Emmitsburg Council of Churches

Flag, Freedom and Faith

Father John J. Lombardi

It was a great Fourth of July Fireworks-Barbecue, courtesy of the David and Cyndi Paff family of Libertytown. It was an all American pastoral and fantastic day! There were dogs (frankfurters and canine species), a beautiful pond with swimmers and some going off a diving board, beef and chicken from the pit roast, country and western sounds, rockabilly and rock music playing loudly but not obtrusively, all kinds of people milling about, some who seemed slightly upscale, others country-like and the "average Joe and Mary" along with babies and children playing and running everywhere. Then the fireworks: glorious colors, blasts and flames of white and blue and purple and green, shining on for a half-hour, they impressed, pleased and inspired us all-especially and unexpectedly at a "private party"-it seemed like there were several "finales" of light-filled exuberance. Old Glory, the Red White and Blue American Flag was waving in the night from a nearby tall white pole. And no one tried to burn it.

This unique thought came later to this Grotto chaplain: Amidst all the "Americana" (mentioned above) which celebrates our beautiful land, oppositely, it's a right to burn the American flag these days, you know. A couple weeks ago the U.S. Congress just missed passing a law by one vote to outlaw burning Old Glory. Francis Scott Key grew up in the shadow of both Mary's Mountain and nearby our fireworks display, and at Ft McHenry Key penned the National Anthem. Now, think: We put our hands over our hearts to express devotion to our country at the playing of the National Anthem before ball-games and car races, and along comes a guy I saw recently in an interview saying that when he heard of the possibility of outlawing the burning of the flag, he went and burned one, supposedly because of his love of our "country's rights". Huh?! Tucker Carlson, the commentator, picking up on the libertarian-guy's agenda and illogical philosophy, said, wryly: So you show your love for our country by burning the flag? Should a person burn a Bible and thereby show love for it?

What does it mean to be an American, to be a Catholic in America and have and express freedom, and protect it? There are, of course, many answers to these questions across the spiritual-political spectrum, and this chaplain doesn't intend to exhaust them, but merely to meditate upon Faith, Freedom and our Flag

My simple, though overlooked first point is this: desecration is a term sometimes used to describe flag burning, although this term is probably politically incorrect these days, and not used but avoided. I recall growing up (at least trying to) as a child, and handling a flag at mom and pop's, and the seriousness with which we would never let it touch the ground, a "secular sin" we might have called it. We were taught to respect the flag, honor it, for we were venerating our country and all of its heroes who died for it. But think about it, that "old" term-desecration- which means to make profane, make sacrilegious, violate (American Heritage Dictionary). When you burn an American flag you make un-holy the symbol of our country and its people. Now we're told that its an "honor" and a "right" and a "love" to burn the flag. Amidst all this spin and sputter, just remember desecration means mockery.

Now, why does this Chaplin go on about all this--flags and Americana, for, this doesn't seem central to our Faith?. Well, actually, in our Religion, we Catholics are holistic. we are rooted, incarnated in an actual country, and we are taught that justice and patriotism are elements of our spirituality. Under the Fourth Commandment ("Honor your father and mother"-Deut. 5:16; Mk 7:10), The Catechism of the Catholic Church reads: "It is the duty of citizens to work with civil authority for building up society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity and freedom" (#2255). We Catholics can be both patriotic and faith-filled at the same time. Is it then an expression of justice and solidarity to burn a flag? Those who burn the American flag are perhaps trying to be prophetic, in some fashion or another. But we need other kinds of prophets today, and, in this Sunday's Gospel, Jesus says real prophets will be rejected.

I recently read of a prophetic guy in the New York Times (July 5), an article about (really celebrating) a black evangelical pastor in Memphis, Tennessee, who constructed, get this, a "Statue of Liberation thru Christ." The 95 foot statue shows a recognizable Lady liberty bearing the Ten Commandments in hand and "Jehovah" etched on her crown. The pastor, Apostle Alton R Williams said that Jesus is the foundation of our country, that many issues-homosexuality, poverty, black empowerment, legalized abortion-are solved by Jesus' Liberation. He also said many believers in our country, including black persons, do not connect faith and freedom, but should do so, and that the statue is indeed "a creative means of just really letting people know that God is the foundation of our nation." Though many disagreed with the new rendering of "Lady liberty" many agreed and found it refreshing, including this chaplain, and say "Amen" to the pastor-apostle's admonition of Christ-centered faith-answers to our country's ills-and glories.

