Once upon a time, a pastor removed the U.S. flag from their church’s sanctuary on their first Sunday leading worship. Like kicking the proverbial bee’s hive, it did not go well as the congregation was in a community with a military base. Members were outraged at this perceived slight, while the pastor was hurt to have their intentions maligned.

Symbols can be tricky because they can mean different things to different people, and those meanings can change over time. I’ve heard different versions of the same story – pastor removes flag, congregation erupts in anger – on multiple occasions. As someone quite sympathetic to the flag’s removal from sanctuaries and the theological reasoning behind doing so, it always feels like a poor choice when done so abruptly. 

We owe people an explanation – or better, a conversation – when we institute change, especially when it pertains to symbols. What the U.S. flag means to those who cherish its presence is often quite different from those who see no place for it in the sanctuary. It is unlikely that everyone will come away from a discussion about removing the flag happy. Still, the discussion is an opportunity to help congregants to understand why its presence is theologically problematic and for the pastor to learn more about the soul needs of the people they serve.

Upsetting people without investing the time to explain an action may be foolish. But I’m left wondering these days if the greater sin is avoiding the conflict altogether. 

The (latest) rise of Christian Nationalism

When angry protestors and militants stormed the U.S. capital on January 6th, 2020, they carried all sorts of symbols. It was disconcerting to see symbols of Christianity coopted in the insurrection, juxtaposed with those of white supremacy, toxic patriotism, and violence. “God is on our side” is a message that was likely intended. That the U.S.A. is expressly a Christian nation is another. Neither is accurate from my Christian perspective.

Christian nationalism is a problem that is getting worse in the hyper-partisan environment in which we currently reside, and the clear voices of thoughtful Christians are much needed. When we avoid discussing things like the relationship of our faith to our country, we miss out on critical opportunities to teach and learn about this element of our Christian witness.

What exactly is white Christian nationalism, and why should we be concerned about it? The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty explored the relationship between Christian nationalism and the January 6th Insurrection in a study released earlier this year. In the report, Dr. Anthea Butler, Professor of American Social Thought at the University of Pennsylvania, offers five components of the narrative of white Christian nationalism:

  1. America is a divinely appointed nation by God that is Christian. 
  2. America’s founders, rather than wanting to disestablish religion as a unifier for the nation, were, in fact, establishing a nation based on Christian principles, with white men as the leaders. 
  3. Others (Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and immigrants) would accept and cede to this narrative of America as a Christian nation, and accept their leadership. 
  4. America has a special place not only in world history but in biblical Scripture, especially concerning the return of Christ. 
  5. There is no separation between Church and state. 

It would be nice if the conflagration of Christianity and right-wing nationalism on January 6th were an anomaly, but it isn’t. This week in Post Falls, Idaho, the ReAwaken America tour will land at the Stateline Speedway. The political rally brings together a cast of political and religious figures, blending an apocalyptic and apostolic Christian coalition with militant and conspiratorial thinking into a dangerous form of Christian nationalism. 

Some faith leaders in the Washington and Idaho are speaking out against the ReAwaken America Rally even as other Christian pastors are encouraging their flocks to attend (and receiving discounted tickets for doing so). The Spokane Diocese of the Episcopal Church is inviting other Christians and allies to sign a petition “to counter the message” of the rally while also resourcing people interested in holding a vigil against Christian Nationalism. The Faith Action Network in Washington state, an interfaith coalition supported by the PNW Conference and individually by several United Methodist congregations and members, is among those groups sounding the alarm about this rally.

Keeping up with the meaning of symbols

Growing up in the midwest, I recognize several components of white Christian nationalism Dr. Butler lists in the faith I was taught, encountering them in both subtle and blatant forms of expression. Opening my United Methodist Hymnal today, I can find resonance with nationalistic thinking in songs like “Onward, Christian Soldiers” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” even if the histories of each hymn are more complicated. Neither being raised as I was nor singing these songs makes me a Christian nationalist. And at the same time, these practices unexamined can leave one vulnerable to the same.

