Fun with the U.S. Flag Code

Fun with the U.S. Flag Code December 12, 2009

For anyone who might have doubts about the religious character of u.s. civil religion — ever read the flag code?

§176. Respect for flag.
(j) The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.

If this excerpt does not represent an explicit sacramentology of signs becoming what they signify, I don’t know what does.

A couple other fun facts from the same section:

(d) The flag should never be used as wearing apparel, bedding, or drapery.
(i) The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever.

(d) is frequently broken by your Aunt Wilma who breaks out her “Go u.s.a.” t-shirt on various national feast days.

(i) is frequently broken by Jimmy’s Used Cars or your local liquor store nearly every day.

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  • I think the only way you can characterize religious is if you expand religious to a point where it means respect for any thing.

  • If you could please add the words “that as” to the sentence above I would be much obliged. 🙂

  • Wow!

    I wonder if the flag code covers the liturgies involved in its care. I wonder if they mimic the procedures for handling a consecrated host.

  • ES

    There are two books, one pretty famous, the other not so much (as far as I can tell) that deal with the creation of communities in the modern world: Anderson’s Imagined Communities has become classic, but Michael Taussig’s Defacement looks at how people react to the symbols of these imagined communities and how it serves state interests to criminalize their exposure as constructs by employing them in art (i.e. their defacements). He also investigates how these symbols call forth desires of exposure. I think that Taussig does a good job of showing that such things flow more from the logic of the role imagination must play in forming a state than in actual worship of it, which I know you aren’t claiming here, but has recently been suggested.

    I’d also recommend Taussig’s The Magic of the State (sometimes called an inverted Anderson), The Nervous System, and most recently What Color is the Sacred?

  • I think your reading of d) doesn’t reflect how it’s usually interpreted, which is that a flag should not be cut up and turned into an article of clothing, used as a blanket, or used as a curtain.

    Having a picture of a flag on a shirt is not what they’re talking about.

    You’re certainly welcome to see it as religious observance if you want — though it’s pretty much in keeping with the sort of behavior which people have had towards state, family or organizational symbols in other times and places throughout history.

  • Zach and Darwin –

    Perhaps you missed the part that says that the flag “is itself considered a living thing.”

    The religiosity of american views of the flag is obvious to just about everyone else in the world.

    ES, thanks for the references. I’ve read a bit of the Anderson book. On the religiosity of american civil religion, the honoring/worship of soldiers and the honoring/worship of the flag, I recommend Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle’s Blood Sacrifice and the Nation.

  • Tom

    In full, 36 USC 176(j) reads, “No part of the flag should ever be used as a costume or athletic uniform. However, a flag patch may be affixed to the uniform of military personnel, firemen, policemen, and members of patriotic organizations. The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing. Therefore, the lapel flag pin being a replica, should be worn on the left lapel near the heart.”

    This seems to be the only mention in the U.S. Code of the flag being “considered a living thing,” and the only thing that follows from considering the flag to be a “living thing” is that lapel flag pins are to be worn on the left lapel.

    As odd as that “living thing” phrase is, assertions of “explicit sacramentality” miss the mark. A U.S. flag signifies the United States, but it is not the United States, even according to the U.S. Code.

  • A U.S. flag signifies the United States, but it is not the United States, even according to the U.S. Code.

    But this is exactly what I said above: That it “represents” the united states (but it is not the united states). Nevertheless, the flag, in black in white, is said to be considered a living thing. I’m sorry, but this is problematic. Your concern that this is only mentioned once in the flag code (I’m not sure if it is only mentioned once) is irrelevant. The statement is there.

  • Tom

    Nevertheless, the flag, in black in white, is said to be considered a living thing.

    Yes, a living thing. Not the living country, the thing it represents, which is what specifies a sign as a sacrament. Whatever it means to say a flag is considered a living thing, it doesn’t mean a flag is considered a sacrament.

    My concern that it is (if it is) only mentioned once is not irrelevant to the non-self-evident question of what it means that the U.S. flag is considered a living thing, since where it is mentioned provides a context for interpreting that claim. And as I’ve pointed out, the only context supplied, the only “therefore” the Code specifies that follows, is that a lapel flag pin be worn “next to the heart.” Anything else, any other “therefore,” is someone else’s interpretation of the Code, not what the Code itself says.

    Nor is it irrelevant to broader claims about a U.S. civil religion. As you point out yourself, no one follows the Flag Code (and just forget about it when there are two or three flagpoles), so a single obscure and puzzling statement can hardly be asserted as received doctrine.

  • Tom – I don’t think you are taking the two parts of the sentence seriously enough, nor are you seeing them as connected. I’m not saying that the sacramentology of the flag is precisely identical to orthodox Catholic teaching on transubstantiation. But what the flag represents and the fact that it too is considered a living thing are obviously connected in the thinking of whoever wrote the flag code.

    I also don’t think you are taking seriously the extent to which these ideas have been received. Americans don’t typically say explicitly that the flag is a living thing, but they certainly treat it like one. And as my wife pointed out when she read these passages, the flag seems to have more rights than certain groups of americans (i.e. human beings) do.

    Also, aside from the sacramentology going on here, in what sense is it okay for the flag code to insist that the flag is a “living thing” in any way whatsoever ?

  • “Also, aside from the sacramentology going on here, in what sense is it okay for the flag code to insist that the flag is a “living thing” in any way whatsoever ?”

