The new Golden Calf

Thursday, September 10, 1998

Once again, as it has every few years for the past decade, the U.S. Congress is debating the emotionally charged issue of whether to outlaw certain types of political speech if the speech involves the physical damage of an American flag. The stakes this time are exceptionally high, as the current debate is concerned not with simple legislation, but with an amendment to the U.S. Constitution; the first Constitutional amendment in the history of the United States which would reduce freedom of speech rather than enhance it. The amendment is supported by the Citizens' Flag Alliance (CFA), a coalition of approximately 100 veterans, military, and conservative religious organizations. Opposition to the amendment centers on its free speech impact and comes from organizations which have traditionally sided in favor of the first amendment, including the American Society for Newspaper Editors and the ACLU.

Absent from the debate so far has been the voice of America's mainline Christian churches. In a country in which 85% of the citizens call themselves Christian1 yet only 14% support any of the conservative Christian organizations backing the amendment2, such a deafening silence is not only surprising; it is disturbing. It may be the case that the majority of Christians find that the proposed amendment is strictly a secular political matter bearing no relevance to the Christian faith. Such a laissez-faire approach, however, ignores both the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which the amendment, and the ideologies of its backers, conflict with some of the basic tenets of the Christian faith and of reformed Christian theology. Specifically: an examination of the facts will demonstrate that the language of the proposed amendment is idolatrous on its face, that the proposed amendment is an attempt to legislate national idolatry, and that the proposed amendment stands in direct opposition to the prophetic tradition and teachings of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, including the teachings of Christ. Let's consider each of these issues in turn.

1. The language of the proposed amendment is idolatrous on its face

The text of the proposed amendment reads:

“The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States”.

Demonstrating that this text is idolatrous doesn't require any knowledge of scripture, nor even any significant acquaintance with Christianity. All it requires is a good dictionary.

What does it mean to “desecrate” an object, and what sort of an object can be desecrated? The word comes from the Latin “desecrare”, where “de-” is a prefix “having the sense of…depriving (anything) of the thing or character therein expressed”3 and “secrare” is the predecessor of the English word “sacred”. In fact, desecrate is the opposite of consecrate, “to set apart as sacred to the Deity”. So to “desecrate” something is to remove the property of sacredness from an object which is consecrated. An object must be sacred before it can be desecrated.

If we were to add a miniature preamble to the proposed amendment based on the meaning of the word “desecrate”, we might rewrite the amendment like this:

“The U.S. flag is sacred. The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States”.

What is a “sacred” object? The dictionary gives us this definition:

Sacred: dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity.4

So if we rewrite our brief preamble to substitute for the meaning of “sacred”, we might rewrite it as:

“The U.S. flag is dedicated to the worship of a deity. The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States”.

This expansion of the text of the amendment follows directly from the meaning of the word “desecrate”. Yet now, as Christians, we are presented with a dilemma. The proposed amendment implicitly declares that the U.S. flag is dedicated to the worship of a deity. What is the U.S. flag a symbol of? Or, more specifically, what deity does the U.S. flag represent? Is this deity the Judeo-Christian God? No; Christians recognize a variety of symbols of God and of God's presence, but the United States flag is the flag of the United States, not the flag of the Catholic church, nor the flag of the Lutheran church, nor the symbol of the God of Abraham for any mainline Christian denomination. The U.S. flag symbolizes many things to many people, but at the base of all of these meanings there is only one thing that it truly represents: the United States flag is the symbol of the United States, the nation. If the United States flag represents a deity, the only deity that it can possibly represent is the United States itself, and the final rewriting of our preamble to the amendment must read akin to:

“The United States of America is god. The United States flag is a sacred, consecrated symbol of that god and is dedicated to the worship of the United States. The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States”

Our dictionary analysis shows that the proposed amendment's use of the word “desecrate” implies much more than we see on the surface. Wittingly or not, the authors and supporters of the amendment advocate a Constitutional amendment whose language proclaims America as god and the American flag as god's consecrated holy symbol. The language of the proposed amendment is the language of idolatry.

