Cross and Flag

My irascible sometime friend and former work supervisor, Tim, once went ballistic in my presence over the historic fact that U.S. presidents including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and in the twentieth century Woodrow Wilson on various occasions had issued public calls for “fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” 

Our flag. “US Flag” by jnn1776 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 

Tim—alas, now deceased—was a military man. He was quite intelligent, tolerably well-educated, and always in the grip of a steamy anger that was never far from the surface. He had been raised in a Catholic family but in adulthood described himself as “agnostic.” 

He made no quarrel with presidential calls for fasting and prayer. He understood that even in a nation that prohibits “an establishment of Religion,” a leader may give voice to the general religious impulses of the people. But he did not think a chief executive should call for the country to be humiliated.

“Cross” by dino_b is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

Tim was a notable narcissist, full of pride in himself and esteeming pride as a general virtue in all cases. He considered humiliation as the one thing to be avoided above all. Therefore, to call for humiliation of the whole nation was tantamount to treason. After all—the British, the Germans, and the Japanese had tried to humiliate us and we had not let them get away with it. Why, then, do it to ourselves?

With more time and more patience, had I been wiser and deeper, I might have helped Tim understand the concept of national humiliation in a larger context. But I did not.

In his sensitivity to that issue, Tim inadvertently put his finger on a key dimension of America’s church-state relationship. If we understand our nation’s affairs to fall within the Providence of a Power who calls each of us to approach life with Christ-like humility, then it seems  proper for all of us, as a body politic, periodically to be humbled. To be reminded, that is, of our proper place in the world under the overarching care of God.

“Humiliation” in this sense may be what Lincoln had in mind when he said, in his Second Inaugural Address,

Abraham Lincoln. “twlncn63” by gvgoebel is licensed under CC PDM 1.0 

“If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?” 

That kind of thinking, I believe, is what Washington, Lincoln, and others meant when they called for national “humiliation.”

Past generations have mostly understood and assumed a close kinship between our lives as Christians and our lives as citizens. Alhough the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has always forbidden the government to prescribe forms of prayer and worship, nobody construed it to prevent Americans from expressing our religious affiliations and sentiments in our public lives.

Under such a general understanding, it seemed perfectly natural to Americans of the mid-twentieth century to salute our national sovereignty by displaying flags in our houses of worship and recognizing national holidays during regular worship services. But expectations and understandings are much different today.

Our pastor—no bomb-throwing activist, she—called our attention to three articles in the current online Alban Weekly dealing with churches’ sometimes uneasy relationship with Independence Day celebrations. She wanted to know what we thought about them. The leading piece, a nine-year-old reflection from Duke University’s Faith & Leadership website, titled “What to do about the 4th,” written by a retired Methodist minister named Ed Moore, mentioned some “local traditions” that he called “affronting.” These were: “an American flag draped over the Lord’s Table, the Pledge of Allegiance included in the liturgy, or the choir expecting to deliver a patriotic anthem.”

I suppose these “local traditions” must exist somewhere in Christendom, or Rev. Moore would not have called them out. But they must be exceeding rare. In all my years I have never seen any of these “affronting” cases included in the worship of any churches I have attended. Using the U.S. flag as a communion cloth or a chancel parament? Such a practice must be abhorrent both to Christians and to patriots (bearing in mind that many of us aspire to be both).

Some patriotic expression in worship space, however, has been a commonplace in most churches since the dim past. It might take the form of red/white/blue floral decorations on July Fourth (a practice Rev. Moore okays, faintly); or the display of the flag somewhere in the worship space; or the singing of a patriotic song such as “America the Beautiful” by the congregation on the Fourth, in place of a regular hymn.

The reason such practices come under the microscope of critical examination now is not that we somehow are better educated than our grandparents about the implications of the Establishment Clause. Rather, it’s because we now live in a society that is markedly less religious than theirs was. I believe we are the poorer for that. But it does not follow that those who still keep the faith must embrace a sharp divorce between that faith and our inner sense of national identity. There can be room for both.

The Christian flag.

In the church where I have been a member for the past forty years, we have never practiced extreme liturgical patriotism. Sometimes we sing a patriotic song or two on national holidays. We used to display a U.S. flag and a “Christian flag” in our sanctuary. We retired those flags a while back; I am not aware of any complaints about that. 

But should we, at some future time, choose to restore flags to our worship space, that would not show that we had sold out our Christian faith to some crypto-fascist conspiracy. It would only signal that fashions, or group preferences, had shifted slightly.

Some wise person once decreed that sleeping dogs ought to be permitted their slumber. Despite any number of learned articles that may be written, already or in the future, I doubt that most American church people feel any great tension between their devotion to Christ and their loyalty to our country.

I’ll bet my combustible friend Tim, if he were here today, would at least agree with that.


Larry F. Sommers

Your New Favorite Writer

Author of Price of Passage—A Tale of Immigration and Liberation.

Price of Passage

Norwegian Farmers and Fugitive Slaves in Pre-Civil War Illinois

(History is not what you thought!)

9 thoughts on “Cross and Flag

  1. Excellent summary of what seems to be but need not be a complicated and often divisive conflict
    Your words provoke thought but I agree that those with whom I worship feel no restrictions to expressing patriotism
    We need to celebrate the birth of our nation but recognize our responsibility to identify and participate in correcting its many flaws
    Your expertise with “words” and history provides a stark contrast with the majority of people who do not k ow history or geography and are totally unable to carry on a civil discourse to find consensus
    I get tired of only finding fault and “pointing fingers” without understanding and offering no solutions

    • Thanks for the thoughts, JoEllen. Civil discourse is an endangered thing in this country, but I think the only way we will build it up again is by continually practicing it, developing a model that people may follow.