    In the sense that the country is land alive with people, to the extent that the flag represents this reality.

    The flag code is not part of U.S. law ( I do not think – it’s still legal to burn the flag ), so technically the flag has as many rights as the unborn: none. Although it certainly receives more respect than the unborn. This is a great tragedy and an insult to our nation’s Founding principles.

  • In the sense that the country is land alive with people, to the extent that the flag represents this reality.

    Once again, the flag is said to represent the nation, and beyond this, it is also considered a living thing. Not “to the extent that” anything. It is considered a living thing. Period. How is this an acceptable idea? The fact that many americans would not explicitly agree with it is not really relevant. It is on the books, an official statement of the united states. The flag is a living thing.

    Although it certainly receives more respect than the unborn. This is a great tragedy and an insult to our nation’s Founding principles.

    It receives more respect than a lot of human beings, including the unborn. I’m glad you denounce this fact as I do.

    The fact that it receives more respect than various groups of people is in fact a sign of the religious character of the flag for americans. I’m surprised that you cannot, or refuse to, see this.

  • Gerald A. Naus

    Die Fahne hoch, die Reihen fest geschlossen! (The flag held high, the ranks firmly closed) US jingoism never ceases to remind me of Nazi Germany, the “sacred” nature of flag/country/duty/honor, you name it.

    Don’t forget that one also pledges allegiance to the flag. The whole pomp and circumstance definitely has liturgical aspects and goals. Why’d a pastor choose to put this “competition” into the sanctuary beats me.

  • Tom

    But what the flag represents and the fact that it too is considered a living thing are obviously connected in the thinking of whoever wrote the flag code.

    Agreed, but the connection is not a sacramental one.

    You are right, though, that I don’t take the sentence particularly seriously. I don’t even know what it means — beyond lapel pin location — to consider the flag a living thing. You keep implying that this is self-evidently fraught, but I can’t at all see what it is supposed to be fraught with.

    Americans don’t typically say explicitly that the flag is a living thing, but they certainly treat it like one.

    This is contrary to my own experience and observation.

    The flag is a living thing.

    That’s not what the code says, though, is it?

    • This is contrary to my own experience and observation.

      I once saw the lead singer of a punk band take a crap on the flag during a show. How do you think that would go over in public?

      That’s not what the code says, though, is it?

      That is in fact what it says.

  • Tom

    I once saw the lead singer of a punk band take a crap on the flag during a show. How do you think that would go over in public?

    This assumes that to treat something with respect is to treat it as a living thing.

    Either the assumption is false, in which case the crappy singer thought experiment proves nothing; or it’s true, in which case your objections to “considered a living thing” are vitiated, since the phrase can’t be shown to mean any more than “is to be shown respect [and worn on the left lapel when on a pin],” and the problem then shifts to whether this or that show of respect is excessive.

    That is in fact what it says.

    Read it again. You can’t just ignore words and expect to keep the meaning. In this case, “considered” doesn’t mean “is.”

    What the sentence does is to assert a particular (and, admittedly, peculiar) notional analogy between the flag and the country. The country is “living” according to the manner in which countries are said to live, and the flag is considered to be “living” according to the manner in which a flag could be considered to live.

    If you want to define a “sacrament” according to the U.S. civil religion’s sacramentology to be “a sign that notionally assumes a quality analogous to a quality of the thing signified,” then I suppose you have the proof text to support it, though I don’t think you can do much with that definition that can’t be countered with, “So?”

  • I once saw the lead singer of a punk band take a crap on the flag during a show. How do you think that would go over in public?

    Taking a crap in public does not usually go over well, with or without a flag involved. It’s generally regarded to be indecent.

    To me, having wiped kids asses and changed diapers for years now, it’s simply amusing to see a punk try to shock people in an unshockable society. It’s funny also, Michael, that you contrast “during a [live] show” with “in public”. These kind of crapping antics can go on only in a setting with such a minuscule audience that it might as well be in private, preaching to a choir.

    I will say this, though, about protest methods, that pooping always struck me as much more artsy than hunger strikes. Plus you can get animals to do it which is sort of a bonus.

    My favorite story from the gospels is when Jesus asked to see a coin with Caesar on it and then threw it down and crapped on it. Or something like that.

  • Taking a crap in public does not usually go over well, with or without a flag involved. It’s generally regarded to be indecent.

    If you don’t think doing this on a flag would result in an infinitely higher degree of outrage, you’re nuts.

    It’s funny also, Michael, that you contrast “during a [live] show” with “in public”. These kind of crapping antics can go on only in a setting with such a minuscule audience that it might as well be in private, preaching to a choir.

    How many punk shows have you attended in West Virginia? A lot of people were pissed off about it. As you might know, for a lot of “punk rockers” punk is simply a style of music or a set of clothing fashions and they want nothing to do with punk rock’s anarchistic politics. Nazi punks have been known to come to shows from time to time. It’s hardly “preaching to the choir.”

    I will say this, though, about protest methods, that pooping always struck me as much more artsy than hunger strikes.

    Absolutely.

  • Nazi punks have been known to come to shows from time to time. It’s hardly “preaching to the choir.”

    Oh, yeah, I’m sure Nazi’s would be really upset about defecation on the American flag.

    The most amusing thing to me about punks is their utter incoherence and inability to act and express themselves in a normal, mature way, whether it be in relation to politics or personal hygiene.