Freedom, Faith, And The American Flag

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There’s a Dutch flag hanging in the front of our home this week! It’s the start of the high, holy days of Tulip Time in Holland, Michigan. Additionally fueling our Dutch pride this past week, April 30 was a momentousness Queen’s Day in the Netherlands (that’s the Homeland for you non-Dutch folks).  My grandmother, an immigrant from “the north“ of the Netherlands (Groningen), was also born on April 30, so our family has always had more than one “queen” to honor on this special day. But Queen Beatrix has now abdicated to her son, Willem-Alexander. Because Willem’s birthday is April 27 we’ll now celebrate King’s Day on April 27, instead of Queen’s day on April.

Usually we have an American flag flying out front as well for most of the summer. Winter is just more difficult in West Michigan; so I guess you could say I’m a fair weather flag-flyer (but I’m also quite pragmatic).

There is an American flag in my home church as well. But I’m very much aware that we do not display the American flag in the sanctuary of Hope Church. We do display it in the narthex or gathering area at various seasons of the year, like Memorial Day weekend, and Independence Day. The worship committee at Hope Church regularly gets correspondence about this, of course. People have very strong yet differing ideas about that American flag; and they often have very little reticence in sharing those views.

I have on more than one occasion heard a former church attender (not limited to just Hope Church, mind you) explain with much vigor why they will no longer attend services at a church that won’t display the American flag in the sanctuary. The line of thinking is this: Men and women have fought for our freedoms, including our religious freedom. These people served the US military and placed their lives on the line for our country. So the flag should be displayed in sanctuaries because we wouldn’t have the same freedom to worship if it weren’t for the service and sacrifice made by our military men and women.

My family is full of men and women who have served our country: My dad, a brother, a sister, my brother-in-law, my uncles. My life has also been touched by friends, chaplain colleagues, patients, hospital workers, and neighbors who have all served in the military. I wish I could fully convey the tremendous respect I have for their willingness (or duty) to serve and the deep empathy I have for the burdens they carry. Chaplains who serve in military are folks with whom I occasionally get to rub shoulders. I love them, not just for what they do, but for who they are and how they represent God’s presence in troubling places and among vulnerable people.

I have no doubt that military service changes people’s lives. The commitment, sacrifice, and dedication are highly, seriously, and deeply commendable. The injuries—physical, mental, spiritual, are awful. The demands of leaving family, friends, and all things fair behind are unmatched. I suspect that for most people , their two or three years of service has permanently affected them. I think that 2 minutes of combat would change my life forever.

Furthermore, I have been part of more honor guard moments in funerals and memorial services than I’ve ever counted. Honor guards crystallize the pride and respect we pay to those who served in the military. These are deeply moving, respectful, symbolic rituals. For many of the people I’ve been privileged to honor and bless in occasions such as this, it can sometimes seem that their love one’s military service has become their solitary contribution of any good to the world. I will often urge families to share ways their loved one gave of self, or engaged in meaningful activity and service other than militarily. But it sometimes seems that once someone serves in the military we are not accustomed to thinking of any of the other ways they have served God, neighbor, country, or church.

Again, I deeply appreciate their service to our country, just as I appreciate the service of my family members and colleagues. However, (you knew this was coming…right?) my loyalty to the practice of my faith is not dependent on anyone’s military service. My ability to worship doesn’t depend on the freedom of this country. I would hope that most people of faith would worship no matter the nature of freedom or oppression (remember, the church has often thrived under oppression). Please do not misunderstand me! I cherish my freedom – which takes intention, by the way, because freedom is incredibly easy to take for granted. But having the American flag in a sanctuary does not contribute to the worship of God, the ruler of the heavens and the earth and of all nations upon the earth. So I won’t sugarcoat it, I get an almost-sick-to-my-stomach uneasiness with the equation of an American flag as the foundation of my ability to worship. Please allow me to explain.

