Columnists > Voices

Star-spangled symbol

Outlawing flag desecration would turn an icon into an idol

Issue: "John Roberts: Bush's pick," July 30, 2005

It's not surprising that a constitutional amendment against desecrating the U.S. flag is gaining traction. Americans fly the stars and stripes not merely from government buildings and schools, but also from private homes and businesses. Flags bloom in primary-colored fervor on holidays and in times of crisis or celebration, blazing like a Childe Hassam painting.

Visitors to Fort McHenry National Monument in Baltimore learn the story of Francis Scott Key's experience aboard a British cartel ship in Baltimore harbor during the War of 1812: how, after a night of fierce enemy bombardment, he peered landward through the smoke, where the shelled and scarred American flag still flew over the fort. The sight, as every American schoolchild used to know, inspired Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

At the end of a dramatic media presentation in the Ft. McHenry visitor center, the traveler is invited to stand and sing our national anthem as the curtain rolls back from a glass wall to reveal that "the flag is still there." Any American who doesn't choke up at the sight needs a cynicism check.

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All that said, and given the history and ideals that that flag represents, and the honor due those who bled and died under it, a constitutional amendment outlawing its desecration would be a mistake.

The key word is represents. The symbol of a thing is not the thing itself, and conflating symbol with reality turns icons into idols.

Gideon was a great idol-destroyer. Yet at the end of his military career he took it upon himself to restore true worship in Israel by making an ephod, or priestly garment (Judges 8:27). Ironically, the ephod soon became an object of worship, and "a snare to Gideon and his family." Many years later a similar fate befell the Ark of the Covenant, the most sacred object in Israel's history. When the Israelites carried it into battle against the Philistines, they were confusing the representation of God's presence with God's actual presence-imagine their dismay when they were soundly defeated and the Ark captured.

Scripture provides an even more poignant example. When God's people complained against Him in the wilderness, they were struck with a plague of "fiery serpents" (Numbers 21). But the God who punished their infidelity also provided a way of escape. Significantly, it was in the same form as their affliction: a bronze serpent on a pole. Those who looked to the image were healed. A real act of faith brought a real result.

But the bronze serpent was preserved, perhaps with the best intentions, and turned up hundreds of years later in a new role. Now it was not the symbol but the object of faith, known as Nehushtan, "The Bronze Thing." Because the people were burning incense to it, Nehushtan was one of the idols Hezekiah destroyed during his purge (2 Kings 18:4). Jesus restored the symbol to its place by comparing it to Himself, the ultimate deliverance (John 3:14) who took the form of man and suffered man's curse. But the actual bronze thing came to a tawdry end.

Whenever the idols of the Old Testament held sway, there were probably laws against ephod-burning and serpent desecration, as well as rules for handling and proper display. So are there guidelines for the U. S. flag, but they come under the heading of etiquette, not law. No one is prosecuted for flying a flag in the rain or letting it touch the ground. Nor (so far) is deliberate misuse, like flying it upside down or walking on it, punishable by law. But if an anti-desecration amendment is ever passed, Christians will be in a bit of a dilemma.

Can we foresee a day when flag-burning is outlawed but not cross-burning? When one can soak a crucifix in urine but not the stars and stripes? When spray-painting vile terms on a Bible is free expression, but spray-painting Old Glory is a crime?

In this age and this culture, enshrining the flag in a constitutional amendment would in effect collapse symbol into reality and elevate patriotism to a civil religion. It's a grand old flag, but it must never be lifted higher than the cross. There is an ultimate price to pay for profaning that which is holy. But if we leave the blasphemers to God, we must leave the flag-burners too.

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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