I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

American marketeers have promoted many “national days,” from Mother’s Day (second Sunday in May, to sell Mother’s Day cards and flowers) to National Donut Day (June 3) and Speak Like a Pirate Day (September 19). Among these, one important, congressionally recognized day is often overlooked: Flag Day (June 14).

Christians ought to carefully think about Flag Day, both in terms of symbols and in terms of citizenship. The prolific Christian author G.K. Chesterton wrote about the importance of national monuments, patriotism, and national symbols. At the end of World War I, Chesterton criticized—in ways that foreshadowed later work by C.S. Lewis and Christian Realists such as Reinhold Niebuhr—those who wanted to junk patriotic pride and symbols, such as flags, anthems, and accents, in favor of peaceful international homogeneity. Chesterton celebrated the authentic differences that kept England English, kept France French, and kept America American. The main reason for Chesterton’s position, beyond a personal affinity for England being the land of English people and English customs, was his sincere conviction that people must have some sense of pride in some clod of dirt to claim their humanity.[1] He wrote, in response to H.G. Wells’s proposition for world peace via international governance and bland cosmopolitan citizenship, “Now nearly all normal men have in fact received their civilization through their citizenship; and to lose their past would be to lose their link with mankind.”[2]

Perhaps the most compelling symbol of citizenship is a nation’s flag. Chesterton wrote about the potency of the flag as a patriotic icon in his fiction and his non-fiction. One example comes from the futuristic novel The Napoleon of Notting Hill, published in 1904. One of the novel’s characters is the former president of Nicaragua, who comes to a bland, authoritarian London in 1984. On the power of his nation and its national colors (red and yellow), the president of Nicaragua opines:

Can you not understand the ancient sanctity of colours? The Church has her symbolic colours. And think of what colours mean to us—think of the position of one like myself, who can see nothing but those two colours, nothing but the red and the yellow. To me all shapes are equal, all common and noble things are in a democracy of combination. Wherever there is a field of marigolds and the red cloak of an old woman, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a field of poppies and a yellow patch of sand, there is Nicaragua. Wherever there is a lemon and a red sunset, there is my country. Wherever I see a red pillar-box and a yellow sunset, there my heart beats. Blood and a splash of mustard can be my heraldry. If there be yellow mud and red mud in the same ditch, it is better to me than white stars.

Patriotic citizens instinctively understand what he is talking about. As of this writing, one hundred days have passed since Russia’s diabolical invasion of Ukraine. In that time, I’ve seen people in Europe and North America sporting lapel pins, badges, and ribbons with the colors of Ukraine’s flag (blue and gold). Those colors are not mere marketing ploys. They are iconic. Blue and gold represent the moral and spiritual dimensions of Ukraine’s heroic struggle against Russian aggression. We honor the resistance of Ukraine for its national sovereignty, and its national soul, by honoring the symbol of the colors.

A quarter century after The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Chesterton expounded on this symbolism by comparing the flags of England, France, and the United States. As far as color goes, all three flags are the same; they are all composed of red, white, and blue elements. Yet an American does not respond to the English flag as they would the American flag, and an Englishman does not respond to the French flag as they would the English flag. While the similarities exist, Chesterton explains, “The fact remains that what affects people in practice is not the tints they use but the pictures that they make. In this sense form is much more powerful than [color]. Men see a sign, an emblem, an object, before they see the polychrome elements that make it up.”[3] According to Chesterton, the colors and images are a sort of national poem.

Chesterton’s reflections remind us of the important symbolism of the American flag. The thirteen stripes remind us of the struggle that the thirteen colonies had in protecting themselves from the increasing tyranny of imperial England. The colors—red for valor, white for purity, and blue for justice and perseverance—remind us of sacrifice, noble intentions, and the ongoing struggle to live out the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The field of stars reminds us of unity—the Union—preciously held together during the dissension of the nineteenth century, a civil war, periods of regional injustice, and national growth.

As Christians, these reflections also remind us that our categories of sacrifice, neighbor-love, and justice all originate in God’s ordering of this world. We cannot recognize the moral worth of sacrifice and neighbor-love from Darwinian or other perspectives. Christianity gives us the moral framework for recognizing good and evil, even in a limited and fallen world. As G.K. Chesterton and, later, C.S. Lewis observed, God put us in political communities, and it is therefore right to have an appropriate love of country without making our culture or nation an idol. This Flag Day, consider these worthy virtues—valor, purity, justice, and perseverance—when you look at our flag. Have we become too worldly wise to feel pride in our flag and what it represents? Have we forgotten to be thankful for the sacrifice the flag represents? Flag Day can help restore our moral compass, our aspirations, and our sense of gratitude.

[1] G.K. Chesterton, “On the Open Conspiracy,” in Come to Think of It (London: Methuen & Co., 1930).

[2] Ibid.

[3] G.K. Chesterton, “On Flags,” in Generally Speaking (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1929).