Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Flag: concerning patriotism, nationalism, and symbolism

As a kid, I remember people putting their hands over their hearts when the flag passed by. Some saluted it. We stood to say the Pledge of Allegiance everyday at school. We often sang My Country, 'Tis of Thee along with it.

The post office and schools and federal buildings always had flags flying, identifying them as public buildings. It used to be rare for a flag to be flown at half staff, only symbolizing the death of a president, but nowadays it is frequently at half staff for the death of a US soldier in the Middle East.

However, by the late 1960's a flag decal on a car's rear window was as good as a “Red Neck” stamp. Somehow the flag had come to mean a hawkish, predatory political stance as well as the logo for general ignorance, prejudice and bluster. The peace symbol, a pie-in-circle designed in 1958 in Britain for the nuclear disarmament movement, symbolized intellectual liberals, anti-war politics, and a laissez-faire hippie languidity. The flag and the peace symbol were at war.

In the 1980's, the flag came out of the closet once again, flying huge and high over the Burger King chain. The awesome sight from the freeway of the red, white and blue proudly waving on a 60' pole was the trigger for children to cry out for a Kid's Meal. Hamburgers became visually linked with the flag, hot apple pies (in a paper wrapper, make that “to go”) and Mom behind the wheel. The flag was a marketing tool.

On the day that stunned America, September 11, 2001, the American flag quickly rose as a rallying cry for love of country. Hardware stores and Costco couldn't meet the demand of consumers. Car antennae held flags, work trucks boasted flags, young men had them flying high from their big wheel trucks. Neighborhoods were full of flags hung from a standard or in the windows. There was a unity in the spirit of business people, neighbors, and strangers on the road: “We love our country. We're hurt, we're shocked, but we have something special and no one can take that away from us.” The intensity of the inward feeling compelled the outward expression of the flag as a meaningful bond with others.

Then, slowly, came the shame. The war lingered. American youngsters were killed in a war whose support was welshing. The original offense against our country on 9-11 receded as our wartime acts became less defensible. New reports that original intelligence was faulty quelled the fervor of pay-back. Now to be flag-waving was a political liability, a right-wing conservatism, a blind but loyal Republicanism that others mocked. Flag stickers came off cars but yellow “Support Our Troops” stickers emerged to mediate between the intemperate “pull out now” gang and the loyal '”my country right or wrong” crowd.

Can a person be a Democrat and have a flag decal on his car?
Can a Republican have a peace symbol?
Can you have a flag and a peace symbol, both?
Can you be peace-loving and patriotic?
Can you be patriotic without being nationalistic?
Can we have a global mentality and home-grown pride?

A while back at a family gathering we had a rather heated discussion that was left unresolved. Some of the family members fought in WWII, Vietnam, and served in peacetime, too. The flag is a meaningful symbol to them of all the best foundational principles that made America. Freedom.

And then we have some who feel that the flag has no place in a church: ie, Christ didn't just die for Americans, did he? They think that if we have a flag of one country flying we should have one of every country.

A year ago for either Memorial Day or July 4th Independence Day I made a piano medley of patriotic hymns for special music at our church. So as to be clear on the purpose of the message, gratitude to and dependence on God, not “Manifest Destiny”, I included the words of selected verses in the bulletin:

Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord

Thy love divine hath led us in the past,
In this free land by Thee our lot is cast;
Be Thou our Ruler, Guardian, Guide, and Stay,
Thy Word our law, Thy paths our chosen way.
From war's alarms, from deadly pestilence,
Be Thy strong arm our eversure defense;
Thy true religion in our heart's increase,
Thy bounteous goodness nourish us in peace.

Whose arm hath bound the restless wave,
Who bids the mighty ocean deep
Its own appointed limits keep:
O hear us when we cry to Thee
For those in peril on the sea

My Country, 'Tis of Thee
Our father's God, to Thee, Author of liberty, To Thee we sing:
Long may our land be bright With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might, Great God, our King!

America, the Beautiful
O beautiful for heroes proved In liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved, And mercy more than life!
America! America! May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness and every gain divine!

O thus be it ever, when free men shall stand Between their loved homes and the war's desolation! Blest with vict'ry and peace, may the heav'n-rescued land Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation! Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just; And this be our motto; “In God is our trust!” And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free, while God is marching on

Well, our worship leader had the feeling that patriotic songs did't belong in the service because God isn't an American and we don't worship America: we worship God. I surely agree but felt misunderstood. I am thankful for God's many provisions to me personally and to this land, including the governing principles that allow me my freedom. I do not feel superior to other nationalities or that I have done any more to earn these privileges than being born here. I am just grateful for the many blessings.

