Human Rights

Flag Ammendment Violates 10 Commandments and the Constitution

By elevating the flag to sacred status and by creating a First Amendment loophole, a proposed amendment to the Constitution puts American civil and religious liberties at risk.
By a lopsided vote of 300 to 125, the House of Representatives has again approved a constitutional amendment that would grant Congress "the power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States." The proposed amendment has gained new momentum in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

There is an obvious irony in responding to a threat to freedom by restricting freedom. But it is not just the First Amendment that is under assault. So is the First Commandment of the Jewish and Christian faiths, and the First Pillar of the Muslim faith.

By elevating the flag to an object of transcendent veneration -- an untouchable idol -- the proposed amendment strikes at the core of Jewish, Muslim and Christian belief systems.

The Ten Commandments apply to Jews and Christians alike. Heading the list is the commandment to have no other god, meaning no other absolute allegiance. The Second Commandment extends that prohibition to veneration of material objects -- it forbids "bowing down to" or worshipping graven images of any kind. The point of all this is that no temporal power is worthy of the veneration that must be reserved for God alone.

A virtually identical prohibition applies to Muslims. The First Pillar of their faith, repeated daily in prayers, is "There is no God but God and Muhammed is the messenger of God." The greatest sin for a Muslim, comparable to idolatry for a Jew or Christian, is "shirk," which means associating something with God. That includes associating a state or nation with God, or assigning transcendent importance to a symbol of that state or nation.

There are two ways in which the proposed amendment violates the prohibitions on shirk/idolatry. One is the use of the word desecration, which, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, means "to violate the sacredness of." The amendment would in effect declare the American flag sacred. Efforts to use a less loaded term were explicitly rejected by the amendment's sponsors.

But more than semantics is at play. As it presently stands, the First Amendment forbids Congress from passing any law "abridging the freedom of speech" or "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. The proposed amendment would create an exception for the flag. It would become the only object in America that could not be subjected to symbolic protest. Not even the Cross, Crescent and Star of David merit such protection.

The great danger of turning the symbol of a nation-state into a sacred object is that it implicitly deifies the nation-state itself. The Pledge of Allegiance is taken to the flag "and to the Republic for which it stands." If the mere symbol of the state is made sacred, surely the state itself must be sacred. The right to protest the actions of government is placed on shaky ground.

That stands the philosophy of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights on its head. The Declaration states that governments are not ends in themselves, but mere instruments for "unalienable rights" to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." The government is supposed to protect liberties, not restrict them.

The First Amendment was adopted to prevent the government from limiting dissent in any way. It is inherently anti-idolatrous. As Gen. Colin Powell wrote to Sen. Patrick Leahy in 1999,

"The First Amendment exists to insure that freedom of speech and expression applies not just to that with which we agree or disagree, but also that which we find outrageous. I would not amend that great shield of democracy to hammer a few miscreants. The flag will still be flying proudly long after they have slunk away."

Should the amendment be passed by the Senate and then ratified, it would for the first time incorporate religious language into the Constitution. The great irony is that it would do so to venerate a secular object -- the symbol of an often exemplary but still fallible nation-state -- violating the most fundamental tenets of the three primary religious faiths of the American people.

As it has done on four prior occasions, the Senate should shelve this most dangerous and idolatrous assault on our civil and religious liberties.

Andrew Reding is a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute in New York, and an associate editor of Pacific News Service in San Francisco.
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