Please Remove National Flags from Your Christian Worship Spaces: A Plea on Behalf of the Flag
Notice I didn’t say “American flags.” However, my main concern here is about the prevalence of American flags in American Christian worship spaces. I recently visited a large Baptist church that not only had the American flag hanging on a pole on the platform (that’s what Baptists typically call the chancel area); it also had a large American flag hanging from the ceiling above the pulpit and communion table.
I’ve walked with several churches through the process of considering whether to remove the national flag from its sanctuary or worship space. Some have done it and others have not. Often there’s a gradual process of it being moved from the platform to a corner of the sanctuary (but always “up front”) and then possibly out of the worship space altogether and into the “fellowship hall” or vestibule. Other churches, of course, adamantly resist any such move.
The American flag is an important symbol for me as for many American church goers. I still always get choked up when I hear the American national anthem and see the “stars and stripes” waving in the wind—at a sports event or Independence Day celebration or whatever. My wife and I always put out our American flag on national holidays. I consider myself very patriotic.
However, what many Christians who insist on having the American flag in their churches’ worship spaces don’t realize is—it’s unpatriotic. Unless, of course, they intend to say it is symbolizes their highest loyalty—even above Jesus Christ. Of course, I fear that is indeed the case on some churches although they would probably deny it. To the extend they deny it, they are contradicting themselves by having the flag in the worship space.
A good friend of mine who is a former Marine and expert on the etiquette of the U.S. flag recently informed me that the U.S. flag ought never to be flown “in submission.” I engaged him in conversation about this and learned that, according to American flag etiquette (yes, there are people who specialize in that), it is okay to fly the U.S. flag upside down (as a signal of distress), at half mast (mourning) and alongside other national flags in certain spaces such as at the United Nations headquarters in New York. But it is never okay to fly it “in submission” to something else—for example lower than another flag in the same space. According to my friend who is also a scholar of Christian worship and has taught graduate level course in Christian worship for many years, having the U.S. flag in any worship space is wrong because it is “being flown in submission”—to God.
The point is that the worship space, the sanctuary (whatever it is called), is dedicated to sole worship of God above all else. The people gathered are ostensibly worshiping God alone and expressing their supreme loyalty to God, Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God. Having the national flag in the same space violates flag etiquette because it is flying it “in submission.” It should only be flown where nothing else is being placed above it in terms of importance.
Now, I am not personally as much a stickler for “flag etiquette” as my friend (although I certainly try to always treat it respectfully). What intrigues me, though, is what this principle means for those who absolutely insist on keeping the American flag in the worship space. According to this principle, whether it is right or wrong, they are demeaning the flag itself—unless, of course, they really do mean to be placing it on the same level as or higher than God, Jesus Christ, the Kingdom of God.
This should be a great help to all pastors and congregational leaders and members who want to remove the American flag from their worship spaces. Often, when that possibility is broached, the most vocal and vehement opponents claim to be devoted to the flag but, of course, under God. Inform them that the presence of the American flag is never supposed to be flown in submission, “under” something else. It is a violation of flag etiquette to have it in the sanctuary dedicated primarily, if not solely, to worship of God alone. If they continue to insist on its presence in the sanctuary, that’s a pretty strong clue to where their real ultimate loyalty lies and what they are really worshiping.