Does the American flag belong in church?
Our allegiance belongs to God, not state power.
New York — I've attended church weekly all my life, and virtually every congregation with whom I've worshipped displays an American flag. It often stands close to the communion table, probably a church's most sacred spot. Some denominations even recite the Pledge of Allegiance – multiple times. One church I visited in the Midwest began Sunday School with the Pledge but apparently lacked faith it would stick. We interrupted morning worship with another recitation.
All in all, American Christians seem as devoted to their government as Ruth was to Naomi. But should they be? Do either the flag or the Pledge have any place in the Lord's house? Is congregational commitment to the republic for which these emblems stand consistent with Biblical Christianity? Is political power?
Throughout history, Christians have usually been on the wrong side of government. The Roman Empire tortured Jesus Christ to death, then criminalized his friends. Later regimes continued that tradition. They routinely hunted down, imprisoned, tortured, and slaughtered people who clung to their Lord instead of the law. Something like 70 million Christians have died for their faith since AD 33.
The church thought to resolve this by grabbing government's reins. But the same brutality soon surfaced. Believers weren't safe unless they practiced precisely as their brothers in power dictated.
Incredibly, Christians suffered the same tortures and death at the hands of "Christian" rulers as they had from others. At various times in various nations, "Christians" have persecuted their fellows for acknowledging the pope, refusing to acknowledge the pope, baptizing adults instead of babies, baptizing babies instead of adults, etc. Tragically, Christians high on power forsake the Ten Commandments and the golden rule as quickly as anyone else.
The trouble doesn't lie with Christianity but with power. The two have always been at odds. Political power is a synonym for "physical force," for bending people to government's will regardless of their inclinations, interests, or welfare. But Christianity is love – power's antidote. Anyone who sincerely follows Jesus Christ will never try to compel others – because he didn't. Jesus sought to persuade by word and example, loving men so much that he let them judge for themselves the truth of his teachings.
No wonder the state wars against so potent an adversary. Its antagonism compelled America 's Founding Fathers to decree, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The Founders weren't only insulating government from Christianity, as today's secularists insist; they also hoped to protect Christianity from the poison of political power. A free society flourishes because of its families, schools, marketplace and churches. If these become mere outposts of government, if the state subsumes them so that they advance its agenda rather than curtail its power, the country sinks into totalitarianism.
How disastrous, then, that many American Christians are too busy courting government to curb it. Preachers vie to endorse political candidates, cozying up to them rather than calling them to account. Churches no longer disdain money taken from people via taxation; instead, they complain that their handouts under the Faith-Based Initiative weren't big enough.
And many support a war in Iraq that has killed tens of thousands and put civilians – including Iraq's brave but tiny Christian community – in great tribulation. Sadly, I have yet to hear any American church pray for Iraqis as they endure the persecution, poverty, and pain this war has inflicted. But congregants who are Americans first and Christians second often ask God to bless our troops on Sundays.
If they think about it at all, most believers probably see the flag and Pledge as tokens of affection for their country. In reality, both symbolize an infatuation with government. Churches hope to change circumstances through political force when Jesus called us to change hearts and minds with his message. We cheat ourselves, trusting the state's inferior and transitory power instead of the Almighty.
We also enhance rather than counter the state's supremacy. Our "patriotism" is really nationalism: unquestioning and enthusiastic support of political power. Christians eager to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's have the rest of the week to do so. But the things rendered should not include our allegiance. That belongs to God. Why taint our worship by pledging it to the state's flag instead?
On trial for his life, Jesus Christ asserted his divinity while denying that his kingdom was of this world. It's ironic that Americans who accept the first truth devoutly reject the latter.
• Becky Akers is a freelance writer and historian. She worships in Protestant churches.