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Christian Flag-Waving for Political Reasons Undermines Its Own Case
Rit Varriale, pastor of Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby, North Carolina, drew national attention recently by flying the Christian flag above the American flag outside his church.
It was a powerful and worthwhile symbolic gesture. The problem, though, is that as a critique of judicial power in general, and of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges in particular, the statement undermines itself. Carried to its most consistent conclusions, Varriale’s flag protest would disrupt all Christian participation in American politics. In addition, his gesture could also support the marriage equality movement.
On the one hand, Varriale’s act of flying the Christian flag above the American flag carries implications that go far beyond the issues of American judicial power and the debate over gay marriage.
Proclaiming that God is above government, Varriale has gone halfway toward crafting an interesting Christian ethical position. But only halfway. If he were to follow this insight through to its most consistent and compelling conclusions, he would end with a complete rejection of all the claims America’s government and society make on Christian believers.
If God is truly above government, then Christians must reject our own government’s imperialistic wars on foreign soil. They must reject the ways in which capitalism forms our identity as self-interested consumers. They must reject the idea that American stories about freedom are more normative than Christian ones.
In addition, such a Christian moral vision must reject all participation in political life on the basis that such participation warps our desires by tempting us to attain power, damaging our souls and leading us away from God’s grace in the process. This means giving up the old idea that America is a Christian nation. It means abandoning the premise that America is a city on a hill with a unified theological and political example for the world to follow.
Finally, it means letting go of the presupposition that white Protestantism has a privileged place in our society. Those who stand with Varriale’s statement must be prepared to give up all the privilege, power, and political engagement that American Christians have cherished for so many centuries.
On the other hand, if Varriale wants to fly his Christian flag above the American one and still participate in politics, he may not be comfortable with the ethical outcome. For many Christians, such reverence for the Christian flag necessarily signals profound commitment to loving all neighbors (Matthew 22: 37-40) and to protecting the most vulnerable among us (Matthew 25: 31-46).
Accordingly, loving the neighbor and protecting the vulnerable mean seeking justice on their behalf. Gay Americans have been systematically denied important forms of justice for many years, and the marriage equality movement is one way to rectify that problem.
Therefore, if Varriale wants to assert God’s perfect sovereignty and also pursue political influence, his fellow Christians might counsel him to start by affirming the Supreme Court ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges, which offers important protection for “the least of these.”
Daniel A. Morris is a lecturer in the Religion Department at Augustana College (Rock Island, Illinois). His research in Christian ethics and American religious history has appeared in The Journal of Religion, Soundings, and Journal of Religious Ethics. His book, entitled Virtue and Irony in American Democracy: Revisiting Dewey and Niebuhr, is forthcoming with Lexington Books.
Bad Jokes, Flag Waving, and the Etiquette of Political Theology
Did you hear about the Baptist church in western North Carolina? Almost sounds like there’s a punchline to be delivered. Instead, there’s the news that Elizabeth Baptist Church decided to raise the Christian flag above the American flag—and make a big deal about it. I guess that might serve as a punchline to a corny joke along the lines of, “What did the church do with the Christian flag? Raised it! Get it?” Seriously though, after all of the culture war melodramas we’ve witnessed, this “news story,” like so many others before it, has the feel of some kind of absurdist performance. A preacher, framed by victimhood and resentment, is trying way too hard for his 15 minutes of fame. Of course, being in North Carolina this past week he had to try hard if he was going to grab a share of the spotlight, what with history being made in neighboring South Carolina and up the road at the Supreme Court. Otherwise we’d yawn and think to ourselves, just another angry bigoted preacher seemingly intent on driving up the numbers of ‘nones.’ We’d be half right, but like some character out of Flannery O’Connor, this preacher witnesses to a higher truth that he does not seem to fully appreciate, which we might call the etiquette of political theology.
When I first heard the headline, ‘God Is First’: NC Church Flies Christian Flag Above Old Glory,’ I was hoping that it might be a case in which a church questioned American Exceptionalism. And indeed, the pastor sounded as if he might be headed that way. “Before our accountability to government is our accountability to God…So from a Christian perspective, our flag etiquette is completely improper…We should be flying the Christian flag above the American flag.”
I thought he was about to launch into a prophetic tear confronting his own people’s sense of self-righteousness. Instead, he turned to the usual suspects (and the favorite trope of the Christian Right), engaged and newly married same-sex couples.
Ah, marriage, that truly subversive act of committing to being a loving and faithful partner, in plenty and in want, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live. I’m joking, of course, about marriage being socially disruptive; marriage is about as conventional as it gets. On the other hand, to commit one’s life to another is certainly a lot gutsier than self-righteously playing to the cameras while going on about one’s religious duty to discriminate. Hmmm, haven’t heard that one before.
Still, I think the preacher has helpfully identified a problem, at least in part. We do have a flag etiquette problem. (Who knew?) In fact, we don’t understand the power of the flags we fly or the political theology they signify. The Christian flag undoubtedly means many things to many people and has since its origins in 1907, but one thing all flags have in common is that they are inherently connected to political entities and identities. Flags denote sovereignty. It is precisely because flags are powerful symbols of a way of life, a land, and an entity that we fight over them as if our lives depended on them. What then would the church want with a flag? Isn’t the church called to be the body of Christ, a servant in the world?
What then should a congregation do with its Christian flag? One possibility would be to dispose of it. But one of the lessons the flag debate in South Carolina has taught us is that flags have staying power. It is almost as if we human being can’t live without them. Perhaps the trick, then, isn’t to get rid of them, but to discipline them from taking on a kind of sacred aura.
In terms of the Christian flag, perhaps the churches should follow the example of South Carolina and simply furl the Christian flag. Safely furled, the flag can stand juxtaposed to the strange beauty of the cross, with its power made perfect in weakness. True, the cross has often been employed as an identity marker akin to a flag, but the furled Christian flag just might help us Christians see that the church isn’t called to be in the real-estate business. The marks of the church are not land, a way of life, and cultural identity. The gospel of God challenges all such cherished boundaries.
Isn’t it time we stopped worrying about scoring points in some noxious culture war and started acting neighborly? It might not seem like much, but simply extending the hand of friendship might be a good place to start and there are times and places when such a gesture is a genuine act of courage. The martyrs of Mother Emanuel have taught us this, of course. Now is the time to stop waving flags and start shaking hands. That would also go a long way in taming America’s political theology, drenched as it in purity, privilege, and prejudice. For some this call amounts to Christian hospitality. For others, it’s just being neighborly. We might also call it the beginnings of the etiquette of political theology.
Dave True teaches religion and ethics at Wilson College, serve as Managing Editor of the journal Political Theology and Executive Editor of the journal’s blog, Political Theology Today. Currently,he is working on an article on the Tea Party’s political theology.