I highly value public worship. It brings the people of God together to join in focusing our attention on God’s work in us, and  offering our praise to God. I appreciate when worship is done well, respectfully, creatively, and when it reflects the range of human emotion as we direct our worship to God. I also care deeply about the symbols we use in worship. I come from a Dutch-Reformed heritage that has a strong suspicion of symbols (just take a look inside of John Calvin’s church in Geneva: it’s almost naked). The church where I grew up was known as “The Plain Church.” Again, there was a skepticism of symbols becoming items of worship rather than tools to direct our worship.

The Church (universal) is not limited to one country, thankfully. Such strong identification between “Christian” and “American” seems very dangerous to me. For one thing, too closely equating “American” with “Christian” can lead to a very short view of church history. The Church has been around a lot longer in other parts of the world than it has been in the US. Perhaps that should be obvious. But when we get too narrow in our thinking we sometimes forget what a wide and deep and diverse fellowship we are a part of as Christians.

Consider with me a non-Christian’s point of view for a moment. If being American means being Christian (that could be a year’s worth of blogs in itself, especially in our current political atmosphere), and Christians claim for themselves the American flag, then what happens to Jewish people? Muslim Americans? Native Americans (First people)?  The very freedom that the flag represents – especially religious freedom – is intended to honor the faiths of many, not just Christians.

What do others see when we too closely affiliate the American flag with the Christian faith? I have several friends from other countries who have commented on how obsessed Americans tend to be with our flag. These friends note that while they are very proud of their home country, they have far fewer flags flying. They wonder about the desire of Americans to have the US flag everywhere. Have you ever been an American tourist abroad somewhere and cringed to see how other Americans are representing you in a foreign land? If we really want to be concerned about what represents America abroad, you’d think we’d want to be a bit more aware of how we present ourselves here on our own soil.

Obviously, when questions about the American flag in a sanctuary arise there is a lot to consider. It will probably always be a loaded the issue. In one family’s view, their loved one suffered serious injury, engaged in amazing bravery, and was able to seek help despite those injuries as he served in the US military. They associate the church’s unwillingness to display the American flag in the sanctuary as a dismissal of the ways they honor their father.

That particular family’s strong association of father+flag+faith represents to me a very limited scope of family, faith, and patriotism, and it seems unfortunate. My wish for them is to see their father in a much broader spectrum of service; to practice their own faith in a wider range of expression, and to live out their patriotism beyond reciting the stories about their father. What about their own acts of service, citizenship, and community involvement? How might they live out the freedom they so strongly cherish, so that they can be symbols of gracious followers of Jesus?

Unfortunately, most conversations about the US flag are so full of emotion that getting to these other issues (or unpacking the emotionally-laden issues) is almost impossible. So, I would invite you to dialogue with me about how we can open up the conversation? How can we hold nationalism in check with a faith that is much deeper, wider, broader, and higher than all of the countries of our little world?

Until next time,

Cindi Veldheer DeYoung

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4 thoughts on “Freedom, Faith, And The American Flag

  1. Cindi, you handle what is a very difficult and personal subject matter for many people with tact and grace. I think your own deep ties to a military family and you other close connections with women and men who have served lend much credibility to your voice on the subject and also speak powerfully about your conviction and willingness to speak up. One of my fears as a pastor still looking for a parish is finding a church with a long history of displaying the American flag in the sanctuary and knowing when and how to bring up my discomfort with it.

    But I do also want to clarify – being German/Irish/English and ecclesial mutt and not native to the Reformed tradition I now find myself in – that I have much less uneasiness with symbols in worship if they are Christian symbols. For instance, I feel just as comfortable walking into an ornate Eastern Orthodox or Roman Catholic Sanctuary as I do that of Hope Church. In fact one of the many reasons I love Hope is that it tends to be just a tad bit more ornate with Christian symbols than some of the other “plain churches” in our tradition.

