Congregations around the country are doing their best to respond to the current military crisis in Iraq. Church members and children of church members are serving in various branches of the military on active duty in Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and other places. We pray for the soldiers and their families. We write them letters and send packages with sunglasses, lip balm, skin lotion and microwave popcorn.
Some churches have also increased the visibility of the American flag during this highly patriotic time. And other churches are no doubt holding debates, both official and unofficial, about whether or how or where the flag should be displayed.
Traveling in North Carolina and South Carolina during the past couple of weeks, something unusual caught my eye in front of three different congregations (each one happened to be Baptist). On the single flagpole in front of the sanctuaries were two flags–the American flag and the Christian flag.
At all three, the Christian flag, with its red cross on a blue field, flew below the Stars and Stripes. In one instance, the Christian flag was significantly smaller.
Theological alarms rang out in my head, and questions flew out of my mouth. What is the church saying when it puts the American flag above the Christian flag? Aren’t we Christians first and Americans second? Don’t we believe that Christ is above all? Who do we serve first, God or Caesar?
Personally, I would prefer not have a flag displayed at church, but it is an issue about which I have learned restraint. Placing the national flag above the Christian flag in a place of public prominence, however, is another matter altogether.
The official U.S. Flag Code says that “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.” (Perhaps this is a place to exercise civil disobedience in order to make witness to our affirmation that Christ is above all.)
A lesser known guideline is the “Christian Flag Code.” In 1937, James R. Pollock, a United Methodist minister, found himself fresh out of Yale University and serving his first full-time pastorate. World War II was encroaching, and it too was a highly patriotic time. Pollock placed two flags in the church–the Christian flag in the place of prominence to the preacher’s right, and the American flag to the left. Soon his first church became the place of his first confrontation.
Pollock was convinced that “Christ above all” and the “Name above every name” meant that at all times and in all places, Christ and the cross were to receive honor. That same year, James Pollock wrote the Christian Flag Code which states, in part, “When the Christian flag is on the same flagpole with any other flag, the Christian flag receives the top position.”
Although Pollock’s flag code has no official government sanction (it was officially adopted by his United Methodist conference), other documents allow some wiggle-room for those seeking a legal and customary middle ground.
The “no establishment” and “free exercise” clauses of the First Amendment are the first place to begin for those who hold fast to religious liberty.
The United States Navy includes in its official provisions for naval chaplains that “during the Service of Divine Worship led by the Fleet Chaplain, a triangular Pennant of White with a blue Latin Cross is flown at the masthead above the American flag.”
Finally, in the state of California, a publication entitled “Stars, Stripes and Statues” by the National Flag Foundation states that “No flag or pennant shall be placed above, or if on the same level, to the right of, the United States flag, except flags flown during church services.”
If the official and/or legal issues about the position of the Christian flag in relationship to the American flag are not quite rigid and fixed, the theological confession that Christ is above all should be without question among Christians. Nothing receives more of our allegiance than Christ–not a country, nor its flag.
Jeffrey D. Vickery is co-pastor of Cullowhee Baptist Church in Cullowhee, N.C.