2. The proposed amendment attempts to legislate national idolatry

The tendency of American Christians to elevate their nation to the status of God is not new. Such an ideology is called MESSIANISM: “a sense of predestination with regard to one's own nation or political program.”5 American messianism has its roots in our Puritan heritage where, as historian Perry Miller writes:

“The Puritan state was seen by Puritans as the incarnation of their collective will… it was the embodied image of their power, of their resolution, of their idea… New England political theory made the state almost a kind of second incarnation, a Messiah fathered by God and born of the people… the state becomes another savior, the child of God and man, leading men to righteousness and preparing them for the final reckoning.”6

Mainline Protestantism has come a long way since the days of Puritan messianism. My own denomination, the Presbyterian Church in the USA, includes among its confessional documents the Theological Declaration of Barman, adopted in 1934 by the Confessional Synod of the German Evangelical Church in response to the growing threat of national idolatry promoted by Hitler's National Socialism. The Barman Declaration represents the response of the reformed Christian community to a political movement and a government whose rhetoric, actions, and legislation sought to appropriate the role of both God and the church and assign these roles to the state. Dr. Arnold Come, former president of San Francisco Theological Seminary, notes that the theologians and pastors who adopted the Barman Declaration did so in response to three direct threats to the Christian faith posed by the new German government:

  1. “The ultimate authority in their lives was no longer the free Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ but was the dictates of the leader of the state;
  2. The Christian people of God was identified with the national culture, with the national ethnic strain, and with the historical destiny of that one nation…
  3. The Christian service of God was commandeered and made identical with the glorification of that state and its leader.”7

If we generalize these three points and reorder them as (2), (3), (1), we can rework them into a three-step progression towards national idolatry. The three steps are also three ideological tests, tests which we can use as warning indicators of the degree to which a particular ideology, be it of Christian or non-Christian origin, has chosen to worship America instead of worshiping God. The tests are:

  1. The chosen nation test. Does the ideology identify the nation as the chosen people of God? This test corresponds to Dr. Come's second point.
  2. The equality test. Does the ideology make the state equal to God? Does the ideology make service to God identical to service to, or glorification of, the state? This test corresponds to Dr. Come's third point. We could also call this test the “elevation test”: does the ideology ELEVATE the state to the level of God?
  3. The supremacy test. Does the ideology make the nation the supreme or ultimate authority? This test corresponds to Dr. Come's first point. If an ideology meets this test, we have national idolatry. We could also call this test the “substitution test”: does the ideology SUBSTITUTE the state for God in any area of final authority?

The three tests represent a gradual progression, and the lines between them are often blurry because it is so easy to slip from one stage to the next. It is but a small step from believing that one's country has a special position in God's sight, to meeting the equality test by declaring, in the words of evangelist Billy Sunday on the eve of the first World War, that “Christianity and Patriotism are synonymous terms”.8 George Marsden notes that Rev. Sunday, “when flushed with patriotism… would end his sermon by jumping on top of the pulpit and waving the American flag.”9 Sunday was a Christian Evangelical and one of the ideological predecessors to today's Christian fundamentalists, so we should find it not at all surprising when we see similar rhetoric from Jerry Falwell in 1980:

“I'm looking for flag-waving Americans! I am urgently searching for one million Flag-Waving Americans! And I want them to fly the American Flag in front of their homes or offices on Election Day… You see what this country needs is Christians like you, who will get tears in their eyes when they see 'Old Glory' unfurled. We've had enough anti-God, anti-American flag burning Americans who are disgracing our stars and stripes… May I send you a Flag Kit? ($50 to the Old Time Gospel Hour…)”10

Our urge to succumb to the lure of making our nation into God hasn't changed in the 1990s. When we look at the public statements and writings of members of the Citizens Flag Alliance, we can see evidence of all three stages of the progression towards national idolatry. The Christian fundamentalist doctrine of covenantalism meets the chosen nation test, the religious patriotism of much of the written testimony from Citizens Flag Alliance members meets the equality test, and the nation-worship of some of the more extreme advocates meets the supremacy test. We explore the evidence in the next two sections.

