JANUARY 28, 2002
-- Martin E. Marty
Commentators have begun to assess the new phase of responses to terrorism. One hears and reads in many places stories matching what Jon Steinman noticed in his recent article "Enthusiasm Wanes for Flags" (Chicago Tribune, 24 January). Flags have been seen in superabundance since September 11. Whether they represent simple patriotism, complex nationalism, suspect chauvinism, or iconic civil religion, flags have been ubiquitous. Hard to avoid as peddled on street corners, necessary to duck as they got waved in the grandstands, used as measures of loyalty among the suspicious, decorating bikini bottoms at worst and front porches at best, the red-white-and-blue symbol was a commercial and spiritual success.
Now, as Steinman quotes James Crawford, a senior in Orlando who speaks for many, "It was like a fad." Vicki Varney, co-manager of Flag World there found sales slumping drastically after Christmas: "Everyone was gung-ho to have a flag, but now the flag craze is over. It was a jump-on-the-bandwagon, I guess." Crawford again: "I think it was a phase people were going through. People are trying to get back to normal."
Of course, you can't market an item when there is a glut, and the fad-craze-bandwagon-phase produced such a glut. But Steinman reports on how faded, frayed, flapped, shredded, and ready for the incinerator so many flags became, so this should be replacement time. It hasn't been. Steinman finds wise persons-on-the-street in his case-study city of Orlando. "You can love your country without flying a flag."
What does this have to do with sighting religion? Some would say that the flag is simply the symbol of civil, public, national religion, and for many it may be. We have been interested in listening in among religious reporters and noting controversy over the flag in sanctuaries. Few issues do more to divide congregations more readily than do debates over whether the flag belongs. Of course, it belonged in days of empire -- look at the beflagged cathedrals of the imperial nations and their subject outposts. Of course, it belonged in years of church establishment. Of course, with proper explanation it can have its place in season and out of season, in war time and peace time.
Yet many observe that the flag rouses far more emotion than any religious symbol, be it the Cross, the Star of David, or others. You can debate the presence or absence of a cross, a crucifix, or other symbols in the chapel and not lose tempers or members. Now is a better time -- with the flag craze past, and our measures of patriotism again expanded beyond flag-flying -- to debate the role of symbols, especially of that meaningful national one, in contexts usually reserved for explicitly and particularly religious representations.