotten what the occasion was, the pastor began the service with a call for the congregation to express their patriotism by pledging allegiance to the flag. He had one of the church members bring the American flag from its usual station in front and held it aloft before the congregation as all stood to pledge allegiance. I had a very, very sick feeling.

    My belief was (and is) that in the context of worship, God is the one to whom we pay our utmost devotion. As a Christian, my own sense of community worship can take place in any country (and I have worshiped as a Christian in other countries) and my highest allegiance as a Christian is to God as revealed in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. I felt that day that by pledging allegiance to the flag in the context of a worship service, we were indeed practicing idolatry. I thought that we might as well have been dancing around a golden calf like the Israelites did when Moses was up on the mountain. I had had misgivings about the Flag being in the sanctuary before, seeing it as an unneeded distraction, but had been able to mostly keep that in the back of my mind until that Sunday when it was brought front-and-center.

    That very week, I brought this up in my ministry supervision class. I was still upset and undone by having been placed in such a position in the context of worship. My dilemma brought out lots of discussion that day. One classmate saw no reason for my dilemma, saying that he saw patriotism as an important part of his Christian life. Another thought I was thinking like a Jehovah’s Witness, not like a Baptist. Others were intrigued, they had never thought about there being a problem with the American flag in the sanctuary. Another classmate came to me after class and offered support for having “put myself out on the line” in our supervision class.

    Since those days, I have moved on to other venues. I have found a home in liturgical worship – first as an Episcopalian then as a Catholic. In both of those churches I have never found an American flag in the sanctuary. The flag indeed has no place there because those sacred spaces are set aside for the worship of God. In ancient Israel, Elijah struggled against the “dual altars,” one to Ba’al and one to Yahweh, that people had set up in places of worship. I think in many of our churches today we have that problem of “dual altars” to God and Country.

  • I don’t see how a first century christian church would have had an roman empire sign in its sanctuary. My perception is that to much american christians are american first, … and christian.

    “To ask middle-class Americans to see American culture as Jesus would see it is to ask them to vote against their own privileged position in society” (Janel Fishburn, excerpt from Confronting the idolatry of family, read in Untamed by Alan and Deb Hirsch)

    … I think we could say the same for our North America “privileged position” in the world (which is, in great proportion, secured by wars…)

  • David Rogers

    We have flags in the sanctuary. However, in Vacation Bible School and on those occasions where we say pledges I specifically order the pledges as Christian flag first, then the Bible, then the American flag. I say something to the effect that our first loyalty is to Jesus Christ and the pledge to the Christian flag reminds us of that, the pledge to the Bible comes next as a reminder to seek God’s will for our life. We lastly pledge allegiance to the national flag as a reminder that God has blessed us with a republic that ideally enables us to worship in freedom.

    I haven’t had anyone complain of the order yet, or of the practice of pledges.

  • kenny Johnson

    I haven’t really been to a church in recent memory that has had a flag even on the premises. However, I was recently (a couple years ago) that showed a video during the service on memorial day weekend showing American soldiers and tanks fighting, etc. I did not like that at all.

  • Gene

    I am a Mennonite (Mennonite Church USA) and we have never had any flags – American or Christian – in our building. We do not worship a flag but Jesus the King.

  • Norman

    Often the antithesis of nationalistic pacifism is not dealt with in our biblical discussions. The question often begs whether historically there has ever been a nation founded on pure isolationist idealism and flourished without being taken advantage of by its neighbors. Just ask the Native Cherokee Canaanite Indians who were driven out via the trail of tears by the “people of the promise” whom “God” bequeathed their land to. Little good it did them being surrounded by God’s people as neighbors.

    Realistically speaking historic national defense of sovereign countries is a necessary given and nuancing that issue practically in its application is never answered by ivory tower discussions. Except maybe after the fact by the victors. There are simply too many variables to develop simplistic formulas for avoiding wars, try as we might.

    Concerning flags in the church; my instincts are that they are out of place from a biblical theological standpoint. The separation of church and state wasn’t invented with the American constitution. It was practically instituted by the New Kingdom of Christ in which the spiritual governance of God’s people was taken out of the hands of physical Israel and the Nations and permanently established in the Heavenly realm eternally through Christ. IMO, if a Christian understood the veracity of what Christ instituted then they would run as fast and as far as they could from mixing religion and Nationalism, as that is the corrupting theme of the OT that helped bring on messianic judgment.

    Jesus said it Himself that His Kingdom was no threat to the Romans in a physical sense, but through the “Word” they would be defeated as rulers of the air or the spiritual realm.

    Joh 18:36 Jesus answered, “MY KINGDOM IS NOT OF THIS WORLD. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

    Rev 19:13 He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is THE WORD OF GOD. … From HIS MOUTH COMES a sharp SWORD with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron.

    Rev 22:1-2 … the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from THE THRONE OF GOD AND OF THE LAMB … on either side of the river, the tree of life … The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t understand your first paragraph. Are you suggesting it would have been good for the Cherokees to fight back? On a purely pragmatic level, would that have helped them not be taken advantage of by their neighbors? Or would they all just have been killed (as often happened when Native Americans fought back)? How does “Little good it did them being surrounded by God’s people as neighbors” related to what I wrote in my post? I think, but I might be wrong, that your first paragraph is a reaction to Hauerwas’ pacifism, but how does it address that?

