Flags as Idols

By Bob Litton

Any flag is a piece of cloth that informs observers that some building, ship, airplane or organization represents a particular country.  It is not — or should not be — an idol.

Yet, the American pledge of allegiance addresses the flag as though it were in fact an idol.  Consider the phrases of the pledge:  “I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States/ and to the republic for which it stands…”.  Have you ever wondered why it does not start out this way: “I pledge allegiance to the United States…” and simply leave out the reference to the flag?  As it is, it appears to bring in “the republic” as an afterthought.

Moreover, verbal pledges are in fact mere verbiage.  Just consider how many couples pledge their troths to each other one day and a few years later go out and have a fling.  All genuine fidelity is demonstrated in action.  Serving on a city council, on a county commissioners’ court, on one of our state or national legislatures is a demonstration of allegiance to the principles of our country.  Serving in the military or the Peace Corps is showing allegiance to our country’s principles.  Simply voting and serving on juries is showing allegiance to the principles of our country; but observe how many Americans do not vote so they can avoid jury duty.  There are many, many ways to show allegiance other than a regimented ceremony — an act that amounts to idolatry.

Then there is the business about “one nation indivisible under God”.  Yet, look at all the bumper stickers of the so-called “super patriots” calling for secession.  And aren’t ALL nations under God — that is, if their people believe in God.

Contrary to what many in our younger generations might believe, the pledge of allegiance has not been part of our national ceremonies since 1798.  It was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy — a Baptist minister — and has been revised four times since then.  It was formally adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1942.  Prior to 1942, the pledge involved an arm outstretched toward the flag, but President Franklin Roosevelt instituted the hand-over-the-heart gesture because the outstretched arm resembled the Nazi salute.

The phrase “under God” was pushed by the Knights of Columbus (a Roman Catholic Church fraternal organization) and others during the early 1950s; but such efforts were defeated in Congress until 1954, when Presbyterian minister George MacPherson Docherty persuaded President Dwight Eisenhower to get Congress to amend the pledge to include the phrase “under God”.  What is notable about this incident is that it followed a sermon in which Docherty noted that the pledge’s sentiments, as expressed, could be those of any nation and therefore lacked “the characteristic and definitive factor in the American way of life”.  The pastor claimed that the words “under God” set the United States apart from other nations.  (We should note here that this occurred during the Cold War — the historical era when the Soviet Union and Communist China were the atheistic bugbears in the American psyche.)

But what are we now to think of this?  Do we actually believe that the United States is the only nation over which God presides in his heaven?

The present pledge of allegiance to the state flag of Texas is even worse. Originally, in 1933, the Texas Legislature instituted the state pledge as follows: “Honor the Texas flag of 1836; I pledge allegiance to thee, Texas, one and indivisible.”  Now, “honor” is a decent word in this context, connoting as it does the same sentiment as is understood in the fifth biblical commandment: “Honor your father and mother.” The 1933 version was thus brief, easy to say and — ignoring for the moment the fact that the words “one and indivisible” conflict with the national pledge — not too silly.  The word “allegiance” still bothers me: How can one bear allegiance both to a nation and to one of its constituent states?

In 2007, however, the Texas pledge was amended to say “one state under God” and thus not only cracked the wall of separation between Church and State, just as the U.S. pledge had, but it became something of a tongue-twister.  So, God’s heaven is shrinking: it no longer covers the 50 states plus a few territories; it just covers Texas.

Now, do not suppose from the above that the flags themselves are equally deserving of contempt.  Like any other nation’s or state’s, they represent a definite group of people.  They have very proper uses: designating governmental or quasi-governmental buildings, embassies and ships.  They are very appropriately carried on poles during parades.  They should be treated respectfully.

The problem is that the flags are often treated without proper respect.  They are left hanging outside during the night and when it rains.  They are left aloft for days after national holidays and allowed to become shredded by the Texas winds.  They are worn as shirts and used for primarily decorative purposes.  And the people who treat them in such a manner consider themselves as patriotic.

In summary then, our national and state pledges of allegiance are empty, arrogant, regimented pieces of verbiage.  But many people who know the truth about this situation remain silent.  They join in the little ceremonies on the principle of “Go along to get along”.  It’s very much like Hans Christian Andersen’s story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes”.  Remember that story of how a country’s ruler is duped by some fake tailors into believing that the invisible cloth they are draping over him are actual clothes?  All the court officials and the general public had been led to believe by the “tailors” that anyone who could not see the emperor’s garments would be thought unfit for their jobs or as fools.  Therefore, when the emperor holds a parade to show off  his “new clothes”, everyone expresses admiration for them — everyone, that is, except one child who exclaims, “The emperor has no clothes on!”


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