It was on June 14, 1777 the Second Continental Congress adopted the Stars and Stripes as the American flag, and patriots and hyper-patriots have been waving it ever since…at times holding it higher than what it represents. What constitutes patriotism in today’s tumultuous world?
We on the church staff are encouraged to come up with these sermon titles and descriptions weeks in advance. Often when the day comes around the topic seems obscure. Or off base. Thus our Director of Music, Eric Lane Barnes, confessed on Tuesday that he wasn’t feeling all that patriotic this week in contemplation of Flag Day. But there are two issues I wish to focus on: (1) what is it about flags? Why do we like them? What do they signify? And then, (2) what is it about patriotism? One at a time. First about flags.
Declared a National (if minor) Holiday in 1949, Flag Day commemorates June 14, 1777 when the 2nd Continental Congress passed a resolution that “the flag of the United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white,” and that “the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.”
Actually, we don’t know much about the first American flags. Before the civil war, there are few records of much flag-waving at all in America. Nor, for that matter, were there that many flags. The origin of the so-called Betsy Ross flag is shrouded in legend. One of over a dozen early designs, hers eventually won out over other designs—and yet it was rarely flown. Flags weren’t that popular until the Civil War. When rebels suddenly started carrying the Confederate Battle Flag, then Federal troops began carrying the Stars and Stripes. After Appomattox, it was Grand Army of the Republic veterans—both blacks and whites who had fought for freedom—who took comfort in our flag (and wrapped themselves in it, too.) They were proud of their service destroying the slavocracy and all it stood for.
President Wilson promoted Flag Day in the midst of World War I, but it was promptly forgotten once the doughboys came home. Flags were flown outside post offices and polling paces, and on recruitment posters. We pledged of allegiance to the flag at school, and on Memorial Day there were flag festooned parades. That was pretty much it. Until Nixon.
According to biographer Stephen Ambrose, Mr. Nixon got the idea for sporting an American flag lapel pin after his chief of staff, H. R. Haldeman, had noticed a similar gesture in the Robert Redford film, The Candidate. At which point Nixon commanded all of his aides to do likewise.
Twelve years ago when Candidate Barak Obama didn’t wear a flag pin in his lapel he was so criticized that eventually he just started wearing one.
Meanwhile laws have been passed condemning those who would desecrate the flag. Desecrate = desacralize. Since when was the American flag something sacred. The flag is a symbol. It stands for something—our democracy—that one might find sacred. But not the flag. This is the whole thing about symbols. They are not the things they’re pointing at. As the Zen Masters say: don’t confuse the moon with the finger pointing at the moon. The moon, in this case, is America. The flag is the finger: it’s just a pointer, not that at which it’s pointing.
I remember reading a particularly evocative passage about a huge UU “Shaking the Foundations” conference down at Asilomar in Monterey—a place much like Seabeck over on the Hood Canal. This was c. 1966 and the theme speaker was Ken Keysey who had come, along with many of the wide-eyed Merry Pranksters. Older, conservative members were aghast; especially at the way youth were totally into it all. There was an emergency meeting in the sanctuary. Some wanted to send the Pranksters home, horrified at something—I forget the particulars—felt to be disrespectful of the flag. My mentor Paul Sawyer stood up and tried to explain:
“That flag is a symbol we attach our emotions to, but it isn’t the emotion itself and it isn’t the thing we really care about. Sometimes we don’t even realize what we really care about, because we get so distracted by the symbols.” (UU Minister Paul Sawyer, as quoted in The Electric Cool-Aid Acid Test.) As a boy, Paul went on, he always wanted to carry the flag up to the chancel at church because of all it symbolized—the bravery of courageous ancestors, the dedication of pioneers and heroes—when Ken Keysey sung out: “Do it! Take the flag now and do it!” Which he did. And suddenly everyone in the room, Pranksters and Stick-in-the-Muds alike joined in the celebration. The tension dissipated and the conference was preserved.
It’s always interesting to me the number of conservative Christians who get hung up on this desecration thing. The First Commandment = No idols. Or who conflate God and Country. Not the same. At all.
Eric’ uneasiness with celebrating flag waving is easy to understand and I share it. But there are many kinds of flags, not all of them marshal. I have a couple of dozen Tibetan prayer flags hanging in my office. Then also there’s the white flag of truce and the checkered flag of victory. Red Cross flags, yacht club flags, weather flags. Red flags are for socialists, black ones are for pirates, and yellow flags mean Stay Away/Quarantine.
Then there’s “to flag” something, which means to note it for attention. To flag can also mean to hang loosely or limply, or to fall off in vigor or energy. This can sometimes happen to church staff in the days following the church annual meeting and before General Assembly. But when things fall in properly, going to G.A. is revitalizing and a great experience.
Finally: flags are also flat slabs of stone used for paving. So the question is: How do we lay a good course for ourselves—flagstones that will lead us along a secure, grounded path, prevent our energy from flagging, and help us continue to hold those banners we hold most important—and that symbolize for us all we hold most dear—aloft in our consciousness and leading our way, loadstars guiding us together in these difficult, scary times?
Our Seven UU Principles can be loadstars of this type. They can be a spiritual practice if you let them. Key elements in the key American founding documents—the Declaration, the Preamble, and the Bill of Rights—can be touchstones of one’s civil practice.
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Finally, The question: “What is patriotism?” It is often confused with nationalism, especially by jingoists. Patriotism is anything but “My Country Right or Wrong” or “America—Love It or Leave It.” Patriots love this country, but they love it in a measured, very attentive way. It’s like when you have children. You love them; you love them in an unrestrained way—but you still have to restrain them from running into the street… or running with a dangerous crowd. Patriots love America, but they pay attention to America’s problems and look for ways to make us “a more perfect union.”
It’s not the Armed Forces that I think about when I think what makes this country great. I think about the heroes and heroines that have exemplified our country’s great aims: artists, inventors, builders, innovators, and organizers, and teachers. I think of the creative voices that guided our country’s efforts to expand its franchise, welcome immigrants, and expand its opportunities for all. Loving this country, it seems to me, means loving its institutions: governmental, civic, commercial, and educational. It means visiting the great museums and halls of assembly and digesting what they tell us about this place and its people. And patriotism, to me, also has a lot to do with people and places: the sweeping praries, stellar coastlines, high mountains, and teeming cities from sea to sea. Affection for our regionalisms and anachronisms, parochial as they may be. Love for our country must mean love for the land itself, its flora, fauna, and ancient artifacts from pre-Columbia.
Patriotism on this level requires more than just counting everything you like about our country and saying “yes.” It means standing up saying “No” about things that are wrong and need to be changed. It’s clear to me, and to millions of our fellow citizens, that continuing police brutality towards people of color is wrong. It must stop. Democracy demands it. Patriotism requires it. Our courage and solidarity can deliver it. Our steadfastness will make it so.