      • Norman

        No Roger, as you surmise it would have been futile for the Cherokees to have resisted. However they did try the pacifist route but it was not fruitful either. The point is that they were surrounded by neighbors that were brought up under Christian principles yet pacifism was not even productive under that best case scenario. How would we expect pure pacifism to work with supposedly much more dangerous neighbors?

        The history of civilization I’m afraid doesn’t support that idealistic theory: tribes, peoples and nations have always had to attempt to work from a position of strength and not weakness. Otherwise your neighbors are going to take what was once yours. If you don’t have strength then you are at your neighbor’s mercy. The Cherokees unfortunately were in a no win situation, which is where you don’t want to be. So yes my thoughts were against Hauerwas’ pacifism model, and so I deem his principles untenable as a model to emulate.

        • Tim Reisdorf

          When Jesus told a parable about the wisdom of counting the cost, “pacifism” was a last resort for the king. His first instinct was to fight. But when he realized that he couldn’t win, he sued for peace without incurring the additional ire of his enemy by putting up resistance.

          Pacifism does not stop nor defeat the enemy – I don’t think it ever will. Even the imagery of Revelation is all about meeting the enemy in battle and defeating the wicked.

      • JoeyS

        Interestingly enough, a small group of Cherokee’s were allowed to remain in the mountains (avoiding the Trail of Tears) because a Cherokee named Tsali turned himself in to be executed with the promise that those Cherokees could stay in their homes. You can find this group of Cherokees’ ancestors living deep in the Snowbird mountains of NC.

    • icthusiast

      “Realistically speaking historic national defense of sovereign countries is a necessary given…”

      This assumes that the continued existence of a sovereign country is both necessary and right? I’m not sure how you would justify that from a theological perspective?

      I presume that in terms of your right to national defence all sovereign countries are equal? Except, I suppose, that the US is more equal than others because it has more and better guns!?

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Hi Icthusiast,

        I think the assumption of sovereign countries is a good one. It is not theoretically based, but rather based on experience and history. This is neither necessary nor right, but it is the way things are.

        As for the US, their Constitution states that one of the basic rights given to the people of the country (really any country) is life. In my mind, that includes self-defence, even by more and better guns. Do you think people do not have a God-given right to defend themselves?

        • Steven Porter

          The language of “God-given rights” seems a strange one to introduce into a conversation on the cost of Christian discipleship in American culture. I don’t immediately recall Jesus using that the language of “rights”. I do, however, remember Jesus disarming Peter when Roman soldiers were seizing Jesus in the Garden. I also recall Jesus’ decision to forego self-defense and even his own life for the sake of the world, because his kingdom (and weapons) were not of this world. Hauerwas’ pacificism does not purport to be pragmatic or realistic; rather, following Yoder, it flows directly from his Christology.

  • Rob

    I don’t like flags in sanctuaries either. But I don’t think it is fair to criticize the United States for having fought so many wars in the 20th century. The U.S. was EXTREMELY reluctant to enter into WWI and WWII–everyone always seems to ignore that fact.

    After WWII, the United States and the USSR were the only two major world powers. Two world wars decimated the military strength and industrial capacity of Europe and almost all the colonial holdings were lost. With the British Empire falling apart and new nations being created almost ex nihilio out of the remains, the world was poised for further war and instability. At that point in time, the USSR attempted to exploit the instability and relative weakness of Europe and spread totalitarian socialist governments across the world. The rise of the most evil and oppressive regimes (China, Khmer Rouge, North Korea, etc) were products of this socialist movement.

    Obviously, it was a good thing that the U.S. opposed the USSR and spread of totalitarian socialism. More importantly, there was no one else to do it. To this day, Europe has never regained the military capacity to project any sort of power and relies exclusively on the US and the hundreds of thousands of US troops stationed in Europe to remain beyond the reach of invasion by any hostile power. So what if the US fought more wars than anyone else? No other country was in the position to fight any wars or oppose the USSR.

    There is a reason that the US spends several times more on defense than all the European countries combined together: the US has fought all the wars and provided all the deterrence against the USSR for North American-European interests. So the US defense budget not only reflects the money spent making the US safe, it reflects the money spent to make Europe safe. Its a wonderful gift to European people, free of charge. Must be nice to not have to pay money to field an army because the US lets you use its own for free.

    Not only have the wars fought by the US and massive spending on weapons for deterrence been at least partially for the security of Europe and dozens of other countries around the world, but it has been wildly successful. When was the last time France was invaded? When was the last time any US ally has been attacked? The countries that have a presence of more than 1,000 US troops (and there are almost 60 of them) have enjoyed protection from hostile powers–and yes there are still hostile powers in the world. Iran and North Korea may seem harmless but that is not because of their good intentions but because of the fact that they have been hedged in by the US.

