Flag-Burning and Other American Activities

Americans are passionate about their flag and their anthem. Like any good American, I would argue that this is at least in small part to the unique beauty of American symbols. Yes, many nations are proud of their flag, but google the flags of the world and you’ll find a collection of tri-colored banners with little design to commend them. Stitched in the cauldron of war by the legendary Betsy Ross, our flag is endowed with meaning, and has remarkably managed to morph to reflect a changing of America while retaining its initial significance (thirteen stars have become 50, but the stripes remain an ode to our origins). The primary colors are stunning, and the stars on a field of blue reflect the peace of the night sky.

The anthem, similarly, is unique, as an oracle of war, a frozen moment in a young nation’s past where the future seemed less than certain. But is the closing line of the Star-Spangled Banner any less appropriate today? The national anthem’s proud overtones conceal a sense of strain—a fear that in tomorrow’s light, the banner may not still be waving. The song calls on our hearts to ensure we’re doing all we can to not give up the banner.

So it’s no surprise that Americans are every bit as passionate about their symbols as other nations, and maybe more. This passion has led to the typical legislation seen in so many countries criminalizing destruction or disrespect of a national symbol. By the 1980s, 48 states and the Federal Government had passed legislation outlawing destruction or disrespect for the flag.

This led the Supreme Court to take up the question once and for all. In Johnson v. Texas, the Court was called upon to decide whether a Texas man’s conviction for publicly burning an American flag could stand. Was the burning of the American flag purely expressive conduct? Or was it something less like speech, and more like an action that could be criminalized?

Gregory Johnson (right) with his Lawyer
Gregory Johnson (right) with his Lawyer. By Joel Seidenstein (1944-2008) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
In a controversial 5-4 decision, the Court ruled that flag-burning is speech, that it cannot be criminalized, and that every American is entitled to anti-American views. Justice Brennan wrote, “The First Amendment literally forbids the abridgment only of ‘speech,’ but we have long recognized that its protection does not end at the spoken or written word.” Where conduct is “sufficiently imbued with elements of communication,” it is protected by the First Amendment.

Quoting prior decisions of the Court, Brennan continued: “[T]he flag salute is a form of utterance. Symbolism is a primitive but effective way of communicating ideas. The use of an emblem or flag to symbolize some system, idea, institution, or personality, is a shortcut from mind to mind. Causes and nations, political parties, lodges and ecclesiastical groups seek to knit the loyalty of their followings to a flag or banner, a color or design.”

Chief Justice Rehnquist dissented, arguing that the flag “is not simply another ‘idea’ or ‘point of view’ competing for recognition in the marketplace of ideas,” but is due an almost “mystical reverence” that transcends political views. Calling the flag “the one visible manifestation of 200 years of nationhood, Rehnquist concluded, “The Court decides [today] that the American flag is just another symbol, about which not only must opinions pro and con be tolerated, but for which the most minimal public respect may not be [required by law]. The government may conscript men into the Armed Forces where they must fight and perhaps die for the flag, but the government may not prohibit the public burning of the banner under which they fight.”

This decision came to my mind this weekend amid the curious events surrounding our national fall past-time. Colin Kaepernick’s “kneeling/sitting during the national anthem” protest has gone universal as the President furiously attempts to silence it. As NFL, MLB and NBA athletes join the movement, kneeling during the national anthem as a sign of protest against a nation that they say has failed, yet again, to live up to its creed of equality for all, the debate is reignited over whether an American should have the right to protest the most basic of American symbols.

The debate is messier than in Texas v. Johnson, however, because the government is not involved. Yes, the President is tweeting, but putting that aside for the moment, no government conduct is implicated. The First Amendment restrains only Congress in its text, although subsequent Supreme Court decisions have applied its restrictions against the entire Federal Government and later, against the states via the vague provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment. But here, the NFL could prohibit its players from kneeling during the anthem. Fans can stop watching their favorite team—as the President urges—and the First Amendment would not be violated.

But something feels wrong. Do we want a nation where a President wields his influence, not only over the Federal Government, but over popular culture as well? Should we have a country where the President tweets, the people follow, and the largest trade unions (the NFL) and most beloved companies (the teams) in America salute and jump on board? Should a public and prominent—if quiet—protest be silenced by the early morning edicts of a celebrity-in-chief?

This highlights an important point for our time. In an era where an otherwise-qualified quarterback can’t get a job because of his quiet demonstration, where Christians are boycotted for refusing to write messages against their will on cakes, where white supremacists are kicked off of Google and GoDaddy for expressing their views, where CEOs can be ousted from major companies because of their private political action, it is past time for us as a society to decide whether we really believe in Free Speech.

I say “Free Speech,” and not the First Amendment. Free Speech is bigger than the First Amendment. Free Speech is a social idea, not merely a political theory. It is the purest concept of tolerance—that I may vehemently disagree with what you say, but fight to the death for your right to say it. It is the attitude that brings local churches together to rebuild a mosque burned down by an arsonist, that finds a liberal school teacher encouraging a conservative student to publish his unpopular views in the school newspaper, that leads to intelligent conversations on twitter between opposing forces.

You may say that I’m a dreamer—but I’m not the only one.

As one of the greatest Supreme Court Justices of all time, Robert Jackson once wrote, “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.” West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette. Our petty social officials should be taught this same lesson. There is nothing more American than the right to be un-American, nothing more patriotic than believing that patriotism can’t be required of our fellow citizens, but only earned. There is nothing more beautiful than enduring our own internal revulsion at a protest we abhor—because in the soil of such revulsion, the Freedom of Speech flourishes.

