One nation, under God, indivisible


I taught a class on Barth last night. Going over the “Barmen Declaration” made me remember the last time I studied the document with a church, following a fitful night several years ago….

I put my daughter to bed, and fell asleep next to her (I’m telling you, the whole bedtime story thing is a trap. She never falls asleep, and I always do). Suddenly, I heard my husband whispering to me from the doorway: “Carol. R’s on the phone.”


“R’s on the phone.”

“Tell her I’m asleep.”

“I did. She said to wake you up.”

I sprang up from the bed, immediately. My dozy confusion turned into dazed panic. I knew that R was in the islands on vacation. There must have been a terrible emergency for her to call me so late, and demand that I be woken up.

I ran upstairs, grabbed the phone and greeted her with a worried, “Hello?”

She wanted to talk about the flags. She put a halt to her vacation and woke me (the working mother of a toddler who really, really needed any moment of sleep that I could possibly get) to discuss the flags in the sanctuary. The same flags that we had been wrangling over for the last six months in session meetings.

I had actually been proud of my church for talking about it openly. Before my arrival, they had a very strange history with those flags that involved all kinds of late-night shenanigans. The flower committee chair wanted them up, the former pastor wanted them down. So, from what I could glean of the oral history, they made an informal compromise: six months up and six months down. Although the flag factions never actually discussed it with each other.

Here’s the interesting part. After the flower committee chair would leave on Saturday night, setting up the arrangements and the flags for Sunday morning, someone would enter the sanctuary late at night (the former pastor?) to take down the flags and hide them for Sunday mornings.

When I came on board, it was shortly after September 11, and the flags just stood there as permanent fixtures. I didn’t know any better. That’s when I was told that it was my duty to be breaking into the sanctuary in the middle of Saturday night and taking down the flags for six months out of the year. To which I responded, “You’re kidding, right?”

They weren’t kidding.

Ordinarily, I would side-step a flag issue early in my tenure, but it was obvious. This issue had been avoided for the past twenty years. And that’s how I found myself in the middle of a flag debate within the first six months of my ministry there. I was knee-deep in New England patriotism, proper flag placement codes, hours of debate, and late-night phone calls. In addition, I found out the frightening history of the Christian flag. Read it and weep.

The end result? The Christian flag got the boot. The American flag was left up, all twelve months of the year, but in a less obtrusive place (it had been practically standing in the pulpit with me when I preached. It ended up next to the organ somewhere…).

Our current sanctuary at Western has no flags. But the HOS said it took rebuilding the entire sanctuary for them to be taken down.

So what about you? Ever get in the Nation vs. God debate? How’d it end up?


16 thoughts on “One nation, under God, indivisible

  1. As an immigrant I’ve been down that road many times. In my first call we (don’t remember exactly who it was) removed the flags and put them in the parlor. About six months later I received a very angry call from a veteran who said he was going to leave the church after 50 years unless the flags were returned to the sanctuary. Of course I was not the first person he had told this too, in fact I was almost the last to hear about it.

    I met with him and explained my own families history of military service (this helped) but then I also mentioned that the church is like an embassy, it is sovereign soil claimed for the kingdom of God and that American patriotism has no place in the church. He quoted James Kennedy, Jim Dobson and others, I explained that these fine men were wrong. He disagreed and session (out of fear, not conviction) put the flag back into the sanctuary.

    There is power in flags and emblems, I know this from growing up in Belfast. The American flag is a sacred symbol of the nation, just look at all the rules that govern its use (when an Irish or British flag is worn out we just throw it away). The US flag is something that we are asked to pledge our allegiance to (idolatry?), I’m not aware of another nation that expects this level of commitment to their flag.

    The flag is not neutral and has no place in the church.

    On Memorial day weekend our Powerpoint song slides used an American flag background, I couldn’t bring myself to look at it, singing praise to God while staring at the flag… who is your God?

  2. Neil,

    I agree with everything you are saying. I think it’s also important to remember that this is a pastoral care issue for our older members.

    In the 1950’s in this country, going to church was synonomous with being a good citizen. I’m not saying that it was right, but that’s the way it was. For those veterans the two (flag and church) are meshed together. When we challenge the things they held dear, they can feel personally attacked. I’m not saying we should back away from the challenge. I am saying we should approach it with grace, for we all have things/beliefs/idols to which we cling too tightly.

    I married into a Chicago Irish-Catholic family. Over the 11 years I have known them, I have realized that they are not Irish and they are not Catholic. They are Irish-Catholic. Both pieces are equally strong parts of their heritage.

