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Whenever the national anthem is played or sung before a game I am attending, I stand and face the flag until the anthem is over. (If it happens to be a baseball game, I also take off my Cleveland Indians cap.) I am not, I have to admit, one of those who sing along, but I have never thought of that as a necessary element in the ritual.

Although there are lots of places where I do not like to see the flag displayed—most especially in Christian churches, but also on shirts, hats, pillows—I see no reason why the flag should not be flown at a sports arena. But were I given my choice and the authority to enforce that choice, I would also see to it that the anthem was never played before any sporting event. One benefit of such a policy is obvious. We would be liberated from the need to attend respectfully to some very bad renditions of the anthem—including most especially those by well-known entertainers who seem to think that what matters is not the anthem but the performer. Moreover, if the NFL dispensed with the playing of the anthem before its games, we could also confine ourselves to wondering whether Colin Kaepernick is still good enough to play quarterback on an NFL team (indeed, we could find out whether he actually wants to), and we could dispense with reflections on his political views or President Trump’s predictable response. More importantly, we could stop acting as if a baseball or football game is a significant patriotic occasion.

When the anthem is used routinely, it is, it seems to me, misused, and the flag no longer performs its rightful function. Forget sports for a moment and think about what it means to “fly the flag.” In his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy, C. S. Lewis recounts the story of his conversion first to theism and eventually to Christianity. “As soon as I became a Theist,” he writes, “I started attending my parish church on Sundays and my college chapel on weekdays . . . because I thought one ought to ‘fly one’s flag’ by some unmistakable overt sign.” His churchgoing at that time was, he says, “entirely symbolical.”

But not insignificant. For it conveyed a sense of shared commitment. However much he still disliked most of what happened in those services (the bells, the crowds, the singing), by attending he was affirming that he had cast his lot with those other (very different) people who also believed at least in God’s existence. However much they differed in other ways, they did not differ on that most basic commitment. Hence, he had to fly the flag.

Something like that, I think, is what citizens of this country should mean when we stand respectfully for the flag and anthem. Doing so signifies simply that, whatever our differences on other matters both small and great, we acknowledge our shared history (both the good and the bad, in all its ambiguity), and we affirm our common bond of citizenship. Like Lewis beside his fellow believers belting out hymns he disliked, we are stuck with each other. In defense of that shared bond some of our ancestors and contemporaries have risked their lives and in many cases given what Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion.”

Lincoln spoke those words after one of the most decisive—and bloody—battles of the Civil War, a war fought to determine whether the states of the union would fly one flag. Lincoln also, of course, characterized that moment as one of “unfinished work.” In the most obvious sense he meant simply that the war had not yet ended. Clearly, however, our civic work has turned out to be unfinished in a sense he could hardly have anticipated. More than a century and a half later, though much has changed and though our political disagreements are many, it is the uneasy relation between black and white Americans that makes it most difficult for all of us together to fly the flag.

A testimony to that lasting uneasiness is the continued desire of some to fly another national flag—namely, the Confederate flag, even though the would-be “nation” that it represented no longer exists. If we ask how exactly one can simultaneously honor that flag and the flag of the United States, the answer is by no means obvious. We will be told—and no doubt there is something to this—that the Confederate flag no longer signifies allegiance to an alternative government or a pro-slavery “foreign” power. Rather, it signifies simply a sense of place and history, memory of a way of life and of one’s ancestors. Along with all those important elements in human life there is also, of course, something of the myth of the noble Lost Cause that honors the memory of Robert E. Lee but not that of Ulysses S. Grant.

Whatever there is to be said for the Confederate flag, it remains the symbol of a foreign power and cannot signify that we are one united people, whatever our differences. However much it may call to mind for some the virtues of the Old South, it cannot affirm a history we all share. Only the flag of the United States can signify that.

Even when we honor the flag that symbolizes our shared history, we should not forget the lesson Augustine taught in his City of God. Like every nation, the United States is drawn by the lure of a City undimmed by human tears—and is dominated by the lust for domination. In respecting the flag, then, we should not honor the stain of slavery and prejudice, the attack on Hiroshima, or the enormous numbers of fetuses in the womb destroyed. But we can and should honor the flag of a country willing to admit that it has not completed the unfinished work that has been with us from the start. Even if we cannot always agree about how to manage that, honoring the flag together signifies a determination to be united in our disagreement.

Or, at least, it once did. Now, however, the flag has become not a symbol of unity (even amidst disagreement) but a battleground. Those who insist on kneeling when the flag is displayed say they mean no disrespect for it but do so simply in order to protest continuing injustice—our failure, or even unwillingness, to complete the unfinished work of which Lincoln spoke. There is no reason not to take them at their word, but, nonetheless, the flag becomes a symbol of disunity rather than a unity large enough and important enough to encompass disagreement. In response, of course, others insist on standing to honor the flag, even ostentatiously so. And standing to respect the flag now becomes a political gesture of opposition, perhaps even hostility—not a unity that embraces continued disagreement. No one really wants to sing the words George M. Cohan wrote of the flag: “forever in peace may you wave.”

We cannot turn the flag into a symbol of unity simply by insisting that it is; symbols just don’t work that way. Peace is the one thing that flying it does not seem to produce. So let’s fly it and hear the anthem together on fewer, and clearly national, occasions—perhaps the Fourth of July and Memorial Day. By doing so we can at least attempt to make it not a battleground but a symbol of our shared civic bond. 

Lincoln famously concluded his First Inaugural by appealing to “the better angels of our nature.” There have been occasions in recent years when we might easily have wondered whether such angels are little more than a flight of fancy. But if we really want as one people, the United States, to “fly the flag,” we will have to be willing to find a way to symbolize that unity and to say, as Lincoln also did on that occasion: “We are not enemies, but friends.”

Gilbert Meilaender is Senior Research Professor at Valparaiso University.

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