The United States Flag Code (4 USC 1, §7 (k)) reads:
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.
This is federal law. Many churches avoid breaking it by simply not displaying the flag. But in many others, including most of the churches I have attended from childhood, the flag is displayed according to this law, along with, on the left of the pulpit, an early twentieth-century invention called the “Christian Flag” whose pledge says it stands for the Savior’s Kingdom.
This arrangement symbolically elevates the United States of America, one of the nations among which believers are supposed to proclaim, “the Lord reigns!” an ephemeral entity that is “a drop from a bucket, accounted as dust on the scales . . . as nothing before him,” to “the position of superior prominence” over the Kingdom of which there will be no end, and to which every believer owes his first and comprehensive loyalty.
To what shall we attribute this wholly remarkable state of affairs? Ignorance? Stupidity? Negligence? Inadvertence? A fancy of decorative symmetry? Block-headed inability to recognize the symbolic significance the flag placement? Blind patriotic enthusiasm? Fear of being suspected of disloyalty? Of being a thought a liberal–unbelieving, unthankful for the terrible blood sacrifices that allow so many ungrateful swine to live in peace and freedom, aggressively and willfully blind to the magnalia Dei in this land upon which God has so generously shed his grace?
Perhaps we can’t really know, but these would be understandable and less than ominous excuses. What is truly frightening are indications that the spirits of these (typically “conservative”) churches do in fact place one of the kingdoms of this world before the Kingdom of God, that this is in fact a belief to which many who call themselves Christians hold–that they are Americans first and Christians second–to which the symbolics of their churches bear unmistakable witness, and in which they believe religiously.
In a recent posting to his blogsite, Touchstone senior editor Russell Moore, Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist Seminary, engaged the same subject, and has raised a considerable stir:
A Mormon television star stands in front of the Lincoln Memorial and calls American Christians to revival. He assembles some evangelical celebrities to give testimonies, and then preaches a God and country revivalism that leaves the evangelicals cheering that they’ve heard the gospel, right there in the nation’s capital. The news media pronounces him the new leader of America’s Christian conservative movement, and a flock of America’s Christian conservatives have no problem with that. . . .
Glenn Beck, of course, is that Mormon at the center of all this. Beck isn’t the problem. He’s an entrepreneur, he’s brilliant, and, hats off to him, he knows his market. Latter-day Saints have every right to speak, with full religious liberty, in the public square. I’m quite willing to work with Mormons on various issues, as citizens working for the common good. What concerns me here is not what this says about Beck or the “Tea Party” or any other entertainment or political figure. What concerns me is about what this says about the Christian churches in the United States. . . . In order to be this gullible, American Christians have had to endure years of vacuous talk about undefined “revival” and “turning America back to God” that was less about anything uniquely Christian than about, at best, a generically theistic civil religion and, at worst, some partisan political movement.
Rather than cultivating a Christian vision of justice and the common good (which would have, by necessity, been nuanced enough to put us sometimes at odds with our political allies), we’ve relied on populist God-and-country sloganeering . . . . Too often, and for too long, American “Christianity” has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it. There is a liberation theology of the Left, and there is also a liberation theology of the Right. . . . The liberation theology of the Right wants a golden calf, to represent religion and to remind us of all the economic security we had in Egypt. Both want a Caesar or a Pharaoh, not a Messiah.
Although I have not consulted Dr. Moore before writing this, I think it safe to say that he and I are both loyal Americans, but believe that Christians must derive and discipline their loyalty to their countries from and by the love of something infinitely greater. To our nation we would adapt Richard Lovelace’s declaration to Lucasta, “I could not love thee, dear, so much, Loved I not Something more.” What concerns Dr. Moore here is a practical example of what C. S. Lewis in the Screwtape Letters called “Christianity-And,” where the senior devil writes:
What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call "Christianity And". You know — Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them at least be Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring.
Here we are dealing with the variety of Kingdom-mixing called “Christianity and the United States of America” in which the greater finds itself defined by the interests of the (infinitely) lesser rather than the other way ‘round. This is not to say a person may not be greatly devoted to something other than the Faith and its Kingdom–a man, for example, is called to the highest levels of devotion to his wife and children–but that this love, this interest and loyalty, must be ordinate.
When speaking of the polities of man and of God, it should be very clear where the order lies. It cannot lie in what Dr. Moore identifies as a “generically theistic civil religion” or in a “partisan political movement,” for in each of these, by definition, the interests of the lesser are allowed significant control over those of the greater. In the case of the flag display, those who pay light attention to it will see a scalar balance of national and Kingdom interests on either side of the podium; those who understand the Flag Code’s rule will see the assertion of a nation's superiority to the Kingdom of God. Neither case is acceptable to the Christian faith. Such is also the case with all civil religion, whether Glenn Beck’s or anyone else’s.
Do Dr. Moore and I agree in any sense with Beck that America’s hope is in the Lord Jesus? We cannot say for certain, for we do not know what he means by this. His Mormonism is against him, for the Mormon Jesus is different from the one worshiped by orthodox Christians, and the Kingdom for which the Mormons look is different too. (One might suggest it does look more like America than does the Kingdom of God preached by our Lord.) It is our duty as Christian teachers to say so, to resist the enthusiasm and sentimentalism which are so tem
pting in these environs, and to get the unwelcome point across.