I acknowledge that some of these narrative threads were present in my upbringing to point out two things. First, we need to look at the traditions we inherit with a critical eye. Not everything in the past is bad, but it isn’t automatically virtuous either. Examining our practices and the stories we tell ourselves is critical to the Church’s work of resisting evil in all its forms. Are the stories we tell honest, and do they adequately consider the voices and experiences of others? Do our practices – rituals, hymns, liturgies, etc. – honor and make space for all of God’s children?

Second, as I mentioned previously, the meaning we impart to symbols is fluid and not always something we control. Recently, I read that the state of Oregon was working toward changing the name of one of its remote mountains. 4,197-foot-tall Swastika Mountain was named after a cattle ranch in the early 1900s, long before Germany’s Nazi party adopted the swastika as a symbol. Before its abuse under their regime, the swastika was widely used as a symbol of ‘good fortune’ or ‘well-being.’

Words and other symbols have meaning, but that meaning can change. Christians should be very familiar with this basic concept. Our most used religious symbol – the cross – would have likely been triggering to Jesus’ earliest followers. Yet over time, the transformation of this symbol of cruel state power into one of love becomes part of our story. Symbols require interpretation; their presence can be both meaningful and problematic; their meaning can change, requiring our nurture and critical consideration.

A symbol of patriotism or nationalism?

It can be challenging to discern nationalism from patriotism, which can complicate how we understand and interpret the hymns like the aforementioned and symbols like a nation’s flag. For the Discipleship Ministries resource “Courageous Conversation about Christian Nationalism,” Scott Hughes writes, “Being a Christian who shows pride or supports their country of residence [a patriot] does not make that individual a Christian nationalist. Support for the nation where we reside is not wrong; in fact, Christians are commanded to pray for those in political leadership (Romans 13).”

Click the image for a Ask the UMC FAQ on The UMC as it relates to politics.

The United Methodist Social Principles (¶165.A) define the Church’s relationship to nations and cultures in a way that affirms the diversity of cultures and political philosophies while acknowledging that none is perfect. Instead of imagining our country as chosen by God, the Social Principles challenge us to “stand for justice and peace in every nation” and to show some humility as we do.

In contrast, it is in the interest of Christian nationalists to conflate patriotism and nationalism. This conflation results in unnecessary and emotionally (and sometimes physically) harmful conflict over differing understandings of shared stories and symbols. It is in the Church’s interest to clarify and inform members of the distinction between the two as part of their discipleship. Especially in this era of deep partisanship, Christians would be blessed, and could be a blessing to others, by developing their identity and core beliefs separate from their political affiliation.

This brings me back to that problematic flag in the sanctuary. Some people see the U.S. flag as a symbol of patriotism, a way to honor those who have sacrificed much for the country; others see it as an overt sign of Christian nationalism. The unfortunate reality is that the flag most often sits in the sanctuary undefined, allowing each person to draw their own conclusion about its presence. 

If we truly value transformation, the pastor who pulls the U.S. flag out of the sanctuary without explanation has missed a significant opportunity to help the church members in their care to learn and grow. Similarly, the pastor that avoids doing so for fear of conflict also misses a vital opportunity to better define the intersection of our lives as disciples of Jesus and citizens of the nation we live in.

Without clear teaching and absent conversation, we leave our members susceptible to the toxic messaging of Christian nationalism, especially when some of their experiences or political leanings overlap with such movements. And when we neglect to talk about our faith and its relationship to the political sphere, the flag, unexplained hymns and other practices can be given distorted meaning. The Church should take its stewardship of both story and symbol quite seriously. 

What are you doing to help people to understand better how their faith intersects with the political world? What resources have you found to be helpful in this work? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

12 COMMENTS

  1. The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our LORD. Jesus would have balked at what happened when Rome switched tactics and consumed the Christian movement for political reasons

  2. Patrick,
    Thank you for providing the comprehensive context and inviting us to holy conversation about this important aspect of our socio/political environment.

