Friday, July 01, 2005

The Star Spangled Idol

It's Independence Day weekend and I'm about to start trouble. I started this post a few months ago, but it's taken this long to get the words out.

One of the first things I did when I started as pastor at our church eight years ago was to move two items out of the front of the sanctuary. I'm not sure that many people have even noticed in that time, but there used to be a Christian flag and an American flag in each front corner behind the pulpit. I imagine they had stood there undisturbed for years. The situation certainly wasn't unusual. I remember as a child, going to the Methodist Church with my grandmother and seeing the two flags there at the front of the choir loft. I'd bet they sit that way in numerous churches around the Midwest today. As a child, and even as a young adult, I never gave them much thought.

But the more I thought about the flags, the less I liked them. Don't get me wrong. I'm a proud American. I love my country. And I'm a proud Christian -- proud in a Christian kind of way. I love my God. So this isn't an issue with either my patriotism or my Christianity. But I see far too much of a union between church and state. Or if you don't like that phrase, how about between love of country and love of God?

David at Jollyblogger had a wonderful post this week about calling America a "Christian nation" and how that moniker was inappropriate and incorrect. We as Americans have freely wrapped our country in Christian rhetoric while we as Christians have bonded our faith with our patriotism, and frankly it's a poor relationship. Christ and America are nowhere near interchangeable, nor are they synonymous, but too many in the pews see no difference. Some people have gone too far the other way, like these folks. Nice idea, but too extreme.

After having dealt with the flags in the sanctuary, I found myself a few years later watching as the church trustees erected a new sign with space for a Christian flag and an American flag. Once again, I had to play out the difficulties that this marriage causes. Federal Law prohibits any other flag from flying above the flag of the United States. But exactly how scriptural is it to fly a Christian flag below the Stars and Stripes? It's not scriptural. And it paints a pretty poor picture of where our loyalties as followers of Christ are supposed to be. The Bible tells us often that our first loyalty is not to our earthly government but to our Heavenly Father. Christ says that if we love our own family more than Him, we are not worthy of Him. How much more is this true if we love our country to that extent?

And what about flying the flags side by side? Are we then making the two equal, or are we simply admitting that we belong to each institution at the same time? I've got to admit that I wrestle with this one. I had no problem taking the flags out of the sanctuary since I don't want anyone thinking that we are there to worship America. I've resisted the urge to tear the "patriotic" section from the hymnals thus far, but I don't use them in a worship service. That all seems pretty clear. But outside my church flies an American flag and a Christian flag on separate poles, the same distance from the ground. Is that wrong? As I said, I'm still wrestling.

What encourages me is that God is looking upon our hearts. I know in my heart that my country, although I love it, is not my first priority. And I consistently teach that we are to be obedient Americans only as long as we do not place a star spangled idol before our allegience to God Almighty. This is the key. God is God, and no matter how good a person George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or John Hancock really was, those men were not. They certainly did not construct a country or a governing document which nears the plain occupied by our Creator and Savior. As long as we keep that straight in our minds, and in our hearts, then we can celebrate the weekend as Christians first and as Americans second.

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