What Do You Know About Flags?
IF YOU were to stand in front of the United Nations building in New York city you would see 128 multicolored flags waving in the breeze. One is the UN flag, and the 127 other flags represent the member nations of this international body. Their presence in front of the UN indicates the important role flags play in this world.
When a national flag flies over a ship, a building or a piece of territory, it symbolizes the presence of the nation represented by it. At the time Great Britain possessed colonies all around the earth, her presence in these territories was represented by the colorful British flag known as the Union Jack. It showed that the territories belonged to Great Britain.
More recently astronauts implanted the United States flag on the moon, not to indicate territorial claims, but to show that this nation had succeeded in reaching the moon. So a flag has come to be a symbol of a nation, and its design often conveys a certain meaning. This no doubt is true of the flag of the nation of which you are a citizen.
Many persons with strong nationalistic feelings become emotional about their flag. A woman who heads a patriotic organization in the United States was quoted by Newsweek magazine as saying: “When I place my right hand over my heart as that glorious American flag passes by I feel very near to God.” Rear Admiral Robert Peary, who took the American flag on man’s first expedition to the North Pole, is reported by his daughter to have regarded the flag as having “a certain sacred symbolism.”
Manifesting this reverence for the United States flag is the growing demand for flags that have flown over the capitol in Washington, D.C. It is a traditional practice for congressmen to make special gifts of such flags to constituents. To meet the demand for such flags three additional flagpoles have had to be erected and a crew of four men assigned to raising and lowering extra flags. Each flag flies for about ten seconds. Reporting on this, a news magazine of June 1970 said: “So far this year, in a way reminiscent of medals blessed by the Pope, 10,599 flags have been raised, lowered and packed off to the citizenry.”
To a nationalistic person his national flag is more than just a piece of cloth with a distinguishing design. He views it as something special that must be given great respect. Note how the United States law code regarding the flag reflects this feeling. “The flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. . . . The flag should never touch anything beneath it, such as the ground, the floor, water, or merchandise.”
Background of National Flags
Did you know that historical works trace national flags back to the standards used by armies of ancient peoples such as the Egyptians, Persians and Romans? This is noted by The Encyclopedia Americana in its edition of 1969: “Fighting men of ancient times rallied to banners and standards that were symbols having some relationship to the modern idea of flags.”
Going back as far as the ancient Egyptians in tracing the history of flags, The Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, observes on page 454 of volume 10:
“From their carvings and paintings, supplemented by ancient writers, it appears that several companies of the Egyptian army had their own particular standards. These were formed of such objects as, there is reason to believe, were associated in the minds of the men with feelings of awe and devotion. Sacred animals, boats, emblems or figures, a tablet bearing a king’s name, fan- and feather-shaped symbols, were raised on the end of a staff as standards, and the office of bearing them was looked upon as one of peculiar privilege and honour.”
About the ancient Persians, this same encyclopedia says in its edition of 1946, volume 9, page 343:
“The Persians bore an eagle fixed to the end of a lance, and the sun, as their divinity, was also represented upon their standards, which appear to have been formed of some kind of textile, and were guarded with the greatest jealousy by the bravest men of the army.”
Note what this encyclopedia observes regarding the Roman standards:
“The Roman standards were guarded with religious veneration in the temples of Rome. It was not unusual for a general to order a standard to be cast into the ranks of the enemy, to add zeal to the onset of his soldiers by exciting them to recover what to them was perhaps the most sacred thing the earth possessed.”
Thus it can be seen that the forerunners to modern national flags often were religious in nature. The feeling that some people have toward their national flag today is no doubt a carry-over of the feeling manifested by these ancient peoples.
The religious background of modern-day national flags is clearly demonstrated by the Union Jack. It is a combination of three religious crosses—the cross of St. George, the cross of St. Andrew and the cross of St. Patrick. These were the patron saints of England, Scotland and Ireland, and the uniting of these kingdoms into the kingdom of Great Britain is represented by the uniting of these three religious crosses on the flag.
Pointing out how a national flag is often handled with reverence, the book The Flags of the World by F. Edward Hulme makes the following interesting comparison on page three:
“The Roman standards were guarded with religious veneration in the temples of the metropolis and of the chief cities of the Empire, and modern practice has followed herein the ancient precedent. . . . At the presentation of colours to a regiment a solemn service of prayer and praise is held, and when these colours return in honour, shot-rent from victorious conflict, they are reverently placed in stately abbey, venerable cathedral, or parish church, never more to issue from the peace and rest of the home of God until by lapse of years they crumble into indistinguishable dust.”
Are Flags Worshiped Today?
We have seen that ancient-peoples gave religious worship to their standards, the forerunners of modern-day flags. Do you think people today do the same? There are those who sincerely believe they do.
The book Essays on Nationalism by Carlton J. H. Hayes observes on page 107:
“Nationalism’s chief symbol of faith and central object of worship is the flag, and curious liturgical forms have been devised for ‘saluting’ the flag, for ‘dipping’ the flag, for ‘lowering’ the flag, and for ‘hoisting’ the flag. Men bare their heads when the flag passes by; and in praise of the flag poets write odes and children sing hymns. In America young people are ranged in serried rows and required to recite daily, with hierophantic voice and ritualistic gesture, the mystical formula. . . .”
