The Case Against The Flag On The Chancel

(photo credit: Martin Doblemeier, Bonhoeffer)

As we know from the stories of martyrs like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the National Socialist Party of Germany – circa 1940 – was unforgiving to church leaders who opposed them. Including people such as Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth, many German clergy signed a mutual agreement – called the Barmen Declaration – which stated their unity in disagreement with the German church and the Nazis.

For it's part, much of the church in Germany became friendly with the party. Many chose to sign agreements stating loyalty to the party in return for their relative autonomy. The Catholic Church in Germany was a chief facilitator of these concordats. In many churches, it wasn't uncommon to see swastikas hanging next to paraments, signifying the liturgical colors.

Imagine that, a symbol that your church is only granted the right to exist by the party whose sign adorns your sanctuary. Your worship of God is subject to approval by the government.

Fast forward to modern day. No church or religious group in this country – no matter what the crazies on the radio say – is forced to sign any type of agreement with the government in order to exist. No clergy person faces death – or really any penalty – for saying what it is they believe. You know, other than the blowback they get when they say something with which people disagree – as is the risk anyone takes when taking advantage of their first amendment rights.

So, in summary so far, there is no resemblance between 1930's and 40's Nazi Germany, and modern-day American religious life.

Our government isn't involved in the affairs of our churches, so why is there an American flag poised on or near the chancel (or stage) in many (of not most) American churches?

This is not a question with one answer, so I'll attempt to preempt most of them. Most people are proud of their country – and due to it's rights granted to religious peoples – the flag is a reminder of that. For others, it goes deeper. In my first parish, there was an older gentleman (named Jim) who schooled me on his reasoning. He had parachuted into France on D-Day. He fought for this country. His efforts and sacrifices made it possible – as the argument goes – for you and I to have our first amendment rights. The flag was a memorial to all with whom he had served and a continued reminder of the importance of what they did.

I tried to move the flags – American and “Christian” flag – and got an ear-full for my troubles. I appreciated the hell out of that ear-full.

To be sure, I believe that his efforts, the efforts of my grandfathers and all those who had gone before (and after) them make it possible for us to exercise the rights given to us by the constitution.

That being said, what does it say when we feel we need to display the flag in such a prominent location – in the church? In my mind, I go back to seeing the pictures of churches adorned with swastikas and governments giving churches permission to be churches. Mind you, it's not at gun-point or the threat of hanging, but it stinks of acquiescence to someone other than God for the privilege to worship him.

I certainly understand and appreciate the viewpoint of someone like Jim. Honestly, I agree with him to a certain extent. My problem comes in when I turn my attentions to God – which I am often want to do.

Does God need the flag to do what God wants to do? Can I worship God unless that flag is prominently displayed just behind the praise team? Is God's authority meaningless without that flag present in worship?

If I vociferously protest against the flag being moved, what exactly am I arguing against?

I have many opinions I'm willing to express in a variety of different arenas. None of my opinions is so set in stone, that new evidence presented to me has not chance of having an impact on my thinking. In short, I am willing to entertain arguments to the contrary – that do not include appeals to patriotism (because that's not what this issue is about).

However, as of this writing, I believe that the Christian's insistence upon the flag being present so prominently during worship is blasphemous. That is, it is a recognition of something worldly as vital to the community of faith.

In my opinion, no Christian or church needs that flag to sit at the feet of God.

That being said, if it is so big a deal for you, I'm not going to put up too much of a fuss.


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