Living in a Post-Patriotic America
The Board of Trustees of Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., ordered the U.S. flag on campus lowered to half-staff in the wake of the presidential election “to acknowledge the grief and pain experienced by so many.” The school’s president explained that lowering the flag was supposed to promote “meaningful and respectful dialogue.” The school then decided to take the flag down because—unsurprisingly—lowering the flag in reaction to a presidential election did nothing to promote respectful dialogue. The school’s leaders are now considering “how we fly the flag going forward.”
Where to begin?
First, in a nation of many colors and creeds, the flag is one of the few symbols that unite us to something bigger than—something beyond—ourselves. Symbols like the flag and civic rituals like voting on Election Day and standing for the National Anthem remind us, in some small way, that we are connected by something more than our iPhones, Twitter, and Facebook. That’s important in this increasingly-balkanized, narrowcast nation.
Speaking of voting, anyone who has visited this site in recent months knows that I had concerns about both major-party candidates in 2016 (see here, here, and here). Hence, I did not cast my ballot for either. In 26 years of voting, I have been on the losing side more often than not. Even so, I understand—and always have understood—that the election of a president is never reason to lower the American flag to half-staff. The American flag should be lowered only as a sign of national mourning.
As USA Today reports, President Obama has earned the “unenviable” distinction of issuing more orders to the lower the nation’s flag to half-staff than any president in history. The passing of several political figures and government officials during President Obama’s terms in office has contributed to the high number of half-staff proclamations, the paper notes, as have “a spate of national tragedies—from the Fort Hood shooting that claimed 13 lives in 2009 to the most recent carnage in Orlando.”
Indeed, presidents have ordered the flag lowered to half-staff after natural disasters and man-made chaos, after the loss of astronauts reaching for space and the loss of soldiers fighting for civilization, after a day of infamy in 1941 and “a day of fire” in 2001. Presidents do so to remind the nation that there is a time to mourn.
Regardless of the message some cocooned group of academics—“always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth”—is trying to send, the election of a president is the very opposite of such a time. The peaceful transfer of power from one president to another, from one party to another—the bloodless revolution that occurs every four or eight years in America—is something to celebrate.
It has been this way for Americans from the very beginning. So revered was Washington that he could have been president for life or some sort of benign military monarch. But by resisting the temptation to amass personal power and surrendering his office, Washington made it clear to his successors and his countrymen that no president is bigger than the republic.
Just as Washington set lasting precedents in how he left office, Jefferson set lasting precedents in how he entered office. Jefferson’s election marked the nation’s first transfer of power from one party to another. It was a peaceful transfer of power, but that was anything but inevitable. The election was bitterly fought, and the outcome was uncertain for weeks. During the long stalemate, there was talk among Jefferson’s opponents of transferring presidential authority to a Senate designee or leaving the office vacant. There were even fears of civil unrest. But Jefferson calmed his supporters and patiently waited for the system to work. After dozens of ballots, a majority of House delegations chose him to lead the nation. “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists,” he said poignantly in his inaugural address, thus laying the foundation for a political system where winners are not coronated like kings and losers are not treated like conquered foes.
Americans don’t delay presidential elections or extend presidential terms because of world wars or civil wars or electoral stalemates. The election is held; the people decide, each state playing its part in our federal system; the winner is determined through the rule of law; and the immense power of the American presidency is transferred without gunshots or recriminations or emergency declarations. Look around the world and scan the history books; this is rare and precious and wondrous—and yet commonplace for Americans.
Second, the incident at Hampshire College is only the latest example of the confused and scrambled view of America that dominates our college campuses. To be sure, the university is where dissent and critical thinking should be encouraged. But there’s a sad irony at play on today’s campuses: Criticism of leftist dogma is seldom tolerated—let alone encouraged—on most campuses. Instead, in these self-styled bastions of open-mindedness and free exchange, deviation from the standard leftist position—moral equivalency, secularism, progressive politics, statist economics, anti-Americanism—is shouted down.
Consider the reaction to the 2016 election: Students at American University torched American flags and chanted “F— white America!” Students at St. Mary’s College in Maryland tore up an American flag and flew it at half-mast. At UCLA, a mob of angry students burned a Donald Trump piñata. The University of Michigan-Flint sent emails “to console the campus community about the election and let students know where to find counseling and other resources.” The Washington Post reports that “At many schools, Trump supporters had said they stayed ‘closeted’ because the mood on campus was so vehemently against him.”
This is simply not how Americans should react to an election. As historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests, our eagerness “to question all values” has undermined “our faith in and our determination to defend certain values.” Surely, two of those bedrock values are civil political discourse and respect for the political process.