  3. Patrick,
    I encountered this issue in Twin Falls in the 90’s. When the Christmas decorations were put away, we forgot to put the US flag back in it’s traditional place. When it was pointed out to me that it was not there, we couldn’t find it! It later came out that someone had hidden it. This caused a fire storm that went beyond the church to the lodge meetings and coffee houses. Rinya and I decided to address this head-on, and I began working on a sermon series on “Symbols of Worship.” I did some research and discovered that until WWII there was no flag in the Sanctuary. Beginning in 1941, it was a fixture. Not only did I preach about the various symbols in worship, but I invited people to write papers about the topic that would be discussed after worship. The first session drew almost a hundred people.
    It came out that the flag was a symbol of patriotism and sacrifice for those of the WWII generation, but those of the Viet Nam era saw it as a symbol of betrayal. In the course of it both sides felt heard.

    We were fortunate to have two separate worship settings. In out contemporary worship setting we had banners but no flags, while in the main sanctuary the flag was found and displayed.
    Jim Frisbie, Retired

  4. Dear Patrick – Thank you for your blog article and post in the GNW communications article about the event in Post Falls, ID. I most appreciated your call for conversation and noticed and appreciated you putting the word “listen” in bold. Amen.

    What bothers me the most of many of the stands taken by the UMC is the lack of dialog or the lack of openness to one. The stands are taken as if the UMC has the only and the rightest viewpoint and all others do not. Could it be we do not hold the corner on truth?

    I hold deep respect for Michael Flynn and do not believe he would appreciate being placed under the label of causing division or spreading conspiracy. He was maligned and lost his government position because of a media echo chamber, beginning in 2015, and is currently involved in a $50 million dollar lawsuit to clear his name. But that is not widely publicized. This is what bothers me the most about what is happening currently — the lack of conversation.

    Once when some UMC leaders disagreed with a blog post I had written, they asked to meet with me to talk with me about it. “We don’t believe in cancel culture,” they told me. We found we held vastly different viewpoints about the subject, but listened to one another and I believe left the conversation better.

    The thing which also bothers me is the way in which we seem to forget that those who are doing something “in Jesus’ name” might and most possibly are our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    Like this event in Post Falls, from my acquaintance with the Reawaken work, these are brothers and sisters who do love Jesus. They are not divisive, nor spreading theories, they are people who love God and are praying for our nation. If anything, our nation needs more prayers.

    So often the outrage and anger of one group is caused by misinformation or partial information about another group. Labels do not help. Anytime a label is applied it dehumanizes the person about whom it is used. Then it gives permission to treat this other person for whom Christ died in terrible ways.

    Thank you for your call for conversation, for dialog.

    We all will be better for it.
    It would be a pleasure to talk some if you are open to it.
    Brian

    • Hi Brian,

      Thanks for reading and commenting on the post.

      I suspect we may have to agree to disagree on some of the points you raise about the ReAwaken Rally and its leadership. That is certainly okay with me, and I do appreciate the need to be critical of our media sources. There are a number of things that have been said out loud, on camera, by several of these individuals about COVID, past elections, etc., that are demonstrably false or misleading to leave me highly skeptical. I am confident that despite my efforts to follow conversations and sources outside of my “bubble,” I still have my biases and blinders (we all are human and limited, after all).

      While I do personally believe our religious beliefs can and should impact the policies and people we might support, I also find it deeply problematic to too closely bind politics and religion – I don’t think this would be any better coming from the left or center. I don’t understand America to be a Christian country, and even if it were, just as the church isn’t perfect, there remains a need to be critical and ever working toward perfection.

      I do agree that there are sisters and brothers in Christ among those in attendance at the rally. Just as with any large gathering of people, it is not a monolith. Past rallies have had earnest people, others concerned by conspiracies they have heard from leaders in which they (mis)placed their trust, some just curious, or interested in a spiritual event, and also members of militia groups there to organize and recruit. Truly a mixed bag, I am sure.

      Thanks again for reading and for sharing your perspective.

      Patrick

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