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:
- America is a divinely appointed nation by God that is Christian.
- 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.
- Others (Native Americans, enslaved Africans, and immigrants) would accept and cede to this narrative of America as a Christian nation, and accept their leadership.
- America has a special place not only in world history but in biblical Scripture, especially concerning the return of Christ.
- 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).”
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.