2.1: The Religious Right and the chosen nation test

In the 1990's, the primary inheritors of the banner of Puritan messianism are fundamentalist Christian churches and organizations such as Dr. James Dobson's Focus On the Family and Gary Bauer's conservative Family Research Council (FRC). It is no coincidence that the Family Research Council serves as one of the heavyweight members of the Citizens Flag Alliance, lending its support to the proposed flag amendment. The FRC's support is derived from one of the core beliefs of modern Christian fundamentalism, which is that the United States today plays a historical role similar to that of Old Testament Israel. Historian George Marsden explains this belief in more detail:

“America [is] viewed as a chosen nation with a special role to play in history. Many nineteenth-century evangelicals thought that America would have a special leadership role in the approaching millennial age of spiritual blessings… Most important for understanding this compelling image of America as a new Israel is that, as with Israel of old, the relationship to God was COVENANTAL. The covenant was a national contract with God and the terms of the covenant were that the nation must obey the laws of God. God would continue to bless America only so long as she continued to obey his laws. If she turned from his laws, then surely punishment and destruction would follow… Central to understanding the current fundamentalist alarm, then, is to realize that they take absolutely literally and seriously the idea that America will be blessed or cursed according to how well she keeps God's law… To them the open flaunting of God's laws in the open championing of things like abortion, pornography, and homosexuality are sure signs that our nation is on the brink of God's judgment and destruction.”11

Fundamentalist covenantalism, the belief that modern America is in a covenant relationship with God, is closely linked to messianism, and both beliefs are alive and well in the teachings of contemporary fundamentalists. The Family Research Council's Gary Bauer stresses precisely these themes in his 1996 book “Our Hopes, Our Dreams”:

“For most of our 220 years as a nation, America's political leadership and much of our citizenry have been animated by the belief that America has a special role in God's historic plan. Many books have been written on the subject. Lincoln called us the 'almost chosen people.' He also believed that the Civil War was a form of penance for the national sin of slavery… I also believe that when a nation violates the natural order of things, it pays a terrible price… In each case where we have abandoned the 'natural law,' we have suffered greatly.”12

The doctrine of covenantalism was also stressed in an advertisement placed by the Family Research Council in USA Today in April 1998:

“[We should] pledge ourselves anew to the principles that have made this nation great: hard work, sexual restraint, a commitment to the family, a rejection of violence, and reliance upon the hand of Divine providence. By making this pledge we can begin to atone for the blood of the innocents that stains our streets and neighborhoods. We can start to restore the qualities that prompted Abraham Lincoln to call us an 'almost chosen people'. We can approach again the throne of our Father, seek His face, humble ourselves and pray, and know that He will hear from Heaven and heal our land.”13

Again we see the themes that adherence to a divine covenant between the United States and God will result in blessings for America, and that the United States is God's chosen nation. We have met the “chosen nation” test, stage one on our three-step descent towards national idolatry.

Since God has, according to fundamentalist doctrine, chosen America to play a special role in history, it follows that fundamentalists desire to protect the symbols of this divinely chosen nation. Passing a Constitutional amendment to prohibit “flag desecration” is a natural and logical consequence of the fundamentalist belief structure. Hidden behind the words of the proposed amendment, then, is an attempt by the Religious Right to legislate specific tenets of its religious faith into the U.S. Constitution.

