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Commentary: Should U.S. flags fly in sanctuaries?


A UMNS Commentary
By the Rev. Clayton Childers*

June 1, 2007  

As a staff member at the United Methodist Board of Church and Society, I am frequently asked questions that require me to go where "angels fear to tread." Questions about displaying national flags in the church's sanctuary take us into that treacherous terrain.


The Rev. Clayton Childers 

Many United Methodist churches maintain a tradition of placing the United States flag in the sanctuary, by the altar, within the chancel, or at another prominent location on the church grounds. I heard of one case in which the U.S. flag actually covered the altar itself. So we must ask: Is this an appropriate use of the national flag from both a Christian and United Methodist perspective?

It is an emotional issue. There are probably four objects that people commonly worship as much, or perhaps more, than God: 1) their mothers; 2) their children; 3) the Bible; and 4) the flag. Without getting into my favorable feelings toward the first three, I will say that, as an American, I do have a special fondness for our national flag.

The flag represents the United States at her best - all the high and noble values that we profess and attempt to uphold as a people: human rights and liberty for all, the rule of law without fear or favor, democracy, equality, religious freedom, freedom to assemble, free speech, a free press, the right of privacy and other rights of individuals, and commitment to the common good. These are values I believe in, and I am proud to be a citizen of a country that proclaims its loyalty to these high principles.

On the other hand, I do not believe in blind loyalty. I cannot affirm the idea of "my country, right or wrong." There are times when the United States has been very wrong in its actions, even outrageously wrong. Until we can own the hard truth of our failures - dare we say "sins" - we can never experience the full and abundant life God would have for us as a people and as one member in the world community of nations.

Denominational discussion

There is no United Methodist policy concerning the use of flags, including national flags, in the sanctuary. However, the Rev. Dan Benedict, retired director of worship resources for the Board of Discipleship, says the use of flags in worship has been discouraged over the years.

"There is no place in our hymnal or Book of Worship, which contain our United Methodist ritual, where there is even a suggestion of bearing the flag in procession, saluting or pledging allegiance to the flag or that the American flag should be in worship," according to Benedict.

“The presence of a national flag in worship can imply endorsement of national policies that often run counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ and our Christian faith.”

Hoyt Hickman, in his 1993 article "Should We Have Flags in the Church? The Christian Flag and the American Flag," raises an important question about an inherent conflict about the appropriate placement of the national flag and the Christian flag in a worship setting.

Hickman notes that the flag code of the United States directs that, "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."

These guidelines imply that while the U.S. flag must be placed in the "superior position," the flag of the Christian church should be placed in the lesser position. When gathered in a worship setting, how can we ask that the symbol of our church and faith take the lesser position?

Though not dealing with this question specifically, The Social Principles of The United Methodist Church do affirm that the church "for years has supported the separation of church and state" and that "our allegiance to God takes precedence over our allegiance to any state." They further summon the church to faithful, prophetic public witness stating: "The church should continually exert a strong ethical influence upon the state, supporting policies and programs deemed to be just and opposing policies and programs that are unjust." (Paragraph 164.V)
From these sources, we can conclude the following:

  • There is no absolute policy established in the Book of Discipline addressing this issue;
  • The practice of flying national flags in the sanctuary is widespread and its validity has been contentiously debated for a number of years;
  • The church is not of one mind on the question;
  • This is an emotional issue for many people;
  • For many Christians, it is a legitimate question of principle and faith that conflicts with the first of the Ten Commandments;
  • The Social Principles call us to faithful, prophetic witness and to affirm our ultimate allegiance in God over state.

'Jesus is Lord'

I believe it is inappropriate and unwise to display the U.S. flag in United Methodist services of worship.
We must remember that the church's confession "Jesus is Lord" was actually a political statement and a direct challenge to both the empire and the emperor. Many Christians paid for their singular loyalty to Christ with their lives.

We must recall the life and ministry of Jesus in which he called for the liberation of the oppressed and critically challenged the "principalities and powers" of his day.

We must recall the witness of the early church. The first Christians did not fly flags of the Roman Empire in their places of worship; in fact, they suffered great persecution for refusing to pledge their supreme allegiance to the state and profess "Caesar is Lord."

The flag's presence in the church is too easily confused as an object of worship. In a worship setting, nothing should come before the center of our faith in whose presence we have gathered to worship, the Triune God.

“Symbols matter. And the placements of symbols carry an unspoken message.”

The United Methodist Church is a global church in a shrinking world. In fact, one in five United Methodists live in nations other than the United States. The presence of the U.S. flag in worship therefore can send a message that limits our global vision and sense of oneness.

The presence of a national flag in worship can imply endorsement of national policies that often run counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ and our Christian faith.

If a national flag is used in worship, I believe it should be used in tandem with the Christian flag and that the Christian flag, not the national flag, should be placed on the right hand of the speaker in the place of highest honor. The congregation should understand that this is done to demonstrate that our ultimate loyalty and allegiance must be to God alone.

I agree entirely with Hickman's conclusion that "as American Christians, we honor the cross and we honor the flag; but we keep them separate. An American flag used in the worship of the universal church is no more appropriate than hanging a cross in a civil courtroom used by Americans of all religions."

Ultimate loyalty

In many of our United Methodist churches, the flag stands like a sentry in a corner of the sanctuary or within the church's chancel, silently blessing the proceedings and being blessed in the process. It stands, seldom acknowledged but ever present.
There are rules of etiquette for proper display, written with the U.S. flag in mind. If there is a processional, the U.S. flag is first in line. If there is a place of highest honor, it belongs to the U.S. flag. If there are pledges of allegiance, the U.S. flag is always first with all other pledges an afterthought.
The unspoken message is that our ultimate loyalty belongs not to God and country but to country and God. Do we hear what we are saying? Does the flag stand in judgment of the church or is the flag, too, like the rest of creation, always under the judgment of God.

Symbols matter. And the placements of symbols carry an unspoken message.

The U.S. flag's special position of constant preeminence says one thing; the Gospel of Christ says something else.

*Childers is a clergy member of the South Carolina Conference and Director of Annual Conference Relations for the United Methodist Board of Church and Society.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org .

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