Saturday, February 12, 2005

Towards a Patriotic Reformation

Why don't patriots desecrate the U.S. flag? The question occurred to me while listening to a taped-book edition of Will Durant's multi-volume treatise, The Reformation. I was fascinated to hear how early Protestants—people about as devout as they come—raged through Catholic churches smashing crucifixes, saintly images, and statues of the Virgin Mary. They did so in protest against idolatry, which they regarded as a distraction from the Word of God.

Hence my question: Why don't patriots similarly burn the flag and other symbols of the U.S. government as a means of protesting statist idolatry? Granted, some people do burn the U.S. flag with the claim that they mean to express their profound concern about this or that policy, and so forth. I respect those dissidents and am willing to take their claims of patriotism at face value. But I here have more traditional patriots in mind—the sort who would rush to the bulwarks to defend their country, who hold the Framers in high regard, and who carry pocket-sized copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Those ardent patriots tend to venerate the U.S. flag. Indeed, they nearly worship it. Perhaps they shouldn't, though. Perhaps, like the early Protestants, they ought to object that idolatry, empty words, and ceremony have supplanted devotion the principles that gave birth to our constitutional republic. Perhaps, like the early Protestants, those who really believe in the U.S. government ought to symbolize their dissent by burning the flag, espousing the plain meaning of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and demonstrating against such pomp as the inauguration of the President or children's recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The suggesting parallels between the origins of Protestantism and a possible "patriotic reformation" do not end there. Perhaps those who believe in the our constitutional republic should also follow the Protestants in excoriating the hypocrisy of leaders who do no more than mouth the words of the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. The Protestant reformists reasoned that they had just as much authority to interpret the Bible as any Papal authority in Rome. Might not a reformation patriot make a similar claim about the Supreme Court's authority to interpret the founding documents of the U.S. government? The Protestants objected that layer upon layer of precedents have moved the official interpretation of Bible far, far from the plain import of its words. A good patriot could easily say the same of the Supreme Court's work.

By separating Christianity from the Church, the Protestant Reformation ultimately separating the Church from the State. Too easily we forget that the Pope once claimed authority over kings—and that he backed his claim with fearsome armies funded by far-reaching taxes. What would a modern day Reformation, a patriotic one, achieve? The historical parallel suggests that it might separate the proper functions of government—securing individual liberties and providing public goods—from any single, central, monopolistic institution of governance. A patriotic reformation might, in other words, separate the Law from the State.


Gregory Newman said...

As usual, you are way ahead of your time. And I agree generally with your comparison between Protestants and modern-day patriots. But some major differences would seem to prevent, at least for now, the fomenting of any kind of organized patriotic rebellion. For starters, who are these patriots? They are not presently organized in a cohesive group, like the Protestants were by the mid-eighteenth century. Assuming they get organized, what would be the patriots' goal? The Protestants had a clear idea of what they hoped to achieve, and it apparently seemed realistic enough to average people for them to agree to participate. By contrast, even the most fervent patriot revolutionary might have trouble articulating a vision for ‘America’ without our present institutions. Unlike the Protestant’s campaign to rid the church of idols, an American revolution that seeks to replace state controls with private enterprise seems simply too far-fetched for most people to get their minds around. Who would sign up for such a hare-brained scheme? A nut, that’s who. Alas, I suppose my ramblings sound eerily like a sixteenth century Catholic who doubted the nascent Protestant movements would ever mature into organizations capable of achieving their outlandish dreams.

Anonymous said...

Religion is a force to be reckoned with; more people have died for their religious beliefs than anything else in history. And even today we see evidence of it with the Islamic-Jihad. Religious devotion is so much more far-reaching and beyond rationale, and it unites people beyond just national borders. Sure people have died for their countries or certain causes but they come far second to the throngs of people who died for their beliefs.

What forces can possibly be mobilized now for a reformation like that of Martin Luther's time for a man-made institution that will always be flawed no matter how effective the reformation? As the commenter stated above, Martin Luther and the Reformists had clear goals that they probably felt strongly enough to even die for. I can't imagine that people in this day and age having the same kind of passion and goal about this revolution even if it's at a much smaller scale.


Tom W. Bell said...

Mr. Newman: I think that you *vastly* overestimate the organization of the early Protestants. Far from a monolithic entity, early Protestantism came in many different--and many times opposing--types. Indeed, one fundamental critique faced by those calling for greater liberty in Biblical interpretation was that it would lead to religious chaos. Even Luther himself came to embrace that criticism, though only insofar as he called for repression of Protestant creeds he judged sacriligeous.

SK: Granted that people generally (but certainly not always) regard their religious views as more crucial to their identities than their political views. But that merely goes to show how much easier a job reformists patriots face. They don't have to get people to reconsider their relationships with God; they merely have to get people to reconsider their relationships with politicians.

Kevin said...

Most people burning flags today do so with their own set of ideals in mind, not the ideals set out in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. Thus, burning the flag has come to represent protest by those who hold America to a different standard than that described by the founding fathers or subsequent generations that found the common voice to amend the Constitution.

Today’s flag-burner is more likely to blame America for the problems in the world than to praise it for the inherent goodness that it has created, and since it is these themes which drive today's flag burners (on a global basis), the practice has become symbolic with those who are therefore described as unpatriotic or anti-American.

Burning the flag by a "true patriot" (as you describe) would require an extensive education effort to separate them from today's flag burners to show that their struggle is truly pro-American in nature.

With that baggage to overcome, perhaps they'd be better off picking a different symbolic gesture to infuse with their own, separate meaning. Likewise, Protestants might have chosen different symbols of the church to attack if non-believers had usesd these icons to attack the church in the past.