On Patriotic Idolatry and the Christian Flag

I’ve written before on patriotic idolatry, something that infects a significant segment of American evangelicalism. I appreciated the recent Reformation 21 post by Donny Friederichsen on what he called patriot-olotry.

When I was a child I was part of conservative churches that typically had both the American flag and the Christian Flag on display, and during kids programs, such as Awana, we would pledge allegiance to both. The Christian Flag itself exists as an odd phenomenon, with American patriotism coopted and christianized. The creedal and sacramental components of the church that truly unify are replaced by a pseudo-political sign, with a pledge that mimics the pledge to the American flag. I do not think it is coincidence that the Christian Flag is most popular in churches who do not know or confess the creed, and whose sacramental practice is lacking, at best. It is also not coincidental that the Christian Flag is never present without the American flag, and accompanied by strong, conservative patriotism.

The flag as the visible symbol of Christianity and faith takes its form from the political context in which it is used. The American flag is so closely identified with the United States as a country, and particularly the American military, that to show disrespect to the flag is understood as disrespect to what it symbolizes. Flag burning is chosen as a form of protest for its clear imagery, and people who find the practice disgusting are revolted precisely because of what it represents. The Christian Flag is in use in order to communicate what flags always are used for: to symbolize the organization, kingdom or country, to which the flag corresponds. And a symbol often employed by fundamentalists and evangelicals does not find its source in the church, but from political patriotism.

And yet the American flag always takes primacy. In the pledges to both, the American Pledge of Allegiance goes first. Flag etiquette requires that even in a church that the American flag be given the place of honor. As a kid I once pointed out to an adult Awana volunteer that the Christian Flag should command more allegiance that the American flag; after all, one represented a country, the other represented our God. His response was, “No, without what the American flag represents, without battles for freedom that the United States has fought, the Christian Flag would not even be able to fly. The American flag secured the freedom to fly the Christian Flag. We must always give the most honor to the American flag.”

The Christian Flag, as a symbol of Christ, borrows its form from a government, and is secondary to that sign of the nation. This is what should be expected of a Christian culture infected by a patriotic idolatry. Its language, liturgies, and symbols mimic the political culture, and even then, remain secondary to the language, liturgies, and symbols of the host country.