    If Hauerwas is a pacifist, then fine. He is going to think that war is bad. But it is a little ridiculous of him to come up with pseudo-psychological explanations for US foreign policy when there is a very simple political explanation at hand: The US is committed to promoting stability around the world and where countries have partnered with the US, it has been a success. That means peace. The wars fought were attempts to contain the threat of spreading totalitarian regimes and had to be fought by the US because no one else was around to do it. The explanation of American Exceptionalism in the 20th century is not some half-baked armchair psychological evaluation by a theologian, but that America, in fact, was in an exceptional position economically, geographically, politically, and militarily to stand up to totalitarian regimes in the 2nd half of the 20th century.

    • icthusiast

      “Obviously, it was a good thing that the U.S. opposed the USSR and spread of totalitarian socialism.”

      Is it really that obvious? Arguably the Church was at its most faithful and fruitful best when it was not wedded to, but in opposition to, the state.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        Are you suggesting that we invite persecution and enmity between ourselves and the state – and that would be a good thing?

        I am in no way in love with the State, but I am somewhat captured by the notion that a minimalist State might actually be helpful to people – as envisioned by the US founding fathers.

        • icthusiast

          “Are you suggesting that we invite persecution and enmity between ourselves and the state – and that
          would be a good thing?”


          I think the biblical picture of a Christian’s relationship to the State is changing and contextual. Yes, Christian’s have obligations to the State under which they live, but do they have a
          duty to perpetuate its existence by force?

          “Love your enemies. Do good to those who persecute you.” It’s very tempting to write off such injunctions as hopelessly idealistic, but I’m not sure that honours the one who uttered them.

          I heard a story of a church in eastern Europe which had its property returned after the collapse of communism. They erected a banner to celebrate. It read: “The Lamb Wins!”

          GK Chesterton spoke of Christianity’s furious opposites. The biblical pictures of Jesus as a Lamb and as a Lion are just such opposites. The warring Christ of Revelation would have been, and will be again, a comforting image to the persecuted church, but there is no hint that the Church is to take that image as its role model.

          So, no, I don’t advocate “inviting persecution”, I’m just reasonably sure it is not the Christian duty to resist it by violent means.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Ok, I can understand that you would not protect your own life from evil people who want it extinguished. But what about others whose care you may be responsible for? Would you defend them from evil people?

            And do you speak German? Some violently resisted the persecutors on your behalf and on mine. Like it or not, God gives freedoms and people with guns (or pointed sticks) who are willing to use them do what they can to see that those freedoms are not trampled.

          • rogereolson

            Tim, what’s the point of asking whether he speaks German?

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Hi Roger,

            It is an indirect reference to WW2 and the idea that if we had not resisted the Germans, then we would all be speaking German because they conquered us and imposed their language (and presumably other things) on us. Thankfully, people resisted the Germans. It appears that some on the message board disagree – that such would be unChrist-like.

          • rogereolson

            Well, Jesus did command “Resist not evil.” 🙂 By the way, I’m half German so let’s say “Nazis” when we mean those Germans we fought in WW2. As for language, here’s a good story about German. I had breakfast with Pannenberg a few years ago in St. Paul. He opened up and talked about his personal life more than usual. He told me he had been offered a chair of theology at either Yale or Harvard (I don’t remember which now) but turned it down because, as he said, there are theological ideas that simply cannot be expressed well in English. He said Tillich was a great theologian until he moved to America and wrote in English. Ironically, Tillich liked to say that there are English words like “predicament” that have no exact translation in German and are very important to theology. Maybe we should all be bi-lingual. Well, maybe that’s why most Ph.D. programs in theology require German. The Bible was written in German, wasn’t it? 🙂

          • Tim Reisdorf


            Thank you for bring levity back to this. You can tell that I come from German stock by my last name.

            But you throw out Jesus’ statement about not resisting evil as if that self-evidently explains everything. Then you fail to own the consequences of the view that you are presumably taking. The issue is real. Was D Bonhoeffer wrong in his resistance to evil? Are soldiers/police/citizens wrong to fire their weapons at evildoers in every circumstance? Is there ever a way to resist

            Maybe learning German would be good for me, but I’d rather not be forced to.

    • James Petticrew

      “relies exclusively on the US” ….. ” Mainly” perhaps, but your use of the word “exclusively” is an insult to the many UK soldiers who have died fighting in support of “America’s War On Terror”

      • Tim Reisdorf

        “America’s War On Terror”? All free people are in this fight. Was there no UK blood shed by terrorist attackers?

        • rogereolson

          I think you’re missing Hauerwas’ point which is that a “war on terror” in general is an endless war.

    • Joshua

      The bulk of criticism concerns America’s engagement post WWII (ie. Korea, Vietnam, etc.). Most people that I know are well aware that the US was reluctant to enter both wars, but they criticize America nonetheless because it has been an issue since then.

    • Joshua

      And the issue facing us as Christians, regardless of what Hauerwas thinks, is whether it is appropriate for Christians to approve of, participate in, perpetuate those wars. Just because it isn’t feasible for America to be pacifist as a country doesn’t change the fact that Christians in America may be called to lead a different life apart from the values of America.

