The Problem with the Unpatriotic Use of Flags and Anthems
By Jane Tawel
June 25, 2020
So, here’s the thing about flags and anthems, folks. They aren’t meant for sporting events or openings to concerts or educational institutions in the first place. We have gotten so used to the unpatriotic use of flags, pledges and sung anthems, that we get quite confused when people choose not to abuse their use by not pledging, not singing, or goodness-sakes, protesting the abuses by people of what these symbolic gestures are meant to signify. A case can be made for flags and anthems at Olympic or International games or Patriotic events on national birthdays, or schools that train soldiers, but those are each a different kettle of fish. If we would rewind and get ourselves out of the silly place we’ve boxed ourselves into on this issue, maybe we could figure out how to actually honor our country and also figure out how to protest what is wrong with it.
Flags are for soldiers in battle and honored in death for those fallen in battle. Flags are for those who serve the public in the halls of congress, the courts of justice, and in the streets and byways where those who have taken an oath of service to community, state, and nation help us stay safe and protect us (ALL of us). I think it would be great if Congress, the Senate, The White House and all state and local governments had to begin every day gathering together (TOGETHER) to sing the national anthem and salute the flag. That is what these symbols are for, to remind our government officials that at least in America, we do not exist to serve them, but that they exist to serve us, and that they serve the ideals of the best of “us”.
Flags and national anthems are not for the beginning of a school day any more than they are for the beginning of a work day. That is for purely communist countries, where citizens work for the good of the nation, not the other way around. Not that these countries exist, but the false premises do. Jobs and education are what nations provide for the betterment of the citizens, who in turn, make the nation better because of their opportunities. Unlike in certain other countries, we are not meant to serve our nation when we are pursuing our dreams, our nation works to serve us and to provide viable employment and useful education for its citizens so that they may pursue life and happiness.
America is founded on the idea of liberty within reason. “Reason” meaning, we need educated, thinking, ethically-trained citizens. One of those liberties is the idea that we can worship in the way we believe it is right to worship, as long as it doesn’t harm another person, of course. This means if my religion or belief system teaches me that I do not “pledge allegiance” to anything or Anyone other than my God, I do not have to pledge allegiance to a flag unless I am fighting for my country against another country.
But true allegiance in belief-systems, religions and patriotism seems to be a lost virtue. Allegiance means that I can (and should) do a lot more than recite an empty pledge or hum a mumbled anthem to support and honor my country. I honor my religion, or my worldview or my nation by the way I live out its best beliefs and adhere to the ethical ideas of the best of the human beings who trod this mortal coil.
People who do not live according to a religious belief should not confuse patriotism for religion either. Whether we like it or not, no nation or empire or kingdom has ever been eternal and the planet will keep spinning (we hope) long after any nation has come and gone. Symbols are bigger though than any one belief-system or one place or one people. Symbols (such as flags) represent those “truths we hold self-evident” and true truths ARE meant to be eternal. This is what we praise when we raise a flag or sing an anthem — we praise the truths that we put our trust and hope in — hoping that those truths will last far longer, and far outlast any particular team or nation or any one person has come and gone.
Religions aren’t meant to have flags. Religions are meant to entice followers to true truths no matter where they are from, and to accept people based on their need, not on their team mentality. There is no such thing as a “Christian” flag or a Buddhist flag and so forth, and when nations combine religion with nationalism to make flags more important than ethics, or symbols more important than worldviews, they dishonor the whole shebang of their supposed beliefs – nation, God, and man.
There is such a thing as a religious symbol. In Christianity symbols include a cross and bread and wine. In Judaism symbols include things like a yarmulke or menorah. In Islam, all symbolism is considered as something akin to idol worship. And so forth and so on. Symbols are not religion, symbols are portals to seeking better understanding of deep ideas. This would be a good thing for us to consider when we raise a flag or sing with other citizens in praise of kin and country. When we share a symbol, we are recognizing our shared ideals and the daily struggle to make them a reality in the present of our very lives.
When we make symbols of patriotism hold religious status, we do a grave disservice not only to the idea of patriotism, but to the idea of religion. To think that someone is unethical because they do not sing an anthem but take a knee instead, to think someone is going against a belief of religious status because they do not pledge to a flag, is fallacious reasoning and harmful intention. More than that, in America, land of the free and the brave, the shining city on a hill, a democracy struggling for realization – forcing the worship of a symbol is downright unpatriotic.
Conversely, when we make our flag and our national anthem something we do at ballgames or musical concerts, we elevate entertainment and competition as the highest forms of our national ideals. No wonder we have slipped down the slippery slope we have.
