Heartbursts: Faith and the Flag

August 22nd, 2018
This article is featured in the Summer 2018 issue of HeartBursts

Heartbursts: Churches Empathizing with Cultures is a regular column helping leaders plan, implement, and evaluate credible and relevant ministries based on cultural trends. Learn more about the lifestyle groups and leadership styles described below by ordering Thomas Bandy's new book "Sideline Church: Bridging the Chasm between Churches and Cultures."


Churches left, right, and middle are experiencing another wave of controversy over American flags in the sanctuary. These tend to occur in times of unusual cultural stress (wars, election years, economic uncertainties, denominational conflicts, etc.). But different lifestyles have different perspectives on the relationship of faith and flag. It’s not so much theological, as cultural. If you understand the lifestyle representation in your church and community, you can understand the underlying stresses about the presence of the flag in the sanctuary. With that information you can interpret…

  1. the conflicts among church members (local or denominational)
  2. the criticism of some in the community of the relative faithfulness or patriotism of the church
  3. your personal stress and preaching strategy

If, for the moment, you set aside ideology and spend time understanding the motivations of the lifestyle segments in church and community, you can reduce confrontation and build bridges for reconciliation.

The Flag and the Cultural Middle

The Cultural Middle (or Culturally Passive as I describe them today) tend to be older, rooted, rural and small town and mid-market city people who expect the church to live in harmony and acculturate newcomers. Their quest for God is often driven by anxieties over aging, death, and a sense of displacement and abandonment. The flag is a positive symbol for belonging and safety that speaks to their anxieties for the future.

For them, the flag is an expression of gratitude. As they see it, America has protected religious freedom (among other liberties) with great sacrifice. Some of the Culturally Passive are veterans; others are minorities or immigrants. If it weren’t for the flag, so to speak, they wouldn’t be able to worship as they choose. They would risk discrimination, persecution, and cultural abuse; they would be vulnerable to manipulation, coercion, and sectarian intolerance. The Culturally Passive see the flag in the sanctuary as a guarantee of safety. The state protects religious freedom.

On the other hand, the Culturally Passive are well aware of the limitations and failures of the state. The best the state can do is shape policy and enforce laws, but they all know that the best policies go astray and that what may be legal may not be right. There are many less noble reasons to take big risks than protecting religious freedom, so the flag in the sanctuary also reminds them that the state is as much a penitent looking for forgiveness and wisdom as each individual in the pew. The state must also accept the justice of God and listen to the prophetic witness of the church. It can’t leave the sanctuary without first hearing the sermon.

There are two sermons to preach that help the Culturally Passive understand the inevitable tension between faith and flag. The first sermon is about gratitude. Religious freedom is not easy to find in our world and a state that guarantees such freedom deserves our thanks. The second sermon is about humility before the justice of God. The state has a habit of compromising freedoms and catering to special interests, biased opinions, and selfish desires. The church also has a duty to criticize and correct its abuses.

The Culturally Passive are often undecided about the flag. Leave the flag in, or take it out of the sanctuary. If you take it out, they will find other occasions to express their gratitude to the state, often on Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. And whether it is in or out of the sanctuary, the church will not hesitate to critique the state according to their discernment of God’s will.

The Flag and the Cultural Right

The Cultural Right (or Culturally Righteous as I describe them today) tend to be multiple generations of hard working people, living among extended families and close communities with a sense of family values and local traditions. Their quest for God is often driven by anxieties over purpose and meaning, guilt and broken trust. The flag is a positive symbol for continuity, purposefulness, and the promise of personal fulfillment.

The Culturally Passive may perceive faith and flag in creative tension, but the Culturally Righteous see faith and flag as flip sides of the same coin. This perception is rooted in the 19th century belief in “manifest destiny”. The destiny of America is to expand its political, social, and economic influence around the world. The destiny of the church is to multiply Christians in all cultures. For them, to be Christian inevitably leads people to adopt American values and way of life, and to adopt American values inevitably leads people to become Christian. The flag belongs in the church. The faith belongs in the White House.

Among the Culturally Righteous, however, this perception should not lead to confrontation or intolerance, since that in itself would contradict traditional American values for hospitality and tolerance, and traditional church values for peace and compassion. Instead, they are confident that future generations of immigrants from other countries and faiths will gradually become more and more acculturated to American values and religious traditions. It is a kind of enlightened colonialism applied to our own neighborhoods.

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In the real world this may not be automatic. Both church and state may use social policies and mores, and religious boundaries and role models, to nudge the public (especially the youth) in the right direction. At times the influence of the state or the church might seem oppressive or misguided, causing the one to correct the other, but this is usually a peaceful process. The Culturally Righteous tend to assume that we can all talk together in a Town Meeting and settle our differences. They trust the political process. They trust the integrity of religious leaders. The Culturally Righteous are usually clear about their preference — the flag stays in the sanctuary. Any difference between church and state can be settled by exercising one’s right to vote and holding both political and religious leaders to accountability.

