Flag Desecration, Religion and Patriotism



Although the United States flag has never been the target of widespread desecration, Congress has, on several occasions, been only a few votes short of sending a constitutional amendment to protect the flag to the states for ratification. The flag protection movement calls for abandoning of core free expression principles. This phenomenon is best understood by appreciating that the American flag is akin to a sacred religious icon, comparable to Christianity's crucifix, Judaism's Torah and the Koran of Islam. No court has designated patriotism as a religion, but in key respects it operates as a religion in American culture. Like traditional religions, patriotism inspires both noble deeds and appalling violence towards people who do not adhere to its commands. This effect is more acute in the age of terrorism. Amid noisy rhetorical claims and counterclaims, patriotism is conflated with support for the government's favored anti-terrorism policies. There are troubling legal and societal implications. Patriotism undergirds deeply flawed justifications for amending the Bill of Rights for the first time since its adoption in 1789. In the name of patriotism some instigate social opprobrium and intimidation. By mandating belief they offend First Amendment principles. In addition, forced patriotism, and in particular the flag protection movement, divides the nation into 'us,' those who would criminalize flag desecration and 'them,' those who would dishonor the flag.

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    ABSTRACT: Accounts of the relationship between flags and the law have focused on a narrow strain of contentions drawn from debates about political expression. This essay seeks to bridge the gap between cultural studies insight into nationalism and its symbolics, and the flags legal status, to better understand the unique position occupied by national flags. Flag waving has become more prevalent in many liberal democracies. In such societies, flags occupy not a religious role, but a quiet and quotidian place in what Billig terms banal nationalism. As a cipher for the whole, a particular flags design is relatively unimportant; what lends it power is a mix of the gravity bestowed by its official designation and the easy commodification lent by a flags easy reproducibility and portability. Unlike other state symbols such as the currency, coat of arms and honorifics, the state does not seek to monopolise the flags use, let alone define its meaning. An analysis of the laws in several countries governing flag designation, observance and desecration reveals that the law accords the flag distinct status yet only equivocal protection. While the state may crave its citizens fealty, a flag is not a symbol of some distant governmentality. Rather, it is gifted to the people and relies for its relevance on its organic proliferation. As both object and image, people attribute a power to the flag a power they recognise over themselves and others with whom they share a body politic. A key source of this fetishisation is its official, legal designation. Though it embodies no particular values, a flag is valued, even fetishised, by flag-wavers and flag-burners alike.
    Full-text · Article · Jan 2010