2.2: Religious patriotism and nation-worship: the equality and supremacy tests

Less constrained by Christian prohibitions against idolatry, the more secular members of the Citizens Flag Alliance have a stronger tendency towards the promotion of national idolatry. Many of their words and writings meet both the equality and supremacy tests. One theme that occurs with great regularity in both the Senate testimony of CFA members and in supporting materials on the CFA web site is the theme of the flag as a “sacred” object. Former astronaut Harrison Schmitt (the CFA has demonstrated a strong tendency to use celebrity figures to support its cause) writes:

“Americans treasure the patriotism, the honor and the sense of common purpose embodied in our flag. And as we hold those values to be sacred, we hold sacred the flag that stands as their most visible symbol.”14 and Adrian Cronauer of the CFA board of directors suggests that: “I now believe that the flag is qualitatively different than any other symbol we have in this country… I have come to the conclusion that the flag has a 'secular sacredness' which entitles it to a special form of Constitutional protection.”15

As we have shown earlier, “sacred” inherently implies that an object is set apart for the worship of a deity, and in the case of the flag, the deity of the United States of America. If Mr. Cronauer were to consult his dictionary, he would in fact discover that it is impossible for something to be both “secular” and “sacred”. The words are antonyms.

What we see in this language is the ELEVATION of the flag to a status of holiness. If we have elevated the flag to sacred status, then we have elevated what the flag represents, the U.S.A., to the status of God. America has taken on a status equal to God. We have passed (or perhaps we should say “failed”) the equality test.

We see a similar elevation of the nation to the status of God in language that blurs obedience to one with obedience to the other, to the extent that there appears to be no difference between our God and our country. Tommy Lasorda, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and another CFA celebrity figure, commented in his Senate testimony on July 8 that “respect for God and country is getting more and more difficult to pass on… By joining the House in passing the amendment, the Senate… can send a very important message to the young people of this country — that respect for God and country are basic to what our nation stands for and are ideals worth honoring and protecting.”16

Mr. Lasorda's language suggests that he sees little if any difference between God and country. The nation is again elevated to the status of God and becomes worthy of the same respect as God.

Along with arguments favoring a “sacred” U.S. flag and words which blur the identities of God and the nation, much of the pro-CFA literature includes recountings of flag-related events which can best be described as religious experiences. In essay after essay and testimony upon testimony, amendment proponents recount incidents from their past with language similar to that of Christians describing a religious conversion experience. Here is one example from the Senate Judiciary testimony of Mr. Sean Stephenson:

“The most patriotic day in my life was during the summer of 1996. I was elected Governor, the highest office, at Illinois American Legion Boys State. On the last night of Boys State, I was asked as Governor to carry a wreath to the base of the flag pole. The wreath was to commemorate all of the men and women who have died for our country's freedom. I remember it like it was yesterday. There was not a cloud in the sky. The only noise came from the beautiful flag flapping in the wind above. A cannon was then fired, and the company commander yelled for his troops to about face. Then 1000 boys turned and faced me. They were all in formation as they marched by and saluted me… I felt so proud to be an American that day.”17

Such is the language of one who has found religion. This religion is what Christians refer to as the American “civil religion” which equates the nation with God. Certainly, CFA supporters are free to pursue any religion that they choose. But as people of Christian faith, we must object when they attempt to write their own religious principles into U.S. law.

The final stage in the 3-step descent towards national idolatry is the supremacy test: the removal of God from the discussion entirely. The United States replaces God and becomes the entity which is worthy of our strongest love, our strongest devotion, and our ultimate obedience. We see a drift towards this third stage in the Senate testimony of television actor John Schneider, yet another CFA celebrity figure:

“What do I tell my children if [flag desecration] is allowed to continue? … How do I teach my children that there are certain things important enough that they are worth dying for? Or should I? Have we reached a point where nothing is worth such a measure of devotion?”18

Indeed, as Christians we know that there IS something worth such a measure of devotion: God and God alone. There may be times that we feel called to be willing to die while serving as a member of the armed forces of a particular nation, but our devotion must always be to God, not to the state. Mr. Schneider's words suggest that we should substitute the United States for God as the object of our ultimate allegiance. We have passed the supremacy test. The nation has become God.

