Independence Day is upon us, an appropriate time to wade into a topic which can prove contentious for many congregations – national flags in sanctuary spaces. If your worship space contains a national flag, I would urge you to use our national holiday to reflect upon the meaning and implications of that placement. I would also urge you to consider prayerfully its removal.
My objection to national flags in worship spaces does not rest upon a simple “separation of church and state” argument. Those of us who identify simultaneously as politically progressive and theologically Reformed have too often fallen back on that phrase reflexively and uncritically, especially when critiquing the political involvement of our more conservative and evangelical sisters and brothers. Yet we belong to a tradition that actively encourages us to live out our faith in all spheres of our lives, including the political. We have misunderstood the separation at times, and allowed ourselves to substitute that pithy phrase for a sustained theological argument. There is more to be said here, but in another post.
However, I do believe it is instructive to remember our history whenever we do theology communally. We know that our ancestors lived in times and places where the conflation of national identity with particular expressions of faith led to persecution and to corrupt theology. We don’t have to step back too far into history, either. The Barmen Declaration of the Confessing Church is less than a century old, but its words about the dangers of a co-opted church are still relevant. Composed as a rejection of rise of the Nazi party and the collusion of German Christians with the party, the authors of Barmen wrote:
We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures and truths, as God’s revelation.
When our churches — through our words, our deeds, or our symbolic actions – become too closely identified with the nation in which we exist, we lose the ability to speak prophetically to the nation. When we accept the patronage of the state, we simultaneously diminish our capacity to serve the state in that important way that our Reformed ancestors thought so crucial, namely through prayer and critique, sometimes vigorous critique.
I do not mean to suggest that we check our political selves at the doors of our sanctuaries. Our churches should be places of theologically committed and respectfully conducted political debate. We are Reformed after all, and our heritage demands no less. But worship also reminds us of who we are and of whose we are. Our identity as children of God comes before all other identities. It is an identity which transcends nations. Our church symbols should reflect that truth.
Robert Trawick is an Associate Professor of philosophy and religious studies at St. Thomas Aquinas College. He is a Ruling Elder at Germonds Presbyterian Church in New City, NY and a former moderator of the Hudson River Presbytery.
Thank you for reading and sharing our blog. We hope you find it thought provoking and inspirational. This is our last post for a while. We will be taking our summer Sabbath and we hope that these coming days provide some Sabbath time for you, as well. See you again in September.