On June 14, 1969, I won a prize for an essay called “What the Flag Means to Me.” Years in the Boy Scouts informed me of the symbolism in the American flag and taught me flag etiquette. I knew red stood for the blood of American patriots, white stood for the purity of American ideals, while blue stood for the glory of her achievements. I knew you should not fly the flag in the rain or at night, as well as how to fold it smartly into a triangle. I saluted it daily in school and believed that it must never touch the ground or be held in a parade at a lower level than another flag. I had seen enough movies to know that the Stars and Stripes coming over the horizon meant rescue from harm and the restoration of justice. I was proud to wear an American flag patch on the shoulder of my scout uniform.
I was confused by newspaper images of Old Glory being flown upside down (a sign of distress) outside the crown of the Statue of Liberty by Vietnam Veterans Against the War. I was no fan of Abbie Hoffmanâ€™s American flag shirt or Peter Fondaâ€™s American flag helmet in Easy Rider. I saw these things as disrespectful.
Then, in 1975, I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and learned how, in 1864, six hundred Cheyenne, two thirds of them women and children, were massacred, after they sought protection under an American and white flag. When American troops questioned orders to kill even the infants, the commanding officer, Colonel John Chivington, said, â€œNits make lice.â€
A year later, two months before the nationâ€™s bicentennial celebration, I saw Stanley Formanâ€™s front-page newspaper photo of a furious white opponent of desegregation in Boston trying to spear a black lawyer with an American flag Bostonâ€™s City Hall. The more I learned about US racism and imperialism, the easier it was for me to understand why some people see the flag as a symbol of oppression and violence.
The Soiling of Old Glory, by Stanley Forman
At a 1984 International Womenâ€™s Day protest on the steps of the US Capitol, I saw women plunge a US flag into a tub to â€œwash the blood out of it.â€ Speaking to the crowd minutes later, Elizabeth McAlister said that she wasnâ€™t sure the flag could be cleansed in so a short time.
On the other hand, my experience in countries where different ethnic and religious groups were slaughtering one another, often without US instigation or arms, renewed my belief that, while not perfect, American ideals of justice have significant substance. Despite our shameful segregationist past, contemporary Americans are remarkably tolerant compared to many people I met overseas. I also began to associate the sight of an American flag, not with the US government, but with my affection for baseball, pizza, New England, family, and friends. I could see how the national symbol could mean different things to different people at different times.
Then again, flags originated as battle standards. The ubiquitous display of the American flag during the first Gulf War connoted support for the US troops. Although some peace activists took to carrying a US flag in an attempt to wrest the symbol from the right, it largely remained emblematic of support for the war. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about any flag is that itâ€™s meaning is ambiguous.
And yet, many Catholic Churches proudly display an American flag, some right on the altar itself. I used to scoff at my leftist friendsâ€™ assertion that Americans worshipped the flag as an idol, until I learned that a Connecticut Catholic school fired Stephen Kobasa, a teacher of many years, for refusing to display an American flag in his classroom and how a Worcester veteran threatened to punch any priest who tried to enforce the Vatican rule that a flag cannot cover a coffin during a funeral Mass. (So virulent was local opposition to the flag restriction at funerals that Bishop Harrington asked and received permission from Rome to exempt the Worcester diocese from the rule.)
Given that Americans grow up, not only pledging allegiance to what the flag stands for, but also to the flag itself, it should come as no surprise that many venerate it. In 1898, when the American Flag Association was formed, a call went up for legislation to protect the flag, calling it a â€œsacred jewelâ€ that commanded â€œnational reverence.â€
My own mixed feelings about the American flag in particular, and all national flags in general, make me reluctant to demand that churches cast them out, but I was very moved by the witness of Mark Colville, a Catholic Worker in New Haven, who refused to kneel during Mass so long as an American flag was displayed on the altar. When parishioners asked him why he kept standing during the Eucharistic Prayer, he told them that he could only kneel before God and not the state. He didnâ€™t pass out leaflets or get into shouting matches with his pastor. He didnâ€™t stop attending Mass either. Over time, a consensus emerged, and the flag was removed.
Especially nowadays, when religion is so closely associated with anti-religious policies (calling wars things like â€œOperation Just Cause,â€ putting scripture quotes on US rifles, and comparing the sacrifices of soldiers, who have killed more than 100,000 Iraqi and Afghan civilians, with those of Jesus), it behooves us to be crystal clear. “Love your enemies” is irreconcilable with war. “Sell everything you have and give it to the poor” contradicts capitalism. “Welcome the stranger” â€ flies in the face of restric- tive immigration policies. Many fundamentals of Christianity are radically different from those represented by the American flag. While the differences between Americanism and Christianity are far from total, they are certainly sufficient to hold the flag at armâ€™s length, away from the Church.