Order is important

Driving just west of The Big Chicken — Marietta, Georgia’s famous landmark — yesterday, I passed the expansive Roswell Street Baptist Church. A large American flag was blowing in the brisk wind — with a much, much smaller Christian flag on the same chain below it.

What is the message here? I wondered while trying to not judge.

But the size and prominence of the American flag — with the hardly noticeable Christian flag below — may well communicate a (perhaps unintended) message.

It raises the very important question: Are we Christian Americans or American Christians?

Civil religion — the mixing of religious faith and nationalism to the point of being indistinguishable — is hard to address rationally. Those who embrace that perspective are very emotional about their feelings and see any challenge as unpatriotic.

I learned of another good Baptist church that simply forgot to have Communion for nearly two years when without a pastor. But shortly thereafter, someone told me, “all hell broke loose when someone moved the American flag.”

For ministers and other church leaders who are both patriotic Americans and committed Christians — but understand the priorities and differences between the two — are often challenged by church members who cannot.

But order really is important.


  1. John,

    A church I served in the B’ham area did that same thing while I was youth minister. I made a comment about it in my youth message the day after 9/11. Needless to say, I did not last another month at that church.

    I did not know if you attended CBF in Memphis last year, but I noticed something very interesting at FBC Memphis, at the Missionary Comissioning Service. The Chrisian Flag and the American flag were both displayed, but the Christian Flag was displayed in the place of honor.

    I did some research on flag ettiquette, and the American flag, if displayed, must always have the place of honor, whether atop a single flag pole, or the right of a speaker’s podium, etc.

    I wondered when I saw this at FBC Memphis, if the placing of the Christian Flag in the place of honor was more contraversial than churches that have stopped displaying both flags in the sanctuary all together.

    We do need to think about what it communicates, in VBS when we pledge the American flag first or displaying the American Flag in the place of honor. I wonder, as one who is thankful to live in the United States, if FBC Memphis’ solution could become the norm, rather than removing the flag all together. I am thankful for all who sacrificed and died for the USA and for freedom, but I am most thankful of the One who died for All and for eternal life.

    Good thoughts. God bless!

  2. I love my country and the freedoms that are provided by our constitution. I love the aspirations contained in that document and in the Declaration of Independence, even though we do not always live up to them. However, I do not believe that the American flag belongs in the church, which is dedicated to the worship of Jesus Christ. I believe that putting the American flag in the sanctuary is a form of idolatry, and puts the country ahead of Jesus as an object of adoration.

    Having the flag there and doing otherwise is a violation of flag etiquette, which is encoded in federal law.

  3. I know of a church near Marietta where the flags had been removed while cleaning the sanctuary. The lady who moved them simply forgot to put them back. By people's reaction on Sunday, you would have thought she had sprouted horns & carried a pitch fork.

    The idea of the American flag inside the sanctuary didn't come about until after WW II. While I am as patriotic as most folks — probaby more so, IMHO — I do not believe we should give the appearance that Jesus is the All American Boy. He is not; He is God. When we display the American flag in the sanctuary, it says that Americans get a higher place at God's Table.

    No, when we worship, come as believers, not Americans or any other nationality.

    The American flag deserves to be treated with honor, but it doesn't deserve to be put on equal footing in the sanctuary. We are there to focus on God, not our national policy or anything else the flag represents.

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  5. John,

    Great Post. In my first church a couple of years ago while raising the flags I jokingly suggested putting the Christian flag on top. The joke was lost on the deacon helping me. She told me that would be disrespectful and inappropriate. It didn’t help when I suggested we were one nation under God. Maybe thats why I didn’t last there?

    Keep up the good work

  6. Good feedback. Two additional thoughts come to mind.
    One, it’s sad that each one of us feels the need to proclaim our patriotism before pointing out the obvious dangers of civil religion.
    Two, as many ministers have discovered, it matters not how rational and clear we make our case. Those who disagree tend to do so out of deep emotion that allows no room for reconsideration.
    The irony, of course, is that a Christian minister can get in deep trouble for suggesting to Christians that our highest commitment is to Christ.

  7. Great post on a very emotional issue. I hate to be cynical, but civil religion is too deeply ingrained in the American psyche to be easily replaced by Biblical Christianity. I know God can do anything, but since he has given us the task of spreading the Good News it is up to us to call the church to revival. Do we have the spiritual kahunas to take on such a task? I am praying and I trust you are, too.

  8. Two things
    Larry Macdonald’s funeral was held At Roswell Street.
    And (Two) I submit you will never understand Marietta until you read all 400 plus pages of Steve Oney’s “And the Dead Shall Rise; The Murder of Mary Phagan”
    Yes, to understand Marietta, you have to undersand the Lynching of Leo Frank which goes right to the heart of the Brumby Rocker near the Big Chicken.

  9. The flagpole at Roswell St. Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., is just one example of the larger struggle with civil religion that is not limited to one congregation or location.

  10. John,

    You raised a point that really needs more discussion. If, as Arce indicates, the placement of the flag in the sanctuary, flying the flag on church grounds, and having patriotic observances in church hours really does equate with idolatry, then serious conversation is needed on this area.

    The problem is that this is a very emotional issue for veterans, for all who lived through WWII and then saw the country’s reaction to Vietnam. There are many hurt feelings.

    As we have seen with racial issues and women’s rights, whether things are clearly right or wrong, when a practice is deeply ingrained in culture, it takes TIME to change. And it takes wisdom, conversation and strategy, not mere rules and immediate actions.

    We need to find ways to combat the subtle dangers of Civil Religion in a way that does not show disrespect for the sacrifices made for this country. And, I know that many did so believing that they were doing God’s will.

    I appreciate this post and thought that “Belief and Behavior” was an appropriate follow up

  11. Steven Miller of UPenn’s new book on Billy Graham, Nixon and the Rise of the GOP in the South goes to the heart of what JPierce is addressing here.
    ABPnews.com has a link to nytimes review.
    Would be stellar indeed if Baps Today could get Charles Marsh to do a review of Miller’s book for Baps Today, as Miller in some ways nuances Billy Graham in a category Marsh placed 60’s Jackson, Ms pastor Doug Hudgins in Marsh’s book God’s Long Summer.
    And with the parables Marsh has for America in the Bush 43 days taking Dietrich Bonhoeffer as his text in Wayward Christian Soldiers; well Marsh take on Miller’s treatise of Graham could be rich indeed.
    Here is hoping Baps Today can get to work on it and have something for us in September.
    Would be stellar indeed.

  12. It seems appropriate that since Jesus came “to all nations,” His church should display flags of all nations, or none. Some TV churches have opted for a globe, which I like. This certainly is a touchy subject, as I discovered when I expressed concerns about our church’s Fourth of July Sunday morning service last year that seemed more worshipful of the flag and the USA than of God.

  13. The comments here were far more informational and helpful than the article.
    As mentioned by Tim, we need to address and clarify the relationship between the Christian flag and the US flag. Patriotism is a grand thing but too many Christians rally harder for America than God.

    • Just noticed I forgot the L in my name.

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