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The Sacred, the Profane & Old Glory: Getting It Exactly Wrong on the Flag

It’s hard to choose the nastiest among the many nastier aspects of a June 22 House vote against flag “desecration.” As a minister, I am interested in that word desecration because I cannot recall when the American flag was first made into a holy or sacred object -- when it was. That old flag is grand, yes. Beautiful, yes. Venerable, yes. But not.
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It’s hard to choose the nastiest among the many nastier aspects of a June 22 House vote against flag “desecration.” House Republicans had no trouble finding the requisite number of scaredy-pants Democrats to rack up 286 “ayes” for their bill -- eight more than the two-thirds margin needed to move a constitutional amendment that would overturn the Supreme Court’s most recent (1989) affirmation of a First Amendment right to burn the American flag. On the Senate side, it is by no means clear this time around that the weakened Democrats will hold their caucus together and deprive the flagophiles of their chance to send this abominable amendment to the state legislatures.

On the nastiness scale, we can start with the obvious House jab at candyass courts that still bother with such niceties as free expression. Don’t the “black robes” (De Lay) know there’s a war on? Add to that the vitriol poured on those House members who dared challenge the wisdom of the only constitutional amendment ever proposed to curtail First Amendment freedoms. But for a nadir in nastiness, let us not forget that the main sponsor of the flag bill is none other than San Diego’s Randy “Duke” Cunningham -- yes, he of the sweetest private home sale ever recorded: to a defense contractor from Cunningham’s district who paid Duke the full asking price sight unseen, only to dump the house eight months later for about half the purchase price. This same contractor also takes very good care of Cunningham while the congressman is in Washington, letting Ol’ Dukie bunk down for free on a luxurious 42-foot yacht. All these goodies for Cunningham come at taxpayer expense, inasmuch as the contractor -- one Mitchell Wade -- improved his take of public money by $25 million in just one year while assiduously catering to the needs of superpatriot Duke Cunningham.

“Have they no shame?” is a question that simply does not apply in today’s Washington, so let’s not even ask it. Let us turn instead to the language of Duke’s amendment: “The Congress shall have power to prohibit the physical desecration of the flag of the United States.”

As a minister, I am interested in that word desecration because I cannot recall when the American flag was first made into a holy or sacred object -— when it was sanctified. That old flag is grand, yes. Beautiful, yes. Venerable, yes. But not sacred. Not in this country, where, in the darkest days of World War II, Justice Robert Jackson wrote an eloquent statement for the Supreme Court on why the freedom the flag symbolizes must include the right to treat the flag itself as a mere symbol, not as a holy object. It was the Nazis -- our enemies in 1943 -- who sacralized their swastika and who outlawed its desecration. We knew better.

But to me, legislating against flag “desecration” is religiously obnoxious for another reason. This legislation expresses the very worst in bad religion -- the very worst in a domesticated empire -- loving Christianity that freely merges the flag with the cross in weepy transports of messianic nationalism.

This is a Christianity that went bad in the first place by holding out the myth of Original Innocence to White Americans. Original Innocence makes righteousness easy, even automatic. It’s a great concept. It means that we Chosen Ones are freed of any guilt for extracting our early material “greatness” from the unrequited toil of enslaved Africans; nor can we ever be guilty of shedding the innocent blood of Native Americans, Mexicans, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Haitians, Dominicans, Panamanians, Vietnamese, or Iraqis in our pursuit of empire; nor can we ever be guilty of greedily gobbling up the world’s natural resources while turning our backs on the world’s poorest.

We can never be guilty of anything, really, because God has anointed us and established us as a City Upon a Hill -- a veritable light unto the Gentiles.

When this kind of bad religion sloshes around the halls of Congress, it becomes not just unpatriotic but blasphemous to speak of the Republic’s actual conduct as opposed to America’s preferred image of its conduct as ever more pure and righteous altogether. Rest assured that it will be the theocrats -- the Christianists -- both within and without the Congress who will be the first to burn any blasphemer in holy fire.

This is what happened to Sen. Dick Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, when in a rare Congressional moment of genuine patriotism, he reported to his fellow senators what an FBI report had already confirmed regarding the particulars of approved procedures in effect at Guantanamo -- detainees chained in their own excrement, etc. For this blasphemy the Senate’s theocrats and paladins of Original Innocence caned Durbin to the ground. After two days of relentless pounding, Durbin was forced to apologize -- shamed and hounded to apologize -- for besmirching the Congressional record with such calumnies and apostasies as these. And never mind that all Durbin had said was that he regretted that his country could do such things and he regretted how claiming the legal and moral right to do such things allows people to make comparisons between today’s American and the Soviet gulag or Pol Pot’s regime or even Hitler’s Germany. (As I write, the New York Times is reporting that American physicians have been “assisting” in the Guantanamo torture -- this report paired with another assertion by Cheney that the Guantanamo center is a comfy tropical paradise.)

While Durbin was being pilloried on the Senate floor, his office was being buried under 48,000 e-mails from God-fearing members of the Family Research Council in one day -- an avalanche that actually took his e-mail system down. Dick Durbin is a practicing Roman Catholic, a moderate, hardly a flag burner or disparager of This Great Nation Of Ours. But these days moderation isn’t good enough -- not when messianic nationalism swings its terrible swift sword through the air.

We can always know that we are in a real scoundrel time -- that criminals are in charge and that criminal acts are being committed in high places -- whenever religious devotion is summoned to aid of country and citizens are asked to genuflect before a national flag. And the scoundrelly stuff is just beginning. Superpatriot Christianists won’t be content to pass a flag desecration amendment; they are already well on their way to “proving” that their entire project represents merely a restoration of what the Founders intended: a Christian Nation in which faith-based hiring discrimination, mandatory prayer in public schools, the purging of school curricula, textbooks, and faculties, and direct taxpayer support for Christian sectarian activity are all perfectly legal and proper.

Nothing can shame them. God is on their side. But as Mr. Lincoln pointed out, such zealots always fail to ask themselves the more interesting question -- whether they are on God’s side. Any real patriot imbued with genuine religious instinct will see at once that no amount of red, white, and blue wrapping can conceal the spiritual wickedness that lies at the very heart of today’s American Enterprise.

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