Immediately after 9-11, a preponderance of cars had signs in their windows: “Proud to be an American”. This struck a wrong note with me. I thought the sign, if any, should say “Grateful to be an American.”

We attended a church service in Tunisia on a Sunday when they were celebrating Nigerian Independence Day. The Nigerians were dressed in traditional finery, and they sang and danced Nigerian songs and thanked God for the rich national resources that He had given to the land and people. There were heartfelt prayers for the leaders of their government to do their best in managing those rich resources. It was a beautiful time of blending love for country and love for God in proper perspective, and I thought it was very appropriate in a Tunisian church as an American to thank God and pray for Nigeria.

Yes, I think you can be patriotic, grateful and still have a global world view.

I would love for this to become a forum for your views, too, on the flag, patriotism, globalism, etc. My thoughts are still developing and I welcome yours.


Connie said...

I had lots of thoughts as I read through this post, but I won't be able to remember all of them. Wish I could reach through bloggerland and give you a hug! This was a terrific post.

Your worship leader really missed an opportunity to give thanks to God for God's part in America. If we continue to leave God out, we continue downhill really fast.

The original idea of separation of church and state was to keep the state out of the church. The state has no business telling the church what to do, how to do it , what to preach or anything. We need to get the government out of church and start getting the church into government. Churches need to start being much more proactive in politics.

I guess I feel that if someone is so ashamed of American they can not fly the flag, they need to leave and go live in a country of which they will be proud.

I'm not sure I understand globalism. If it means giving up God, giving up treating humans the way God intended, or embracing everyone's ideology - then I want nothing to do with it.

Soon there will be no nation left on earth that understands God's principles of government, with a Christian religion. We are heading down a very slippery slope embracing all this socialism and all the other 'isms'; and embracing all the religions when we have to put ours on silence.

I will give someone else a turn, or this could be an hour long!

Elizabeth C. said...

Dear Aunt Holly,

What a beautiful blog! I was just poking around on Facebook and found your link. I am now one of your "followers." Blogs are such a neat way to learn more about your long-distance friends and family!


Diane said...

what a great Blog.. the Flag... when I see it I get a lump in my throat because my parents imagrated to this country in 1946/1948. after WWII and I believe we have a great freedom in this country.. do I fly a flag infront of the house. NO but I do honor it while at a parade or at a Military service. I even have been known to cry when one goes by.. I think s its a great symble of our freedom that we cannot take for granted. Every year the last weekend in June our church has a "Military Sunday" where we honor ALL the soldiers that fought for our country, many are in there uniforms and all the service flags.... ie USCG, NAVY, MARINES, ARMY, and American Flags are flying...We have a Honored Speaker and sing all the Patriotic Songs. I think one of the most impressive parts of the service is when a military service man passes His American Flag to a Younger gerneration person... Remembering where we got our FREEDOM FROM

Emily said...

Wow, Mom, that is a lot of thinking that you've been doing! I am overwhelmed. You know how much I love the red, white, and blue (think of my Olympics party). I had the flag from that on our front porch until Megan's baby shower in April. I have to admit that is wasn't for patriotic reasons as much as that I didn't know what else to do with it -- I couldn't just throw it away or put it in a cupboard until the next Olympics... I have been ingrained with that sense of respect for the flag, I guess, which is not a bad thing. Anyway, thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, and keep them coming!
Love, Emily

Gilly said...

I probably have no right to express views here, as I am from the UK, where we don't regard our flag in the same way as you do in the US. But I do think that unless we all, whatever country we are from, take a more global view, then we will all be in great trouble. There are going to be pressures on countries like we have never seen before, because of the effects of global warming, and boundaries are going to be fought over, breached and fortified, unless we take on board the fact we are all human beings, some more unfortunate than others, but all human.

Thinking about our own flag, the Union Jack (which is more than likely to be waved or flown upside down!) it is made up of the flags of three countries, England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, the three crosses representing the cross of St. George, St. Andrew and St. Patrick respectively. There is a lot of patriotism in each of these three countries, and at football matches especially, and other sporting events, the individual flags are used.

We don't salute our flag in schools either!

Blog Archive