Does the Star-Spangled Banner belong in church?
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the July-August 2010 issue of Interpreter magazine.
Practicing patriotism in church can be a sticky issue. This year, as Independence Day in the United States falls on a Sunday, Interpreter asks: What is the appropriate use of the U.S. flag in church sanctuaries?
American flags have been in sanctuaries since the Civil War when churches displayed the flag in worship to promote preserving the Union (or Confederacy). That tradition continues today, with practices ranging from draping the flag across the altar to displaying it during special services to never having it present.
The Book of Discipline doesn't offer any clear-cut answers: Congregations can decide whether or not to display the U.S. flag.
At least 91 percent of 274 United Methodist churches surveyed by the Rev. Wayne Lavender in 2009 display flags on their premises, and at least 84 percent of them display the U.S. flag within the place of worship. Lavender conducted the survey for his dissertation on patriotism in churches by contacting the congregations in one district each in Arizona, Connecticut, Missouri, Oregon and Virginia.
"There's a strong feeling that the U.S. is a specially chosen nation by God to lead the world, so when we have flags in the sanctuary, it perpetuates that worldview," says Lavender, a United Methodist clergyman who runs the organization Passing the Peace in Virginia. He holds that U.S. flags are not appropriate in sanctuaries.
God is beyond nations
Some argue that as Christians we're directed by God to be loyal to our nations, "but God is beyond all nations," says the Rev. Taylor Burton-Edwards, director of worship resources at the General Board of Discipleship.
Displaying the flag can have symbolic political meaning, such as baptizing the war effort and using the church's moral standing to condone war, says the Rev. Clayton Childers of the General Board of Church and Society in Washington, D.C. To him, the biggest theological issue hinges on, "Where is our ultimate loyalty — to Jesus Christ or to government?
"The presence of the flag in worship, to some degree, undermines our sense of absolute loyalty to God," Childers says.
Other church leaders take a different view.
"I think most American Protestants want an American flag and a Christian flag in the sanctuary," says the Rev. Jackson Day, a veteran and health-care advocacy consultant for the Board of Church and Society. "They've always had it that way, it feels right, and it would feel wrong to have it any other way."
|The Rev. Jackson Day|
|GENERAL BOARD OF CHURCH AND SOCIETY|
Making an issue of the flag is probably more divisive than the flag itself, Day says.
Not worshipping country
"We certainly aren't worshipping the flag or our country, but we are citizens, and wish to give thanks for the freedoms we enjoy, and the wisdom that led to the founding and continuance of this republic," says the Rev. Jim Cotter, pastor at Columbus (Wis.) United Methodist Church.
Placement of the flag is also an issue.
The U.S. flag code says the flag should hold the position of superior prominence at the speaker's right when facing the audience.
"This ruling implies that ... the flag of the Christian church should be placed in the lesser position on the left of the clergyman,'" wrote Childers in 2007. He believes it is inappropriate to display the U.S. flag alone in worship services. "If a national flag is used in worship, I believe it should be used in tandem with the Christian flag and the Christian flag, not the national flag, should be placed on the right hand of the speaker in the place of highest honor."
|The Rev. Clayton Childers|
"A simpler solution in all of this is probably not to have the flag, then you don't run into problems with theological objection or who is lord," says Burton-Edwards.
Carrie Madren, freelance writer, Olney, Md.
Marking Independence Day in Worship
Resources for observing Independence Day in worship can be found at www.gbod.org/worship. They include:
A Great Thanksgiving for Independence Day.
Music suggestions such as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," "Onward, Christian Soldiers," "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and "This Is My Song."
Other resources for Independence Day are in The Book of Worship, page 442.