It's Time to Turn and Face the Flag
by Heather Choate Davis
from LF Fall 2019
No one grows up in America without some relationship to the flag. As a girl, I went to a private school where we all lined up by grade in neat rows for the Pledge of Allegiance. In sixth grade, I was part of the team that raised, lowered, and folded the flag gingerly, mindful to the point of anxiety about any part of it touching the ground. But my feeling regarding the flag had nothing to do with my feeling about God. It’s not supposed to. This essential truth is woven into the fabric of the promise of being an American: you don’t have to believe in God to be a good citizen. And being Christian does not make you a better or more important American than anyone else.
Many people in the church would find what I just said to be deeply offensive. Claiming we are offended is our weapon of choice when someone tries to take something precious away from us, regardless of whether or not it’s good or just for us to have it. It’s much easier to double down on the rightness of our unholy alliances than to consider how the prideful merger of faith and flag fouls the aroma of Christ, and keeps those who are thirsting for the love and mercy and wisdom of God from ever stepping foot in a church.
I know. I once was one of them.
At age 33, Christ called me to himself through a crisis right after I’d placed my son in a little Lutheran church and school in our neighborhood. There he recited the Pledge of Allegiance on the playground with his classmates, and I delighted in seeing him learn what it means to be part of a greater whole. Soon I was taking in a similar lesson through the wider lens of Scripture and that sanctuary became, for me, a foretaste of heaven. I don’t remember exactly what day it was when I first noticed it, there, up front, just to the right of the altar (where it had been all along) but the question suddenly resounded in my spirit like a deep gong: Why is there an American flag in the church?
It was hard to get a straight answer. “Because that’s how it’s always been.”
“Because of the Veterans.” “Because this is a Christian nation.” “What’s wrong with you—are you anti-American?” With the certainty and sincerity of a child I’d reply, “But this is not America’s church. It’s Christ’s church.”
I had genuinely believed that those who loved God as much as I had come to would be grateful for the wake-up call that we were not to sully the Bride of Christ with earthly symbols. That they might even say, “Wow, thank you, Heather, for pointing out how we’ve strayed from the mark on this. We’ll take the flag out next week.”
I had a lot to learn.
Years later I started my MA in Theology at Concordia, Irvine. On the very first day one of my professors announced to the class, “If you think that there is only one political party that a Christian can belong to you would be wrong. And please know this: those kinds of assumptions will not be welcome in this classroom.” His words were a preemptive strike against the oft-conflated and pernicious identity of the triune god of church, party, flag. These sorts of conflations need to be intentionally untangled because it’s impossible to take in the fullness of who Jesus is—and who is He calling us to be—while beholden to other fealties. The Reformation was nothing if not proof of that. When it comes to righting a church contaminated with the worldly desires of power, wealth, and empire-building, one that used the “little people” whom God has entrusted to their care to fulfill its agenda, Luther and Melanchthon wrote the original manifesto.
The question of whether or not the church in America in the 21st-century likewise has been contaminated is not really a question at all; it has been played out right before our eyes! Whether with shouts of joy or gnashing of teeth, we’ve all born witness as the pastors and leaders of white Evangelical churches turned a blind eye to abhorrent behavior and gave away their souls to support the most disreputable presidential candidate in U.S. history. They obliterated the lines between the sacred and the profane to secure contrived kingdom wins. They weaponized the flock with the belief that Anglo-American-Christian culture is the divine paradigm. The deeper the hole, the more they—we?—have doubled down.
The pushback from the pulpit has been almost non-existent.
I’ve heard more than a of few of my pastor friends say that, given a choice of letting go of their flag or their Bible, their parishioners might actually choose the latter. Now, the matter of flags in churches is considered to be among the adiophora—things neither commanded nor forbidden. For this reason, the LCMS doesn’t take an official position. Still, it’s clear from the language on the website that they think it’s a discussion worth having. During my first term on the board of directors for the LCMS-PSD, I asked if we might make a recommendation that, in the spirit of creating a true sanctuary from the noise of our daily cultural and political conflicts, that congregations might discuss removing their American flags. Several good and wise pastors dropped their heads like beaten men. They knew all too well that many of their fellow clergymen had tried in vain to fight this good fight, to teach their people that Jesus is the Lord to whom they pledge their full allegiance. The backlash was ferocious. Some even lost their jobs. A highly respected senior pastor of a Lutheran megachurch said, “If I brought this before my elders, I’d be looking for a new call by next week.”
It is hard work getting people to let go of their idols—especially when the false god in our midst at worship is cloaked in that most common of Lutheran sins: resistance to change. Indignantly, many frame their opposition to a flagless church as loyalty to ecclesiastical tradition. “If having a flag in the church is so wrong, then how come it’s always been there?”
Flags first started appearing in Lutheran churches in America during the World Wars, when the loyalties of the primarily German congregations were being called into question. Many congregations felt a need to send a clear signal that they were not Nazi-sympathizers, in order to reassure neighbors of their loyalties to the U.S., so that they could live peaceably in their communities. In other words, the flags were installed as a provisional response to a matter of mistaken identity during a critical moment in history.
I believe we are facing such a moment again today. Because for many Americans—arguably a majority of Americans—the flag displayed at the front of so many churches has become tainted, by association, with the angry rhetoric of a MAGA rally. When we choose to place the flag like a bookend to the cross we undermine the message of a Savior who died “once for all”—for all nations, races, orientations, and ideologies— that all may be one in Him. When the church at large refuses to repent of the damage done by the flags placed in the chancels of hundreds of thousands of Southern churches strong-armed by the KKK into declaring the dual sovereignty of cross and nation, which all but ordained systemic racism in the American Church, we all must live with the stain.
While a flag is not a shibboleth, the refusal to remove one speaks volumes. When mob rule overtakes the church, sin becomes institutionalized; its soul, a ghost town.
There’s plenty to indicate we’re well on our way.
I love the church, and I weep over the damage done to our Christian witness by the politicization of our faith. I long for the day when God’s beloved children can see that we do not dishonor America by removing the flag. We dishonor Christ by keeping it there.
Our distinct Lutheran character—with our love of God’s word, our history of bold truth-telling, and the gift of being small enough to pivot responsively—has all the markings of a clear and present calling to take the lead in the painful, essential work of reclaiming the Church for Christ alone.
Not someday, but now.
Not when things calm down, but in this present moment.
The time has come for God’s prophets to call the question at the local church level: Why do we have a flag in Christ’s church? And what is the cost of keeping it there?
The time has come.
Heather Choate Davis is an L.A-based author, speaker, theologian, and liturgist. You can find her work at https://heatherchoatedavis.com.