The American Flag is a Religious Symbol

The American Flag is a Religious Symbol January 19, 2021

Is a secular ritual comparable to a religious ritual? Can we equate national symbols like flags and parades to religious symbols? This video argues: “yes.” The American flag functions like a sacred symbol in American public life today. But the history of the American flag in American history is a little more complicated than just a straightforward story about symbolism and reverence. The US flag wasn’t always seen as a sacred symbol. Its symbolic significance developed over the centuries, as did an accompanying array of rituals and practices associated with the flag. 

Today, the American flag is understood widely as an important ritual item. We saw this when controversy erupted around football players kneeling during the national anthem. It’s language that was made explicit in the 1989 US Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson, where the Supreme Court ruled that harming or desecrating the flag is to be considered protected speech. The language the justices used in issuing this opinion showcases just how deeply important they understood the flag to be. The US Supreme Court opinion in this case references the American flag as the symbolic embodiment of the nation, and notes how many Americans regarded it with ‘almost mystical’ reverence. 

When did this almost mystical reverence become part of American daily life? Towards the end of the 1800s, we see increasing initiatives around instilling patriotism in American citizens, including saluting the flag and early versions of having American schoolchildren pledge allegiance to the flag in the morning. These civil rituals became important in making the flag a sacred symbol.

Watch this video to learn more!

This episode was co-written by Dr. David McConeghy, scholar of religion in the United States. You can follow him on Twitter @dmcconeghy. If you want to read more, check out these resources for further reading: 

Benjamin Zeller, https://religiondispatches.org/why-ka…

Brian Britt, “Taking a Knee as Critical Civil Religion,” https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightin…

Leah Pannell, https://religiondispatches.org/americ…

Religion For Breakfast launched as a video series in 2014, and now has over 200,000 subscribers on YouTube and over 7 million views. It is commonly used as an education tool in the classroom. Written and produced by religion scholar Andrew Henry, Religion For Breakfast covers a wide range of introductory videos on religion and religious practices around the world, from the rise of Christianity to the role of Japanese religion in the development of Pokemon, to the world of myth and apocryphal literature.

About Andrew Henry
Andrew M. Henry has a PhD from the Graduate Division of Religious Studies at Boston University specializing in Ancient Christianity. Andrew’s research focuses on magical ritual in the late antique Mediterranean with a particular interest in the material evidence of these practices such as ritual space, “magical” artifact assemblages, amulets, and apotropaic inscriptions. You can read more about the author here.

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13 responses to “The American Flag is a Religious Symbol”

  1. No…It definitely is not…Some people in this country may view it incorrectly as such, but it isn’t…The fact that some far right “Christians” worship it and American Nationalism over God just proves how out of alignment with reality some people are…That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t treat it with respect or acknowledge those that have given their life for our country, but semantically speaking it is not a religious symbol and should not be worshipped (worshipping a flag even if you claim it’s for idealistic reasons is still a form of idolatry)…

  2. If it is a religious symbol as claimed; to which religion do we assign it to. I agree with all those above.

  3. The popular attitude towards the flag shares something with popular attitudes to religion: they are both non-rational, i.e. deeply emotional responses.

    The point of having a deep, emotional response to the flag is to enforce a non-rational response to the nation-state. There are rational reasons to support one’s own nation-state, just as there are rational reasons to support one’s own bowling club: both are collective entities that can benefit the individual. But the bowling club doesn’t exist in an environment where lethal conflicts are possible with other clubs. The nation-state does. A purely instrumental attitude to the state on the part of its citizens will not be able to call forth from them the sacrifices which may be necessary in war. Thus the necessity of “patriotism”, of which honoring the flag is just an aspect.

    Any serious movement which seeks to elicit more than just self-interested support from its followers will invest its symbols with emotional content: thus the Red Flag, and the hammer and sickle.

    Patriotism in the US plays another role: the US is NOT a ‘nation-state’. It is made up of multiple ‘nations’, an inherently unstable situation. (The Orwellian slogan “Diversity is strength” could only be believed by someone who knows zero about the rest of the world, and the terrible conflicts that frequently occur in multi-tribal states.)

