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Flag use in churches (Part II)

Last modified: 2013-11-16 by rob raeside
Keywords: church | christian | flag use | laying up | peru | bolivia | philippines | portugal | russia | serbia | spain | united kingdom | england | scotland | wales | usa | united states |
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Part I (precedent page)

Part II (this page):

See also:

Peru and Bolivia

I was really surprised, when I saw the national flags of Peru and Bolivia in churches, when I visited these countries. They were next to the flag of the Vatican, if the pope had visited this church one time.
Patrick Fischer, 24 June 2003


The only place I've seen the national flag and the flag of the Holy See in a church was in the USA. And in Episcopalian churches over here, which are mainly attended by Americans, I suppose they follow the same habit. Interestingly enough, we also have the same habit of playing the national anthem before games, and so on, but more extreme - the last showing of every movie begins with the playing of the national anthem, apparently a copy of the American practice during World War II to boost patriotism, but which even the Americans have done away with but which we still do.
Manuel L. Quezon III, 18 January 2002


Flags aren't seen inside churches in Portugal.  It seems to me that it would bring a state endorsement to whatever activities are taking place inside the church. Separation between state and church means no religious icons in public buildings (except perhaps valuable samples of sacred art, which is inescapable, since that was practically all the art for a long, long time) and no state symbols inside churches. I'm sure I would be shocked if I saw the national flag next to a statue of the Virgin or of Jesus in the cross, and I'm sure most Catholics would be too, even if for different reasons.
Jorge Candeias, 25 June 2003

In Portugal I guess the religious bodies are not directly supported by state funds, but at least the state favours the Catholic Church. The simple fact of broadcasting of religious events by the state television is a way to favour the Catholic Church. (Those broadcastings, by the way, are not simple news reports, they are hours-long live broadcastings). Just another example: here where I live the municipal administration supports the religious festivals like St Peter's Day and others. All of that, in just those two examples, is done with our taxes money. In my opinion that goes against our constitutional separation of church and state.
Francisco Santos, 25 June 2003

In general (there are exceptions), flying the national flag from flag poles or in a staff indoors is considered formal flag display, and implies that who is flying the flag is some sort of state-owned or nationally-relevant institution, particularly involved in the political or administrative life of the country. One exception happens when private individuals fly the national flag formally. This is usually a display of ultra-right conservatism and/or militarism, and these guys are always nostalgics of the Salazar regime. Churches, however, are included in none of these situations. This isn't to say that national flags are absent from every single Portuguese church - some, closer to the power or to the military, might display the flag.
Jorge Candeias, 25 June 2003

I don't agree.  The exceptions are in large numbers; they are the "norm", not the "exceptions". It's true that Salazar's nostalgics do it. But also the anti-Salazarists fly the national flag formally. Why not? The national flag belong to *all* of us. I'm not religious, I'm not Salazarist, but I think that those who are they have the same right as me to fly the *national* flag.
Francisco Santos, 25 June 2003

It is common in Catholic countries to use gonfalon-like objects literally loaded with symbols in processions and other ceremonies.
Jorge Candeias, 29 July 2003


You might be interested to know that I saw an interesting use for the Saint Andrew's Cross (the Russian Naval Flag) - various churches in Russia, and one here in Philadelphia - St Andrew's - are affiliated with the Navy, and have, as the curtain dividing the sanctuary from the altar, a Saint Andrew's Cross Flag of White with a blue saltire. This was apparently a custom in pre-revolutionary Russia in military chapels (I saw photos of a similar flag situation where an orange and black military flag was used.). Now that the communists are gone from power, things are returning. The old tricolor Russian flag we had in the back of the church from when I was a child was only used for productions of the play "Anastasia" and now it's up on flagpoles again, and not as a protest... Anyway, the Philadelphia shipyards constructed two Russian ships, and the sailors built and attended services at St Andrews until the ships were ready to sail, 105 years ago. The shipyards are gone now. Saint Andrew's has a little museum - with the Russian colored Jack (inverse Union Jack - Red with a St George's Cross, and a superimposed white saltire with the blue saltire on it for St Andrew), a Russian-America Company flag, a simple Russian Tricolor, and of course, a St Andrew's flag.
Fr. John Udics, 5 January 2003

Salvation Army

I have not been in a Salvation Army church (here in Canada) where they have not "flown" both the Salvation Army flag as well as the Canadian flag. I overheard a conversation between our officer (pastor) and a group of men discussing how it is proper and respectful to display the national flag in your church if you are going to display the churches flag. As far as I know, unless there are odd circumstances, all salvation army churches fly both flags, or none at all. It's a matter of respect for both our country and our organization. It is an everyday part of our decor, so to speak. Both flags are also present when a "soldier joins the Army", or becomes a member of the church, as well as when officers change churches and are welcomed into a position.
Terrie Westman, 24 July 2006


In national orthodox churches, for example Serbian Orthodox Church, the tricolor flag with or without the St. Sava cross is commonly displayed.
Ivan Sarajcic, 25 June 2003


In churches in Spain we have no flag, either Spanish or Catalan or Basque, as far as I know. In Montserrat, perhaps the most sacred land in Catalonia, Catalan flags are seen everywhere outside the church, but never inside. I remember it shocked me quite a lot to see these signs of temporal power in a holy place in Britain.
Jaume de Marcos, 6 February 2003

United Kingdom

It's worth noting, of course, that Britain and other Commonwealth countries have a long history of laying up military colors and standards in their churches. Since colors tend to be thought of as living things, this is sort of like giving them a church burial.
Joe McMillan, 18 January 2002


An observer in Spain reported "I remember it shocked me quite a lot to see these signs of temporal power in a holy place in Britain."

