I love America.
Now that I’ve made that clear, let me talk about how difficult it is to love America and God at the same time, and to do it in a way that respects both the country and the deity. When I was in Boy Scouts growing up, we learned flag etiquette – things like not letting the flag touch the ground, putting the flag on the speaker’s right, saluting while you say the Pledge of Allegiance, how to fold a flag, and so on. Working at a summer camp, I even trained boys on how to perform a flag ceremony. But in church, we learned that our first allegiance is to God.
This has caused me to seriously question the placement of American flags in sanctuaries and the celebration of American holidays (especially Independence Day) in church services. In college and seminary we had lively debates about whether American flags should be removed from places of worship and whether patriotic hymns (like the Star Spangled Banner – what’s that doing there?) from our hymn books.
So imagine my interest when I read about Rit Varriale of Elizabeth Baptist Church in Shelby, NC! His church held a special ceremony last Sunday as they raised the Christian Flag above the American Flag as a symbol that our first allegiance is to God, not country. And in a sense, he’s right – Christians ought to live by Christian principles, not just American principles. When the state instructs us to do things that violate our commitment to Christ, we ought to not do those things. This is, after all, what the Confessing Church did in Nazi Germany – protest against anti-Christian state practices.
We are not Americans first – we are Christians first. And so we don’t prioritize love and care of Americans over non-Americans. Instead, we seek to care for illegal immigrants within our borders. We don’t ask poor and homeless people to get tested for drugs before we help them, because Christ teaches us to clothe the naked and feed the hungry, not to interrogate them. We don’t reward people for being rich or condemn them for being poor, because while that’s a symbol of success in our country, it has nothing to do (directly) with our stature in God’s eyes.
In general, being Christian first and American second means that we call ourselves to a higher standard than that of our fellow citizens. It may be legal to insult people, but that’s not what Jesus teaches us to do. It may be legal to rip people off, but God asks us to be just.
What bothers me about Rit Varriale is that he is redefining what it means to be Christian first and American second. To him, being Christian first means that he should be held to a *lower* standard than his fellow citizens. While his fellow citizens are required to love their LGBTQ neighbors, Rit Varriale thinks he should not be required to because they don’t act like his version of Christianity says they should act. While his fellow citizens are required to tolerate other religions and allow them to have space in public places like schools without explicitly promoting Christianity, Rit Varriale thinks public schools should promote Christianity, and this is where we went wrong as a nation. He thinks he shouldn’t have to be held to that high standard of tolerance.
I have to disagree with this viewpoint – I believe that Christ enables me to be more loving, not less; to be more tolerant, not less. And this isn’t the only time we Christians have gotten this wrong. When we received exemption from the American Disabilities Act, we received license to discriminate against people with disabilities in ways that ordinary businesses aren’t allowed to. Why are we holding ourselves to a lower standard of love?
I want to hold myself and my church to a different standard – the standard that Christ set. I may not be able to love like Christ, but I can try. Don’t exempt me from loving my fellow Americans. I’m a Christian first, an American second. Not only will I abide by the laws of its country, protect it from harm, and promote the welfare of its citizens – I’ll go beyond that and try to love all of God’s children because Christ first loved me.