Thursday, July 05, 2007

Who or what do we worship on July 4?

The following article appeared in the Lakeland Ledger last weekend. This is an issue we have discussed several times in class, and I agree with the sentiments of the author. Disagree? Leave a comment and let me know why.

Does 'Old Glory' Belong in Church?

cary.mcmullen@theledger.com

Some time back, after church one day, I was talking with some visitors. One gentleman, who was clearly a military veteran, asked - or rather demanded to know - why the American flag was standing off to the side at floor level rather than up front on the elevated chancel.

I knew the answer because at the time I was serving on the church's governing board, and we had to make a decision where to put the flag in our newly built sanctuary. I explained that the board had decided the chancel was reserved for the holy sacraments and the preaching of God's word. But rather than leave the flag out of the sanctuary altogether, it was placed, along with the Christian flag, beside an entrance visible to most of the congregation.

The gentleman went on to complain that the American flag was on the left when it should be on the right, but I declined to argue further. I didn't tell him that in my opinion the flag shouldn't be in the sanctuary at all.

I know that many, like the gentleman visitor, don't agree with me. On Sunday, in anticipation of Independence Day, I'm sure that in many churches the American flag will be paraded down the aisles and placed front and center in celebration of God and country. I certainly am not ashamed of the American flag, but I'm uneasy about putting the symbol of the nation so prominently in a church, or any place of worship. I think it encourages a dangerous idea: that the causes of America are also the causes of God, or worse, that America can be worshiped just like God. Putting the flag in the sanctuary flirts with idolatry.

We hear a lot about American exceptionalism, which holds that we have a special place - even a sacred place - in history, that we are God's chosen people. What we don't realize is how many other nations, in other times and places, have said the same thing before us. I'm afraid Christians have been particularly susceptible to this temptation. For some reason, patriotism and Christian belief are easily fused.

Early 20th-century Europe was chockablock with nationalistic fervor, and every nation competed with the other to claim God was on its side. In Anglican churches, there were cries of "God save the king." In Lutheran churches, it was "God save the Kaiser." In Orthodox churches, it was "God save the Tsar and holy mother Russia."

Even after World War I put an end to most of those monarchies - and millions of lives to boot - this patriotic Christianity didn't go away. I have read that the Nazi propaganda chief, Joseph Goebbels, was married in a church with a Nazi flag draped over the altar.

We rightly recoil at that, but there were plenty of Germans who saw no difficulty with putting the national symbol prominently in the church. "Why can't we worship God and honor our country?" they might have asked.

Ah, but America is different, we say. What about the Pilgrims? Didn't they found Massachusetts as a Christian colony? Somehow I think that those men and women who suffered under the state-sponsored Church of England wouldn't take much comfort from seeing an American flag in a church. They might say we have simply traded one flag for another.

Well, it's not my intention to offend. In general, I can live with those who disagree with me on this. I've never walked out of a church because it had the American flag standing next to the pulpit, although I could imagine doing so if it were draped around the cross.

Like most of you, I am thankful for the blessings of our country, and I pray they might continue. But I also try to remember that God is not nearly as impressed with us as we are with ourselves.

Have a safe Independence Day.

Cary McMullen is religion editor for The Ledger. Read his blog, The Scriptorium, at religion.theledger.com. He can be reached at cary.mcmullen@theledger.com or 863-802-7509.

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