Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Displaying the national flag

Displays of the United States flag prompt three very different personal reactions.

First, I’m proud to be a U.S. citizen. The U.S. is far from perfect. The nation could more fully achieve all three dimensions of justice:

1.    Commutative – not all people are equal at law (e.g., gays cannot marry in most states);

2.    Legal – for example, the criminal justice system is not color blind and laws sometimes unnecessarily restrict freedom;

3.    Distributive – the wealthy have disproportionate access to healthcare, political influence, and quality education for their children, for example.

Nevertheless, the U.S. is arguably in the forefront of just nations, generally values human freedom and dignity, and affords a superior standard and quality of life. I proudly served in the U.S. Navy for over two decades, prepared and willing to go into harm’s way to defend those principles.

Second, the misuse or incorrect display of the national flag bothers me. I learned the protocols regarding the flag as a Boy Scout and had them reinforced through my military service. The flag is not a decorative item (e.g., only display one flag) and one should appropriately dispose of worn, dirty, or tattered flags (not leaving the shreds to whip in the wind, e.g.). However, I strongly defend the right of protesters to use the flag as a vehicle for expressing free speech.

The flag is a national symbol. Respect for the symbol infuses that symbol with a power and meaning that few other symbols have. Veteran’s coffins may be draped with a flag; military personnel salute a flag passing in review; etc. The flag symbolizes the whole nation, both the good and the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. Thus, the flag is inherently an expression of speech. Denying protesters the option to use the flag as a means to express their protests denies those individuals a fundamental right enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and most religious and philosophical conceptions of basic human rights.

Third, displaying the U.S. flag in Christian religious settings – with one exception – upsets me. Christianity is not the official or unofficial religion of the United States. Christianity, rightly understood, is global not national. Too many people, especially internationally and among military personnel, have a proclivity to confuse Christianity and U.S. patriotism. Displaying the U.S. flag in Christian religious settings can reinforce those tendencies and communicate a mixed message to other people. My loyalty to the Church is deeper, far more basic, and much more inclusive than my patriotism. Consequently, I have had the flag removed from every military chapel that I served, except one (see the next paragraph). As a civilian, I’ve followed that policy for another reason: my congregations have typically included the citizens of other nations; displaying the U.S. flag and not the flags from their nations could send an unintended message that the U.S. is superior to those nations, a conclusion at odds with my theology and, in the case of Canada, difficult to justify.

Christianity should define and shape patriotism. The Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis – my one exception to displaying the national ensign in a military setting – graphically and powerfully taught that message every Sunday. At the beginning of worship services, the midshipmen would carry the national flag as part of the opening procession. They would retire the flag from the Chapel as part of the concluding procession. However, before beginning the long walk down the center aisle to the rear doors, the midshipmen would dip the flag before the cross on the high altar. This act, which intentionally and appropriately violated the protocol that one never dips the U.S. flag to anyone or anything, symbolically declared the supremacy and primacy of God over country.

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