On US Flags in US United Methodist Worship Spaces

By Taylor Burton-Edwards


Worship planning us flags
Image: "U.S.Navy Jewish Worship Pennant, flying over the American flag on a U.S. Navy ship, showing that a chaplain is conducting a Jewish worship service. Only the worship pennant (Jewish or Christian) is ever flown over the American flag on U.S. Navy vessels." Public Domain.


Does the flag of The United States of America belong in the worship spaces of United Methodists in the US? And if so, where, and how should it be used?

An article in the July/August 2010 issue of The Interpreter quotes me as stating, "A simpler solution in all of this is probably not to have the flag, then you don't run into problems with theological objection or who is lord."

Well, apart from capitalization and punctuation issues, I did say those words. Or something like them.

But that's not at all the heart of the message I was trying to communicate to the reporter.

That message, which was not reflected in the Interpreter article, is this. Since the United Methodist Church has no official position on this question, it is up to the discernment of local congregations in the United States whether and how they will choose to display or use the flag of the United States in their worship space.

Whether the U.S. flag is present or absent in U.S. United Methodist worship spaces is not in itself a clear sign of the particular religious or political commitments of a given congregation. Individuals can (and will!) interpret issues surrounding the presence, placement or absence of the flag in any of a variety of ways on their own. So the real and important work for our US worshiping communities is not simply to decide whether or where to place a US flag in the worship space, but rather how to interpret and communicate clearly what its presence, placement, use or absence means for them in their setting.

And that is no easy task.

There are two issues involved in arriving at decisions and offering your interpretation. The first is the problem of placement.

The Legal and Theological Problems of Placement
As the Interpreter article itself notes, and an article by Hoyt Hickman we've posted for a number of years in the worship section of the GBOD website also notes, any choice about including or not including the US flag in worship represents some kind of compromise. The most current edition of the US Flag Code (4 USC Section 7) still contains these instructions which relate specifically to the use and placement of flags in churches:

k) When used on a speaker's platform, the flag, if displayed
flat, should be displayed above and behind the speaker. When
displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag
of the United States of America should hold the position of
superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the
position of honor at the clergyman's or speaker's right as he faces
the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the
left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.

Earlier in the same section, we also read these instructions.

(c) No other flag or pennant should be placed above or, if on the
same level, to the right of the flag of the United States of
America, except during church services conducted by naval chaplains
at sea, when the church pennant may be flown above the flag during
church services for the personnel of the Navy. No person shall
display the flag of the United Nations or any other national or
international flag equal, above, or in a position of superior
prominence or honor to, or in place of, the flag of the United
States at any place within the United States or any Territory or
possession thereof: Provided, That nothing in this section shall
make unlawful the continuance of the practice heretofore followed
of displaying the flag of the United Nations in a position of
superior prominence or honor, and other national flags in positions
of equal prominence or honor, with that of the flag of the United
States at the headquarters of the United Nations.

The message is fairly clear. If the US flag is present in a church or other public space in the United States, it is expected to be the most prominent symbol, and particularly the most prominent flag in that space at all times, with the single exception of occasions of Christian worship on US Navy vessels, where it is permissible for something like a Christian flag to be flown above the US flag. Further, in a "standard" worship setup in a congregation, if there is a Christian flag, it must always be to the left of the "clergyman" (sic) and it must also always be further back so that the US flag is given first prominence by being further forward and to the clergyman's (sic) right.

Hoyt Hickman's article rightly notes that this creates a real conflict for Christians wishing to use the US flag in their worship space, especially (though not only!) if they also wish to use a Christian flag. The requirements of the Flag Code that the US flag always be in the most prominent position conflict directly with the symbol of the Christian flag, but more than this, with our own core teaching, that Christ, and no nation or human ruler, is Lord of all and requires our ultimate allegiance.

So Christians who wish to have the US flag present in their worship space, to be true to their core commitment to Christ, must, necessarily, disobey the US Flag Code's requirement that the US flag always be given first prominence. For Christians, following the US Flag Code on this point is simply impossible. Christ is Lord of all, or he is not Lord at all.

Provided that your worshiping community is fine with disobeying the Flag Code so that you can include the US flag in your worship space while giving first allegiance, symbolically, always to Christ, and that you are willing to say that clearly, I see no issues of primary theology that would necessarily require you not to include it.