    • Richard

      “The US is committed to promoting stability around the world and where countries have partnered with the US, it has been a success. That means peace. The wars fought were attempts to contain the threat of spreading totalitarian regimes and had to be fought by the US because no one else was around to do it”

      Rome kept the peace through a cross too… I’d be interested in your definition of totalitarian regimes – what are the actions of totalitarian states? I’ll bet for every action you come up with we can find an example of the USA doing it since 1860.

    • Dean

      Rob, while there may be some truth in what you say, we are faced with certain realities today, one being there is simply not enough resources to continue with our current foreign policy indefinitely. I can never understand when pro-war advocates ask the question: well, aren’t we better off without Saddam Hussein? Of course we are, but if you were to ask whether the choice was between leaving him in power or saving $1 trillion, you likely get a very different answer from most people. Not only that, you fail to take into account the problems that the United States create as a result of its policy of foreign intervention, so we end up constantly having to spend even more resources to clean up the messes we made when we tried to “fix” the initial problem. You can’t talk about success without taking into account the costs. You can be “successful” at almost anything by throwing an unlimited amount of resources into it. Every empire in history has suffered the exact same fate, it is precisely the hubris of American Exceptionalism that is the impetus for our downfall. If we had a better sense of history (which we don’t because we don’t have one), we’d know better.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        American Exceptionalism should humble us rather than fill us with pride.

        Are you willing for us to, rather, withdraw our forceful presence around the world? What happened in Vietnam when the American forces left? What would have happened in West Berlin (or all of Western Europe) had the US not confronted the Soviet Union? Of course it is messy, and there are unintended consequences – and they are very bad. But what would the world be like with unchecked evil?

        • rogereolson

          You seem very sure that we are not part of that evil. We have often supported cruel and bloodthirsty tyrants around the world (and especially in Latin America) just to protect and enhance our national economic self-interest.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            My specific examples are the good examples I can find. You are correct in that there are plenty of horrible examples of US involvement in violent conflict where we ought not have been involved. Through my own eyes, I see the worst as WW1.

            Surely this is beyond what I can figure on my own, but it’s a thought. The US is criticized for supporting the tyrant Mubarak in Egypt. We reverse policies, Mubarak is out, and Egypt is now poised to have leaders that are both brutal to the general Egyptian populationand opposed to general peace and opposed to specific peace with the US. I don’t understand the wisdom in that – except that we aren’t criticized for supporting a tyrant in Egypt anymore. Seems small consolation! I wonder what the Coptics would say.

          • rogereolson

            Good point. But maybe we could have done more to pressure Mubarak to be less tyrannical?

  • Tommy

    Thank you for your post. I know you are looking for replies in defense of the flag in our churches. I can’t help with that since I am in agreement with you, but I couldn’t resist commenting anyway. I am part of the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement which has historically kept civil government at arm’s length. Due, in part, to the large influence of David Lipscomb, (a late 19th Century leader in the Movement and for whom Lipscomb University in Nashville is named) who was an ardent pacifist, our churches have never had flags in our buildings. The pacifist inclination in our churches softened considerably in response to World War II, enough so that, individually, our church members now tend to be pretty nationalistic. But for the reasons you bring up, flags are still thought to be inappropriate in a worship setting.
    It’s interesting that there now seems to be a new movement by many to question the close relationship between conservative Christianity and American nationalism. As Lipscomb used to say, “we are citizens of another kingdom,” and it would probably serve us well to remember that and to whom our primary allegiance is due.

  • Roger, as an IR graduate student, I can dialogue a bit on the wars from that side of things. The theories diverge as to which America actually is, and what course should be continued in the future – they are 1) Primacy – the idea that the US is a superpower and so has the responsibility to “police” the world 2) Selective Engagement – still taken from the idea of being a super-power but only getting involved when it is in US self-interest 3) Cooperative Engagement – that the US, though being the most powerful has a corporate responsibility to act only with the approval of the UN 4) Isolationism – that the US should stay out of all foreign wars and “mind their own business” and these ideologies are debated about as hotly as Calvinists and Arminians debate each other! What is the US’s responsibility abroad? It’s not an easy question to answer! I personally lean toward the third option, but their are of course, difficulties with that perspective. As to the flag – wow, I’ve been out of the US a long time. I’d forgotten about that. Funny, I don’t think I’ve seen flags in churches anywhere else except maybe the state run churches in China……

  • Excellent question and one that needs discussion. The church in America has an unhealthy and frankly dangerous obssession with all things “patriotic”, nationalistic and military. An odd obsession indeed for a people who say they follow the Prince of Peace. Of course removing a flag from the sanctuary is just one example of changes that get people in a frenzy in the church.

  • The modern American people’s confusion of patriotism with religion is something that has really bothered me for quite some time now. I have found myself surrounded by Christians (especially Calvinists and extreme fundamentalists) who really equate American politics with Christian character. This bothers me, and I still do not entirely understand it.

    Despite this, I have come to feel that this confusion exists for two reasons. First, America’s heritage can be heavily traced back to the Reformation and the Protestants’ work toward escaping from the clutches of the then-tyrannical Catholic church. Also, the early laws of the U.S. were built on Biblical principles. Because the nation was founded based on a Christian worldview, it is assumed that it is a Christian nation, rather than one that has historically reflected Christian values (there is a difference). From there, it is not hard to see how a person can come to feel that their nation’s politics are a part of their faith.

