The Cross and the Flag: On Religion and Liberty
The Rev. Dr. Leander Harding
One of the first really spectacular public events to be televised was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953. Michael Ramsey was the Bishop of Durham at the time of the coronation. By tradition the Bishop of Durham stood by the monarch’s right hand during the coronation. Ultimately Ramsey became the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury. He was a great theologian and is thought by many to have been a genuinely holy man. With his massive head, notoriously bushy eyebrows and striking presence in vestments, the cameramen followed him closely. In the video, he can be seen muttering to himself as he crosses in front of the altar on his way from his seat to the throne to take his place by the side of the young queen. Thanks to the new technology, thousands of people saw this and naturally the question came up, “Bishop, what were you saying to yourself?” His answer: “I was keeping my bows and reverences straight — First God, then the Queen. The altar first, then the throne.”
The 4th of July, is an appropriate moment to speak of the relationship between the altar and the throne, between the Cross and the flag — about an appropriate patriotism and about the appropriate expression of religion in the public square.
The first principle in working out this relationship is the first commandment. “I am the Lord thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Michael Ramsey had it right: God first, then the State.
The fourth Commandment bids us to honor our father and mother, and included in that command is the obligation to respect legitimate authorities. There are versions of the Christian story which are told in this land which get the Cross and the flag mixed up and which do not perceive adequately the place of the flag –precious that it is, and it is precious and stands for something very beautiful in human history. Nonetheless the flag is under the Cross. We honor the flag of our country. But we honor God first and both we as individuals, and our country and any nation or state are accountable to God and are to be judged and critiqued on the basis of God’s standards of righteousness and justice.
When the state becomes divinized and when the state is made the ultimate authority, and accountable to no other authority, it turns into a savage god with an insatiable thirst for blood. This is what happened in the French Revolution. The French philosophes set up a secular rational state, trying to leave God out. They knew that people cannot do without religion, ritual and ceremony and so they even took a stab at making a pseudo-religion with a cult of ceremonies and holy days revolving around “divine reason”. Soon the heads were piling up at the foot of Dr. Guillotine’s machine, and the streets were literally running with blood.
When the German people made a god of the German nation’s “blood and soil,” millions of people died. The Bolsheviks in Russia set up their officially atheistic state with the promise that the state would bring in at last human happiness, but the Gulag and millions of deaths were the result.
If there is no divine and transcendent authority which gives legitimacy to the state and which can call its illegitimate actions to account, then God help us; for it will either be the rule of the mob or rule by the strong man — and probably a history that oscillates between the two.
Many people believe that the decline in religion in developed countries means a future that promises more personal freedom. If the critical mass of people in this country really do abandon the God of the Bible, do not look for more personal freedom, but for less. Many people in this country think that the threat to personal liberty comes from the religious right. The tendency to confuse the Cross and the flag is to be resisted, and resisted on Christian grounds.
But the real threat to liberty is from those who want what the Roman Catholic theologian John Richard Neuhaus called a “naked public square” — a center to civic life from which religion is excluded.
Our Constitution provides for the separation of church and state. It prohibits the state from establishing a religion and it protects the free expression of religion. The second part is often forgotten today. This is a hugely important and misunderstood portion of our Constitution. First of all, it protects religion. It says that the state is not supreme, that its reach is limited. The state cannot command conscience and belief; the writ of the state goes only so far and no further. There is a fundamental human right of freedom of worship — to worship God according to our conscience.
This famous separation clause has a theological basis in the Bible. The God of the Bible wants a people who will freely return His love — not by outward compulsion but by an inward compulsion of thanksgiving, of gratitude welling up for the gift God has given us in sending His Son to free us from the power of evil and death. The separation clause creates what Pope John Paul II called a “zone of personal freedom”. He grew up under Nazi and Communist rule and said that the state intruded into every nook and cranny of life. He sometimes would take young people out into the mountains so they could have an experience of freedom. The “zone of personal freedom” is the civic and political space in which it is possible to freely choose to respond to God’s love and to what Christ has done for us in worship and obedience. For Christians, the clause of the Constitution prohibiting establishment of religion and guaranteeing expression is precious. There is no such zone of personal freedom and no such guarantee of free expression in Islam.
However, those in our society who are hostile to religion want to use this clause as a rationale to drive all reference to religion from the public sphere. This is a mistake and a threat to liberty.
Our country is not a “Christian Country”. We have been a multi-faith society from the first and the Founders created a polity that could accommodate multiple faiths from the start. George Washington states this in a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island:
The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for giving to Mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was, by the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection, should demean themselves as good citizens.
Nevertheless, both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are God-dependent documents and the God invoked is recognizably the God of the Christians and Jews. Our country makes possible the free practice of the Christian faith, and it is a live question whether the country can long endure without the robust participation of religious citizens both privately and corporately in the public debate.
The Declaration of Independence is based on the state’s dependence for its legitimacy on God-given standards of justice and equity. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…”. Our rights, our human dignity, standards of fairness, justice, equity, are God-given, not state-given. The state has its legitimacy under these standards. The state does not give these standards and cannot legitimately take them away.
This is self-evident to Christians and to Jews, and to even the thinned-out Christianity of 18th century Deists. It was not self-evident to the neo-paganism of the Nazis or the statism of Stalin and Pol Pot.
Our system makes room maximally for the free expression of religion. If our heritage is distorted and religion driven from the public square and if knowledge of the God of the Jews and the Christians, the God revealed in the Bible — becomes rare in our people, then our liberty would hang by the most slender thread.
Christians need to be robust in our engagement in the political realm, so that a government of, by and for the people shall not perish.