But the issue of placement is only one of the two interpretive issues you and your worshiping community need to address. The second is why the US flag (or the symbol of any nation) is present in your worship space to begin with.

What YOUR Community Means by Having the US flag in the Worship Space
Because the US flag, like the cross (and for some, maybe even more than the cross!) is such a potent symbol with so many meanings and feelings attached to it, some of them conflicting with each other and with the teaching of Jesus, it remains perhaps an even more important task for your worshiping community in the US to be clear about why you would choose to include or not include the US flag in your worship space.

Like the decision about placement (assuming you do include it), this is also a binary problem. That is, you can't do both. Only Christ or the nation can actually have first prominence. And the US flag can be either present or not.

There are strong arguments for the US flag to be present for worshiping communities in the US. Here are three.

  1. The first I might call a political argument. Lord's Day worship is, for United Methodists at least, a public event. We don't tell folks who are not baptized, or who are not Christians, or who are not United Methodists, or even who are not US citizens or even legally present that they cannot attend and participate as fully as their consciences allow in anything we do there. And in the US, or any nation, the public sphere exists in the first place in large part because there is a civil order that the nation and its subunits provide. Having the US flag (or other national flag in other nations) present on occasions of public worship could be said simply to recognize that fact, and perhaps in a way give thanks to God for the particular forms of civil order that allow our us to gather publicly.
  2. The second I might call a liturgical argument. Liturgy is (and means!) "the work of the people." If indeed we as a gathered people are to offer ourselves fully to our Triune God in worship-- body, mind and spirit-- we have to acknowledge the degree that who we are as we offer ourselves to God is deeply formed by our participation in the life of the nation in which we live. We can no more cordon off the ways we are enculturated by the nation in which we live than we can cordon off the ways in which the church or other groups to which we belong also enculturate us. It's all in us. So if we're offering our all, we're offering our enculturation, too.
  3. The third I might call a missional argument. Having the flag present reminds us of our own formation as Christians, but it also reminds us at the same time of two other things. First, that we are not formed as Christians are in other nations. This can actually be helpful to us missionally in relation to the world because it prevents us from assuming our own national formation as a norm that can or should apply to Christians or other peoples everywhere. At the same time, precisely because we participate in this nation and are formed by it, we have a particular obligation, calling and opportunity to be in mission in Christ's name here in ways that persons formed in other nations may have neither the experience nor the cultural access to accomplish.

There are also some weak arguments for continuing to include the US flag in the worship space.

  1. It's always been there. Lots of things may have always been there. How they got there, why they got there in the first place and that they are still there now are not necessarily good reasons, in themselves, to keep them there now.
  2. No one raises any objections about it being there. That's as likely because folks don't think about it, or maybe because they don't notice it is there, as it is that they have any strong commitments to it remaining there. You don't know until you ask. Go ask.
  3. As Christians, we are duty bound to honor God and country. Not equally! Love, honor and worship of God are primary in the Christian community and so in our worship space. If the placement or use of the US flag where you are is communicating any sort of theological or moral equivalence between the two, it may be time to rethink your allegiances and whether the US flag actually belongs there at all!
  4. We don't really do anything with it, so it's easier not to rock the boat by talking about it. Not using something in your ritual space for any particular reason may actually be a reason to consider deleting it rather than keeping it in place. And for people for whom the presence of the flag is important, not using it in worship in any way because you don't talk about it or call attention to it may be more offensive than you may know. Again, start talking!

The are also strong arguments for not having the US flag present in the worship space. Here are three of those.

