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On this Flag Day, let us remember the flag is a symbol–a blend of colors and images representing the majesty of the American republic and the fertility of freedom. Let us remember that we can love an imperfect nation, that our flag represents a nation forever striving and yearning, and that the spirit of America is not found on fabric but in the souls of its citizens.
I have two daughters. Both are beautiful and brilliant. Both are lovely human beings. And because they are my own children, neither of them will ever read this column.
My oldest daughter — who is home for the summer from her freshman year of college — and I occupy such different political universes that we have settled into an amicable détente. She knows the lingo of the Left and comfortably wades in its cerebral pools of utopian progressivism. She knows that the two of us would probably never really see eye to eye on issues related to the flag, standing for the national anthem, or patriotism in general. We are better off watching old episodes of “Downton Abbey” together.
My younger daughter, on the other hand, is politically agnostic. She has no agenda or particular ideological bent. Politics rarely comes up in our conversations. Recently, however, she said something utterly fascinating about the flag salute, “I just wish it wasn’t an issue. I feel like I am making somebody angry no matter what I do. Stand. Sit. Someone is going to take it the wrong way.”
I agree with her. I wish it weren’t an issue, either. But how did we get to a place in our country where simply reciting the Pledge of Allegiance risks offense?
Of course, an essential element of our freedom-loving society is that fidelity, loyalty, and adoration of country cannot be proscribed from above, either by legal fiat or constitutional directive. In the landmark Supreme Court decision, West Virginia v. Barnette – coincidentally released on Flag Day 1943 – the great Justice Robert Jackson eloquently explained, “If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
I agree. But here’s the rub.
The United States is a nation committed to the principle of political and social pluralism — it’s explicit in Federalist No. 10, it’s implicit in the First Amendment, and it’s undeniable when one observes the rich mosaic of modern multicultural America. But in our zest to be different, to flout contrarianism with willful aplomb, we bump up against the fundamental problem of the American Experiment itself, which is the absence of a unifying mechanism of nationhood.
Americans aren’t united by loyalty to a crown. We don’t worship the same God. There is no official national language – as far back as 1780 John Adams presented a bill making English the official language and was roundly rejected because it was considered an affront to individual liberty. The richness of our racial and religious tapestry is second to none in world history, begging the central question – what is left to unite us?
Everyone celebrates the Pluribus without end. But what about the Unum?
This brings us to the American flag and my daughter’s observation.
The words of the flag salute are instructive. Most of us focus on the first sentence alone, “I pledge allegiance to the flag.”
In an era characterized by radical individualism and the proliferation of post-truth world-views, it’s not surprising that interpretation of the flag’s meaning is now considered a matter for each individual citizen to decide – some see freedom, some see oppression, and therefore some stand, some don’t.
But it is the second part of the sentence that is key, “and to the Republic for which it stands.”
Allegiance to “the republic” is essential because it is a form of secular piety that acts as a national adhesive, a plebiscitary yoking mechanism. Just as Christians believe in both the Old and New Testaments, we Americans also orient our civic faith on two pillars: the lyrical idealism of the Declaration of Independence and the unionism of the American Constitution. Again and again, Lincoln stressed the need for Americans to bind themselves together through fidelity to these animating ideals. In the Gettysburg Address, he explained that nationhood is renewed through dedication to “a proposition,” and in the Lincoln Douglass debates he remarked, “I am nothing; Judge Douglas is nothing. But do not destroy that immortal emblem of Humanity – the Declaration of Independence.” In his First Inaugural Address, he appealed to “the mystic chords of memory.”
There are precious few symbols and sacrosanct customs in American civic life today in which the body politic does what Lincoln stressed must be done for a free and diverse society to thrive and perpetuate itself. If we are not united by a common commitment to justice as provided by the American republic, if we do not have any allegiance to the institutions of our civil society providing for the common good, then who are “We The People?” What “Unites” the states?
My daughter’s unease stems from the recent and parasitic notion that any reverence for the American flag is somehow a gesture of indifference to modern injustice. For many well-intentioned Americans today, refusing to honor the flag is not a well-informed protest, but instead a form of aggrievement by proxy, a general sense that large swathes of the country are fundamentally mistreated by design and with intent.
On this Flag Day let us remember that a flag is a symbol, a blend of colors and images that represents the majesty of the American republic and the fertility of freedom. Let us remember that a good and meaningful life requires the wise and judicious exercise of this God-given freedom. And most of all, let us remember that we can love an imperfect nation, that our flag represents a nation forever striving and yearning, and that the spirit of America is not found on fabric but in the souls of its citizens.
Jeremy S. Adams is the author of the recently-released Amazon best-selling book Hollowed Out: A Warning About America’s Next Generation. He has taught American civics for 24 years in Bakersfield, California, and was the 2014 California Teacher of the Year (DAR). You can follow him on Twitter @JeremyAdams6.
The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.