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It may be time to put the American flag back in American churches. Though we say this metaphorically, the statement will still make many nervous. And for good reason. Since the attack of September 11, most Christians have been thankful that the nation turned so readily to prayer and national worship services. We recognize the moral justness of the war on terrorism and have lent our support to it. On the other hand, we hesitate. Many fear that patriotic fervor will turn into nationalistic hate. Some balk at singing patriotic hymns, especially in church. And don't even think about putting the flag back in the sanctuary. No one wants a return to God-and-country Christianity, a civil religion whose John 3:16 is "My country, right or wrong!"

But is this fear justified?

Perhaps. The Dallas Morning News recently noted that "the American flag has replaced the cross as the most visible symbol in many churches across the country." As an attempt on one Sunday to signal sympathy with terrorist victims and loyalty to country, all well and good. Anything more is idolatry.

Fortunately, at the highest levels of the nation's life, civil religion is not currently a threat. In his September 20 speech to the nation, President Bush set out the issues in decidedly nonreligious terms. What is under attack, he said, was "democratically elected government" and freedom: "our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other."

Given the occasion, Bush ended in a curiously humble way: "In all that lies before us, may God grant us wisdom and may he watch over the United States of America." This is hardly the stuff of which a jingoistic religious nationalism is made. No official in this administration ...

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In the Magazine

November 12, 2001

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