|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.
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?
The Rev. Clayton Childers
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
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
"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
“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
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
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
“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
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."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org .
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