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Nationalism in the Sanctuary

Americans reverence their civil institutions, so much so that expressions of national loyalty sometimes appear in and alongside worship.

  • Timothy D. Terrell,
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Americans reverence their civil institutions, so much so that expressions of national loyalty sometimes appear in and alongside worship. Particularly after the terrorist attacks of September 2001, Christian worship in the United States has included fervent prayers for the safety and success of American troops, for political figures, and for national revival.

Often, an American flag is displayed in a prominent place at the front of the sanctuary, or at least elsewhere on the church grounds. To many Christians, this trend toward ecclesiastical nationalism is appropriate. Romans 13:7 and 1 Peter 2:17 admonish Christians to give honor to civil authorities; displays of national symbols and the singing of nationalistic hymns would then seem quite proper in churches. Some may see an American flag’s presence as a reminder that God’s Word applies to political institutions as well as all other areas of life.

As those in the pews gain or lose respect for the federal government, favor for displaying the flag seems to rise or fall. Christianity Today, in an editorial written shortly after 9/11, remarked that American flags seemed to disappear from church sanctuaries in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate. Flags, the magazine opined, should be returned to churches in recognition of the American quest for social justice.

But some Christians are disturbed by this mingling of nationalism and worship. One concern is that the presence of the flag might signify, or be taken to signify, support for the actions of our national government. Christians today might well object to many policies of the federal government on issues like abortion, government education, wealth redistribution, and foreign wars.

Another concern is that a prominent national symbol in church would distract from the central symbol of Christianity — the cross — or its message. Several years ago, the Dallas Morning News noted that “the American flag has replaced the cross as the most visible symbol in many churches across the country.”[1]

This concern is magnified by the rules for displaying the American flag, which dictate that it be given the position of prominence or honor over any other flag. Some churches have adopted the use of a “Christian flag,” which means that if the Christian flag is used, and if protocol is followed, this Christian symbol would be put in a subordinate position to a symbol of the civil government. According to Title 4 of the U. S. Code, chapter 1, the only exception is for the U. S. Navy, which may fly a church pennant above the American flag in certain situations:

When used on a speaker‘s platform, the flag, if displayed flat, should be displayed above and behind the speaker. When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.

No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of America, except during church services conducted by naval chaplains at sea, when the church pennant may be flown above the flag during church services for the personnel of the Navy. The flag of the United States of America, when it is displayed with another flag against a wall from crossed staffs, should be on the right, the flag’s own right, and its staff should be in front of the staff of the other flag.[2]

Even with flags flying on multiple flagpoles outdoors, the honor always goes to the national flag.

The flag of the United States of America should be at the center and at the highest point of the group when a number of flags of States or localities or pennants of societies are grouped and displayed from staffs.

When flags of States, cities, or localities, or pennants of societies are flown on the same halyard with the flag of the United States, the latter should always be at the peak. When the flags are flown from adjacent staffs, the flag of the United States should be hoisted first and lowered last. No such flag or pennant may be placed above the flag of the United States or to the United States flag’s right.[3]

Can a Christian church give precedence to a national symbol over a church symbol? It seems that many churches do (see accompanying photographs).

The Christian flag itself has problems, however. According to the Rev. William Schmelder, a distinguished Lutheran (Missouri Synod) pastor and professor emeritus at Concordia Seminary, the Christian flag:

…has no tradition of the church behind it. In fact, it violates much of what anyone knows of ecclesiastical heraldry. It seems to be the design of one man, who both drew it and profits from it. He or his heirs still get a royalty on every one sold. People seem to think that you need something to balance the U.S. flag on the other side, so you have a Christian flag.[4]

Christians should indeed give honor to civil authorities, but never in a way that detracts from the honor that we give to God. No matter what flag protocol dictates, the Christian church should never show subservience to the civil state, in symbol or substance.

Neither should we give any indication that the church is attached to any one nation. The church is a catholic or universal church, required to cross national boundaries (Matthew 28:19), and no one nation has a special claim on it. What will a citizen of a foreign country think when visiting an American church, when he sees symbolic indications that Christianity is identified with the United States?

These concerns call into question the wisdom of displaying an American flag in a church sanctuary, if not also other places on the church grounds. Of course, removal of an existing flag will raise questions. For one Presbyterian pastor, William E. Hill Jr., it became the largest controversy of his ministry.

Bill Hill (1907-1983) was the longtime pastor of West End Presbyterian Church in Hopewell, Virginia, the founder of Presbyterian Evangelical Fellowship, and later an influence in the founding of the PCA. Once, at a West End funeral service for a veteran, Hill insisted that the American flag be removed from the coffin before being brought into the sanctuary. Hill, after receiving severe criticism, harassment, and even threats for this action, offered several explanations. He contended, in part, that the church is “a place of worship of God alone,” that it “recognizes allegiance to no temporal or worldly state,” and that “the church exists for the honor of God, but that is not the purpose of the flag.”[5] Hill “had consulted with the members of the family of the deceased veteran, and…none of its members had voiced any disapproval of the removal of the flag from the casket.” The widow, in fact, had “offered her hearty approval of my action,” he said.[6]

Hill’s action took courage, and a conviction that godly patriotism does not permit the influence or symbols of the state in God’s church. Perhaps church leaders who are veterans or public officials should lead the removal of national symbols from the sanctuary. No one will question their patriotism, and therefore they can make a more effective argument for keeping the focus of worship where it belongs — on the message of the cross.

  • Timothy D. Terrell

Timothy Terrell is associate professor of economics at Wofford College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics and is an Associated Scholar with the Mises Institute.

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