Wednesday, July 8, 2015


For this week's newspapers, I answered a reader question about displaying flags in church:  

Q:  Why is the American flag often displayed in the sanctuary of churches?  Is it appropriate to have a symbol of the nation in the midst of the worship of God, or does it violate the separation of church and state? 

In spite of the fact that flags have been present for as long as most presently-living individuals can remember, the installation of flags in church sanctuaries is actually a relatively recent and primarily American development. 

The earliest Christians would certainly not have had national symbols among them when they gathered, because they were considered criminals by the Roman Empire for refusing to worship Caesar as god, and throughout Medieval Europe, flags and other national symbols were typically considered something for the ruling classes, and not displayed among the common people or in their churches. 

When the American Revolution began, patriotic sentiments rose among citizens, churches with a more uniquely American ethos began to see the flag displayed outside of churches, sometimes draped from the pulpit for certain occasions and carried in Sunday School or Vacation Bible School processions.  This grew in frequency during the Civil War, but was still not common among more internationally oriented churches, such as Lutherans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics. 

The two World Wars of the 20th century, and the racial and ethnic biases that accompanied them, are largely responsible for the wider acceptance of flag display inside of church buildings, even moving them from the entryways or fellowship halls right up into the front of the church itself.  Today, there is no Canon Law regarding flag display, and it is left to the Diocese or Congregation to decide among Roman Catholics.  Flag display is more disputed among the Orthodox, who do not typically have as close a relationship with governments as the Roman Church. 

For Lutherans, who were some of the last holdouts against flag display, and other people who were ethnically German, World War 1 was the advent of flag display in their churches as a way of refuting accusations that they were sympathizers with the Kaiser in Germany because they still conducted services in German.  In World War 2, flag display became nearly universal in order to avoid similar accusations, and German worship also declined rapidly at this time in favor of English. 

The final volley which cemented flag display in churches was the Flag Day proclamation in 1954, in which President Eisenhower signed the act adding the words “under god” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  Coupled with the patriotism which accompanied the Cold War, this convinced most of the remaining holdouts to end their opposition to flag display in churches, and the Russian Orthodox also began adopting flag display at this time because of accusations of Soviet sympathies for conducting services in Russian. 

Today, support for flag display in churches is common, but not as common as it was in the Cold War era.  One concern raised about the display of flags in churches is that it gives the appearance that the nation or its government are being worshipped or that they have a place equal to or nearly-equal to God.  Others raise the objection that the Church is an international body which is composed of all nations, and therefore the appearance of loyalty to a particular nation is inappropriate. 

Others are uneasy with the possibility of giving the appearance that the church endorses the actions of the nation.  This fear arose in the past during wars which might have been considered unjust.  Similar concerns are rising again today when the laws of the nation are becoming more at odds with the teachings of the Church, and the likelihood that the government will become openly hostile to certain churches and their members is rising. 

On the other hand, some point to the fact that obedience to lawful authority is a virtue promoted in the Fourth Commandment and that the New Testament encourages believers to submit to governing authorities, assuming it obvious that obedience to God outweighs loyalty to the nation. 

Today, with a population of pastors and members who are farther removed from the two World Wars and the Cold War, we may very well see more careful examination of the practice of displaying the national flag in churches, but the ultimate conclusion and how that will impact continued display of the flag remains to be seen.  

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