The Church, Government, and National Flags
(based on thoughts jotted down about 1990 expanded and updated June 2002)
by John C Darrow

Those who have traveled to other countries often mention one significant difference between U.S. churches and the churches in other nations. U.S. churches often display their national flag in the church building, while this is rare elsewhere.

The church's attitude towards government and national flags is based on a variety of issues. For many, especially in the United States, "the flag still stands for freedom." For others, however, national flags and pledges to them are seen as dividing our loyalty to Almighty God and thus as idolatrous. For pacifist Christians, the flag may be seen as a symbol of militarism, in contrast to Jesus' command to "love your enemies."

Jesus was once asked if taxes should be paid to Caesar, the established governmental authority of that day. He asked for the coin to be brought which must be used to pay these taxes. He first called attention to the coin as bearing a graven image of Caesar, and the blasphemous inscriptions "Caesar is Lord" and "Divine Son of the Divine God." His continued response "Give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's" (Luke 20:25 (NIV) and parallels) thus repudiated the idea of giving to Caesar (or government) that which belongs to God alone - in this case, worship.

In 66-70 AD, Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem. Christians regarded the Roman flags surrounding the city as an "abomination of desolation", so they fled and were spared.

Around 150 AD, Polycarp, head of the congregation at Smyrna, was martyred - burned alive - for his refusal to pledge allegiance to Rome, an allegiance that would explicitly recognize Caesar as God.

In 312 AD, the Roman Emperor Constantine allied the church with the military by placing a cross on the shields of his soldiers, and declaring his loyalty to "the God of the Christians". In this way the church was tied to violence and thus corrupted.

In our day, our nation is often regarded in ways that are blasphemous and idolatrous. The song "America", for example, praises the nation with these blasphemous terms: "Let all that breathe partake" and "Let rocks their silence break". The first echoes Psalms 150:6 ("let everything that has breath praise YHWH"), and the second Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday in Luke 19:40 ("if these (children) keep silent, the rocks will cry out"). In the final verse, this song does return to directing praise to God ("Our Fathers' God, to Thee ....").

Another idolatrous claim often made is that our nation is free because of its military. Lee Greenwood's song, God Bless the U.S.A., contains such a claim: "And I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And I won't forget the men who died, who gave that right to me." This is in direct contradiction to repeated statements in Scripture, such as Ps. 33:16 ("No king is saved by the size of his army"), Is. 31:1 ("Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots and in the great strength of their horsemen, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD") and Ps. 20:7 ("Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God.")

The flag code requires the superior flag be displayed on the right, and says this is the U.S. flag except during a church service at sea when the church flag is superior. Placing the U.S. flag in the superior position and a "Christian" flag in a subordinate position, as the flag code prescribes, says "Caesar is Lord" instead of "Jesus is Lord", an idolatrous statement in itself. The "Christian" flag has its own set of problems: it's tied to Constantine's use of the cross for military conquest, and to the use of this type of flag during the Crusades.

A few years ago, a constitutional amendment was proposed to prohibit the physical "desecration" of the U.S. flag. The word desecration means "to treat something sacred with abuse, irreverence, or contempt". "Sacred" means something "dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity" or "worthy of religious veneration". To describe the flag this way treats it as an idol, and unfortunately this is the attitude of many people to this nation and its flag.

We have an example in Scripture of something that was not intended to be an idol later becoming an idol. In Numbers 21, Moses created a brass serpent symbolic of God's healing of the Israelites from a plague of serpents. Later, in 2 Kings 18, this once good symbol had become an idol, and it became necessary for Hezekiah to destroy it. In Numbers 33:52, God's people were commanded to destroy the idols of the Canaanites.

The constitutional amendment referred to above was intended to prohibit flag burning, an extreme practice viewed by many as expressing opposition to "all America stands for." However, flag burning is usually to express opposition to some specific problem - perhaps even the treatment of the flag as an idol. It is one type of "symbolic speech." In the Bible, "symbolic speech" is often used to express a message. Jesus frequently spoke in parables. The prophets received messages in symbolic dreams and visions. The messages the prophets gave often resulted in government action against them. Jeremiah (chapter 27) wore a yoke to symbolize the coming captivity of God's people to Babylon, and was branded a traitor for counselling submission to Babylon. He was imprisoned in chapters 37 and 38. Amos (chapter 7) was accused of treason for his message.

In American history, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison once engaged in an extreme form of symbolic speech when he burned the Constitution to protest slavery.

A related issue is that of the "Pledge of Allegiance." In June 2002, an Appeals Court in California ruled that the practice of public schools prescribing the recitation of the Pledge by schoolchildren was unconstitutional because the inclusion of the phrase "under God" made it a religious exercise. This brought the Pledge to the attention of the American public in a big way.

Many Americans are unaware of the history of the Pledge. Francis Bellamy, a Baptist preacher and noted Socialist author, wrote the original version of the Pledge in 1892, to be recited on the 400th anniversary of Columbus' arrival in the New World. It read: "I pledge allegiance to my flag and the Republic for which it stands, one Nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." Recitation of this pledge became a common school-day ritual. After World War I, millions of immigrants came to the United States. Organizations like the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution lobbied to change the phrase "my flag" to "the flag of the United States of America" to more clearly delineate it from the various flags of the nations these immigrants had left. At the first National Flag Conference in Washington DC, on June 14, 1923, this change was made. It still was an "unofficial" pledge until June 22, 1942, when the United States Congress included the Pledge to the Flag in the United States Flag Code (Title 36).

In 1940, the Supreme Court ruled ( Minersville School District vs. Gobitis) that schools could require recitation of the Pledge by students, upholding the expulsion of 12-year-old Lillian and 10-year-old Billy Gobitas, two Jehovah's Witnesses children. (Their name was misspelled in court documents.) In 1943, the Court reversed themselves in the case West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette, also involving Jehovah's Witnesses. The Witnesses' "religious beliefs include a literal version of Exodus, Chapter 20, verses 4 and 5, which says: 'Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them.' They consider that the flag is an 'image' within this command. For this reason they refuse to salute it." The Witnesses had offered as an alternative to 'periodically and publicly' offer this pledge, but not to the flag: "I have pledged my unqualified allegiance and devotion to Jehovah, the Almighty God, and to His Kingdom, for which Jesus commands all Christians to pray. I respect the flag of the United States and acknowledge it as a symbol of freedom and justice to all. I pledge allegiance and obedience to all the laws of the United States that are consistent with God's law, as set forth in the Bible."

In 1952 a Roman Catholic organization, The Knights of Columbus, along with the American Legion and the Hearst newspaper chain, began a lobbying campaign to add the words "under God" to the Pledge, a version which the Knights had already instituted in their own gatherings during April of 1951. The Pledge would now read: "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." One reason was to distinguish America from "godless communism". This also could be seen as an attempt to overcome the objections of those who regarded it as idolatry to pledge to a nation unconditionally, rather than as secondary to their allegiance to God. For the Witnesses, however, pledging this to the flag still violated the Exodus 20 prohibition. Congress approved this change, and President Eisenhower signed it on Flag Day, June 14, 1954. On signing this change, Eisenhower said "In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America's heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country's most powerful resource in peace and war." However, many Mennonites and other Christians still object to the whole idea of reciting any pledge or oath, based on a literal understanding of Jesus' teaching to "swear not, but let your yes be yes and your no be no".