    The other reason I feel that people identify the nation’s politics with their faith is, unfortunately, a result of bad eschatology. In the last two decades, a notable series of books (I am not going to name names, but I think you can figure it out) has caused a lot of Christians to think more about the end times. These books tend to have a very heavy emphasis on the political aspects of their eschatological theory. People begin to identify items in modern politics that seem similar to what they have read, and they fear that all of the horrible things in the books are going to come and hurt them and their families. If this is the case, then what happens politically really is a part of their religion, and they need to do something about it.

    In sum, I feel that a misunderstanding of our nation’s “Christian” values combined with a flawed eschatology is what makes them confuse patriotism with Christianity.

  • Just Sayin’

    Of course it’s idolatry. Just like when I was growing up in Northern Ireland the Protestant churches had to have the Union Jack (British national flag, which Catholic Republicans sometimes referrred to as “the butcher’s apron”) prominently displayed.

  • Lonnie

    It is a very difficult task to take on this matter. It took more than a decade for the Holy Spirit to show me my own American idolatry. God’s grace has been effective in my life, and for this I am very grateful. I trust God’s grace shall open the eyes of many, for that is our only hope. The resistance I keep running into is the darnedest thing I’ve ever encountered. America and Christ are nearly synonymous in the minds of so many. It is a pernicious heresy, which blinds the eyes, because the heart is so full of devotion toward Jesus of the United States of America. A Jesus who speaks to us not through the Holy Scriptures, but rather through the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

  • Faith and Fire

    It goes without saying that the American flag is not an essential within a church sanctuary. Union flags were placed in Confederate churches during the American Civil War as the Northern armies took possession of Southern territory. Advocates of flags in church sanctuaries do not see any impropriety in displaying what they view as nothing more than respect for the national power that allows them to worship in peace and safety.

    But ignorance of the message that displaying a flag in a church sends to others is no excuse for continuing the practice. Is the practice equivalent to idolatry? Quoting from a recently published book, “Blood Guilt,” one could indeed make a case that it is idolatry:

    “Idolatry is not limited to bending the knee before blocks of wood and statues of
    stone. Colossians 3:5 describes covetousness and ‘greed which amounts to idolatry.’ Some would say that it is only idolatry if you sacrifice your children to the object of worship. However, do not parents sacrifice their children in international wars, all for the sake of a flag?” (page 83)

    Even if you were to reject the claim that church sanctuary national flag displays do not merit the condemnation of being labeled as “idolatry,” there is a more practical reason why this practice should be stopped. Again, quoting from “Blood Guilt“:

    “Patriotism leads to the use of divisive symbols. An American flag, for example, is a symbol that can represent different things to different people. For some, it stands for freedom and justice; but for others: military hubris, racial inequality, and unbridled capitalism. Regardless of one’s response, a national flag will always be divisive, for it states that I am this and others are that. Why then are such symbols found in churches across America?… A national symbol no more belongs in a place of worship than does a racist symbol. At the very least, it is a distraction. The possibility that a flag may stir up negative
    thoughts among members and visitors who have come here to worship makes the use of such symbols wholly inappropriate.” (page 83)

    There are two interesting chapters in “Blood Guilt” that might be of interest and that are relevant to this topic:

    Chapter 6: The Battle Hymn and Flag Fiasco
    Chapter 7: Patriotism

    There are some interesting anecdotes concerning flags in churches within these chapters.

    I’d recommend the book if topics related to Church and State are of interest to you. See “Blood Guilt: Christian Responses to America’s War on TerrorBlood Guilt,” (New Covenant Press, 2011).

  • john inglis

    Good question. I’ve never seen a national flag in any canadian church, though it’s not impossible. And only recently have i heard our national anthem sung on canada day (I suppose we sing it enough in our national churh: the hockey arena). Whenever the american practice has come up in conversation, it’s usually remarked as being a bit odd and ascribed to the fact that they are so very patrioric. If it were done up here i’m sure someone would complain.


    • Joshua

      John, interesting. Increasingly, many people are having problems with it in the US. But this just incites backlash from people who are more patriotic (albeit, unconsciously and unintentionally idolatrous).

  • I don’t think the flag is appropriate for church sanctuaries. It also seems that disagreement about the issue is generational. Boomers want the flag in the sanctuary, but their children don’t see it as important (that’s a generalization, but largely true).

    A similar generational tiff happened with my college alma mater. Their mascot is the “Crusaders”. A few years ago there was a proposal to change the name to something else. Most of the younger alumni were game for changing the mascot, while the older ones were more adamant about keeping it. They kept it. Older alumni have deeper pockets. 🙂

    I don’t think it’s worth putting up too big of a fuss over these sorts of issues. They will resolve themselves with the changing of the generations.

    • rogereolson

      You may be right. But some younger folks need help from someone older giving them permission.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    I think this “embrace of the flag” is most closely related to the idea that the USA is a special nation – inaugurated and kept by the hand of Providence. The flag in the sanctuary is a reminder and teaching tool of the relationship between this country and God. To take away the flag would challenge this relationship – and while it has been challenged before, the challenge has often been met and the relationship reconfirmed in the minds of those who hold this dear.