    Thus American patriotism is a kind of social glue which aims to hold diverse tribes together. It is the only practical “anti-racism”. Anyone who doubts this should watch the YouTube videos of the Patriot Bikers — Proud Boys on wheels — escorting the ashes of a deceased Black Marine from California to his home in South Carolina. American flags everywhere, and God help any Klansmen or AntiFa flag-burners who would show up to protest.

    As the US slides into Number Two place in the world, and simultaneously rots from within, we will see more and more assaults on patriotism and the flag, from those who aspire to membership of the globalizing elite, showing how cool they are.

    A slight hiatus in this phenomenon has occured, to allow people without any patriotic sentiment whatsoever, to appropriate this title as a political weapon against Trump supporters. Not terribly convincing, coming as it does from the same people who recently honored atomic spy Ethyl Rosenberg, but in a war you shouldn’t spurn even the least effective extra weapon. And their friends know that these people’s protestations of patriotism are as phoney as Obama’s and Clinton’s stances against gay marriage not so long. A ‘noble lie’.

  4. It must be, there is a posting on Patheos that’s Titled “The American flag is a religious symbol”. Lets see as I look to the left of this leave a reply, k I see VR goggles for sale on Bangood. The posting title on Patheos is not ” FPV Drone goggles is a religious symbol”. Although I can purchase huge number of American flags including dozens of flag themed items from an overseas Amazon. Hmmm that magic box to the left of this comment section what is that? I can purchase a flag from that magical box, in any form I want it to be. I might need to get a pickup truck so i can get that vinyl sticker with the flag designed for pickups, and purchase the proper suit to get the lapel pin and in general festoon my life with the red white and blue all for sale on Bangood btw!

  5. Here’s a little window into the perspective of “original Americans”, who built the greatest civilization ever, from Laura Ingalls Wilder. (Dakota territories in the 1870s)

    A Fourth of July celebration that was a religious service, of a sort, by men with the law written on their hearts. A farmer/settler selected as master of ceremonies: “Well boys, I’m not much good at public speaking, but today is the glorious fourth. This is the day and date when our forefathers cut loose from the despots of Europe…(S)o here we are today, every man Jack of us a free and independent citizen of God’s country, the only country on earth were men are free and independent.” Etc.

    The reading of the Declaration of Independence came next with hats off. “Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course, but it gave them a solemn, glorious feeling to hear the words”.

    Then the song: My Country ‘Tis Of Thee. Here is Laura at approximately the age of 14: suddenly she had a completely new thought. The declaration and the song came together in her mind and she thought: God is America’s king. Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought. This is what it means to be free… the laws of nature and of nature’s God endow you with the right to life and liberty… you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you the right to be free.

    Laura intuitively understood that to have maximum freedom, without the Hobbesian world of anarchy, depended upon man’s voluntary internalization of the rule of law, which is what the Christian faith provided.

    No need for an elite political class of philosopher-kings, with a sense of entitlement to rule because of their smartness and Scholastic achievement in substitution of wisdom: that three-dimensional depth perception that has accumulated culturally and provides a framework of each succeeding generation to maintain the greatest civilization ever.

    That’s what the flag represented to those people, and it still does to traditional Americans.

  6. Never have the common and ordinary people lived in such prosperity and freedom in America as we do now. Not even close. It wasn’t much more than 200 years ago that all of the common masses lived under $500 per capita annually and living under capricious and autocratic rule.

    Now, try this thought experiment: imagine different areas of our country should there be a massive solar flare of such a size that knocks out the grid, communication, and mobility. What areas of our country would erupt into massive chaos versus the other areas of our country capable of rebuilding community in the same tradition of “original Americans”?

  7. The British like their flag, but they also have the royal family, changing of the guard, a thousand years of history, to represent their country. We have only the flag, and it carries the weight of everything

  8. Perhaps you have to be a foreigner to appreciate the truth of this little piece. It struck me (as a Brit) with huge force when I first came over there: I have visited no other country where the national flag is so visible, and the school ritual of reverencing the flag felt almost blasphemous (especially as prayer isn’t allowed: in Britain you can lead prayer at a school assembly but you wouldn’t expect to see a flag). In the UK, the Right have tried to identify the Union Jack with their nasty values but with only limited success. Any flag declares the importance of national identity, but for Christians that can never be paramount. I’m pleased enough to be English, heartily glad I’m not American, not now, but I do not worship my country, which has many shortcomings, nor its flag as its symbol.

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