I write as an elder of the church. I write as an individual, a Christian, and a Presbyterian in a faith tradition going back thousands of years. I write because, at the beginning of the worship service this morning, a member of our congregation, without permission, carried the United States flag down the aisle and placed it beside the altar.
Is it Idolatry?
I have the notion that many Presbyterians understand at some level that the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other “fringe” religious groups are quite right when they bar their members from saying the Pledge of Allegiance: “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for which it stands …” On the Fourth of July again this year, Americans across the land, in town and country, will celebrate our nation, its independence and its greatness. We will say the pledge. We will sing the national anthem. We will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on fireworks, orchestras and food.
But what are we doing, really? If this is not worship, what is it? The very word, “celebrate,” is religious. We eat together; we drink together. (That is, we have communion.) We carry flags. There are great patriotic “hymns” and speeches. “God Bless America” and similar invocations tell us that God peculiarly — uniquely — blesses the United States over other countries.
Is this not what God and Jesus were talking about when they proclaimed that to be God’s people we could not worship anything else? “You shall have no other gods before me.” “You shall not make for yourself a 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; you shall not bow down to them or serve them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God. …” (Exodus 20: 3-5; Deuteronomy 5: 7-9). “We must obey God rather than any human authority” (Acts 5:29). We are to “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17;Luke 20:25).
To call our celebrations of the Fourth of July idolatrous — and the representation of our country, its flag, an idol — is, for the man who carried the flag forward, and many others, an outrage, an abomination, an insult to the men and women who shed their blood for this country. He has told me so. But his very words convey the flag as a symbol of the kind of sacrifice we owe only to God. “I wish you had shed some of your blood in war so you could understand what the flag means to us [veterans].”
The flag, blood, the cross. There is only one other symbol I have seen marched down the aisle of a Christian church: the cross of Jesus. Blood is an extremely important symbol of purification and sacrifice in both Judaism and Christianity, but it is purification and sacrifice uniquely for God, not for the creations of human beings, not for nations.
What Do We Worship? What Do We Love?
The veteran who confronted me refused to talk with me — to listen to me and explain himself — but I doubt he can see much distinction between fighting for flag and nation and fighting for cross and God. It is impossible to love your country in the way you love God without making your country into some kind of other god. Idolatry is about giving allegiance to something other than God.
God, in turn, may bless our nation for the morality of some things we do, but to suggest that God blesses us always, no matter what we do, just because it is we who are doing it, is to say that our nation is, like God, perfect. God is perfect and always right. Nothing else can be perfect or always right. To love God requires that a person separate love of country from love of God. Nations, like people, must be judged by God’s rules. To worship our country, as we often appear to do, is blasphemy.
Our country’s flag means a lot to me — as it should. It symbolizes a country for which millions, in the military and in other service, have sacrificed enormously. It symbolizes a country which has often striven for justice in the world. It means a lot to me when it shares a place with others, one among many in an imperfect world.
But the country for which it stands has often been wrong, sinned against God, and for that its flag has at times become an ugly thing. The flag has been raised over countries unjustly conquered. Its pledge of “liberty and justice for all” has often been a lie. It has been transformed into a cudgel with which to beat those of us who disagree with our country’s policies.
Honor the people who have fought for our country. Do it in church. Raise the flag in your front yard. But don’t put the flag on an equal standing with the cross. Don’t put our country on an equal standing with God. Our flag is beautiful but it should never be paraded down the aisle of a Christian church.
Ronald Woodbury was trained as a historian and has published numerous professional articles and now publishes an on-line political economy opinion letter called Downside Up.