    For myself, I agree with their notion, but want the flag to leave anyway. There have been enough examples where we were not the “shining city on a hill” as to undercut its teaching value. And I don’t think the relationship is unrejectable by the USA – in fact, I believe that is exactly the course the USA is on.

    My vote: Not idolatry. In the same way, the cross (or any number of religious symbols) points us to God’s provision and relationship regarding us, the flag can do the same.

  • steve rogers

    I have not read Hauerwas’s book, though I intend to. The suggestion that American nationalism and the corresponding militarism is our national religion and the glue that holds us together rings true to me. It probably does, in many churches, rise to the level of idolatry. I would further suggest that it is fed by a devotion to the American dream of increasing prosperity and the need to protect what we have acquired from anyone who “threatens” it. We have bought into the notion that anything that poses a danger to our economy is a matter of national security even though much of what we have is extracted from weaker nations and consumed by us in a grossly disproportionate manner as compared with the rest of the world. The so-called war on terrorism would not be waged if our gluttenous addiction to oil did not exist.

    The root of it all is a theology of fear. The more retributional one’s god is, the easier it becomes to justify violence in that god’s name.

  • Scott Gay

    There was a time in Christianity when ultra montaine meant against super nationalism and liberal theology. Because of the emphasis of the centrality of Christ and the dominance of the Catholic church it morphed into a strong central authority. Too bad a conciliar emphasis couldn’t be maintained.
    The symbol of a broken cross has been used by more than several cultures throughout history as per super nationalism, and perhaps now globalism.
    Theological liberalism is as least as insidious, because when ones-self and experiences, are placed at the center of being, it usurps Christ.
    However, the idea of Christianity being beyond the mountains of nationalism and humanism stands.

  • Thank you for your thoughts and the truth told, Professor. I came to study MDiv from Lithuania to US. The first thing I saw in almost all churches was American flag in the sanctuary. You would never find such “anomaly” in Lithuanian churches. Again thank you for challenging your fellow Christian citizens to rethink the place of the flag in the church

  • Craig Wright

    The Los Angeles Times had an article last Sunday about Roger Williams, who settled Providence, Rhode Island. About 150 years before Jefferson, Williams wrote about a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” He set the precedent for not permitting the establishment of a state church. Eight years after the Constitution’s adoption, the Senate confirmed this view in unanimously approving a treaty. It stated: “[T]he government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

    Interesting concept from another Baptist named Roger.

    I am a decorated Viet Nam veteran, yet I served as a conscientious objector (although I was a Baptist), in the role of a combat medic. When I arrived home afterwards, hardly anyone would talk about it, but there were some older people in church who questioned my patriotism (even though I had received a purple heart and bronze star). A couple of years ago, I bought a school shirt at the high school where I taught, and noticed that the shirt was labeled “Made in Vietnam.” It struck me that it was such a tragic waste of lives.

  • Joshua

    Out of curiosity, what were the reasons you were, we’ll say nonplussed, by Stanley Hauerwas the first couple of times? Apart from his pacifism, I don’t know anything about him.

    • rogereolson

      Well, I’d rather not get into criticism of a person that has nothing to do with theology. I just found his personal style, let’s say, off putting.

  • Andrew T.

    I’ll take a shot at this, and I’m not even American (I’m Canadian). I’ll also make some comments that will likely be unpopular, but please follow the logic through rather than simply offering a knee-jerk reaction.

    Two words: Manifest Destiny, except here we’re not talking expansion across N. American but American influence in the world.

    A secular history might gloss over the influence ‘faith’ has played in the origin, and development of the United States as a country, and a nation, including the development of American State papers, ( which have fundamentally given the U.S. a biblical/Christian system of governance, and influenced the world’s view of democracy), but it would be a mistake to do so because it would miss the influence Christianity has had on the American psyche (which is really the source of U.S. foreign policy which gives rise to involvement in war in the first place.

    Before I go much further, I must confess some presuppositions. Canada has involved itself in most of the wars the U.S. has. Although the world now largely and loudly condemns much of America’s use power, by and large, the US has nearly always (at least publicly) tried to hold the moral high ground. With few possible exceptions, I believe (as a Canadian) it has done this more-or-less successfully (though it rarely gets credit for it). I include in this ‘generalization’ instances where perhaps it’s political motives were unclear or dubious.

    In all, I believe the influence of U.S. foreign policy in the world has been more positive than negative (from the perspective of a Christian). I gauge this by imagining what the world would be like if historically the U.S. had not involved itself in many of the wars it has, or advocated for the use of force when it did.

    See here’s the thing, Daniel had a vision where four beasts (super-powers) would wield power over his nation Israel, the nation who exhibited God’s geopolitical influence in the region, and who was promised to be the nation that God would use to judge other nations [Gen 12:3][Gen 27:29]). These beast powers started with Babylon and ended with Rome, and even though Israel was cursed, Israel would still have this effect while cursed (of having the nations that bless it, blessed, and the nations that cursed it cursed [Isa 14:25][Isa 44:21][Jer 1:10][Jer 28:11].

