It is not heretical to display the Christian flag along with the American flag in a church auditorium—as long as the church members' primary allegiance is to the Christian flag and their secondary allegiance is to the American flag.
In my childhood, I attended Training Union (now called Discipleship Training) every Sunday night before church. We pledged allegiance to the Christian flag, to the Bible, and to the American flag. It was made very clear to whom ultimate allegiance belonged: first to the Bible and to the Christian flag, and then to America. And as long as that is the proper order and priority, there is no problem with flying the flags together.
In this country, we have never had an official relationship whereby the government has placed the flag in the churches. Here, if the U.S. flag is in a church, it is because the church members have chosen to place it there. That's very different than in European countries, where the flag was often placed in churches by the government because the government owned the church. Only one major country in Western Europe is purely secular—France. In England, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Scandinavian countries, an official relationship exists between the church and the state.
Nevertheless, it is important for Christians to be reminded regularly and vigorously that their primary allegiance is to God, not country. Francis Schaeffer made this point forcefully to American Evangelicals in The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (1970):
"In the United States many churches display the American flag. The Christian flag is usually put on one side and the American flag on the other. Does having the two flags in your church mean that Christianity and the American establishment are equal? If it does, you are really in trouble. These are not two equal loyalties. . . . Caesar is second to God. This must be preached and taught in sermons, Sunday school classes, and young people's groups. It must be taught that patriotic loyalty must not be identified with Christianity.
As Christians we are responsible, under the Lordship of Christ in all of life, to carry the Christian principles into our relationship to the state. But we must not make our country and Christianity to be synonymous."
For conservatives, watching the church-state boundaries means resisting the temptation to perceive Americans as God's chosen people and America as God's chosen nation. It means rejecting attempts to analogize God and Israel to God and America. Americans are not God's chosen people. America is not God's chosen nation. Although God may have a great deal to do with our history, and although God's involvement with America may put a special claim on America to stand for truth, righteousness, and liberty in the world, that does not in any way mean that America is somehow a privileged nation with a unique relationship to God. The argument that God has a special role for America to play in the world is a doctrine of obligation, responsibility, sacrifice, and service, not pride, privilege, and arrogance.
"God, guts, 'n' guns made this country free!" is national pride raised to the point of idolatry. It's as if I were born on third base and I thought I hit a triple. What did I have to do with being born American? What did any one of us have to do with being born American? We live in houses we didn't build. We drink from wells we didn't dig. I grew up in a working-class home, and I had more blessings and privileges poured out on me just by the providence of being born in the mid-twentieth-century United States than most human beings have had in the history of the human race. Those blessings impose responsibility and obligation.
God has had, and does have, something to do with America—and we have to assume that He will in the future because of the vast numbers of people of religious faith in this country. What many liberals are missing is the danger, the wrongness, the central unfairness of attempting to emasculate, eviscerate, censor, or suppress religious expression in the public square, particularly in an overwhelmingly religious country. What many conservatives are missing is that they too often tend to blur and merge the identity of Christianity and God with America—that's idolatry. Idolatry leads to worship of the state. It leads to suppression of minority viewpoints. Government shouldn't be discriminating either in favor of or against religion. Instead, government should be accommodating a maximum range of views in the public square.
Any attempt to restore government-sponsored religious observances, such as if the government were to mandate Christian prayer in schools, would inevitably lead to violations of individual freedom and freedom of conscience. That's the problem with saying, "We have to bring God back into the schools."
It may be true that we need to get God back into this country, or get this country back to God, but it's wrong to assume that the government is a legitimate or an effective means of accomplishing such a goal. The government shouldn't do it, and the government can't do it. To get God back into America, you need to get an acceptance of God back into individual Americans' hearts and minds, one at a time. If your goal is like mine—an American society that affirms and practices Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority—then there is no substitute for getting a majority of Americans to affirm Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority. You can't do that by mandating prayer and Bible reading in public schools. You can't get there by allowing the government to favor Christianity over other faiths. You can't do it by mandating government penalties for spiritual infractions of the Christian faith. You're going to have to have a significant majority of Americans who are seeking to lead lives that are pleasing to God and who are affirming Judeo-Christian values rooted in biblical authority.
Christian conservatives' first allegiance must be to God. And they must be very careful to avoid violating the rights of others who are not believers by getting government on the side of religion at the expense of nonreligion.
This article is excerpted from Richard Land's book The Divided States of America? What Liberals AND Conservatives are missing in the God-and-country shouting match! (Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2007), available at local bookstores and at FamilyBookstore.net.
Dr. Richard Land is president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention's official entity assigned to address social, moral, and ethical concerns, with particular attention to their impact on American families and their faith.