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Methodists Against the Flag By: Mark D. Tooley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, May 17, 2007


The Religious Left often likes to portray religious Americans as idolatrously putting America before God. But these clerics of the Left are more likely just distressed that most American churchgoers decline to share the Left's chronic anti-Americanism.

Most American churches and other places of worship have an American flag somewhere in their sanctuary. Naturally, some mainline church officials are deeply troubled. A recent commentary from an official with the United Methodist Church’s official lobby office explained why the flags should go.

The presence of a national flag in worship can imply endorsement of national policies which often run counter to the teachings of Jesus Christ and our Christian faith,” wrote United Methodist official Clayton Childers for the website of his United Methodist Board of Church and Society. He explained further, with the inevitable Hitlerite comparison: “One need only recall the way the Swastika Flag was displayed prominently in German churches during the Nazi era.”

As though there were no difference between the unquestioning worship of the nation on which Nazi Germany insisted and the quiet placement of flags in the vast majority of American places of worship of nearly all denominations! (Hint: in the former, a totalitarian state mandated that all churches incorporate the pagan theology of National Socialism into their liturgy and creeds.)

In his commentary, Childers continued: “It is much better for the church to maintain a position of healthy distance from the state where it can see clearly and maintain a tempered perspective. Martin Luther King Jr. believed that the church should neither dominate the state nor be dominated by the state but should be the conscience of the state. To do this the church must be eternally vigilant to maintain a position from which it can prayerfully provide prophetic social critique. The church must never allow itself to be co-opted by the state as an unquestioning tool of the state's agenda. Co-option is especially a danger in times of war.”

Childers’ agency, of course, as the largest lobby office of the Religious Left in Washington, D.C., harshly opposes the current Iraq War. But Childers referenced a 1993 article in another United Methodist publication, which also explained why the American flag should not appear in United Methodist sanctuaries. The hostility to the United States, to patriotism, and to the concept of the nation-state itself dates primarily to the 1960’s. Up until then, liberal mainline Protestants continued to see America as a providential instrument for justice. The Vietnam War and the radical theologies of the religious counterculture transformed the United States, in their minds, from a divinely inspired tool into an oppressive and irredeemable empire.

We must recall the life and ministry of Jesus in which he called for the liberation of the oppressed and critically challenged the ‘principalities and powers’ of his day,” Childers waxed in his United Methodist commentary.  “Can anyone imagine on Palm Sunday, as Jesus came riding into Jerusalem on a donkey, the crowds flying a Roman Flag — a sign of the Pax Romana made possible through military conquest and brutal occupation, promoted social slavery and stigma, patriarchy and violence? This would have been an endorsement of the oppressors of Palestine and never would have happened.”

The trendy assumption among the Religious Left today is that America is the new “empire,” every bit as hostile to Jesus Christ as was Rome at the time of the Savior’s crucifixion. Childers rightly recalled that the crowds of Jerusalem did not wave Roman ensigns. The Jews, of course, were a people under Roman occupation, and would hardly have been enthusiastic about the symbols of their uninvited rulers.

American places of worship, in contrast, are filled with free people who choose their own rulers and participate in their own governance. The flag that they voluntarily display in their churches celebrates their freedoms and national sovereignty (which the Religious Left also despises). But Childers further warned that the early Christians of Rome did not fly Roman flags but instead “suffered great persecution for refusing to pledge their supreme allegiance to the state and profess ‘Caesar is Lord.’”

In fact, the early Christians were quite willing to acknowledge the proper authority of their civil authorities, as commanded by Christ, who famously ordained, “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.” What the early Christians would not do was ascribe to Caesar a divine authority that they, along with the Jews, would ascribe only to God. But Childers still fretted that “the United States flag's presence in the church is too easily confused as an object of worship.”

Confused by whom? The typical place of worship in America is full of symbols that reflect the congregation’s own denominational and cultural history. It is doubtful that Childers or others in the Religious Left would ever worry that their own favored liturgical symbols – “peace” banners, Children’s Defense Fund stoles, and “diversity” rainbow paraphernalia – would be “confused as an object of worship.”    

Childers opined that many United Methodists live outside the United States, whose flag therefore could “send a message which limits our global vision and sense of oneness with the global community.” Of course, United Methodists in Africa or the Philippines are not expected to include U.S. flags in their sanctuaries and presumably include their own national flags. Christians of every nationality are expected to love and serve their nation, no less than Christ loved His own people, while recognizing clearly that God rules above all.

The Religious Left will never complain about the national loyalties or patriotic symbols of non-American Christians, especially in the Global South. Indeed, under the rubric of Liberation Theology, the Religious Left often celebrated the nationalisms and even violent revolutions of ostensibly oppressed peoples. It is the emblems of American history and culture that uniquely offend the Religious Left.

For the Religious Left, forever frustrated that more Americans do not share its views, the American flag is an angry “sentry” that pollutes the church, glorifying imperial crimes, and blocking the stateless utopia about which the Religious Left dreams. But most religious Americans simply see the American flag on the side wall of their sanctuaries as a quiet reminder of their own history, civil duties, and cultural blessings, for which they give thanks to God.

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Mark D. Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is the author of Taking Back the United Methodist Church.


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