Nothing in this article suggests that I approve of the protests. I don’t. I am entitled to my views—just as the protesters are—that America is still the best nation on earth, an imperfect society that still strives to be equitable, and despite all its ills, the least rocked by racial conflict of any similarly-diverse nation on the globe. But my disagreement with the content of the protests does not force me to disagree with the right to protest. I believe in a society where a sports figure should speak his mind, because I’m terrified of a nation where I’m not permitted to speak mine, whether in the workplace or anywhere else.

I’m proud to stand for our national anthem precisely because you’re allowed to ignore it. I don’t kneel with Colin Kaepernick because I don’t see my nation the way he does, but I stand with him because I believe in a nation where everyone has the right to speak their mind as boldly and offensively as they’d like.

Singleness: A Symbol of Christ

Marriage is a reflection of Christ and His Church. You know that, right? You’ve heard it a thousand times, and it’s true. What you might not have heard is that singleness is a reflection of Christ and His Glory.

Singleness as a Symbol of Christ
Photo by alyssaparkerphotography.com

I’ve been meditating on the themes of marriage as I prepare to marry the love of my life next month. The preparation for marriage brings Christ’s love into sharp focus. There is the careful presentation of our best selves to one another; the yearning and anticipation of union, of celebration among a happy throng; the desire for consummation, and the only physical act reserved by God to a specific time and setting in life. All of these contribute to a building sense of awe and excitement that reflect the excitement we feel waiting for our permanent union to the Infinite God.

Photo by alyssaparkerphotography.com

To consider that the excitement I feel about marrying Lena is only a fraction of the way that Christ feels about His Church—His imperfect, fighting Church—is a thought too difficult for words. To realize, further, that Christ wants me with greater passion than I love my bride is unfathomable. What is becoming a regular ritual serves as an example: Lena nervously confesses an insecurity that she thinks I won’t like; I smile, unable to fully communicate how insignificant—how non-existent—this fear is in comparison to how deeply I love her. It’s in this moment I realize that God feels the same way about me when I fear my own inadequacies will never measure up to Him.

Marriage is a broken symbol of a perfect union, a common-place reflection of an eternal and matchless beauty. Jesus Christ—God Himself—chose to love mankind. He is altogether different than us. His thoughts are not our thoughts, His ways, different than ours. Although we understand Him at an essential level, He is beyond our ability to comprehend. I can’t think of a better way to describe the relationship between a man and a woman.

 But I’m not here to write about marriage. You’ve heard all about how beautiful marriage is and how all believers should honor it. I don’t disagree with that. But I can’t end my twenty-nine years of singleness without leaving a word of encouragement to the singles in the Church today, a group that is often unintentionally ignored, or worse, intentionally condescended to.

What many believers who were married young don’t know is how accusatory the questions about singleness can become. A good-looking, godly young man may wrestle night and day against a combination of his own urges and our generation’s unparalleled access to sexual sin; he may face ridicule for passing up opportunities presented to him by willing offerors; he may lie awake nights fighting the images that polite society has presented to him. Yet when this victorious, godly young man enters the church building on Sunday morning looking for a moment of peace with God and communion with the saints, he is all too often met with the question, “Why aren’t you dating?” or worse, “You mean you don’t like any of the young ladies in this church/Bible study/Christian school?”

The beautiful, godly young woman may refuse to be influenced by the idle chatter of the chick-flick; she may ignore catcalls on the way to work, and deal with the awkward and inappropriate advances of boys who have never learned to be men. Yet when this triumphant champion walks into the church’s fellowship hall to worship, she is all-too-often reduced to answering the question, “So, any young men in your life?” as though her womanhood is not complete because she has not yet been introduced to her husband.

To be sure, these questions come from a mixture of well-meant curiosity, loving interest and a desire to help. But when they predominate the single person’s interactions in the Church—and I can tell you from personal experience, they often do—the single man or woman can be forgiven for forgetting that their singleness is not a sin.

On the contrary, however, singleness is a type of Christ’s glory. Godly singleness is the exemplification of profound self-control, of pruning the body’s desires to conform to holiness, of taking thoughts captive and cultivating a healthy view of things forbidden to the desirer. An under-hyped attribute of God is His profound self-control. As we have already learned from marriage, God’s longings are deeper than our own, His passions more profound. Yet His self-control is complete, even as He seeks to draw His people to Himself. He is a perfectly restrained engine of combusting desire, a burning inferno of limitless love and raging passion, matched only by His strength and self-restraint. What a profound reflection of this Being of Infinite Desire are the single man’s years of pure singleness. What a perfect sacrifice to the focused and unrelenting God are the young woman’s years of holy patience.

Thus, it is no surprise that singleness is the state in which Christ lived His whole earthly life, or in which Paul spent his life of ministry. Paul wished all men to remain as he was (1 Cor. 7:7). Christ reminded us that those who can accept the gift of singleness should do so (Matt. 19:12). And yet, both Christ and Paul emphasized, encouraged and glorified the pursuit of marriage.

How? Because both marriage and singleness are temporary—neither is eternal. The believer who dies in singleness enters a mystical unity with God and His Church. The believer who dies in marriage will enter into the same. The paradox of singleness is most profound precisely because it is temporary. Whether it is life-long or not, it is temporary.

Hence, Christian self-control is not Eastern self-denial. It is not a nihilistic refusal to enjoy what is good. For the Christian, singleness is both an affirmation of the glory of marriage and simultaneously an exercise in the attributes of God—patience, self-control, holiness.

Are you still single? Then may your singleness reflect the corporeal Christ, the Deity who became perfectly-restrained flesh so that His Spirit could be one with ours. May your singleness be a sacrifice to the Eternal Spirit who issues His invitation and patiently waits. May your singleness prepare you for the joy of the Father as He gives us to His Son for all eternity, for of this joy, your singleness and my marriage are only a faint shadow.