Should churches display the U.S. flag in their sanctuaries?
It’s a hot topic that’s been debated in local churches across the nation for some time now.
Usually, it’s the more patriotic congregants who have strong opinions for keeping the flag on display. One gets the impression that if left to their decision, church service would begin with the Pledge of Allegiance before prayer.
Perhaps that’s an unfair caricature, but there can be little doubt that these people exist.
While I was in seminary, this issue was discussed a number of times. I would hear student pastors share stories about how angry congregants would come up to them after a Sunday morning worship service demanding to know why the flag wasn’t present.
Their response was often very compassionate and understanding as they explained to the church members that although there is a time and place for honoring the flag, church was for worshipping God alone.
My seminary colleagues would continue by sharing how this was often an unsatisfactory response, serving only to make the congregants angrier.
They expressed how these kinds of reactions raised serious concerns regarding idolatry and misunderstanding about why we come together to worship on Sunday.
And these stories weren’t exceptional by any means. They were actually quite common.
I recall one student who received an offer to pastor a church share his excitement about the position.
However, he also expressed one major fear when he noticed that the church had an American flag in the sanctuary.
He sought the wisdom from both professors and students alike on how to best handle removing the flag in a caring and timely manner as well as how to respond to upset members.
Stories like this call to mind the story that many of us learned as children – the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who refused to worship the image of gold, upsetting King Nebuchadnezzar.
Yet, I can already anticipate responses from those who would balk at such a comparison. They might say, “Surely, we are not worshipping the flag.”
But is this true? Where does one draw the line between honor and worship? Shouldn’t we reflect more carefully on what it means to “pledge allegiance” to something?
Consider how it is often viewed as noble to spill blood and die for the flag. When the flag touches the ground, we are told to burn it.
We have written customs and policies for it, and when someone chooses to kneel during the anthem as a way of peaceful protest, there is outrage.
If this doesn’t look like a form of worship, I really don’t know what does. No doubt, the flag is treated as sacred.
Perhaps some will contest this and say that it’s not the flag but what the flag represents. Thus, the flag is a sort of icon.
Yet, even the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions don’t treat icons with as much reverence as Americans seem to treat the flag.
And if the flag is merely an icon, perhaps it would be helpful for patriotic Christians to reconsider what is being represented and how best to show honor and respect without veering into what can almost certainly be confused as worship.
So, should churches display the American flag? My own inclination is to say “no.”
But for those pastors who are trying to carefully navigate this conversation with sensitivity, it may not be enough to simply take the flag out of the sanctuary.
That is certainly a good first step, but it would merely be addressing a symptom, not the problem.
Perhaps, with time, pastors can help their congregations distinguish between what it means to show honor and what it means to worship. Learning to see the difference is a skill that will bear much more fruit in the long run.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. Learn more about EthicsDaily.com’s “Emerging Voices” and “U:21” series here.
Tyler Conway is a hospital chaplain in Temple, Texas, and a 2018 graduate of George W. Truett Theological Seminary in Waco, Texas.