The Blasphemy of Flag Worship

In a few days the House of Representatives will overwhelmingly approve, for the sixth time, a Constitutional Amendment to allow Congress to make it a crime to deface the American flag.

In three previous votes, the Senate could not muster the two-thirds majority needed to send the bill to the states for ratification. In 2000, the last time the Senate took up the matter, 63 voted for the amendment, four short of a two-thirds majority. Since then Republicans have picked up five Senate seats. That is why USA Today describes the upcoming vote, scheduled sometime after July 4, as a "cliffhanger."

If Congress passes the amendment, will the states ratify it? Time will tell. But we should recall that every state legislature has passed resolutions urging Congress to send it such an amendment.

We can expect to hear a lot of First Amendment-loving progressives condemn this Congressional initiative as inappropriate and dangerous. I would hope that the Christian right would join the opposition. Not out of a love for the First Amendment, but because of their devotion to the Ten Commandments.

Devout Christians firmly believe that the Ten Commandments should be etched in stone in our courthouses and emblazoned on the walls of every classroom. The message of the Second Commandment is clear. "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God..."

Can anyone deny that the American flag has achieved the status of a graven image?

The contention that flag worship is blasphemy was a key element before the Supreme Court in 1940. In that case it upheld the right of a Pennsylvania school district to expel two students who refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. The two teenagers were members of the Jehovah's Witness denomination. Their church believed that pledging allegiance to the flag violated the Biblical admonition (Exodus 20) against worshipping or bowing down to any graven image of God. The court decided that the need for national security and national unity allowed Congress to force individuals to violate the Ten Commandments.

In 1943, the Supreme Court reversed its 1940 decision. That reversal probably had less to do with religion than with the Court's realization that, at the height of a war against totalitarian regimes, a central feature of which was a slavish devotion to national symbols, compelling us to worship the flag was inapt. (As a side note, that same year the Flag Code itself was changed. No longer were students required to salute the flag with one arm extended forward. The similarity to the Nazi salute was too embarrassing. From that time onwards, we were told to put our hands over our hearts.)

The evidence that we literally worship the flag is overwhelming. Unique among all nations, we have a Flag Day, a Flag code etiquette, a national anthem dedicated to the flag and a verbal salute to the flag. Twenty-seven states require school children to salute the flag daily.

Some might argue that we are simply saluting a symbol, that we are actually pledging allegiance to our country. But the words tell a different story. "I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of American, and to the republic for which it stands." The insertion of the word "and" makes clear that the flag and the republic are two different entities. We are pledging allegiance to the flag itself.

If further evidence is needed, consider these words from the Congressionally enacted U.S. Flag code (Title 36 USC 10, PL 344). "The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing."

Just eight months ago, Lincoln, Nebraska police arrested a 64-year-old Vietnam War veteran who flew the American flag upside down to protest the war in Iraq. He was arrested for violating a 1977 Nebraska law prohibiting the "mutilation of a flag," which it defines this way. "A person commits the offense of mutilating a flag if such person intentionally casts contempt or ridicule upon a flag..." The penalty is three months in jail. Of course, in many societies, the punishment for ridiculing God is far greater.

Our national anthem, sung at every sporting event and increasingly, at every mass political gathering, is the only one I know that focuses its devotion solely on a flag. "And the rockets' red glare / the bombs bursting in air / gave proof through the night that our Flag was still there." Congress has repeatedly thwarted attempts to substitute the eminently more singable and entirely more fitting song, "America the Beautiful," for "The Star Spangled Banner."

Following up on its 1943 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1989 and again in 1990 declared that ridiculing or defacing the American flag was protected by the First Amendment. Which is why Congress is now about to send a Constitutional Amendment to the states.

God bless those who will fight this Congressional initiative as a dangerous precedent, the first Constitutional Amendment that restricts the reach of the Bill of Rights. Their devotion to the first 10 amendments to the Constitution is admirable. Perhaps we can expect devout Christians' equally fierce devotion to the Ten Commandments to energize them in opposition to this initiative.

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