  2. Great thoughts. I see such a huge correlation between the governance of our country and the governance in the Congregational Church that I feel we do need to honor the heritage that established these in a common culture. Render to God the things that are God’s but let’s give thanks for the freedoms we have in this country. Not as religious vestments but realizing without one we wouldn’t have the other.

    For Tim, bless his heart, he always stood up for what he believed.

    • That he did, and often in situations where that required some real courage and integrity.

  3. Thank you for the thoughtful piece, Larry. There is a lot to chew on here, and I don’t feel ready to respond to it all. However, I feel compelled to mention a distinction that appears absent from your essay and wonder if you would care to comment. In addition to issues of church/state separation, I have always felt a certain repugnance with the conflation of patriotism with reverence for the flag as an object. I, for one, never pledge allegiance to the flag … but instead to the US Constitution. The flag is not the subject of your essay, of course, but when I hear church/state debates, I hear echoes of blind loyalty to symbols and vague platitudes rather than documented principles and laws that guide our faith and actions. And certainly, a focus on following such a body of principles/laws demands a certain humility from all of us. I wonder if you might care to comment on any of that.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Nicholas, which itself includes a lot to chew on. I will try to keep my response brief. As to “the conflation of patriotism with reverence for the flag as an object”: I doubt there is anyone who reveres the flag as an object per se, absent any context. The flag is a symbol, and people revere it, or do not revere it, in accordance with the meaning they perceive in it. If you consider our population as a whole, there can be little doubt that the meanings associated with the flag include the Constitution, the “documented principles and laws that guide our faith and actions,” AND “blind loyalty to symbols and vague platitudes.” From my perspective, that’s because our people, like all people, are a complex mix of understandings and motives.

    That’s all I can really say about the conflation you mention. My own fascination lies in the complexity of the way we Americans see the relation between church and state. Some of us are more afraid the state will control the church, others are more afraid that the church will control the state. That may be the reason that voices from all sides tend to support the separation of the two. But when you hear people’s arguments in support of that abstract principle, you can generally discern which kind of encroachment they are more concerned with.

    Thanks again for your thoughts on this patriotic holiday, and for giving me occasion to expand the commentary given in my original post. Blessings.

  5. On further reflection, Nicholas, it strikes me that the things I have said about the symbolic value of the flag could be said about the other symbol featured in my post–the cross. Like the flag, it is taken to mean different things by different people. At the warm end of the spectrum, people (especially Christians) take the cross to represent sacrificial love, compassion, care, and sanctified action. At the other end, the cross may be seen to represent unbridled power–either sanctimonious hypocrisy or militant conquest.

    I think most Americans–myself included–identify with both the cross and the flag, rejecting the most odious meanings of each but embracing the forward-looking and the traditional understandings. We tend to be older, more “churchy,” disproportionately from Southern and Midwestern “Bible Belt” areas (or “old-fashioned” Catholics who live in large Eastern cities), and not strongly affiliated with the college-and-university establishment. I do not strongly identify with many of these descriptors; but in point of oldness, I qualify. I remember the outlook with which I grew up (pre-1968). It was not an outlook in which church and state were at each other’s throats.

    I am concerned, as I grow older, that we have become far too concerned with “what I think” and “how I feel” and not enough with “what is the net wisdom embodied in our whole civilization” and “how can I learn from it.”

  6. This is a provocative, stimulating, and fascinating topic, Larry, and your exploration of it was certainly well done. I would note that some Congregational churches have symbolically reinforced a more overt connection between faith and patriotism. I remember stories of a large church out west where, during the Doxology, two ushers (in tails and gloves, no less) would come forward—one bearing the Christian flag and one bearing the American flag. Once front and center, they would proceed to hold them up perpendicular to one another, forming a cross out of the flag staffs themselves.

    To me, this is objectionable. Where in the gospels does Jesus make room for any ambiguity as to the rightful recipient of our primary allegiance? It is to God alone. Country, family, friends, career, and whatever else all are to be considered secondary. And when loyalty to anyone or anything comes into conflict with our loyalty to God, well, I think Jesus’ guidance would be entirely un-blurred and unhedged.

    As for our current lack of animation about the dangers of “civil religion,” I think it’s merely a reflection of what’s going on in the world. The sparks would fly, to say the least, if we found ourselves in a Vietnam War type of situation again, with the cries of “My country, right or wrong.” As things stand now, we are clearly polarized with regard to the president, but perhaps less so on matters of policy, foreign or domestic.

    At my church, we have both the Christian flag and the American flag in the sanctuary, and just the American flag flying from the pole out front. My personal preference would be to have none of these on the church’s property, but it’s not “a hill I’m willing to die on” so to speak. Some years ago, I served a church where the Christian flag flew BELOW the American flag on the pole out front. THAT bothered me greatly…though I never made any headway on the issue.

    In short, I believe our use of symbols in religious spaces should clearly and unabashedly convey the message that God occupies the number one spot on our priority list. Whether love of country lands at number two, three, eight, ten, whatever, is I suppose a matter of individual conscience.

    Thanks for writing this piece. It raises important issues at a time when such concerns have slid to the back burner in many of our minds. –Rob

  7. Thanks for your comments, Rob–articulate and illuminating as always. I’m thrilled at the level of thoughtful and complex discussion this particular post has sparked.

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