No one should die for a flag.
People of honor are willing to lay down their lives for others—the greatest love. Many Americans have fallen in efforts to ensure the survival of the framework of liberty guaranteed in our Constitution. But, in the end, in the fog of war, you die for guys next to you in the foxhole, for your family back home, not for grandiose ideas that fill the sentimental speeches of fast-talking, control-seeking politicians.
President Woodrow Wilson—one of those very politicians–instituted Flag Day to rally the nation in World War I. The day recognized the adoption of Besty Ross’s Stars and Stripes as the banner of the U.S. Army when it was founded on June 14, 1777.
But Flag Day can also represent a tendency to focus more on the flag than what it represents. A nation of 313 million people is not spurred simply by a flag, just as a battalion in battle doesn’t run into enemy fire because of a banner. We charge ahead because of human connections, through our allegiances to those around us. The cumulative effect of brother looking out for brother, of people helping one another, of the good deeds of warriors, cops, firefighters, saints, and anyone who sacrifices–that’s what preserves and enriches our freedoms.
That’s why I’ve always been a little uneasy about the phrase “I pledge allegiance to the flag,” written in the 19th century by Francis Bellamy, who, though he had some good ideas, favored big government, distrusted immigrants, and opposed universal suffrage. I wish he’d said this instead: “I pledge allegiance to the Republic (and the Ideas) for which the Flag stands.” Good ol’ Ike redeemed the pledge in the 1950s. By adding the words “under God,” President Eisenhower made space for other allegiances than to the flag alone.
Worship of a flag is antithetical to the American spirit. It’s something that belongs in totalitarian countries, in cults, and dark, secret societies. Forget about the flag for second and think about what it means to be an American: Having the freedom for you and your family and your friends and neighbors to live in peace and prosperity.
It’s not about big theories. When freedom becomes some vague idea that you only encounter upon hearing the National Anthem at a ballgame, or when we become angrier at someone burning the flag than at politicians violating the Constitution, then it is just that, an idea. The more we have to talk about the flag, freedom, and the Government, the less liberty we probably really have. I bet more Americans would be outraged by someone who wanted to change the words of the Pledge of Allegiance than by a president who ignored the Constitutional constraints on his power. We’re vigilant about the trappings and traditions of democracy, while we turn a blind eye to the erosion of our liberties.
Emerging in America is a government-centric notion that we are subjects of the flag, of our Constitution, and our political leaders–and that anything we enjoy is courtesy of them. Alongside the highways of Philadelphia, birthplace of the Constitution, there are billboards promoting the National Constitution Center. They feature various choices we Americans have, like whether you want your cheesesteak “wit or witout” fried onions. The tagline at the bottom says you have that choice “Courtesy of the Constitution.” The first time I saw that, I almost drove off the road, but I made the choice to stay cool–courtesy of my own free will–not thanks to any document, even the Constitution. We have our choices courtesy of our God-given free will and of those who have died to ensure that Governments don’t try to take that away from us.
We’re not subjects of anyone but God. But we are—in theory at least–free citizens of a great Republic, of which the flag is only a symbol, the rallying banner that reminds of our freedoms. Maybe the Federal Government should have its own flag, letting the people keep the American flag for themselves. Because to the extent the flag is merely a symbol of the bureaucrats who wield power over us, it is a contradiction, a violation of the blood—represented by the red stripes—that was shed to keep that Star-Spangled Banner waving over a land of free people.
When we pledge allegiance, it is to the Republic–which includes everything from Washington on down to the corner deli in your neighborhood. We are not pledging to the Federal Government alone. And the pledge is fulfilled when we use our freedom well—and protect and preserve it for others.
It’s a good thing to see many flags—those of our nation, of our state, of churches, of our civic organizations—because it reinforces the point that we are not just a collection of isolated individuals submitting to a federal government. The American flag should remind us that we are supposed to be a free people, with the liberty to organize our own affairs, raise our families, run our businesses, live our lives, and worship God as we see fit, without officials in a faraway capital city dictating the details of our lives.
But it doesn’t really seem that way today does it?