He then quotes the pledge of allegiance. Thus this author views flag ceremonies as a form of worship. So also does the Scottish Professor Denis Brogan of Cambridge University, who says on page 359 of the book The Religious Situation: 1968:
“The civic religion has its rituals. There are many, but one . . . is the ritual of flag worship.”
On the same subject the Finnish writer Arvo Viklund states with respect to the Finnish flag:
“So when we understand what values even our blue cross flag hides in its folds, then our averse attitude towards it must also change to become worship of the flag, which directs its holy anger towards all those who dare to underestimate or offend the most precious symbol of our nation.”
To some people it may seem that these writers are drawing an extreme view. They personally may not regard themselves as engaging in flag worship. But if their actions during a flag ceremony were viewed for the first time by a native from the Amazon jungles, what do you think he would conclude? Would it not seem to him that people standing at attention with faces uplifted to a flag and with arms extended toward it or placed upon their hearts while repeating a memorized formula are worshiping it?
Obedience to Conscience
In the colonial days of America the Puritans objected to the British flag because of its red cross of St. George. According to The Encyclopædia Britannica, they did this, “not from any disloyalty to the mother country, but from a conscientious objection to what they deemed an idolatrous symbol.”
There are Christians today who feel similarly regarding national flags. They are Jehovah’s witnesses. Their position is the same the world over. Being keenly aware of the Scriptural command to “flee from idolatry,” they decline to participate in flag ceremonies.—1 Cor. 10:14.
Their position is comparable to that taken by Christians of the first century of our Common Era. Because of conscience, those early Christians refused to burn incense to Caesar, who, to the Romans, was not only a ruler but a god. Note what is said about this on page 137 of the first volume of the book A History of Civilization by Brinton, Christopher and Wolff:
“To hold this motley collection of peoples in a common allegiance, to give them something like a national flag as a symbol of this unity, the emperor was deified. . . . Simple rites of sacrifice to him were added to local religions and local rites. . . . The Christians, however, were as rigorous monotheists as the Jews; they could not sacrifice to the emperor any more than the Jews of old could sacrifice to Baal. . . . The true Christian, then, could not bring himself to make what to an outsider was merely a decent gesture, like raising one’s hat today when the flag goes by in a parade.”
Because Jehovah’s witnesses have been obedient to their religious conscience in this matter they have been sorely mistreated in a number of countries. In the United States it was necessary for them to fight two court cases clear to the Supreme Court before getting a decision that protected their right of religious freedom.
The first case involved the town of Minersville, Pennsylvania, and its school board, which expelled children of Jehovah’s witnesses for refusing to participate in flag ceremonies. In this case the Supreme Court ruled against the Witnesses. Regarding the case, Professor Denis Brogan states:
“The absurd and odious decision of the Minersville School Board meant that the children of Jehovah’s Witnesses were punished for not performing an act that not only their parents but the Jews of the time of the Maccabees and the Christians of the time of Trajan would also have thought idolatrous.”
Three years later, in 1943, the Supreme Court reversed itself in the second flag case involving Jehovah’s witnesses. Justice Jackson, when delivering the majority opinion of the Court, said:
“The Witnesses are an unincorporated body teaching that the obligation imposed by law of God is superior to that of laws enacted by temporal government. Their religious beliefs include a literal version of Exodus, Chapter 20, verses 4 and 5 which says: ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them.’ They consider that the flag is an ‘image’ within this command. For this reason they refuse to salute it. . . .
“But the refusal of these persons to participate in the ceremony does not interfere with or deny rights of others to do so. Nor is there any question in this case that their behavior is peaceable and orderly. . . . To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. . . .
“We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which it is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution to reserve from all official control.”
If a country has a constitution that guarantees freedom of worship, that freedom is not only for the majority, but also for a minority whose conscience does not permit them to participate in popular ceremonies. Constitutional guarantees are worthless if they protect only those who conform to the viewpoint of the majority or to those in power.
Justices Black and Douglas wrote a concurring opinion to the majority opinion of the Supreme Court, saying:
“Words uttered under coercion are proof of loyalty to nothing but self-interest. . . . Neither our domestic tranquillity in peace nor our martial effort in war depend on compelling little children to participate in a ceremony which ends in nothing for them but a fear of spiritual condemnation.”
Regarding the court battles fought by Jehovah’s witnesses for freedom of worship, the book Fundamental Liberties of a Free People by Milton Konvitz observes on page 110: “It is to them that we owe credit for the decision of the Supreme Court that an expression of belief or sentiment may not be coerced.”
While the conscience of some people has never troubled them about participating in a flag ceremony, should that make them feel intolerant toward someone whose conscience prevents him from engaging in it? If one’s flag represents religious liberty, why not grant to others such liberty? Why not respect their conscience instead of viewing them suspiciously as being disloyal?
Some of the flags flying outside the UN building represent nations whose rulers do not believe in liberty for their people, and they persecute persons whose religious conscience prevents them from conforming with the majority in patriotic expressions. It may be that a person who feels strongly against such authoritarian rule is proud that his flag stands for a free country. Should not he, then, be willing to grant religious liberty to people who, for religious reasons, cannot salute a flag? Would not intolerance on his part put him in the same camp as those nations whose authoritarian rule he abhors?
So the next time you look at a national flag think of its colorful background in ancient history. Consider what it stands for and how some persons view the ceremonies that may be associated with it. Show consideration for their conscience just as you want others to show consideration for yours.