On (Not) Saluting the Flag

I don’t think I have placed my hand over my heart to “honor” the flag of the United States since high school. (Which means during the Vietnam War. More on that later.) When the national anthem is played and those present turn to face the flag, I will stand, angled toward the flag. I will remove my hat if I’m wearing one. I will remain quiet and attentive.

But my hand doesn’t cover my heart.

I am not anti-American.

I am not un-American.

I view myself as a respectful, responsible citizen.

Rising Sun
What Franklin mused about…

When visiting Philadelphia and Independence Hall many years ago, I paused to gaze at the chair used by George Washington during the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin noted the distinctive carved sun on chair and declared his belief, with this new nation, that the sun was rising and not setting. I wept. How powerful our history!

After the 26th Amendment was ratified, I knew it would soon be my turn . . . to vote! In 1972, during college in my twentieth year of life, I arrived at the polling place in the early morning for the first election where I could cast a ballot. Since then, I have always voted in local, state, and national elections.

Recently, I read a biography of Harry Truman. Why? I’m an avid reader, and pride myself in keeping up with current events and “exploring” history. Truman was president when I was born. Though maligned as chief executive in his final Oval Office years, he is now often ranked among the “top tier” of American Presidents.

At graveside services, I have spoken kind thoughts about those who served their country. Before or after my words, two men in uniform (it has always been men) would smartly fold the flag the prescribed thirteen times. One then gave the folded flag to a grieving parent or spouse or child. I stood to the side, mindful of the gesture’s solemnity.

An engaged citizen, I am thoughtful, passionate, and critical about the country of my birth. However, I place citizenship last in the expansive categories that define me (and you). I am a:

  1. Human
  2. Person of faith (Christian in my case)
  3. Citizen of a particular country in a particular era.

#2 on my sparse list is likely why I am so reluctant to pay homage to the flag. And yet, even with my flag reservations, I am easily appalled with how often the flag is dishonored. In a typical stroll through the politically conservative suburbs of Fresno, California where I live, many American flags can be found. There are flagpoles in yards and flags attached to rooflines. Old Glory is displayed above gazebos and fences and beside satellite dishes. Hooray for America!

I also see, every day, in every walk, flags:

  • That are tattered and torn
  • Seemingly permanently wrapped around the poles that hold them
  • With bird (trying to be nice) poop on them
  • Hung across windows as if a makeshift curtain
  • Limp at night with no proper lighting

Oh, how proudly many flags don’t fly across our country. Unfurl ‘em and forget ‘em?

On the American Legion website, this is part of what they declare about the flag:

No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.

(a) The flag should never be displayed with the union down, except as a signal of dire distress in instances of extreme danger to life or property.

(b) The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.

(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery. It should never be festooned, drawn back, nor up, in folds, but always allowed to fall free.

But my hand does not cover my heart.

I turned eighteen near the end of high school in 1970 when the Vietnam War’s draft was underway. During high school—where I learned to play tennis with my pal Charlie, handed in too many papers hastily written hours before they were due, had my first real kiss (thank you, Sandy Jones), and was voted “funniest guy” in my senior class—the specter of daily televised blood and death from Vietnam revealed my country’s flaws and arrogance. In May of 1970, as graduation loomed, 428 U.S. soldiers were killed. On the fourth day of that May, students were shot and killed by the National Guard on the Kent State campus.

Lies were told every day by the government. Lives were lost every day.

During (and after) Vietnam, I understood why others in other countries—reacting to rampant hegemony and our odd, feverish American exceptionalism—would burn our flag. I also understood why Americans, disgusted by and frustrated with our country’s policies, might burn the flag. With Supreme Court approval*, let the nation’s symbol go up in flames, using the red, white & blue to non-violently express a citizen’s anguish. As for me, human and Christian and citizen, I was (and am) proud to live in a country with a First Amendment. Doesn’t “freedom of speech” include burning the flag? Citizens and soldiers have died so that a righteous anger—even anger that angers an “opposition”—can be voiced. To me, the modern attempts to add a prohibition about flag burning to the Constitution—the so-called Flag Desecration Amendment—represent small-minded hypocrisy.

