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States of Exception

To the Flag

Gabby Douglas, in what my daughter tells me is a “bodycon” dress, took the stage at the Democratic National Convention on Wednesday. The young members of the color guard composed their faces, while the gold medalist shone with the excitement of the moment. She placed her hand on her heart and spoke the words, “I pledge allegiance to the flag—“

“She’s going too fast,” Lucy interrupted. She is 17 and knows how things ought to be done. Public speaking has a proper pace.

She broke through my silent murmur of the familiar words.

Truthfully, I get a little thrill whenever I say the Pledge.

This is a bit of a guilty confession. I’m a progressive Christian pastor. My true loyalties lie elsewhere. I don’t confuse my national identity with my faith commitment. I laugh at those Bibles with American flags on the cover. I groan when I enter a sanctuary and find the flag beside the altar.

But in the right setting, I love those words, and I love the flag.

When I was a little girl growing up in Virginia, we displayed the flag every day, unless the weather was bad. My daddy would get the flag out of its overnight home, the Chinese umbrella stand in the vestibule, and take it to the front porch. I would follow, climbing onto the cast iron bench to help hang it. I knew to bring it inside at night, to never fly it in the rain, that an old or torn flag should be properly burned or buried. I remember the shape of the holder, the heaviness of the staff and the heft of the fabric. Flags were cotton then, and they felt like something.

It’s a spectacle of patriotism for these two weeks, each political party showing as many flags as possible, presented by young soldiers or waved by delegates or displayed on giant screens. And although the Democrats seem to have a fair number of rainbow flags in the hall, the dominant color scheme is red, white and blue. They are the team colors for everyone.

In that Virginia childhood, my little brother and I wore a lot of red, white and blue. My mother told me later she dressed us that way because she could always find a pair of socks or a sweater to match, but I saw it differently. I was on the team with my flag. My daddy was a state legislator, and when he ran for the U.S. Senate in 1966, we had a big map of the state on the wall in our dining room, with red pins in the places he visited. We wore buttons with our own last name on them, white buttons with the letters in red or blue.

The other important place in my life was the Baptist Church on Court Street, where I learned stories about Jesus, and carried a candle in the Christmas pageant. During the week I went to preschool and kindergarten there. We had juice and cookies. We pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. At home I told Bible stories on my flannel-graph. At night I said my prayers. God bless Daddy and Mommy and all the rest, I murmured, hands folded, eyes closed tight.

“God Bless America,” they say at the conventions, almost to a wo/man. If they don’t say it, people wonder why they don’t want God to do it. It’s the proof of citizenship, the assurance that the speaker is Christiamerican.

I like to think I’m reasonably evolved, a person with nuanced understandings, a mature faith and a realistic perspective. I’ve worked hard to disentangle the overlapping rituals of prayer and pledge, to clarify my separate identities as Christian and American. I don’t see America as being God’s Special Country, but I like to think our foundational precepts of freedom can allow Christians to live into the fullness of Christ’s call upon us to love God and neighbor and to care particularly for those most in need. I can be proud of my citizenship without loving everything my country does, just as I can be passionate about my faith without loving everything the church does.

I’m as reluctant to surrender the flag to Republicans as I am to relinquish the Bible to fundamentalists.

Jimmy Brown, in a flannel shirt, lay in his smoky bedroom, dying too slowly. Depressed and confused, he became suddenly focused on the conversation when another visitor asked if I had seen his pride and joy, a big flag flying outside the house. Here, I thought, was something we could talk about safely. My presence as pastor seemed only to agitate him; he was angry with God. Maybe a nice talk about our shared love would ease the situation.

I rhapsodized, relieved to have some common ground at the foot of the flagpole. Words flowed from my mouth. I was going too fast, saying something about observing the rules for care of the flag, when I suddenly realized the flag in which he takes such pride is enormous and made of nylon and never comes down or inside, but is also not lit at night.

“I think it’s more important to fly the flag at all times,” he said.

I am 51 and know how things ought to be done.

I stopped my talking and listened to him.

Maybe what I really love about the flag is the time in my life it evokes. The world made sense on the front porch with my daddy, before I knew about Viet Nam, before Watergate, before Reagonomics or the Clinton scandal or 9/11 or the war in Iraq. My little world made sense. The flag came in at night. We rolled it carefully around the staff and put it back in the umbrella stand, sheltered like a living thing in need of our care.


Martha Spong is a Contributing Editor to There is Power in the Blog. She is a United Church of Christ minister and blogs at Reflectionary and Huffington Post Religion.

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