There are such things as religious anthems and they are called things like hymns, or prayers, or chants. They are sung for certain reasons at appropriate times. And so should national anthems and flag pledging be. Religions are meant to uphold people spiritually, not patriotically. And patriotism is meant to make us feel that together we are one people and one nation and that for the good of “US”, we can conquer anything that threatens to undo the ideals and values that hold us together as “one nation”. Whether or not that is under God or not, is up to us.
This idea of patriotism has nothing to do with football or church, nothing to do with cheering or praying, nothing to do with self-centered pride or idol-worship as holiness, nothing to do with education or entertainment. Flag waving and national singing together is meant for celebration of the best of who we are, like the birth of a nation (July 4th) or the remembrance of a tragedy that threatened to undo the best of who we are (September 11th). And when and if we are not behaving as the best of who we were, who we are, and who we can be, then we demean and degrade the very ideals that are behind the reasons we have symbols in the first place.
A flag is a symbol, not an icon. It is meant to symbolize what a particular country stands for. A flag is meant to encourage those who are waving it to understand what needs defending, uplifting, or improving. A flag is not meant to be defended as worthy in its own right, but to remind us of what is worth defending as good and just and kind and true and honorable in our nation. The converse of that is also true.
A flag should make us feel shame and dishonor when what we do or say is not for the good of all of a nation’s citizens and it should make us feel energized to change things so that the least among us is proud to be a part of who we are becoming – not who we were – who we can be.
A flag is about sacrifice not selfishness. Singing an anthem is about community not competition. When we let our symbols decay under the weight of injustice, lies, greed, and power mongering, we do far worse to the ideals that The United States of America used to symbolize to the world, than a mere flag burning or knee taking or protest poster could ever do.
I do not have to pledge to a flag to prove I love my country. To prove I love my country, I need to stand up for the best ideals, work to change what is wrong, and live according the best lights of my nation’s best values. To prove I love my country, I do not need to sing a song (that is impossible for most of us to sing on key anyway), and I certainly am not meant to confuse patriotism with an entertainment event. To prove I love my country, my actions will always speak louder than words, and my heart of service to others and fight for the best ideals of this nation, will always sing more truly on-key than any anthem ever will. Our country is not meant to be upheld in its grand and good ideas for the sake of its entertainment. And even though we seem to have come to a place where we think this is what America stands for, it is not too late to start climbing back up the hill, to light the torches of truth, to join hands to pull-up the weakest of us to stand on equal footing with the strongest of us, and to be that place that “So proudly we hail” once more at the world’s “twilight’s last gleaming”.
On September 11, 2001, some people did a heinous thing against the nation that I am honored to be a citizen of. They could claim they did this in the name of nation or religion, but that would be a lie. They did it because they had allowed hatred and pride, selfishness and false beliefs, to take deep roots in their souls. Their horrific actions had nothing to do with true religion nor with true patriotism. If we have learned anything in this current living generation from the tragedy of September 11th, it should be that patriotism has nothing to do with flag waving or history-worshipping or cheers for our sports or political teams. People who are abusing and twisting the ideals of our nation and stoking the mock cheers for self-centered patriotism are lying to us. And their lies are dividing some of us, and killing others of us. Loving and honoring America is only as true and as good as the honor and love we give each other.
There are many peoples and nations who claim to do things in the service of all kinds of beliefs. History is a searchlight into our own hearts and minds we dare not turn away from if we do not want the darkness to finally and completely consume us. Nations have suffered from while propagating genocides, holocausts, terrorist attacks, enslavement, systemic racism, systemic misogyny, systemic impoverishment, dictatorships, and caste systems. Many of these peoples and nations claim they do it for love of a flag or a symbol. But this a lie. A flag that has ceased to be a symbol of morals and ethics, without honor and justice, without freedom and equality is not a symbol of anything worth honoring. It is a piece of cloth and certainly not worth our worship. It is barely worth our attention as entertainment.
A flag is only as good as the people it stands for. Perhaps that is the saddest thing of all about America thinking a flag or an anthem is worth nothing more than a place of honor at a competitive ballgame or the team-sport of a political rally. The saddest thing of all is that we no longer think we as a people are worth those noble ideals or ethical standards that caused some people to once pen these lines, “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
If we want to truly honor the flag or our national anthem, it is way past time we started doing the things that honor not what America was, but what America can be. It is time to start forming a more perfect union, just as we were meant to. It is time to secure the blessings of this life for our posterity, just as our ancestors tried to do for us. Until then, maybe the most religious and the non-religious of us should start taking a knee and the most patriotic of us should start pledging to take care of each other.