    Yet what did Daniel record next, after the Roman Empire, a rock cut without hands, that grew into a mighty mountain [Dan 2:24]. We know the stone was Christ [Matt 21:42], and the mighty mountain the ‘Kingdom of God’ [Isa 2:2-3][Isa 25:6-8, 10][Isa 26:2, 20][Isa 27:13]. In a geo-political sense then, this mountain would be that power built on Christ.

    The thesis that is being missed here is that waging war (as a nation predominately influenced by Christ) IS an outworking of faith. Says [James 4:3] “Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God” therefore any nation influenced by Christ’s teaching (even influenced imperfectly), such as a God fearing people (a nation) will naturally be at enmity with the world whether or not we are able to use peace to spread the Gospel. The word hates Christ (because He testifies against it) [John 7:6-7], so the world, by nature, will hate the Christian message. If we are Christ-like as a people, and our nations, we will also testify against its evil works as Christ did (for our Christ-likeness should enable us to recognize it). The world cannot help but hate the Gospel and the people who affirm it.

    So the question you raise about the flag is this, is the flag of the U.S. merely a secular symbol? If ‘yes’, by all means, remove it from churches. However, if ‘not’, if it represents something more than mere secularism, such as the Christian ideals that founded the U.S. in the first place, that perhaps the modern U.S. is straying away from, the ‘shinning city upon a hill’ cited by John Winthrop (that cannot be hid), than no – the flag has a rightful place at the front of every American church, since the first Amendment cannot preserves a church’s right recognize the influence behind the ideals that lead the country the flag represents.

    • rogereolson

      But what if some of ideals were not Christian but deistic, secular and rationalistic? (Which is not to say automatically wrong.) What symbol shall we then put in the sanctuary to honor them? The French set up a statue of the “goddess of Reason” in the Notre Dame cathedral during the French Revolution. The U.S. flag is fine; I have nothing against it and I do put it out on my house on national holidays. But to have it in the worship space of a Christian church is to risk baptizing whatever America does with Christian blessings. And it is to risk mixing worship of God with worship of a nation-state.

      • Andrew T.

        Sir, I have the luxury of seeing the Unites States from an outside perspective.

        Yes, the United States can hardly be called a Christian nation these days – but this perspective is simply because the United States is not the ‘Christian nation’ it use to be, or once was.

        Yes, the United States separates ‘church’ and ‘state’ officially, but even with the first amendment the fabric of the United State’s is rooted in Christian thinkign, and it’s thinking drenched with it. American Christians tend to deny the connection between Christianity and governance, or foreign policy.

        If you’re talking about the influence of not-strictly speaking Christians’ such as Thomas Jefferson, yes that thinking is embedded in American thought too. The question is, is that thinking the dominant thinking ‘historically’? (I’d be that’s a harder case to make).

        Even so, look at how others see the U.S. Egypt see’s the U.S. as the face of global Christianity as a ‘Christian’ nation; the radicalization of Islam in Egypt against its moderate secular counter-weight is decidedly anti-American.

        The ideological war being waged against the United States by the Al-Qaeda network is not anti-secular, anti-rational, but anti-Christian! (In fact Islam proclaims itself to be pro-science and rational).

        American politics has a fabric of Christian influence recognized world-wide, certainly more influential than any faith based body politic in Europe.

        The American flag may not represent Christianity to all Americans, but it certainly represents that to most non-Americans.

        WRT your comments about the French Revolution (and the placement of the ‘goddess of reason’ in the Notre Damn, that’s a bit of a red herring here because the French Revolution was decidedly anti-Christian. The Statue of Liberty (modelled in France) was modelled after the goddess ‘Ishtar’.

        The point is that even if American doesn’t place the flag in churches, whatever America does already appears to the world to be blessed with Christian blessings. Since America indeed represents Christianity to the world, the flag, where-ever it is displayed, represents Christian worship. Prohibiting churches from displaying flags will not change this.

        (Besides, only Americans fret about containing the worship of the nation-state. All things being equal, this is a very minor worry given America’s influence in the world, and the perception the world has of it. So to address the problem you’re trying to address is somewhat meaningless everywhere else. There are bigger fish to fry)

        • rogereolson

          Surely what the rest of the world thinks about America is not automatically true. Nor is claiming that America’s founding fathers were Christians make it true. Some were and some were not. Your last paragraph (in parentheses) worries a lot. That some Americans confuse being American with being Christian is not a very minor worry ESPECIALLY given America’s influence in the world.

  • Robert

    Of course, there’s a grain of truth to Hauweras’s thesis, as your describing it here (e.g., I think it falls far short of a satisfying explanation. I won’t get into when or whether war is just, but there’s always an ample supply of bad regimes out there. As for what actually leads us into war against some of those regimes, the impetus is with governments, not with some vague, pop psychology need among the general public for feelings of shared identity against a common enemy. Americans have been decidedly ambivalent about entering war, but governments have been very adept at manipulating the public into acquiescence or support. I find Norm Solomon’s “War Made Easy” to be fairly compelling.

