June 14 often passes largely unnoticed. Nonetheless, it is an important day. It is National Flag Day! Did you know that the use of flags as a symbol dates back to the Zhou dynasty in China (1046-256 BCE)? Did you know that on June 14, 1877, the Stars and Stripes was officially accepted as our national flag? And did you know that the idea of an annual day specifically celebrating our flag is believed to have first originated in 1885?
A teacher in Wisconsin (and later a dentist) by the name of Bernard J. Cigrand, arranged for the pupils in the Fredonia, Wis. Public School, District 6, to observe June 14 as "Flag Birthday." In many newspaper articles and magazines as well as in public addresses over the following years, he continued enthusiastically to endorse and advocate for the observance of June 14 as "Flag Birthday" or "Flag Day."
As often happens, however, it took many decades of various types of celebrations in diverse parts of our country before it was officially recognized. It was President Woodrow Wilson who issued a proclamation declaring it Flag Day on May 30, 1916. After that, Flag Day was celebrated in many communities throughout the USA for years, even though it had not been officially designated as Flag Day by an Act of Congress. It was finally on Aug. 3, 1949, that President Harry S. Truman signed an Act of Congress designating June 14 of each year as National Flag Day.
But what Montaigne (1553-1592) said remains true, namely, that "there never were in the world two opinions alike, no more than two hairs or two grains; the most universal quality is diversity." And surely there is diversity of opinion about how we are to treat our flag and whether we are required to stand in its presence or salute it or pledge allegiance to it.
As President Herbert Hoover said, however, "honest difference of views and honest debate are not disunity. They are the vital process of policy among free men."
So for some good citizens among us, some of the most harmful things in this world and in our country seem to come in shades of red, white and blue. And it is true that in 243 years of independence, the United States has often fallen short of its values and ideals. Nonetheless, it is those values and ideals that our flag symbolizes or embodies, not our failure to live up to them.
Showing respect to our flag is not to proclaim that America can do no wrong, but to believe in its great capacity to do right. A very important part of that "capacity to do right" is to recognize and affirm that it is also a fundamental American value and ideal (see the First Amendment to our Constitution) to speak out when those values have been violated. We are often confronted with the question of whether we stand with our governmental policies or take our stand as the loyal opposition. Certainly, it is always our country, but that does not mean we are to go along with what is wrong. As Albert Camus (1913-1960), the noted philosopher, said, "I should be able to love my country and still love justice."
On Flag Day we remember that we are a government "of, by, and for the people," as Abraham Lincoln said. That means that policies are debated in the public forum as well as in the halls of Congress. To deny differences of opinion and to brand some as unpatriotic is to squelch the very behavior by which democracy lives and breathes. So pledge to the flag or salute the flag if your patriotic spirit calls you to do so, or don't if your patriotic spirit calls you not to. Why? Because we can't be compelled to do either.
That's been true since 1943, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette that individuals couldn't be forced to salute the U.S. flag or say the pledge because doing so would violate their First Amendment rights.
"If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein," Justice Robert Jackson wrote in
the majority opinion.
Or as Justice Brennan said, "we do not consecrate the flag by punishing its desecration, for in doing so, we dilute the freedom this cherished emblem represents." A good closing thought on Flag Day.