  2. I have a friend (I’ll refrain from mentioning the name, since I haven’t asked) with whom I had a long discussion about this a few years ago. The friend is actively involved in the military and, to my surprise, is strong in the believe that flags do not belong in churches. Here’s the logic: flags belong in institutions that gain their authority from the government and owe allegiance to it: post offices, schools, courts, etc.

    The church neither gains its authority nor owes allegiance to the US government, so a flag is inappropriate. FWIW, inappropriate, in the same way that a Christian cross would be in a courtroom or public school.

    Certain symbols belong in certain places. I think using symbols (especially ones with strength) in places where they don’t belong is actually disrespectful both to the context AND the symbol. I remember learning flag etiquette in boy scouts as a child. One of the things I learned was that flags aren’t “decorations.” So, in respect, I don’t wear flags on T-shirts or underwear (but I would find it totally appropriate to wear on a public school’s basketball uniform).

    You are so right when you say that “most conversations about the US flag are so full of emotion that getting to these other issues (or unpacking the emotionally-laden issues) is almost impossible.” I think the best starting place is mutual respect. Ministers often (I’ve seen it and done it) simply say “flags don’t belong in church” and turn it into a hill to die on. I agree, they don’t… but perhaps it helps to point out that they don’t belong in church BOTH because it’s inappropriate from a CHURCH perspective AND inappropriate from a FLAG one.

    Grace and peace,
    `tim

  3. Great post Cindi. I have to say, I wasn’t expecting to agree with everything you said. Not because I think flags belong in churches–they don’t. But because I thought you were going to be very anti-civil religion. I happen to support civil religion–to a point.

    My reasoning behind this is not because I think God has uniquely blessed the U.S., or that we are God’s “favorite”, which are two ideas that civil religion conveys far too often. I support civil religion because it is one of the things that holds this massive U.S. (both in terms of land mass and cultural diversity) together. Unlike some other countries, we are are not small geographically. We do not all share the same cultural control, like China, for instance. So we invoke the name of God in the function of our democracy because it’s a concept we can all relate too.

    Now, maybe you are anti-civil religion. That’s perfectly okay. Dr. Voskuil would agree with you. I’m just coming from a political science undergrad background. I especially love what you said about the Church not being confined to any one country. This is definitely one of the flaws of civil religion. I wish we could broaden our view of what the Church is so that we can more easily see the movement of the Spirit in the world.

  4. I do not have strong feelings one way or the other on the issue, but I’d like to share an anecdote. Some time in what I assume is the recent past, the two flags (U.S. and Christian) that have from the founding of our church stood in the front corners of our worship center disappeared. Apparently nobody missed them. Yesterday I was looking in a storage attic and found them wound up and unceremoniously stacked on top of the rubble that occupies a corner of the room.

    I went to our one and only Pastor, who has overall responsibility for worship decisions, and politely asked if it was his intent that the flags be removed from the worship center. I acknowledged that some people find that objectionable, and I was okay with that. However, he said he was unaware that the flags had been removed and could not recall anything that might have led to their removal. We agreed I should return them to the place they have always stood, and with another person’s help I did prior to the service. I think we got through the service without anyone noticing they are back.

    If I know our congregation as well as I think I do, it’s not surprising they noticed neither their absence nor their return. The flags are no more revered than the light switches on the walls. That’s both pathetic and comical. Because if someone were to make a motion at a leadership or congregational meeting to remove the flags, I do believe sparks would fly. When the pastor was new, he learned the hard way not to neglect to take time during worship to honor the military veterans on the days set aside to honor them;

    Politically, I’m a mix of conservative, moderate, libertarian and liberal..As far as the U.S. flag goes, I appreciate it, but I seriously considered burning one on the street in front of my house the day of the Iraq invasion. I did not, however. Perhaps for the same reason I prefer that the U.S. and Christian flags adorn the front of our worship center, right next to the light switches. Peace with my neighbors.

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