You’re a grand old flag
You’re a high-flying flag
And forever in peace may you wave
You’re the emblem of
The land I love
The home of the free and the brave…

George M. Cohan

During Memorial Day weekend, I visited a veterans’ cemetery on a Native American Indian reservation and participated in a small-town remembrance ceremony. American flags, old and new, adorned both.

At the Main Street Memorial Day ceremony, a few dozen spectators observed as grizzled veterans from the Korean and Vietnam Wars raised and lowered the American flag to a soundtrack of pre-recorded patriotic music and passing traffic. The heat was such that the honor guard was wilting, but despite the need to lean against a World War I monument to make it through the short ceremony, those veterans were careful to not allow the US flag to touch the ground.

Photo Courtesy of Eric Patterson

A few miles away lay a dusty veterans’ cemetery, located in the heart of the reservation. There was neither grass nor shade. But most graves had colorful fake flowers, and many had small American flags tucked at their edges. I was struck by sites where families had erected flagpoles to raise the national emblem as well as the appropriate service flag. I watched as the desert breeze unfurled the American and Marine Corps flags over the grave of a Vietnam veteran. I saw graves going back to World War I, just a generation after the end of the frontier wars. The American flag was ubiquitous.

On June 14, Americans recognize Flag Day. It is not a holiday, but it is a day honoring the establishment of our nation’s most visible and moving symbol on June 14, 1777: the “Red, White, and Blue.” We’ve honored the flag on this day since a presidential proclamation by Woodrow Wilson during the First World War. Why does the flag matter? Should Christians be worried that venerating the flag is somehow idolatrous? Should we join those who want to deconstruct America, whether by the highly fictional 1619 Project or various “critical” and neo-Marxist theories, and actively seek to desecrate American symbols?

The flag, very simply, embodies the virtues and aspirations of the people of the United States of America. The white stars represent the states, just as the original 13 stars represented the original 13 colonies, and thus represent both diversity and union. The colors represent valor (red), purity (white), and perseverance (blue), certainly aspirations that are worthy of our consideration and emulation.

Honoring the flag—by displaying it, treating it with respect, and amplifying its positive symbolic value—is an appropriate act of patriotism. Too often, in recent days, there have been worries that respecting the good in American history and ideals is somehow a form of idolatrous, chauvinistic hyper-nationalism. This is wrong.

Photo Courtesy of Eric Patterson

C.S. Lewis reminds us in The Four Loves about the proper role and limits of patriotism. He cautions against the “revolutionary idealism,” masked as patriotism, that characterized the Nazis, Soviets, and others. The revolutionaries of his day, whether ideological or “racialist,” were willing to wage “wars of annihilation” because they had a superiority complex that, according to them, gave them carte blanche to remake the world in ways that benefited themselves. Lewis would have recognized the same violent chauvinism in groups like ISIS, Boko Haram, and Burma’s military junta today.

Lewis argues that true patriotism is something different and a positive thing in society. One type of patriotism is a genuine love for one’s home and community and a respect for others because they likely feel the same way about their own country. The proud Texan can love America while affirming that many French, Japanese, and Israelis feel the same way about their own nations.

Lewis went on to say that patriotism expresses a set of lessons: “The past is felt both to impose an obligation and to hold out an assurance… [from] our fathers.” He calls it our “saga,” which includes veneration of the good while being cleareyed about the bad. In the American case, that saga is all the good of the Founding era—the powerful ideas and institutions associated with the Declaration of Independence and Constitution—as well as the painful, persistent advance of fundamental rights and freedoms over the past two centuries.

We, as Christians, have been placed by a sovereign God into this world in a specific place and time. This world is our temporary home. Too often we emphasize the “temporary,” forgetting that this is the “home” that God created and called “good.” Despite the Fall, there remains much good, and it is here that we are bound to family, neighbors, and fellow citizens in enduring bonds of relationship and obligation. For me, and most of Providence’s readers, our home is the United States of America, represented by a tricolor flag of stars and stripes.

When we demonstrate respect for the American flag, we make a decision. We are deciding to be good stewards of the lessons and ideals of the past. We honor the sacrifice of those who have safeguarded our civil and political rights, whether in uniform or not. We humbly, and with gratitude, thank God for the benefits that we have enjoyed in this land. We honor a real country, with all its promises and flaws, rather than bow to an idealized vision of Babel. We salute our own country’s flag without denigrating the identities and aspirations of other nations. We transmit values found in the Bill of Rights and the sacrifices of our heroes—George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr.—to our children and grandchildren. We live out an element of the Golden Rule through the obligations of society and citizenship.

If the American flag spurs us to patriotic actions such as these, then we should accept George M. Cohan’s final charge: “Keep your eyes on that grand old flag!”