Other "Thinking Drafts" and writing by Keith Drury -- http://www.indwes.edu/tuesday .

My pet peeve: flags in church

Everybody ought to have a personal religious pet peeve. You know, something that really bugs you, or gets under your skin. Do you have something that rubs you the wrong way at church? I do.

Some people's pet peeve is about the announcements or the way the Scripture is read or not read. Others get worked up when told to raise their hands or clap. Still others specialize in screening the message to pounce on any grammatical errors. Others get irritated about the sound system or lighting level. Music, of course offers the best opportunity for pet peeves of all kinds. Having a pet peeve is nice. It gives you something to think about during lulls in the service.

My pet peeve is about flags. That is, displaying flags in churches. Most American churches flaunt their flags right up front with other symbols like a communion table, Bible, and cross, so I get bugged just about every time I go to church. I grumble to myself, wondering why American churches insist on displaying a nationalistic symbols in their churches? What does it mean? That we practice some sort of civil religion? That America is somehow a Christian nation or is especially favored by God? Does it mean we believe, 'my country right or wrong?' Or, are we telling ourselves that we're 'American Christians' not 'world Christians?' If a flag is a symbol, then what does it symbolize? I think about these kinds of things during the 16th repeat of choruses or during the reading of the announcements.

What are flags? People salute them, pledge allegiance to them, and sometimes follow them to their death. A flag is a powerful symbol -- a symbol of loyalty and allegiance. And like all powerful symbols there is an explicit code for display. For instance, on a two-flag pole the top flag represents the 'higher' loyalty or greater authority. In a meeting hall or church, the flag on the right represents the 'higher' allegiance. Thus, if a church displays flags on the platform, the flag to the right of the pulpit is the greater loyalty. If the flags are on the floor, the one to the right of the audience represents the highest loyalty.

So what's my peeve here? It is this: in 25 years of traveling and speaking, almost half of the churches I've been in display the American flag in precedence over the Christian flag. What???? I mumble under my breath, 'What in the world does this mean?' Is such a church really saying their loyalty to their country is greater than their loyalty to God? Yikes! Sometimes I almost forget what I was supposed to speak about. Of course it could be simple ignorance -- maybe they don't know the code. But if that is so, then why display flags at all?

Then there are those clever churches who display the Christian flag to the right of the speaker, then put the American flag on the floor to the right of the audience -- presto, both in places of precedence. It's a clever compromise, but what does this mean? That the preacher puts the kingdom first, and the people put the nation first? That's a screwy notion and not much better.

And even where a church puts the Christian flag in the place of primacy, I get to thinking about why they display the nationalistic symbol at all. I keep wondering if they'd display an eagle on the communion table or if they were Germans in 1939 they'd put swastikas on the wall beside the cross. To me, any nationalistic symbol seems out of place in the church of God.

OK, I know I'm excessive on this. After all, that's what a pet peeve is all about, making mountains out of molehills. And I know that medieval churches often mixed Bible images, national flags and images of local patrons in their stained glass windows. (They also burned people up who disagreed with their doctrine. I just don't see what flags add to worship? Does it help us focus on God better? Not me. I focus on the flag.

Now this whole hang-up is generally only a low grade irritant. The only time it gets serious is when I visit some Bill Hybels wannabe's church where they've stripped away all the Christian symbols from the 50 year-old church, removed the cross from the front wall, shoved the communion table into a back room, and obliterated all other Christian symbols -- yet keep the American flag. Now, what in the world does *this* mean?

I know, many of you will chide me for nursing such a minor peeve (except, of course, you Mennonites who are smiling wide at my enlightenment). I know I should be thinking about loftier things in church than flags. But it is my pet religious peeve. I've kept it secret for several decades and am just now letting it out. A pet peeve isn't for telling people usually, then it becomes a complaint. Peeves should be personal things, something you can grumble to yourself about -- that's the fun of it.

So, now that I've gone public with my flag pet peeve, I'll be needing a new one I can keep private. Maybe you can help me -- what's your pet peeve?


So what do you think?

To contribute to the thinking on this issue e-mail your response to Tuesday@indwes.edu

By Keith Drury, 1995. You are free to transmit, duplicate or distribute this article for non-profit use without permission.