The recent Supreme Court ruling that protects flag burning as a form of free speech touched off an early-summer display of patriotic fireworks. Politicians, led by President Bush, lined up to blast the Court’s action as sacrilege and called for a constitutional amendment prohibiting the desecration of the flag.

I just hope the church doesn’t fall in line behind them.

By saying this, I do not intend to express any un-American sentiments. I simply believe that what Americans do with the flag has more to do with the state than it does with the church.

Making this distinction between the nation and the Christian community has always been a difficult one for American believers. We all grew up studying the courageous efforts of the Pilgrims who braved great dangers to come to this land to practice their faith without interference. They saw themselves as a “city set on a hill.” But they also blurred the line separating church and nation, a perspective for the most part maintained by the American church ever since.

My own experience as a boy reflects this. Like many American Christians, I grew up in a church that displayed both a Christian flag and an American flag near the altar. And during Sunday-school opening exercises, we all stood up to pledge allegiance to the U.S. flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible. Consequently, the line between our twin loyalties to church and state, the boundary between the kingdom of Christ and at least one nation of this world, never seemed very clear.

This was not the case for those who first pledged their allegiance to Christ and to his kingdom. To confess “Jesus is Lord,” as the early church did, was to risk the wrath of Rome, whose subjects were called to swear their loyalty to empire and emperor ...

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