American Flag as Religious Icon

Bans on Desecrating the Flag Transform the Flag into an Idol for Worship

Discussions of efforts to amend the Constitution typically focus on the desire to ban burning the American flag, but current and past proposals have included criminalizing “physical desecration” of the American flag. Desecration is defined as violating the “sacredness” of something. Something is “sacred” when it is “holy” or “worthy of worship, religious veneration.” Thus, efforts to ban the desecration of the American flag are efforts to transform it into an object of religious worship.


Religion and Politics

Attempts to both defend the traditional order and keep others in their place as outsiders can be found in the contemporary politics of religion. All of the hot-button issues — school prayer, posting the Ten Commandments, religious displays on government property, etc. — are attempts both to return America to a nostalgic view of the past where white Protestants were in charge as well as to tell religious minorities, “This is our school. This is our town.”

Whenever a religious symbol — either a physical symbol like a cross on public land or a more diffuse symbol like prayers — is the principle point of governmental action, one cultural (religious) group is immediately transformed into winners and everyone else becomes losers. The symbols and meanings of the winning group become the those of the culture at large. This is openly admitted by Evangelicals who proclaim that America was founded as a “Christian Nation” and has to be returned to its religious roots.

Those who do not partake of those Christian symbols and meanings are forced to be outsiders. They don’t really count and they are not full members of the political community. They are, in effect, denied the status of equal citizenship. Thus when the government declares that something is sacred or holy, it violates the separation of church and state because it is promoting certain religious beliefs at the expense of others.


Idol Worship

In theory, Christians — especially conservative Christians — should be the first to object to transforming the American flag into an object of worship. After all, worship or veneration of the flag as something holy would contradict Christian and Jewish prohibitions against idols. Veneration of the flag couldn’t even be excused like veneration of a cross might be — after all, at least a cross is a symbol of Christianity whereas the flag is merely the symbol of an earthly and transitory nation.

Or is it? In the ideological universe of Christian Nationalism, America isn’t like any other nation-state. It isn’t a contingent, human creation which will eventually pass, but rather a physical manifestation the Kingdom of God. America is a new Israel, blessed by God and given the special task of bringing civilization, democracy, liberty, and of course Christianity to the rest of the world. Therefore the American flag, as a symbol of America, is also by extension a symbol of America’s Christian heritage, Christian beliefs, and Christian destiny.

This means that acts which bring the flag down low serve not only to denigrate America and American values, but also American Christianity.

It might even qualify as an attack on God because any action which harms America also by extension harms God’s purpose for America. Christians who hold beliefs like this do not regard the sacralization of the American flag as a form of idol worship because it is treated as being in the same class as a cross or statue of a saint. For them, true religion and true patriotism have been blended together into a single political movement aimed at purging both religious and political dissent from society.


Respect: What Does it Mean?

It might be argued that bans on desecrating the flag do not define the flag as something sacred, but merely as something worthy of respect. This is not completely consistent with language used by supporters of such measures, but it’s not entirely implausible either and deserves an answer.

If the “desecration” is taken to mean treating as unworthy of respect, then clearly bans on desecrating the flag are an attempt to suppress a particular message in favor of another one: that the flag, and by extension America, should be respected.

Of course, it is just this which is at issue when people burn the American flag: whatever they may feel about American ideals, they object to actual American actions, policies, etc., enough to deem America unworthy of respect. This is the message they are usually sending and which others would like to suppress.

This would be the effect of bans on desecrating the American flag because such bans would prevent people from challenging the ability of the majority to define what the flag is, what it means, and what role it should have in American culture. Bans on burning or desecrating the American flag would thus mean the government is interfering in public discourse to favor those who support the status quo over those who oppose it.