Last July 4 Christianity Today published an exchange on U.S. flags in church sanctuaries, with pastor/theologian Douglas Wilson arguing no and Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore saying yes. Moore has since become the new head of his church’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and his argument is compelling.
Wilson says churches have “absolutely no business displaying a national flag in the sanctuary” so as to avoid “unnecessary barriers to the worship of visiting Koreans, Russians, or Portuguese.” He’s also worried that the flag would imply “‘favored nation’ status,” exaggerate “claims of Caesar,” or meld “patriotism and religion.” He says we are unlikely to display another country’s flag, such as communist China’s. Wilson hopes church elders will display their flag on their pickup truck, “right next to the gun rack,” but not in the church.
The point about not displaying another country’s flag in a U.S. church doesn’t make much sense. Churches display their own country’s flag because that is where God has placed them, and that is the nation entrusted to their care. It’s doubtful that “visiting Koreans” or any nationality would object to a U.S. flag any more than an American visiting overseas would object to seeing that nation’s flag displayed. (The church I attended for years displayed dozens of national flags, including I believe the Chinese, during its annual missions conference to signify where missions are supported.)
In response to Wilson, Moore admits “patriotism is dangerous…but that’s because it’s a strong natural affection that’s rooted in something good and right…akin to what God commands us to do in showing honor to our father and mother.” Moore notes:
When we honor our country, we are recognizing that we are not self-made or self-situated. We are here, placed by God in a particular plot of land because of the sacrifices of forefathers and foremothers we haven’t known. We have a responsibility to our neighbors of all faiths for the generations to come. Patriotism can become idolatrous, sure. So can family affection. But the gospel doesn’t evaporate family love. It just re-narrates it, and situates it in a right context, in which we seek first the kingdom of God. The same is true for the flag. Removing a flag doesn’t remove the tendency to idolatry or triumphalism; it just leaves such things unaddressed and untroubled. If a congregation already has a flag in the sanctuary, the first step might be for the pastor to use it as an object lesson in a right-ordered patriotism.
Well said. Critics of the flag as competition to God should even more so denounce the “idolatry” of loving family, which Christ addressed directly when rhetorically admonishing to “hate” mother and father if they obstruct obedience to the Kingdom. The flag reminds Christians of their civil and sacred duty to love and serve persons in their own community of nation, wherever that is. Providence uses nations for His own purposes no less than all other human institutions.
There’s also the issue that sometimes arch Protestants have trouble accepting the importance of symbols in the architecture of worship. Sometimes they almost prefer a sterile gymnasium with folding chairs and glowing exit signs. But churches that revere tradition as a record of God’s interactions with His people across time can and should esteem signs of that church’s history, culture, and spiritual expedition, which for most, includes the flag of the nation to which God has assigned them. It’s also my observation that the flag becomes an issue primarily to clergy, who sometimes remove it without consulting the congregation, hoping nobody will notice, as Moore mentions. On this issue, as on others, often the laity are more intuitively correct theologically than are the pastors.