A more interesting variant on the substitution of America for God appears in the writings of (retired) Major General Patrick Brady, chairman of the CFA board, who writes that:

“Tragically, most polls tell us patriotism is declining. We see its decline in sexual license, crimes against our neighbors, our land, in our failure to vote, our reluctance to serve and in the level of disrespect we have for our elected officials. And we see the decline of patriotism in the legalized desecration of the symbol of patriotism, Old Glory. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan spoke about the connection between patriotism and flag desecration when he said, 'Love both of the common country and the state will diminish in proportion as respect for the flag is weakened.'”19

The logical progression that Mr. Brady makes is worth a second look. Distilled, the argument is: “A lack of patriotism is responsible for U.S. moral decay. Forcing people to respect the flag will increase patriotism. Increasing patriotism will heal the nation from its moral decay.” Or, more simplistically: “Bad things happen to America because we are not appropriately worshiping America”. The same argument was reiterated by Harvard Law Professor Richard Parker in his Senate testimony:

“When we get more and more used to acts of desecration; then, 'love' of the flag… is bound gradually to wither along with other norms of community and responsibility whose withering in recent decades is well known.”20

What we are actually seeing here is the Christian fundamentalist doctrine of covenantalism in new clothes. Just as fundamentalists argue that the cause of evil in America is due to the failure of the American people to adhere to their covenant with God, the secular CFA argument is that the cause of evil in America is due to the failure of the American people to adhere to their covenant to the flag and to patriotism. The solution advocated by the secular CFA argument is the same solution advocated by the Religious Right: restore the covenant and health will be restored. The secular argument, however, substitutes the United States for God in its modification of the covenant doctrine. The fundamentalist version still acknowledges God as the ultimate authority, but the modified covenantalism removes God entirely and replaces God with the state. Such a doctrine meets the supremacy test for the third stage of our three-stage descent. We have achieved national idolatry.

3. The proposed amendment contradicts scripture

We have seen that the “desecration” language of the proposed amendment is idolatrous on its face and that the ideologies of the public supporters of the amendment meet a series of three tests for national idolatry. In addition to these serious difficulties, the proposed amendment contradicts God's prophetic call throughout history, and documented throughout scripture, to speak and take action against all injustice. Scripture shows us that the prophets repeatedly spoke and acted through the use of symbols: through the creation of symbols, the interaction of symbols with other symbols, and the physical destruction of symbols. In a comment which can at best only be described as historically uninformed, Senator Orrin Hatch, the primary sponsor of the proposed amendment, claimed that

“Mutilating our Nation's great symbol of national unity is simply not necessary to express an opinion. Those individuals who have a message to the country should not confuse their right to speak with the conduct of desecrating a symbol that embodies the ideals of a Nation…”21

Such an attitude completely ignores the fact that, as theologian William Barclay writes,

“Again and again in the religious history of Israel, when a prophet felt that words were of no avail against a barrier of indifference or incomprehension, he put his message into a dramatic ACT which men could not fail to see and to understand”.22

In fact, throughout history, God has called men and women to physically destroy objects, and in particular symbolic objects of a highly revered status, as a means of imparting the prophetic message. We will explore five scriptural examples here: four from the Hebrew scriptures and one from the Christian scriptures.

3.1 Exodus 32:1-20 : Moses and the golden calf

Our first passage is well known, as is its context. For a brief time during the 40-year period which the Israelites spent in the wilderness, Moses ascended Mt. Sinai and received the ten commandments from God. While Moses was on the mountain, the people asked Moses' brother Aaron, the high priest, to create new gods for them:

When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” … So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”… The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, 'These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!'” … As soon as he came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses' anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. He took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to powder, scattered it on the water, and made the Israelites drink it.23

The people were worshiping a false god, symbolized by the calf. The Israelites likely had great reverence for their new god and strong emotional feelings towards the symbol of the calf. Perhaps the calf “embodied the ideals of a nation” as Senator Hatch has suggested about the flag, perhaps the Israelites regarded the calf as a symbol of “patriotism, honor and a sense of common purpose” as Harrison Schmitt suggests for the flag, and most definitely they would have found that the calf has a “sacredness which entitles it to a special form of protection”, as Adrian Cronauer advocates for the flag. Yet what is Moses' very first action towards the symbol? Burn it. As people of faith who all believe in some form of holy inspiration of the scriptures, what are Christians to conclude about our response to symbols claimed as sacred? Our other scriptural references can give us additional insight.