Meanwhile, on The Fourth, I read of some anti-war persons expressing their "rights" by protesting various parades through our land. This indeed is a right-to protest and express opinion-but all may not agree with them. Rep John Murtha, a VietNam war veteran has been heralded as opponent to the war in Iraq and says we should get out. He is as American as the "Apostle" Williams above, but in a different way. With difference of opinion and expression of freedom always comes a divisiveness, so the question is: What is the best way to express patriotism? A couple days later I visited a neighbor, "Dave" who is on two-week leave from Iraq to visit his wife Mary and their four children. We sat underneath Mary's Mountain, and talked, drank iced-tea, even laughed heartily and spoke of his return to Iraq. He seemed very happy, sitting on the porch in his back yard that Summer day, to serve our country and to be at home. A paradox, I guess, like life. He is prophetic, in a way, that many soldiers of any war are, giving his life, even though married with children, so that others may enjoy freedoms. Still etched in my mind's eye is his gleeful smile. He reminds me of patriotism and sacrifice in a heroic way. I need to buckle up and thank God for my beautiful country and embrace sacrifice more like Dave.

If you think about it, though, our country is filled with paradoxes: We are a land that once institutionalized slavery and fought a bloody Civil War over it, and yet we variously and voluminously promote, and pride ourselves, in, freedom and equality. We are the most beautiful country in the world, from Yellowstone and Glacier Parks in the West to the elegant Chesapeake Bay in the East to Monument Valley in the Southwest, and yet we produce much pollution and garbage, psychical, spiritual and physical. We are country with some who push a separation of Church and state and yet we recall that the nation was founded upon God, from the Mayflower Compact to the Declaration of Independence to the Constitution and the speeches of George Washington (Farewell Address) to Lincoln (relying on Providence). Faith now seems attacked in the very land that gave it birth. We are in danger of becoming like Europe, where God is excluded from the European Charter and Union and birthrates are dangerously low and the previously Christ-centered culture is rejected as a past foundation. Is this the way of America? Burning the American Flag is both indicative of our lost roots and incendiary-inflaming so many, but we must always remember honoring it is inspiring. Which one do you choose?

We are a country which now has a Martin Luther King Day, honoring the civil rights leader who infused his movement with Christian principles, though some have tried to neglect or reject this connection, severing his and other's Faith from freedom. We need his spirit back today. We are a land which banished the Ten Commandments from some public displays, as in the Alabama judge who had his display tossed-along with himself, and, by the way, just who today cares? The divorce of Faith and Freedom in our country continues. We are a country which can fall prey to "Americanism" (condemned by Pope Leo XIII) which puts independent ideals and expressions at opposition to our Faith. Witness John F Kennedy who said his religion would never get in the way of governing the country. Who is the more prophetic, the Baptist King or the Catholic Kennedy? There is today, obviously, an attempt at secularization, a divorce between Faith and Freedom, to dissolve Faith's link to freedom, whereby God is divorced from culture and daily life, and liberations promised by humans, fallible, finite proposals of culture and life gain power and pride of place. So, some scientists promote Godless science, no spirituality in the cosmos, only cold facts. Meanwhile some legislators promote laws devoid of natural law (same sex unions as a "right" --passed in Massachusetts where the Mayflower landed to worship God, though this was just rejected in New York). Secular culturalists promote a kinda' MTV- troika of sensuality, violence and endless materialism severed from responsibility and spiritual solidarity. Amidst this, just think: burning the flag is not promoted by Christians, at least to my knowledge. It is promoted and protected by secularists. Instead of proposing love and virtue as a form of patriotic protest (like MLK), secularists propose a violent act, flag burning-this is significant, not incidental. Would Francis Scott Key be proud? Or the men who raised Old Glory over the virulent battle of Iwo Jima clap? As the French revolution replaced the void of Catholicism, Christianity with the Reign of Terror, we may be dong the same, albeit in a different way.

Yes we have our "dark spots" and American sins, slavery, the maltreatment of Native Indians, the VietNam War, discrimination and "Jim Crow" laws, mistreatment of innocent Japanese-Americans in WW II by incarceration; inequality of sexes and races and voting rights-- all these have been addressed and, for the most part, redressed, but should one burn the Flag over them, or other protests?

We need, today, to Infuse Faith into politics, to Infuse faith into culture, to Infuse Faith into freedom: everyone yearns for freedom and God, whether they know it or not.

As Alexis de Toqueville, eighteenth century French traveler and political surveyor said in his famous book, "Democracy in America," it is the strong, active and sometimes small associations and gatherings of American peoples, including Catholics and Christians that make and keep this nation running and "successful". That was about two hundred years ago. Today, let's keep it that way. And salute Old Glory-you can be faith-filled and free and flag honoring al at the same time!

Read other reflections by Father John J. Lombardi