There are two sermons that help the Culturally Righteous understand the intrinsic connection of faith and flag. The first sermon is about calling: God calls the state to lead the world toward peace, justice, equal opportunity, healthy community and more. God calls the Christian to reveal the fruits of the Spirit that include love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and generosity, self-control and more. The second sermon is about trust: Trust between the church and the state implies mutual confidence in the each other’s integrity, competency, and teamwork. If any combination of these breaks down, then both state and church are in trouble.

This very problem has encouraged an extreme movement among the Culturally Righteous that I describe as the Conservative Cultural Wedge. For them, the flag does not symbolize partnership, but oversight of political correctness and moral certainty. The state has the duty and the power to enforce religious norms and codes of behavior. For them, the flag must be in the sanctuary because the trust between church and state is broken. Pastors and church leaders can no longer be trusted to support the manifest destiny of the country or Christianity. In much the same way as Emperor Constantine tried to impose his own interpretation of the creed and claim power to decide between orthodoxy and heresy, so also the Conservative Cultural Wedge expects the state (influenced by lobbyists) to determine right and wrong. The flag is in the sanctuary to monitor the content of the sermon. It is difficult to find any positive outcome for this perception of the relationship of faith and flag. The more the Culturally Passive and the mainstream of the Culturally Righteous see this trend, the more worried they should become.

Life within the Conservative Cultural Wedge can be highly competitive and stressful. Betrayal and disillusionment always lurk around the corner. The challenge in preaching (or blogging, texting, or any kind of communication media) is that the Conservative Cultural Wedge are very selective about who they will hear and who they will ignore. They may respond, however, to a hero of faith who emerges from the culture wars without thoughts of revenge and feelings of disillusionment. This is a person whose heart is at peace and whose lifestyle models humility. They may seek out this person, not for preaching, but for mentoring.

The Flag and the Cultural Left

The Cultural Left (or Culturally Ambivalent as I describe them today) tend to be baby boomers and their upwardly mobile, adventurous children living in or around major cities, or along the multi-cultural east, west, and gulf coasts. They eagerly explore ideas, technologies, cultures, careers, and relationships. The quest for God among older generations of the Cultural Left is often driven by a sense of emptiness and meaninglessness, and among younger generations by a sense of anger and shame. The former often feel lost in ethical relativity and the latter often have low self-esteem because they lack meaningful work, cope with personal experiences of abuse, or identify with oppressed people. Simply stated, the boomers tend to be confused by what has happened to the state and the faith, and their children tend to be angry that they are left with a mess.

The Cultural Left are not only ambivalent about the flag, but also about the church. They generally believe that the flag should not be in the sanctuary, but they also question whether they themselves should be in the sanctuary. Neither faith nor flag have much meaning. Corporate logos have replaced flags and personal religion has replaced faith. When they see any national flag, they think of political corruption. When they see any religious building, they think of moral hypocrisy. The lack of political confidence and religious credibility has forced many among the Cultural Left to stop voting and exit the church; or vote cynically and immerse themselves in sports and other entertainments; or occasionally rally around a favored cause and “cherry pick” ideas and spiritual practices for their wandering spiritualties.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any sermons that are likely to help them reconsider the relationship of faith and flag. They are probably not in the sanctuary anyway, and if they are they are probably not paying attention. So the real question for clergy is not what to preach, but what to blog, tweet, image, sing, or share on social media. These are going to be short, pointed data bytes rather three-point lectures or essays. The sharp points, however, will be about hope, human potential, and the possibility of being surprised by joy. The chronic depression or underlying anger of the Cultural Left, however, creates a fog of skepticism or a storm of frustration that is difficult to overcome.

This very problem has encouraged an extreme movement among the Culturally Ambivalent that I describe as the Liberal Cultural Eclectic. For them, flags and faiths are always forms of coercion and intrude on their entitlement to live as they choose. Ego is everything, and everyone should get out of their way. Having lost trust in everything, they trust only themselves. In much the same way as Robinson Crusoe salvaged a wrecked ship, created an island kingdom, and decided for himself what was right and wrong, so also the Liberal Cultural Eclectic live life on their own terms and desperately hope to one day see the footprint of a potential intimate relationship. For the Liberal Cultural Eclectic there seem to be only two alternatives in life: either seize life entrepreneurially and succeed economically, or live life apocalyptically and make the best of the coming global disaster. The more the Culturally Passive and the mainstream of the Culturally Ambivalent see this trend, the more worried they should become

Life within the Liberal Cultural Eclectic can be very lonely and highly stressful. The Liberal Cultural Eclectic may not believe in God or go to church, and may not believe in the state or vote. What they do seek are heroes. A sermon won’t impress them… but a hero of hope might. A role model who can demonstrate a disciplined spiritual life one-day-at-a-time and have the courage to participate in partnerships rather than competitions can give them hope. They may seek out this person, not for preaching, but for mentoring.

* * *

If you know the proportionate representation of lifestyles in your church membership and your community, you can anticipate where people stand on the issue of flag and faith and why. That presumes, of course, that you have uploaded your membership list to create a “People Plot” on MissionInsite (which is the only way I know to get such information). Read the reports and study the comparisons and contrasts. You can help them understand and respect their differences. You can be a role model for peace and patience, and you can build reconciliation.

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