3.2 I Kings 11:29-32: Ahija's robe

Some 250 years after the idolatry of the golden calf described in Exodus, the Israelites had established a monarchy in Israel, where Solomon reigned as their third king. Solomon was the last king to reign over all of the twelve tribes of Israel. In 922 BCE, the single kingdom split into the separate kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Prior to this historic schism, Solomon's slavemaster Jeroboam, who was to become the first king of the northern kingdom of Israel, received both an oracle and a warning of what was to come from the prophet Ahija:

About that time, when Jeroboam was leaving Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him on the road. Ahijah had clothed himself with a new garment. The two of them were alone in the open country when Ahijah laid hold of the new garment he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. He then said to Jeroboam: Take for yourself ten pieces; for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “See, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and will give you ten tribes… If you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you.”

In this passage, the prophet's robe is a symbol of the united nation of Israel, and Ahijah used the destruction of the symbol to communicate the upcoming fragmentation of the nation. In a 20th century American cultural context, an equivalent action might be the tearing of a U.S. flag into 12 pieces as a warning of possible events to come.

3.3 Jeremiah 19:1-10: Smashing the clay pot

We now shift another 300 years into the future to the period just prior to the exile of the Israelite people to Babylon. The northern kingdom of Israel had disappeared from human history prior to 700 BCE, and the remaining southern kingdom of Judah was coming under military pressure from the northern nation of Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah, who began his teachings in 626 BCE and continued through to the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 BCE,24 took a series of prophetic actions to warn the people of Judah of what would (and eventually did) take place if they failed to serve the Lord. One of these actions was to destroy a pot as a symbol of the pending destruction of Jerusalem and the people of Israel:

Thus said the Lord: Go and buy a potter's earthen ware jug. Take with you some of the elders of the people and some of the senior priests, and go out to the valley of the son of Hinnom at the entry of the Potsherd Gate, and proclaim there the words that I tell you. You shall say: Hear the word of the Lord, O kings of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring such disaster upon this place that the ears of everyone who hears it will tingle… I will make this city a horror, a thing to be hissed at; everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters… Then you shall break the jug in the sight of those who go with you, and shall say to them: Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter's vessel, so that it can never be mended.

Because Jerusalem was the sacred city of the Israelites, destruction of any symbol representing the holy city was a great offense. Yet not only did God order Jeremiah to destroy the pot, representing the city, God also ordered him to do so in the presence of the secular and religious leaders of the Israelite nation. Jeremiah suffered for his prophetic actions, and in chapter 20 we can read that he was immediately thrown in the public stocks for daring to destroy a symbol of something regarded as sacred. Again the scriptures tell us that at times, God calls people of faith to physically destroy symbols, even if authority tells us that those symbols are sacred, and even if we must suffer humiliation or imprisonment for our actions.

3.4 Ezekiel 4:9-13: Human dung as a part of symbolic speech

Our fourth example doesn't show the destruction of a symbol claimed as sacred, but it does show the use of both physically and religiously unclean items as part of the prophetic tradition. Ezekiel was a post-exilic prophet who spoke to the Israelites during their exile to Babylon. However, the first few years of Ezekiel's ministry, from 593-597 BCE, preceded the first of the deportations to Babylon in 597 BCE. Prior to the exile period, Ezekiel was ordered by God to symbolically represent the upcoming difficulties to be experienced by the Israelites:

And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and spelt; put them into one vessel, and make bread for yourself… You shall eat it as a barley-cake, baking it in their sight on human dung. The Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread, unclean, among the nations to which I will drive them.”

