Welcome to Part 5 of our Celebrating Religious Freedom Series!
This fifth installment is by Rev. Dr. Meredith Holladay, Associate Pastor for Spiritual Formation at First Baptist Church, Lawrence, Kansas. Meredith is a graduate of Baylor University and completed the Religion, Politics and Society doctoral program, where she wrote her dissertation on theology and popular music.
by Meredith Holladay
We tend to create a lot of idols out of our symbols.
A significant line of our Radical Reformation heritage is decidedly iconoclastic: holding that images, art, visual representations have no business decorating the church, especially not the sanctuary. Instead, we rely on scripture alone, and the word of God is written on our hearts, not decorating our walls.
There is no neutral decision, though, when it comes to aesthetics. Even the choice against decoration communicates something about theology, ideology, priority. Our architecture, placement of liturgical elements (pulpits, lecterns, baptisteries, choir lofts, banners) and other symbols (or lack thereof) communicate—sometimes loudly and sometimes subtly—but all the same, quite powerfully, what we believe and what kind of space we are in.
In general, as Baptists, I believe we could call on our religious and theological symbols a little more than we are wont to do. We could use a little more intentional decoration, design and artistry.
As Baptists, we also hold (at least in theory, if not always in practice) fast to the principle of religious liberty. Religious liberty for all. Religious liberty, which means we are citizens first—(and perhaps only?)—of God’s kingdom, not the kingdom or principality or state of any man-made structure. Our Baptist heritage also calls on us to emphasize and proclaim, proudly, freedom—freedom of conscience, of religion, from coercion. Our worship space should clearly and intentionally communicate these theological and biblical foundational freedoms.
Proud as we are of this heritage proclaiming freedom, we tend to forget this when it comes to the symbol of our national flag.
It is not uncommon in American sanctuaries to find the flag of the United States prominently displayed (yes, often alongside the Christian flag). The US flag is so ubiquitous it often blends in among the liturgical colors and stained glass. So ubiquitous, most see its presence as a rather innocuous “given.”
How innocuous is this symbol, though?
Ask any pastor who has dared remove the flag without comment or explanation, and you’ll understand how fraught its presence in the sanctuary is. Remove or change up other symbols, and you likely won’t receive near the same emotional reaction as moving the American flag.
Again, no symbol, no architectural or decorative decision is ever value-neutral. Even subtle messages must be taken seriously and critically evaluated. A flag, which represents a specific nation-state, should receive at least the same level of thought, conversation, even debate, as carpet color, seating type, sound systems and flower arrangements.
Some key questions to reflect on in thinking about the significance of the US flag in our sanctuaries include: What does placing a flag—national, state, Christian—say about what we believe about the Gospel and our identity as Kingdom people?
Would we be willing to put a flag of a corporation or university housed in our town, which employs a significant portion of the church or town population?
Why or why not?
What does the flag communicate about our ultimate citizenship? What are we trying to communicate with a flag, and do we really want to communicate that message?
Would a non-US citizen feel more or less welcome if the flag is one of the first, or most prominent symbols in the sanctuary?
Is the flag the best way to communicate hospitality, grace and love (even alongside the stained-glass windows and liturgical banners)? Without clear explanation (which is impossible to ensure all people interpret all symbols uniformly), might the flag’s presence be interpreted in ways beyond what we intend?
Where does the flag stand and what does its placement communicate, even subtly?
The fact that the US flag reserves such an emotional place points out the problematic nature of putting it in the sanctuary in the first place. The sanctuary is a place of worship. It ought to be an inclusive place where all are welcome.
The Gospels call us to preach the name of Jesus to every tribe, tongue and nation. We recognize that we are most fully representing the Kingdom of God we are among brothers and sisters who do not look just like us. Our allegiance is first to God and God’s Kingdom.
If this is the truth, if we really believed this, then the US flag would have no place in our worship space.
Our sanctuaries ought to be that: sanctuary from fear, injustice, oppression. They should be places where God’s love, grace and liberation are both preached and practiced. This especially means being intentional about the symbols we include.
For every person who feels a great deal of pride in seeing the flag, there are others who are reminded of colonialism, imperialism, or perhaps reminded of their own homeland, from which they are alienated. We preach that all are welcome in God’s Kingdom. We preach that God has created all of us as equal and loved children. God’s Kingdom holds no other nation’s flag as prerequisite for membership, welcome or allegiance.
May our sanctuaries reflect wholly this Gospel of inclusion and love.
Editor’s note: What do you think? Do you have a different take on this topic? If you are a Cooperative Baptist, send us your response to firstname.lastname@example.org and we will post it here at CBFBlog.com. We welcome the conversation!
America is a flawed nation because Americans are as human as everyone else. But America is also the nation that has allowed religious liberty to flourish like no other. Many immigrants have been drawn to our country precisely because of the liberty that the flag represents, I doubt they’d be at all surprised to see it in the sanctuary! Indeed, the sanctuary may not exist if it were not for the flag. Why not show our thanks?
Robin, Why would the sanctuary not exist if not for the American flag?
I’ve visited many nations where liberty is only a dream. In those nations, what should be a sanctuary is often a tool of oppression. Perhaps we’d appreciate our country more if we realized what our faith would be like without it.
Wow the US flag as a symbol of “fear, injustice, oppression.” I guess I never thought of it that way.
I think Bill Moyers speaks eloquently to an aspect of Meredith’s observation:
The America we live in still (I have to put that time sensitive qualifier in now, as I never thought I would) professes and hopefully defends religious freedom as one of the the fundamental freedoms, if not the fundamental freedom, of our citizens as human beings and children of God. There are some in this country, legitimately, who might read into the flag of this country more negative connotations; but, still, they have the freedom to worship and to their opinions and to the expression of those opinions because of the laws and traditions of this country. However,
as the symbol of the principles of this country, at least for most, the flag can have a place in house of worship and should have such a place. If it is so prominent and central it could be
seen as idolatrous, so placement of the flag in a house of worship must be a prime consideration. For any house of worship that believes the American flag should not be placed there, a
fitting substitute would be to display the Bill of Rights, or at least the First Amendment.
One of my favorite memories of Souther Seminary was Christmas time when Alumni Chapel was decorated with the flags of the world. The sanctuary had a horseshoe shaped balcony that went from the front, across the back, and to the front on the opposite side. Flags adorned the outside of the railing from wall to wall. Not only was it a beautiful, colorful display, but it was the visible answer to people who tried to claim evangelistic outreach to other peoples was racist. Racism would be not wanting foreign peoples of all races to share your eternity in Heaven. Those flags shouted Baptist, or Christian, inclusivism.
One flag, however, says exclusivism. And when I removed the flags from my first sanctuary, I learned just how emotional that issue could be. I posited the truths such as our mission was to lift up Jesus, and when an organization splits its agenda, it weakens its efforts to advance its primary purpose. I asked, “How will one of our foreign visitors feel?” And other arguments. Nothing persuaded the angry flag supporters. They accused me, a veteran, of not being patriotic.
I remember once creating a stir not by removing the American flag from the sanctuary, but by switching its position with the Christian flag. The official “flag etiquette” for the American flag is that it is supposed to always have the place of highest honor, to its own right when displayed alongside other flags. I put the Christian flag in the place of highest honor, to symbolize where our ultimate allegiance is. That created quite a stir, but also provoked good dialogue about our various allegiances as people of faith.
Power power Jesus power
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