By John Pierce
Our daughter played in a high school volleyball tournament south of Atlanta on Saturday. One of the sites was a Christian school with excellent facilities and gracious hosts.
But I couldn’t help noticing the flagpole where Jesus came in third.
The name, logo and mission statement all made the school’s Christian identity very clear. But the American and state flags blew in the breeze above the Christian flag.
What should be concluded from that? Do those associated with the school consider Jesus to be third-rate? No.
The more likely answer is that nobody has really noticed or thought about the significance — although the flagpole is a prominent feature on campus. People are used to seeing the American flag at the top of flagpoles and any others relegated to lower status.
But it is exactly that lack of awareness that concerns me.
Ask any good evangelical about the threats to Christianity and you will get a quick response: secularism, pluralism, liberalism, atheism, socialism and Islam.
Mention civil religion and expect a blank stare or a wrinkled brow followed by: “What’s that?”
Civil religion is the mixing of nationalism and religious faith to the point they are inseparable. And history is full of awful results from such bad blending.
This form of civil religion — that is advanced, often unknowingly, by those who can’t distinguish between being “Christian Americans” or “American Christians” — dilutes the Gospel without meaning to. Ironically, it is often advanced by the very persons who proclaim to be the strongest defenders of the Christian faith.
So placing symbols of government above the cross-bearing Christian flag sets off no bells. And, not surprising, the school’s sports teams are deemed Patriots.
One can hold loyalties to Jesus and nation (as well as have state pride) — but they are separate loyalties and one must be penultimate to the other. Otherwise, we reduce God to being our national mascot and claim far more exclusive divine favor than we deserve.
That doesn't mean patriotism is bad. It is just a different commitment — and for those who have responded affirmatively to Jesus’ call to “Follow me,” it is a secondary one. In other words, for Christians, Jesus should never come in third.
Trying to discuss the dangers of civil religion often fails. Emotion tends to surpass logic for Christian patriots. Some even get defensive and start regurgitating some of David Barton’s revisionist history nonsense that Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee have fed them.
But even a slightly objective perspective should allow for seeing how one cannot utter the centuries-old affirmation of faith, “Jesus is Lord,” and then put the cross two rungs below the stars and stripes.
Some would say it is no big deal. I think it is. Because civil religion is dangerous.
First, it assigns God’s favor to a particular nation, political party or system of government. (Read a Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography and see how that played out in Germany.)
Second, when these two loyalties get stirred together, the god that emerges tends to take on the priorities and values of the nation rather than the citizens of the nation taking on the attributes of the Creator who has been made known in Jesus Christ.
Third, the actions of government leaders can too easily be justified as divinely anointed even if they turn out to be foolish or reckless.
Fourth and finally, civil religion confuses allegiances. (Just look at the flagpole.)
So why would a good Christian school — where Jesus is worshipped and served and his teachings are taught as ultimate truths that deserve ultimate commitments — place the Christian flag in the lowest position on the flagpole?
And why have students, parents, teachers and others — who see it almost daily — apparently expressed no concerns?
The only plausible answer is the absence of awareness. And that unawareness is the void in which civil religion flourishes.
And that is why I bring it up — again.