Great and Good
Not long ago, in a preview of what Hampshire College did, the Goshen College Board of Directors decided to ban “The Star Spangled Banner.” In the school’s view, the National Anthem is—suddenly— “inconsistent” with the school’s values. A statement from the Mennonite school in rural Indiana explained that the board of trustees wanted an alternative that “resonates with Goshen College’s core values and respects the views of diverse constituencies.” “Mennonites,” added one Goshen student, “appreciate America but also don’t want to have that violence.”
As a matter of fact, “The Star Spangled Banner” is not about violence or war. It’s about freedom and peace. Just read Francis Scott Key’s poem.
“Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming?” Key was asking if the flag was still flying—and more specifically, if his country was still free. After all, his homeland was under attack. He saw Washington set ablaze. He saw “the bombs bursting in air.” And when he learned that “our flag” was “still there,” he was overjoyed, as the stanzas that follow reveal. “Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam, in full glory reflected now shines in the stream: ‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!”
To be sure, Key penned the poem after a battle. And we can gather from context that he didn’t view war as the enemy. But neither was he glorifying war or violence. In fact, he was celebrating his freedom and his country’s independence from an enemy that brought “the havoc of war” to America’s shores.
In other words, it may not mean much to those who confuse moral relativism for wisdom, but freedom isn’t preserved by protest marches, flag burning, international treaties, UN resolutions, or academic lectures. It’s preserved by warriors. As Key knew firsthand—and as they have proven repeatedly in the intervening centuries—America’s warriors are not enemies of peace.
In fact, it’s America’s military—America’s security umbrella—that has kept the peace, enabled the spread of free government, and prevented great-power conflict since World War II. That’s one reason why so many of us are alarmed by the bipartisan gamble known as sequestration, which has shrunk the reach, role, and resources of civilization’s first responder and last line of defense.
Goshen and Hampshire have a right to slide down the slippery slope of moral relativism. That’s one of the many great things about America: college kids, senior citizens, professors, students, trustees, voters, columnists have a right to be wrong. But free speech does not give anyone the right to say or to do things free of consequence. Those of us who disagree with these schools have the right to point out how utterly misguided and unequivocally wrong their views and actions are.
Thankfully, not everyone has succumbed to this post-patriotic pandemic. Consider what happens on autumn Saturday afternoons at Purdue University, where they take a very different stance when it comes to civic rituals like the anthem and symbols like the flag.
In 1966, amid the tumult surrounding Vietnam, a local newspaper publisher encouraged Purdue University’s band director to promote patriotism among the student body. The band director responded with these simple words, which would be “spoken over an arrangement of ‘America the Beautiful’” during the next home football game:
I am an American. That’s the way most of us put it, just matter-of-factly. They are plain words, those four: you could write them on your thumbnail, or sweep them across a bright autumn sky. But remember too, that they are more than just words. They are a way of life. So whenever you speak them, speak them firmly, speak them proudly, speak them gratefully. I am an American!
After the tribute was presented before a national TV audience during the 1967 Rose Bowl, “I Am an American” became a permanent pregame football tradition at Purdue. Almost five decades later, Purdue fans and visiting fans alike are invited to rise and read the words of “I Am an American” during the pre-kickoff festivities of every home game—festivities which also include “The Star Spangled Banner” and the American flag flying at full staff. When the crowd roars those last four words, it’s a reminder that America is a great and good nation—no matter what college kids are being taught, no matter who wins on Election Day.
As people of faith and Americans (in that order) we should care about this.
To be sure, we must never put our country ahead of our faith. As Paul reminds us, “Our citizenship is in heaven.” Even so, Paul describes us as “Christ’s ambassadors.” Yes, that means we are living in a foreign land. But to extend Paul’s metaphor, it also means this country is our diplomatic posting. This piece of earth matters enough to heaven that God has placed us here to “seek the welfare of the city where we are exiled, and pray to the Lord on its behalf,” as Jeremiah instructed.
We might be inspired by the words of theologian Richard John Neuhaus, a proud American and bold Christian who was called to his eternal home in 2009. “When I meet God,” he concluded, “I expect to meet him as an American. Admittedly, that is a statement that can easily be misunderstood. It is not intended as a boast or as a claim on God’s favorable judgment. It is a simple statement of fact. Among all the things I am or have been or hope to be, I am undeniably an American. It is not the most important thing, but it is an inescapable thing.”
Neuhaus recognized, as his biographer Randy Boyagoda has written, that “every Christian is first and always a citizen of what Augustine called the heavenly and eternal City of God…that this citizenship informs how he lives in this fallen, mortal world, the City of Man” and that “God is not indifferent to the American Experiment.”
If God cares about the American Experiment, so should we.
Photo Credit: Screenshot of a WWLP news report on veterans protesting the removal of the American flag at Hampshire College.