  • I see the American Flag, the Christian flag, and the cross as symbols that communicate that – this is the framework that we live within. It is like saying, ‘We are Christians who live out our lives in the context of American society.’

    If asked if their giving the flag a place of prominence in the worship sanctuary somehow trumped their commitment to Christ – most Christians would reply, ‘Of course not.’

    I’ve been thinking about it like this, when a Catholic says that they are not worshipping the saints when they pray to them – shouldn’t we take them at face value? Or should we not take them at face value and secretly discredit them as idolaters at heart?

    When a person who affirms a flag in the sanctuary also says that their commitment to Christ surpasses their love of country – shouldn’t we take them at face value? Or should we disregard that person’s words on this issue and assume that, ‘This person says their commitment is foremost to Christ – but I know better – and I know there is National idolatry in their worldview of things.’

    It is not a perfect analogy to pair together Catholic prayer with flags in church, but the point that I am getting at is that a flag in a church does not have to mean that its presence is idolatrous.

    • rogereolson

      I’m not inclined to take people’s statements at face value. We are often not aware of our own motives and inner commitments. I do know Christians who are just as committed to nation as to Christ and combine the two in a way that makes it impossible for them to be critical of their nation’s actions.

  • Dean

    For any of you in the Los Angeles area, there is a popular AM Christian radio station who’s tagline is the “God and Country station”. It makes me cringe every time I hear it. I’ve always found it ironic that American Christians have always self-identified with Israel in the context of the historical biblical narrative when if you were really looked at our domination of the rest of the world in terms of military power, economic influence and culture, I think there is a far more appropriate analogy for this country in the New Testament and it is pretty unflattering.

  • Dmitriy

    I agree, I came from Communist country. What would happened if we implemented the same practice from US churches. Have communist flag next to the cross and Lord’s Table, the flag that represents thousands Christians killed for their faith in Christ. So, what happens then, when U.S. would become atheistic country for example, and starts persecuting Christians. Do we still keep the flag in our church? There is should be separation between church and state. Church is the place where we promote Christ, and not our nationalism. I went to Christian college, and I know many international students who were offended by some our patriotic campus church services.

    • rogereolson

      Excellent points. But, you see, most Americans think America is so exceptional that “it can’t happen here.”

    • Tim Reisdorf


      It may well be some day that America starts persecuting Christians. I think people would react strongly against that and think hard about the presence of the flag.

      I’m glad you were able to escape the Communist country. Surely there, you understood that individual liberty was not respected by the State. At least for the moment, it still is in this country and many of us want that to continue.

      Did you or your fellow international students inquire as to why patriotic songs were sung in these church services?

  • Jeff

    If you hear a good argument for flags in public places of worship, please let me know. I’m searching for that myself. I pastored a church where the flags were apparently borrowed (I don’t know by whom) and never returned (to this day, I still don’t know what happened to them). About that same time, I used a screen to post scriptures and sermon bullet points on powerpoint that inadverdently covered the wooden cross hanging in the baptistry. Suddenly I became public enemy #1 among a small but loud group of people. The only argument I heard was that the sanctuary was more beautiful with those things in there and that we should have flags in the sanctuary because our nation’s Founding Fathers were Christian (not entirely true, but it’s hard to reason with loud and angry people). So I am interested in hearing a sound theological reason for why we need these things and why people will fight to the division of the church to keep those things in there. (By the way, after I left that church, a pipe busted above the sanctuary and flooded it. It was several months before they could use it again. Poetic justice?)

  • Very interesting! As a military veteran, it makes me happy to report that the American flag, which I love, does not appear in my home church. It seems to me that some churches are confused about which kingdom has their primary allegiance.
    Jesus is king, and his kingdom deserves our allegiance. America is another allegiance, but that is second for sure.

    As to the worship of war as part of our civil (and evangelical) religion, I’ll have to think about it, but it would not be the first strange thing I have seen among evangelicals.


  • JamesT

    My preference is not to have the flag present. I’m an interim pastor so I don’t fight the battle of the flag. However I did give a message early in my present ministry, the point of which was: the flag is not the cross, the Constitution is not the Bible and the Pentagon is not the power of God–if we get any of that wrong, it is serious.

  • I’m sorry to be so late to this discussion, but this topic is exactly when I take up in my book, *Chosen Nation: Scripture, Theopolitics, and the Project of National Identity* ( The book includes a discussion of Hauerwas, Yoder, and William Cavanaugh, as well as chapters on biblical theopolitics and a thoroughgoing examination of American Christian nationalism. I briefly introduce it here:

    Please forgive me for being self-promoting here, but the book really takes this issue head-on. Hauerwas, for his part, gets at the problem to an extent with his discussion of civil religion, but not quite far enough, nor is he able to appropriate scripture adequately in response. I still like him, but I believe his treatment of nationalism (as with Yoder and Cavanaugh, too) requires supplementation.

  • I had thought that flags came into American churches around WWI, when some Lutheran, Reformed, and Methodist churches were still conducting services in German, Dutch, and Scandinavian languages. To not appear un-American or be suspect, they placed American flags at the front of their sanctuaries. If that is how they came into the sanctuaries, the need for flags would be diminished (except, perhaps, for congregations conducting services in Arabic).