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"One Cheer"for Civil Religion?

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The pastor of my local church caused no small stir several years ago when he removed the American flag from its perch just behind the pulpit. Indeed, he removed it from the sanctuary entirely. As you might imagine, this provoked some consternation among at least a few members, who no doubt wondered if this brash new pastor, late of graduate school and ministry in England, might have acquired some suspect loyalties during his years abroad. It was not anti-Americanism or any other lack of patriotism that animated his decision, however. Reared in a small town in the verdant rolling hills of the Bluegrass State, he is as red-blooded an American as you will find, possessed of a deep and abiding love for his country. He will with gratitude and pride salute the flag when given occasion to do so. So why remove it from the sanctuary? Most simply, he wanted to brook no confusion that the church offers its worship only to Christ-and not to America. More deeply, he saw the flag's prominence in the pulpit, even its very presence in the sanctuary, as potentially obscuring the distinction between the Kingdom of God and the kingdom of man. He sought to make sure that there was no confusion over his primary calling and our primary identity. As a minister of Christ's church, he is charged with preaching the Word of God to our congregation, holding our consciences captive to God's revelation as our ultimate authority and to God's name as our ultimate loyalty, no matter our earthly citizenship or nationality. The mere presence of an American flag does not necessarily defy this distinction, of course. But it may confuse or undermine it.

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1 [ Back ] In this article, Dr. Inboden has cited Wilfred McClay, "The Soul of a Nation," The Public Interest, Spring 2002; and Edward Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 3 vols. (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), vol. 1, p. 22. The quotation from John Winthrop is taken from "A Model of Christian Charity," in Mark Noll and Roger Lundin, eds., Voices from the Heart: Four Centuries of American Piety (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 4-6. Dr. Inboden's quotation from Perry Miller is from "Errand into the Wilderness," in Jon Butler and Harry Stout, eds., Religion in American History (New York: Oxford University Press), p. 41. His citation of the 1977 Continental Congress resolution is quoted in James Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1998), p. 54.

The observation from Mark Noll is taken from The History of Christianity in the United States and Canada (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), p. 136. The anecdote of Edward Elson's baptism of President Eisenhower is taken from Wide Was His Parish (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1986), pp. 115-118. Eisenhower's comment on religion is found in Patrick Henry, "'And I Don't Care What It Is': The Tradition-History of a Civil Religion Proof-Text," Journal of the American Academy of Religion, vol. XLIX, no. 1, pp. 35-49. The quotations from Will Herberg are from Herberg's Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (New York: Doubleday and Company, 1955), pp. 3, 77-84. Finally, the observations of Augustine were taken from Peter Brown's Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2000), p. 307.

William Inboden is a special advisor in the Office of International Religious Freedom.

Issue: "The Christian Voters Guide" Sept./Oct. 2004 Vol. 13 No. 5 Page number(s): 23-29

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