I think there's something in this statement that may explain the American comfort level with the national flag in churches better than the Canadian correspondent's "civic religion" theory. For most Americans, the stars and stripes is not a sign of temporal power, i.e., an expression of the authority of the federal government. This is something I've thought quite a lot about since joining FOTW but I'm still not sure I've sorted it out, so bear with me.

As I see it, the display of a national flag can be intended to convey several distinct messages. The same display may express more than one of these messages. However, different countries tend to emphasize these messages in different ways, sometimes emphasizing one interpretation to the exclusion of others:

  • The person flying this flag is acting under the authority of the sovereign the flag represents. (People who are not representatives of that authority (i.e., private citizens) have no right to fly this flag; "don't you dare fly the Union Jack at sea unless you're one of HM ships!")
  • The place where this flag is flying is under the authority/sovereignty of X. Flags representing other sovereigns may not be flown. ("Just because Slobovian air forces are flying out of a base in Ruritania doesn't mean they can fly the Slobovian flag; that would be an assertion that it's their base, not Ruritania's.")
  • ]The person flying this flag owes allegiance or obedience to the sovereign the flag represents. Its display is an expression of loyalty or submission.
  • The person flying the flag wants to show respect, hospitality, genealogical connection, linguistic facility, etc., etc., having to do with the country the flag represents. ("The Polish flag in the chancel of St. Stanislaus Church represents the ethnic origin of its founding members.")
In the United States, people tend to gravitate to messages 3 and 4. I don't mean that this is anything one does consciously, it's just part of the culture. Flag laws and practices elsewhere are more consistent with messages 1 and 2. In other words, an American Baptist congregation that puts the S&S inside the church is not asserting the government's temporal power over the church (message 1) but expressing the allegiance that the members of the church as U.S. citizens owe to the country. Likewise, a Catholic church that displays the papal flag or a synagogue that displays the flag of Israel is not asserting Vatican or Israeli territorial sovereignty over the property (message 2), merely religious allegiance (message 3) in the first case and ethnic or political sympathy (message 4) in the second. In a different cultural context, all these messages could obviously be misinterpreted.
Joe McMillan, 6 February 2003

Roman Catholic Churches in USA


"Surprisingly to many, there are no regulations of any kind governing the display of flags in Roman Catholic Churches. Neither the Code of Canon law, nor the liturgical books of the Roman rite comment on this practice. As a result, the question of whether and how to display the American flag in a Catholic Church is left up to the judgment of the diocesan bishop, who in turn often delegates this to the discretion of the pastor.

The origin of the display of the American flag in many parishes in the United States appears [to] have its origins in the offering of prayers for those who served during the Second World War (1941-1945). At that time, many bishops and pastors provided a book of remembrance near the American flag, requesting prayers for loved ones -- especially those serving their country in the armed forces -- as a way of keeping before the attention of the faithful the needs of military families. This practice has since been confirmed in many places during the Korean, Viet Nam and Iraqi conflicts.

The Bishops´ Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary (see note) itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the church together with a book of prayer requests. It remains, however, for the diocesan bishop to determine regulations in this matter."
located by Ned Smith, 23 June 2003

The practice of putting US flags in Roman Catholic churches can be traced the American Civil War. It seems that they followed the lead of the Episcopalians in New York. Since then it has become an off and on practice. In the extreme I have seen churches with the US and state flags as well as the Diocesan and parish flags. There is no written church policy, it is left to individual pastors. The trend is to remove them from about the altar. There is no connection to a Papal visit. The possibility of a Papal visit is signified by an umbrelino granted to a basilica.
Jim Ferrigan, 24 June 2003

Methodist Churches in USA

In looking over a Google collection of commentary on this issue in the US, I found one Methodist making the argument that the stars and stripes should be displayed in the church as a reminder that the protections provided by the US Constitution are what enable Methodists (and others) to worship as they please. (This is against what seems to be the position of most Methodist clergy and leaders who have written on the subject, who maintain that display of the flag inappropriately renders unto Caesar the things that are God's.)

This may sound strange if not irritating to non-Americans, who will rightly observe that it is not only in the United States that the right to freedom of religion is respected. But to many Americans-- and especially to American Protestants--this sounds perfectly correct. Americans learn from an early age that one of the main reasons that our ancestors came to this country was to find freedom of religion. I am fully aware that this is historically a gross oversimplification. Whether it is true or not, however, scarcely affects how this "fact" affects the way Americans look at these issues. Americans are traditionally brought up on stories of religious persecution in 17th century Europe and taught to value the progressive development of full religious freedom in the colonial period (with tolerance in Pennsylvania, Maryland, South Carolina, and Rhode Island contrasted favorably with governmental enforcement of established religions in places like Massachusetts and Virginia. This process is seen as culminating in the adoption of the Bill of Rights in connection with the ratification of the Constitution, the very first clause of that Bill of Rights reading, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

This gets back to something that occurred to me as I read Jorge's last post on this subject. Because the Bill of Rights essentially settled the fundamental question of church-state relations in the US over 200 years ago, it seems to me that Americans are much less sensitive to the potentially negative symbolism conveyed by the presence of the national flag in a church. If our religious life had been dominated for much of our history by a single established church that enjoyed special privileges from the government and that limited the ability of other religions to worship as they chose, I imagine we would be more alert to the implication that the presence of a flag in church signifies governmental endorsement of the religious proceedings and teachings being propagated there.
Joe McMillan, 26 June 2003

Episcopalian in USA

Anglican (actually, Episcopalian) churches in the US fly the Episcopalian flag, which is English-influenced, at least. I've never seen the US flag beside, but that's not to say it isn't done.
Nathan Lamm,18 January 2002


In Catholic usage, the sanctuary is the area immediately surrounding the altar, not, as in many Protestant denominations in the United States, the entire worship area of the church.
JoeMcMillan, 24 June 2003
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