When I first graduated from seminary and began to preach, I barely noticed the flag that stands by most pulpits in the U.S. If we see a flag on a ship at sea, or on the car of a diplomat, we understand those vehicles are set aside to represent the United States. It did not occur to me that the flag by the pulpit bore the same meaning.

If a Roman emperor required a statue of himself to be placed in an early church, everyone would understand what that statue really meant. The statue would be a reminder that people could worship however they wished, so long as their first loyalty was to the empire. The flag can also stand as a boundary that American preachers are not to cross. We may pray for our troops, but not for our enemy’s. We may pray for healing, but not for health care. We may pray for the poor, but we must never question the capitalist system that makes them poor.

What does it mean when we tell preachers not to be political, but place a flag by the pulpit as though the flag were not itself a political statement? Is the flag not a warning? Does the flag not bear a command? “You shall not speak of any other politics than that of the American Empire. You are not to worship a God who is bigger than your nation. You shall not hold the actions of your nation to a universal standard.”

The flag by the pulpit reminds us that the American Empire and the capitalism for which it now stands, lies in the background of everything the church can do, or even think, so long as nationalism is the context from within which we try to be ethical. Knowing this, who would not take the flag down? We should take down very cross itself, if it ever prevented us from showing the love of Christ to those who are not Christian. There is one universal love to which every other lesser loyalty must submit. We do not love America less, for loving humankind more.