  3. And what’s with the Christian Pledge? (see link re: Christian flag)

    We have both the US and “Christian flag” in our sanctuary and while the wonderful veterans and active duty military personnel in our congregation are people of faith, there is definite confusion here. Many people equate God with country, as in faithfulness = patriotism. It’s an issue I haven’t tackled. Picking my battles.

  4. we have the flag by the door to the sanctuary in my current church. The idea is that the flag protects our freedom to worship. Lots of people think it should be right up there in the chancel, practically right by the cross. I like what Neil said about the church being an embassy. I think it doesn’t matter what we say.
    I feel strongly that Christian and American are not synonymous after living and serving in Japan. Christians are united all over the world.

  5. I agree there is a pastoral care piece here. The challenge is not allowing pastoral care to become an excuse for failing to address the issue.

    I suppose one of the challenges of living in Northern Virginia is how to be faithful, I’m not sure Jesus is as interested in “full” churches as he is in “faithful” churches. I would add that truly faithful churches will often be full.

    If there is one thing that is clear to me from reading the scriptures its that God has no time for idolatry and divided loyalty. While the pulpit may not be the best place to address this issue it is one that we need to address.

  6. No flags when I arrived. Some said they wanted them. I said the chancel was no place for flags. Absolutely. Fortunately in our church, the pastor has the final say. I finally, in honor of all the Veterans in our church (some WWII), allowed someone to donate an outside flagpole with a mulched, planted bed around it. We hang only the American Flag, because of course, the Christian flag (or in our case, the Episcopal flag)would appropriately hang ABOVE the American flag — but I don’t want to stir that pot at all. But I have no qualms about NOT having a flag in the chancel — the state has no place in the church. I have a friend who, in the first week of her tenure, marched the flag down the aisle and stood it by the door. Her rationale was that this was the appropriate place, to honor as we “re-entered the world” at the end of the service. If I ever have to face that quandary, I’ll follow her lead!

  7. I’ve never heard about putting the flag by the door. That makes some sense. If I had my choice, I wouldn’t have the flag in the sanctuary at all. But I don’t always have my choice. Our book says that elders have the final word on the sanctuary.

  8. I did the flags in the vestibule thing, too. And with the same rationale….the American government gives us the freedom to worship as we choose, and we choose to worship a God with no political boundaries. The vets were fine with that, once it was explained. And several make a point of saluting it as they enter the worship space, which is fine.

    We had an ongoing battle with teh Boy Scouts, who repeatedly moved it into the sanctuary for their ceremonies and then it was left there, causing drama.

  9. I wrote my seminary scholarship essay on flags in church, so I could say plenty. Much of what formed me, however, is the flags of Boe Chapel at St. Olaf College.

    Here’s a virtual tour link. Just click up a bit an you can see the entire sanctuary.

    If we sing, “O God of Every Nation” we can also try to put up the flags of every nation of God. St. Olaf owns them all and rotates on some sort of schedue.

  10. Interesting that the subject seems to be shifting to songs. I remember the reaction I had the first time I heard “America the Beautiful.” I was about 23 years old and had been in the US for about a month. I thought, “What the @#$%! When did Christians start singing songs in worship where the subject matter was the nation?” America, America, God shed his grace on thee!

    I have much less of an issue with ‘God bless America’ or ‘My Country ’tis of Thee.’ Where at least the subject matter is God and God’s relationship with the nation.

    Of course I’m also the guy who just told our music director that we shouldn’t sing “We Three Kings” because there weren’t three and they weren’t kings! (She agreed) Sometimes we need to stop long enough to truly reflect on what we are doing and saying.

  11. Neil, no Three Kings? You don’t mess around! Point taken though. We do need to think about what we’re saying, singing, displaying.

    Adam, it’s a very interesting chapel. I love how much light pours into it, even with the stained glass. I hope you keep writing on this. The thing that struck me about Diana’s article was her saying that her church’s history is not just the history of the WW2 parents, it’s also about a new generation. I know that I’ve often acquiesced to an older generation because of pastoral care issues, etc. But maybe it’s time that we begin hammering these things out for ourselves…. After all, we’re not just meeting in grandma’s house to pray, it’s our house too.

    Both of your comments remind me of my good friend, Beth, a pastor in Louisiana, who got so weary of the post-9-11 “God Bless America” signs all over town, that she put a “God Bless ALL Nations” sticker on her car.

    I wondered what the GBA signs were all about… were they prayers? Were they statements of fact? Were they commands to God? Were they reminders? I think of them as supplications, but they often have that brash, God’s-on-our-side quality….

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