  1. The first is a spillover effect of potent symbols argument. Potent symbols are those that generate immediate and strong mental, emotional and even visceral associations. We've already noted that the US flag (or the national flag in any nation) is certainly in this category. It is made even more so in this country by the constant association of the flag with cultural ritual practices that include strong visual and verbal reference in a profoundly moving and positive way to persons making "the ultimate sacrifice" for their country. That language itself, identifying the ultimacy of a sacrifice with anything other than Christ, already represents a spillover or competition for claims. Sometimes, such "secular" cultural references make the spillover overt by co-opting the saying of Jesus in John's gospel, "No greater love has anyone that this: to lay down one's life for one's friends." This creates or should create a "field of dissonance" for Christians who know the text, because Jesus here refers to his own impending death, and by extension to the deaths of his then and future disciples who may also be executed for their witness to God's reign and not at all to military deaths for the sake of the kingdoms of this world. In other words, the flag can carry with it, at least in US culture, a "competition for loyalties" that at the very least (but not less importantly even if largely unconsciously) mutes the radicality of the Christian commitment to Christ as Lord of all and his death as the only "ultimate sacrifice." If that possibility is present or active where you are, perhaps the US flag does not belong in your worship space.
  2. The second is an argument for ritual clarity. This suggests that what we place in a worship space has the power to form us in all sorts of ways, both consciously and perhaps especially unconsciously. Even without reference to potent symbols per se, every object, especially in a ritually charged environment such as a worship space, carries some formative power for good or for ill. This means that it is important that Christian worship space contain those symbols that are most significant for our formation as Christians, and that those symbols have sufficient prominence and physical heft or beauty to reinforce the purposes of the ritual assembly. (This kind of argument, by the way, would also support increasing the size, prominence and frequency of use of the baptismal font or pool, by the way, if indeed we understand ourselves to be "the baptized.") Having symbols in the worship space that are not immediately relevant to its purpose, or that do not in some way line up with either the words we use to describe it or its usefulness in worship tends to detract from rather than support the ritual work of the community that assembles for worship there. If this is a place for Christian ritual, then Christian ritual symbols are what belong. If you are not making the case that the US flag is properly also a Christian ritual symbol, it does not belong.
  3. The third is a missional argument in a different vein. Historically, the North American continent has become host to people from many nations. As far as we know, no part of the human species originated here, through the persons who were here at the arrival of Europeans beginning in the late 15th century had inhabited lands here for several millennia before that time. The United States is a nation of immigrants and their descendants, a nation whose riches come precisely because people from so many other nations and cultures make this nation their home, and whose deepest challenges continue to surround those who have been displaced from ancestral lands or who were forced by whatever means to make this nation not their home, but only their workplace. Though the United States is one nation in itself, it seems odd for Christians, who are part of a worldwide people present in every existing nation on the planet, especially in this nation, the most multi-ethnic nation on the planet, should identify their mission with the ideals, aims and agendas implicit in the US flag, or at least with the US flag alone, particularly when that flag has come to be associated primarily with the agendas of what appear to be a primarily European-influenced sphere of values and heritage, and not always reflective of the richness of the diversity that the population actually represents. In other words, to too many people in these lands and beyond them, despite our stated ideals, the US flag remains more a sign of oppression than the hope of a nation living truly as "one out of many peoples." Thus, our mission as Christians, and even as Christians in the US, may actually, especially in our more ethnically diverse contexts, be more hindered than enhanced by the presence of the US flag in our worship spaces.

And there are weak arguments for not including the US flag present in worship or for removing it if it is present.

  1. It has never been in our worship space. Why should we include it now? If you decided to consider what the meaning of the presence or absence of a variety of symbols in your worship space could mean for your worshiping community, both liturgically and missionally, you may actually conclude that it may be a good time to introduce the US flag (see some of the reasons above) even if you have never had it there before.

2) It's just sitting there and we never really use it. Why shouldn't I (as pastor) just remove it and see if anybody notices? Because you would be shirking your responsibility as a teacher by doing so, and because acting on your own fiat on this matter is above your paygrade (and your bishop's!). A better role for you as teacher would be to convene some conversations about the use or placement of the flag, seeking to learn and help others learn from each other what it might mean for it to be present or absent in your particular missional context. On matters of worship, while the pastor has authority, it is always delegated and shared authority and never absolute authority. The pastor's delegated authority include leading the ritual of this church and upholding its Discipline. Neither our ritual nor the Discipline gives any direction requiring the presence or absence of the US flag. That means authority on this question is, de facto and de jure, shared authority between the congregation and the appointed pastor. Respect the kinds of authority you do have, and use them accordingly.

So, What Should We Do?
Here you may be expecting me to tell you whether you should include the US flag in your worship space or not, or at least to share some sort of "informed opinion."

My informed opinion is that you should talk about this in your worshiping community, make informed decisions based on the legal realities (which you may need to violate in part) and the mind of your worshiping community, and not only decide where and whether to place the flag, but also why you are making those decisions.

And then you should communicate all of those things-- the decisions themselves and the reasons you came to them, on as regular a basis as you need to to those who attend worship where you are.

Is it simpler not to have the flag there? Maybe so.

But don't use mere simplicity as an excuse to make poor decisions or fail to help your congregations embrace the learning and teaching moments that lie before them in such decisions.