Sunday, March 12, 2006

Flag Idolatry

As a U.S. citizen and committed Christian in troubled times, I've been thinking a lot about patriotism and the flag over the past few years. I just can't shake my growing unease with both. I know that the following comments will probably bother some readers (few though they may be), but I feel like I have been too long suppressing a call to speak out more clearly. So here I will try out my voice a little. Bits of this line of reflection have appeared in previous posts, but now I want to be more direct. I'm not sure if this will be the first of many posts on this issue or a one-time thing.

Now that Bush and his corrupt cronies are falling in popularity, it seems like maybe we have turned the corner as a country. Yet much of the patriotism and flag-waving that dominate American political culture continue unabated. We need a deep, spiritual revitalization in American that will call into question the linkage of Christain faith with these things. For it seems plain that America is burdened by the sin of flag idolatry.

Don't get me wrong. I totally support the traditional American ideals of liberty, democracy, equality, and so forth. Including the freedom of religion and the separation of Church and State that allow me to practice my faith as God calls me. But those political values are distinct from waving a flag or subscribing to the concept of patriotism. The flag is a false idol, to which Christians cannot be expected show any special allegiance (despite all the times I was instructed to "pledge allegiance" in school). Patriotism, likewise, is often a cover for sin and evil. If something is right, its "patriotism" is superfluous. More to the point: How can I believe in a universal God and in Jesus Christ who came to liberate the whole world from sin and yet claim that my country or "my people" deserve special treatment?

In the city I used to live in, I attended a very left-leaning church that was absolutely wonderful in many ways. We welcomed all people, regardless of sexual orientation, and we worked to challenge sexism, racism, and economic injustice. Our pastor wasn't afraid to preach sometimes even radical critiques against Empire. Yet there stood the American flag inside the sanctuary. (For any readers from overseas, strange as it may seem, there are American flags inside most U.S. church sanctuaries.) The more I thought about the idolatry of having any national flag in a Christian sacred space, the more uncomfortable I became. I couldn't even go to church some weeks because I could not in good conscience worship with such an idolatrous symbol there. I truly believe that the two great idols of modern society are the love of money (greed, materialism, etc.) and the love of nation, especially when that country is engaged in military aggression.

Now please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. In a certain sense, I "love my country" in an incredibly deep and thorough way. As much or more than most Americans, I think, I truly love and enjoy all the byways, small towns, landscapes, and diverse people that make up the United States. But I cannot see this love as anything other than a purely contingent result of my upbringing and background. I cannot grant my deep love of my country any moral status. I cannot let myself think that American people have any greater worth than people elsewhere or that U.S. decisions, especially military ones, deserve any more support because of their origin.

This brings me, at long last, to one of the big issues of the day: the Iraq war and occupation. And to deal with that, I have to revisit the thorny issue of "support the troops." Some progressives and liberals have come up with good arguments that supporting U.S. military men and women should involve bringing them home and providing them full veterans' benefits--positions I endorse. Still, like Robert Jensen and other dissenting voices, I cannot help also believing that we should call on U.S. troops (and potential enlistees) to exercise their own moral judgement. The troops are the victims of the decisions made by Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al., to be sure, but they are also moral beings in their own right. (Another interesting question from a Christian point of view: Which troops? Whose ultimate welfare should people of God care about? Does God take sides? Is Jesus's love only for Americans?) If we think the war is wrong, we cannot support the choice of the troops to fight in it. So I would like all the U.S. troops to come home safe and sound, but I also want everyone else in the world to be safe and sound, including the people of Iraq.

But those of us who aren't in the military can't get off the hook. If anything, my reflections on patriotism and the flag make me think that those of us back home are often just as much or more stained with the blood of Iraqis. For we have created and sustained a climate of patriotic idolatry that makes soldiers believe that they are fighting for a worthy cause. How can I condemn a soldier for fighting in Iraq and believing that it is a noble thing, when all around her/him there are so many reinforcing messages that this is true? How can we expect the vast majority of the troops to make better moral decisions, to refuse to fight for Bush Administration lies, while we are waving flags and uttering patriotic platitudes? It may seem to many military families like I am trying to pull the rug out from underneath them. I am truly sorry for any pain that may cause. But I really believe that as a Christian I cannot stand by, brandishing a flag and chanting God bless America, for that would be to advance an idolatrous delusion that harms people.

Much as I remain a believer in the importance of economics to political issues, I have come to realize over the past few years that cultural symbols cannot be ignored. In fact, they are central to how we think of ourselves. They express who we are, deep down. I choose to believe in God first and foremost, and in the particular Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Christian God is for all people everywhere, not just Americans. Adhering to Christianity demands that we look beyond our own selfish interests and beyond our own national borders. If you are a secular person and choose to put your faith in your country's flag and the ideal of national patriotism, I can't stop you. But I challenge you to look inside yourself and ask what might make you change your mind. If you lived in Germany in the 1930s, would you choose patriotism and the flag? If the United States continues down its current path of suppressing civil liberties and invading other countries, would you keep on choosing patriotism and the flag? At some point, good Christians, people of other faith backgrounds, and people with no particular religious faith at all, must band together to save our country. And that means loving America as a matter of concern, not as a matter of faith.


Intrepid Liberal Journal said...

An interesting and thought provoking post. I think patriotism is like beauty: it's in the eye of the beholder. Sadly, too many wrap patriotism around the symbol of the flag and exploit religion to justify it. Others have the simplified notion of, "America: love it or leave it."

I prefer to break it down in more personal and human terms. If you truly love a friend or relative, you're critical of them. You're critical of them when they step over the line, committ a moral breach, act irresponsibly, and are motivated by arrogance and hubris. We expect the people we love not simply to affirm our virtues but tell us the truth when we're wrong.

I see patriotism the same way. I love my country and demand more of it on the issues of human rights and social justice. It is a incumbent upon all true patriots not merely to wrap ourselves in "flag idolaltry" as you so eloquently write but challenge our fellow citizens to re-examine our values and direction. This isn't merely civic duty but what patriotism should be about.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. It violates the spirit of the Second Commandment.Further, the flag in the sanctuary is an abomination.

Don Wagner