It is worth noting that more than one supporter of the proposed flag amendment has specifically expressed the opinion that human waste cannot possibly be used as part of political or social commentary. Vietnam veteran Gary Wetzel sarcastically testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that

“Just last week [the Wisconsin Supreme Court] ruled on the Constitutionality of the Wisconsin flag protection statute. …The court said that those who would defecate on the flag of the United States… are merely exercising their First Amendment rights. With decisions like this one, I sometimes wonder if our judges have fallen out of step with the citizens of this country, who perhaps have less difficulty recognizing the difference between words and waste.”25

And yet, the passage from Ezekiel suggests that there are times that God may call us even to use human dung as part of a symbolic statement, to be made not in privacy but “in their sight”; the sight of all the people.

3.5 John 2:13-16: Christ cleanses the temple

Our New Testament passage is Christ's well-known cleansing of the Jerusalem temple, recorded in all four gospels. We will use John's recounting of history here, but for background to this event we can use Donald Miller's commentary on the corresponding passage in the Gospel of Luke:

“For the sake of enriching the temple treasury, the High Priest had established a lively business in the sale of animals for sacrifice, and in the exchange of foreign money into Jewish money, in which the temple tax had to be paid. The business was carried on in the Court of the Gentiles, the outer court of the temple. Operating as a virtual monopoly, and with an assured market, the chief priests profited greatly from the enterprise.”26

Despite the fact that Jerusalem was the holy city of the Jewish people, and despite the fact that the temple was the holiest, most sacred location within the holy city, Christ chose to defy all written and unwritten rules of decency by physically attacking the money changers, who were the agents of the priests and therefore a symbol both of the temple system and of Jerusalem's religious authorities:

The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!”

William Barclay writes that “If [Christ's Palm Sunday] entry into Jerusalem [the previous day] had been defiance, here is defiance added to defiance”.27 To attack the merchants of the temple was to attack the sacred temple itself. Once again, scripture suggests that even the most revered symbols can not and must not be sheltered from the prophetic criticism which often takes the form of physical action.

Our five scriptural references lead us to what many will find an uncomfortable conclusion. Yet if we study the context and the meaning of the passages for us today, and if we consider the lessons of over 3000 years of Jewish and Christian prophetic tradition, we are forced to conclude that there are times when God may call us, even order us, to physically attack or destroy symbols as a means of expressing our witness to God. We cannot exclude the U.S. flag from the list of possible symbols. On the contrary, the scriptures suggest that it is precisely those symbols which are most revered, those symbols most labelled as “sacred”, which are most often subject to the prophet's attack. To attempt to ban such prophetic speech strikes at the heart of the Christian faith. For, when stripped of its surrounding emotional and patriotic rhetoric, the proposed “flag desecration amendment” is nothing but an attempt to create for ourselves a new golden calf; a calf of cloth, thread, and ink; a calf of Puritan messianism, fundamentalist covenantalism, and secular nationalism. Rather than lend our support to the language and legislation of idolatry, we might be wiser to consider the words adopted by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S. as part of its 1977 “Declaration of Faith”:

  • God rules over both political and religious institutions.
  • We must confuse neither with the kingdom of God.
  • We must not equate the Christian faith with any nation's way of life or with opposition to the ideologies of other nations.
  • We hold Christians are to be law-abiding citizens unless the state commands them to disobey God, or claims authority that belongs only to God.
  • We must not allow governments to impose Christian faith by legislation, nor should we demand undue advantages for the church.
  • The church must be free to speak to civil authorities, neither claiming expert knowledge it does not have, nor remaining silent when God's Word is clear.28
  • May God give us the vision to see beyond our culture's nationalism, the strength to seek clarity in the scriptures, and the courage to speak out even when the message is grievously unpopular. If we are truly people of faith, we can strive for nothing less.

Copyright (c) 1998 Bruce M. Hahne. Republication or redistribution of this essay for noncommercial purposes, including noncommercial archiving on web, ftp, and gopher sites, is permitted and encouraged as long as the complete essay, the author's contact information, and this copyright notice are maintained intact. Republication or redistribution in any form for commercial purposes is not permitted without the author's permission; please contact me first and we can discuss your plans.

