Dallas (Oct. 11, 2001)--A billboard marked the entry to the church's parking lot. Splashed all over was a United States flag with a caption: God Bless America.
The American flag has replaced the cross as the most visible symbol in many churches across the country since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on Pennsylvania, New York and Washington, D.C. This hasn't set well with some Christians, who say faith transcends nationality so the flag has no place in sanctuaries. But others say the show of patriotism is a much-needed comfort.
"Our whole country is grieving--we need that symbol right now," said Barbara Adams of Dallas as she made her way into Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, a congregation of 18,000 members.
Prestonwood's billboards and massive flag display didn't stop at its parking lot. Inside the church, leaders unfurled a giant 50-foot flag during worship Sunday as the room swelled with patriotic music.
"It makes you feel good," said Colleen Holleman of Dallas, one of the worshippers. "What the terrorists did hurt everybody so bad. I've cried buckets. Seeing that flag makes you feel better."
Elsewhere, in Dallas, the Rev. Michael Tuck applauded the country's patriotism but not the display of flags inside sanctuaries. He has a flag hanging in the back of his church, away from the worship area.
"It isn't that we shouldn't be patriotic," said the priest at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Cross. "But the government's position and God's position aren't identical. I never thought it appropriate to have symbols that might confuse that issue."
The sale of flags has skyrocketed since the terrorist attacks. While no one debates whether flags belong on the doorsteps of homes, Christians are embroiled in a dilemma over whether they belong in church.
"But some pastors have taken the position that it's not appropriate to worship a nation when God is the God of the whole world," he said. "They're reluctant to have the flag in the sanctuary because it's not an apparatus for worship."
The debate crosses denominational lines. Religious conservatives are not of one mind on the issue, and neither are liberals.
Many Protestant churches display a U.S. flag and a Christian flag in the corners of the sanctuaries or lobbies. Catholic churches may have American and papal flags.
Lovers Lane United Methodist Church in Dallas may have found a middle path. "We're flexible with the flag," said the Rev. Duane VanGiesen, administrative pastor. "Sometimes it's in the narthex (lobby). Sometimes it's in the fellowship hall. Sometimes it's in the music suite."
Since Sept. 11, the flag has been in a prominent spot next to the pulpit. "It's been a time of comforting, and the flag has been part of that," the pastor said. "But we don't want the flag to become a form of idolatry. It's a marvelous country we live in, but we're concerned for all of God's people and the whole creation."
Since the tragedies, the Pledge of Allegiance has replaced the Nicene or Apostles' creeds at some worship services. Music has included patriotic hymns such as Irving Berlin's 1939 show tune, "God Bless America."
Jim Norris, music director at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Richardson, Texas, said he usually uses patriotic songs only on or near the Fourth of July. But in the past two weeks, he has led the congregation in "America the Beautiful" and "God of Our Fathers."
"The Mass is not a place to promote nationalism," he said. "If this type of music is done too often and in the wrong spirit, it can create a national self-righteousness and a tendency to over-vilify our enemies."
But done in the right spirit, he said, the songs can express gratitude for "blessings" such as freedom, and a "collective sense of placing our national destiny in God's hands."
Oak Cliff Lutheran Church recently held a patriotic service. Flags were posted at the end of every other pew. The music was patriotic and included the "Battle Hymn of the Republic," a song from the Civil War era.
"People needed a way to express their concern for the land," the Rev. Lauren Endahl said. "They were overwhelmed. Many of them were speechless. We were not worshipping the flag by its presence. We were worshipping the God who created our country."
Other churches prayed, too, but without the red, white and blue.
"You would never hear patriotic music in an Orthodox church," said the Rev. Justin Frederick, a priest at St. Seraphim Orthodox Cathedral in Dallas and at an Orthodox mission in Denton, Texas. "It doesn't belong in church.
"Many churches allowed the patriotic worship as an act of pastoral care," he said. "It's a ministry. It's an emotional response to what people need and feel. When something happens of such devastating proportion as happened on Sept. 11, the church needs to respond in as many different ways as it is able."
There was widespread confusion among Catholics over the use of flags after the tragedies. Bishop Charles V. Grahmann of Dallas said it was appropriate to display American flags in times of national distress or patriotic holidays, but they shouldn't become a permanent fixture.
The U.S. bishops' liturgy office issued a statement suggesting flags be placed outside the sanctuary, possibly in the vestibule or lobby, along with a book of prayer requests. That practice dates to World War II.
St. James Catholic Church in Dallas chose another way.The Rev. Efren Ortega took a casket-size flag and draped over the front of the altar, a sight rarely seen in Catholic churches.
"It's important because it embodies the love for the nation," the priest said. The largely immigrant church routinely displays Mexican and U.S. flags on either side of the sanctuary. But many worshippers said it was the flag on the altar that gave them the most solace over the past three weeks.
"When I first saw it, I got tears in my eyes," said Judy Osorio, a member. "I was proud of my church for doing something. We prayed about what happened. We talked about it. Father preached on it."
When she looks at the flag-draped altar she said she thinks one thing. "That's holy ground," she said.