It will come as a great surprise to most Americans to be told that while all other nations have a flag, none of them have anything like a Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. None of them focus on their flag in the words of their national anthem. None of them have a “Flag Day” holiday. None of them have an extensive official protocol for the display and treatment of their flag. In most other countries the national flag is found on government buildings but otherwise is not seen much.
But in America when it comes to the Stars and Stripes too much is never enough. So on Independence Day and other nationalistic holidays the flag is promoted more than ever. And Christian in lockstep fashion evangelistically push the flag. You find this in circulating emails. You can see it on Facebook and other social media sites. Pictures of the American flag are posted and “friends” are guilt-mongered into reposting the image. Other posts can be seen declaring how proud one friend or another is to stand with hand over heart and say, “I pledge allegiance to the flag…” And then there are those posts complaining that the Pledge of Allegiance is not said often enough in school or… wherever.
And none of this seems at all excessive to those who do these things. Flag extremism is the norm. But why should it be so for Christians? Aren’t we a people of the cross? But many blend the cross and flag and end up with a god that looks suspiciously American.
I came across a little piece one July in a church newsletter entitled, “I Am the American Flag.” Written in first person, it glorified the flag in the strongest possible terms. This is a portion of it:
I am the flag of the United States of America. My name is old Glory. I fly atop the world’s tallest buildings. I stand watch in America’s halls of justice. I fly majestically over institutions of learning. I stand guard with power in the world. Look up and see me.
I stand for peace, honor, truth and justice. I stand for freedom. I am confident. I am arrogant. I am proud. When I am flown with my fellow banners, my head is a little higher, my colors a little truer.
I bow to no one! I am recognized all over the world. I am worshipped. I am saluted. I am loved. I am revered. I am respected and I am feared.
When I saw this I was disgusted. This immoderate exaltation of the flag is nothing less than idolatrous. What does it say about a church that would distribute such a personified self-adulation of the American flag which claims, “I bow to no one….I am worshipped….I am revered”? No doubt those who chose to distribute this piece would deny it is contains anything that smacks of idolatry. How could they do otherwise? The fact is that the power of idolatry is best preserved by remaining unacknowledged.
Christians from other countries more clearly see the flag extremism for what it is and recognize the danger it contains. Theologian Geiko Muller-Fahrenholz wrote that when he was young he came to America and served a church in Philadelphia. The senior minister and his family spent their vacation in Vermont at the family’s summer house. Every morning the grandfather would gather all the children together before the flagpole.
One of the children would be selected to hoist the flag. Standing in line with their right hands over their hearts, the rest saluted the American flag. Muller-Fahrenholz, a German who had knew how Christianity had been subverted by nationalism in his country, thought to himself, “This is how it begins.” In a wonderful home, in wholesome events, during important celebrations, the emotional connection to the flag is forged. In the process national pride is reinforced. It becomes something seen as natural, right and beyond question, indeed, holy.
While I believe there is a form of patriotism that is benign and appropriate for Christians -and have written about it here- I find myself wary of much that is regarded as patriotic in America. So I won’t be saying any pledges to the flag on the Fourth of July or any other day. I won’t be hanging the flag outside my home. I won’t be praising the flag by singing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
But I will be thankful for the good that can be found in America. I will continue praying for and working for the nation to become more just and peaceful. And I will also continue to remember that the United States is not the kingdom of God and it does not deserve my highest loyalty. I will remember that the scriptures declare, “Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales…Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the creator of the ends of the earth” (Psalm 40:15, 25).
Craig M. Watts is the minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Coral Springs, Florida and Co-Moderator of Disciples Peace Fellowship. He authored the book Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State (Doulos Christou Press: Indianapolis, 2005) and his essays have appeared in many journals such as Cross Currents, Encounter, the Otherside, DisciplesWorld and more. Craig blogs on the Disciples Peace Fellowship’s, “Shalom Vision.”
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