In the cafeteria at Greensboro Elementary School, the American flag and the Alabama flag were positioned on incorrect sides of the stage. Perhaps because of my Cub Scouts days but more likely because of my personality, I noticed and swapped them. Someone asked about it, and I took it as an opportunity to launch into Evan’s interpretation of the proper positioning of our national flag. In that diatribe, I noted that secular spaces are easier to figure out than sacred spaces. In a school auditorium, there is little doubt as to which direction the flags are facing—out toward the audience. That means that, from the audience’s perspective, the American flag should be on the left—more precisely, the American flag should be on its own right. (Picture yourself as the flag and ask yourself, “Am I the flag furthest to my own right?” If so, it’s correct.) But in a sacred space, everything gets muddled.
Which way is the flag facing? Is it facing out toward the congregation? Or is it facing along with the congregation toward the altar? What if the altar is fixed against the wall and the flag is against the same wall—is the flag facing the wall upon which it is standing, or is it looking slightly outward to glimpse the front edge of the altar? Or if the altar is not fixed, does the flag face the center of the altar no matter where it is (if behind, looking out…if in front, looking in)? And, more importantly, what’s the role of the flag in worship anyway?
That was the real subject of the conversation being had. What place does our national symbol have in a space that should be dominated by religious symbols? To what extent is our nation’s flag a religious symbol? Some of those participating in the conversation were shocked to learn that at St. John’s we regularly process the American flag (and the Alabama flag) in behind the cross and torches. (And, if you’re curious, the American flag walks in on the right and then crosses to the congregation’s left, where it stays for the service.) “Of course we process the American flag,” I replied. “It’s part of who we are. We’re an American church, right?”
Tricky, isn’t it. Are we an “American” church? Well, actually, we’re not just an American church—we have dioceses in Honduras, Haiti, Europe, and elsewhere. But, regardless of where the Episcopal Church’s headquarters are (note the military term), one would expect a congregation to bear the flag of the nation in which the congregation is located. The Honduran Episcopalians pray for their own president…I hope. In fact, there is a beautiful, conflicting, unavoidable mixture of religion and state in our Episcopal expression of Christianity. And that’s signified by the fact that today, July 4, is a “Major Feast” in our church’s calendar.
By my counting, there are only 33 Major Feasts in our church year. (I’m not counting Ash Wednesday and the weekdays of Holy Week.) And Independence Day is one of them. It has its own readings for both Eucharistic celebration and Daily Office. And this morning’s Old Testament reading from the Daily Office is a great expression of the role of religion in state (and vice-versa). “The government of the earth is in the hands of the Lord,” the author of Ecclesiasticus writes. How many of us believe that? How many of us trust that?
Although I’m firmly in the “separation of church and state” camp, I acknowledge that they influence each other. We pray for the president and those in authority. We influence the electoral process by attempting to interpret God’s word and will in the specific political climate. State and church go hand-in-hand…even if they shouldn’t be speaking directly to one another. No matter how much we might prefer for religion and politics to be separate, God still has a hand in the government of our nation—not in the “we-need-a-strong-Christian-president” sense but in the “God-is-in-control-of-even-secular-affairs” sense. We don’t need a religious political leader in order for God to rule our nation. And I think that’s what Independence Day is really all about.