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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