1“Spirits of Diversity”, San Jose Mercury News, July 11, 1998, pp. 1E-2E
2“The Religious Right is About Politics, Not Faith”, Wall Street Journal, August 20, 1998, p. A15
3Oxford English Dictionary
4Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, 1981 edition.
5Alan Geyer, “Reformed Faith and World Politics”, in _Reformed Faith and Politics_, University Press of America, Washington D.C., 1983, p. 161.
6Geyer, pp. 161-2.
7Dr. Arnold B. Come, “The Meaning of the Theological Declaration of Barmen for American Christians”, speech delivered to General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), May 31, 1984. Reprinted in the Minutes of the General Assembly of the PCUSA, 1984, pp. 822-824.
8Quoted in George M. Marsden, _Understanding Fundamentalism and Evangelicalism_, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1991, p. 51
9Marsden p. 51
10Quoted in Peggy L. Shriver, “Piety, Pluralism, and Politics”, in _Reformed Faith and Politics_, University Press of America, Washington D.C., 1983, p. 51.
11George Marsden, “Understanding Fundamentalist Views of Society”, in _Reformed Faith and Politics_, University Press of America, Washington D.C., 1983, pp. 70-73.
12Gary L. Bauer, _Our Hopes, Our Dreams_, Focus on the Family Publishing, Colorado Springs, CO, 1996, pp. 13-14.
13“Stop and Listen, America”, USA Today advertisement republished on the Family Research Council web site,
14Harrison H. Schmitt, “Protect Our Universal Symbol of American Values”, originally published in The Freelance Star, Fredericksburg, VA, Dec. 26, 1997. Republished at the Citizens Flag Alliance web site,
15Adrian Cronauer, “A Secular Sacredness Saluting the Flag's Special Symbolic Status”, originally published in the Chicago Tribune, December 28, 1997, p. C21. Republished at the Citizens Flag Alliance web site.
16Tommy Lasorda, “Testimony of Tommy Lasorda Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary Regarding Senate Joint Resolution 40″, July 8, 1998. Archived at
17Sean C. Stephenson, “Testimony of Sean C. Stephenson Before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary On Senate Joint Resolution 40, The Flag Protection Constitutional Amendment”, July 8, 1998. See [16] for archive site.
18John Schneider, “Testimony of Mr. John Schneider Before the United States Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Senate Joint Resolution 40″, July 8, 1998. See [16] for archive site.
19Maj. Gen. Parick Brady, “The Lost Legacy of Our Veterans”, essay archived at Citizens Flag Alliance web site,
20Richard D. Parker, “Statement of Richard D. Parker, Williams Professor of Law, Harvard Law School, Amending the Constitution to Permit Protection of the Flag, Before the Committee on the Judiciary, United State Senate”, July 8, 1998. See [16] for archive site.
21Sen. Orrin Hatch, “Statement of Sen. Orrin Hatch Before the Committee on the Judiciary, Hearing on S.J. Res. 40, Allowing Congress to Prohibit the Physical Desecration of the Flag of the United States of America”, July 8, 1998. See [16] for archive site.
22William Barclay, _The Gospel of Matthew_ vol. 2, The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, PA, 1958, p. 264.
23All scriptural passages are from NRSV
24Harry Wendt, _Crossways: A Survey Course of the Narrative and Major Themes of the Old and New Testaments_, Crossways International, Minneapolis, MN, Unit 27: Jeremiah (II), p. 70.
25Gary G. Wetzel, “Testimony of Gary G. Wetzel, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Before the Judiciary Committee of the United States Senate on SJ Res. 40, the Flag Protection Constitutional Amendment”, July 8, 1998. See [16] for archive site.
26Donald G. Miller: _The Gospel According to Luke_, vol. 18 of _The Layman's Bible Commentary_, John Knox Press, Richmond, VA, 1959, p. 137.
27Barclay p. 268.
28Quoted by Ronald H. Stone, introduction to _Reformed Faith and Politics_, University Press of America, Washington D.C., 1983, p. 15.