Each person is shaped by personal experiences and the local-to-global events that happened around us and to us. Not everyone raised during the Civil Rights protests of the 1950s and 1960s, and who faced the Vietnam War’s draft, will think or react like me. But quite a few in my aging generation are rightly, and inevitably, critical of our political leaders’ motives and cynical about flag-waving nationalism.

Citizen I am. Because of where and when I happened to born.

Isn’t that why I am also a Christian? Given that my birth occurred in a California suburb after World War II to loving, church-going American Baptist parents, wasn’t it likely I would become a Christian? Had I been born at the same time to a Jewish couple, who—let’s say—were loving, synagogue-attending parents in New York City, would I be a Jew? What if I had been born to a loving, caring, mosque-attending Islamic mother and father years later in Gaza? Would I have grown-up revering Allah, despising Israel, and distrusting the United States?

As an ordained pastor, I served in six different churches (or “appointments,” as it’s called in my United Methodist denomination). Two of those congregations did not display an American flag. The first was a new church start that met in a school’s gymnasium. There may have been a flag nearby (along with basketball hoops and lockers lining the hallways), but America’s symbol wasn’t positioned by the temporary pulpit or makeshift altar during worship. In the second one, the lack of any flag in the sanctuary (U.S.A. or Christian) had been established at that “progressive” faith community long before my arrival.

I don’t think any Christian church of any “flavor” should have a flag in its sanctuary. At its beating Jesus-inspired heart, isn’t Christianity counter-cultural? Shouldn’t the “body of Christ” confront an empire’s (whether ancient Roman or modern American) abuses of power? Doesn’t seeking to be Christ-like question all borders that artificially divide people? I believe any attempt to overlap nationalism with Christianity is a failure of faith.

Again, from the American Legion recommendations for a flag:

When displayed from a staff in a church or public auditorium, the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence, in advance of the audience, and in the position of honor at the clergyman’s or speaker’s right as he faces the audience. Any other flag so displayed should be placed on the left of the clergyman or speaker or to the right of the audience.

Really? (Snarky me: can these guidelines be ignored if it’s a clergywoman?)

I suppose declaring “the flag of the United States of America should hold the position of superior prominence” will be embraced by those who view our country as equal to or above their faith. But I don’t think that way. Some, perhaps the majority of citizens, think our laws and values are the primary reason for faith to be able to be practiced. Not me, though.

All Christians understand the power of formal and informal symbols. Where is the cross displayed? How, and how often, is communion served? Are there lilies during Easter service, poinsettias at Christmas? Study any insignia/emblem that “brands” a particular global religion (or a local church), and its images should reveal something of their history and values.

For the United States, the flag also symbolizes our country’s history and values. In the entirety of what the Stars and Stripes represents, our faults and failures must not be forgotten nor ignored.

My personal history, and how (and why) I prioritize my humanity and faith over citizenship, prompt my hands to stay away from my heart when called to “salute” the flag. I think I understand why many of my fellow citizens would disagree, from mildly to vehemently, with my views. Please disagree, but don’t condemn or belittle me.

Our differences, and our willingness to mutually respect those differences, is a fragile, essential part of what makes the ongoing American experiment a hopeful endeavor.

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* Public Law 94-344, known as the Federal Flag Code, contains rules for handling and displaying the U.S. flag. While the federal code contains no penalties for misusing the flag, states have their own flag codes and may impose penalties. The language of the federal code makes clear that the flag is a living symbol. In response to a Supreme Court decision which held that a state law prohibiting flag burning was unconstitutional, Congress enacted the Flag Protection Act in 1989. It provides that anyone who knowingly desecrates the flag may be fined and/or imprisoned for up to one year. However, this law was challenged by the Supreme Court in a 1990 decision that the Flag Protection Act violates the First Amendment free speech protections.

[Except for the rising sun chair, all pictures are mine.]

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