What’s the Big Deal About A Flag?

On this Super Bowl weekend, the big controversy over the Halftime Show/The National Anthem/The Flag/ Colin Kaepernick/”wait what are we arguing about again?” brouhaha is a good time to reflect on why a song or a flag gets us so worked up.

Even though the NFL protests launched by Kaepernick in 2016 were never about protesting the flag or the anthem (they’re about black folks being shot and killed with little repercussions and other injustices against people of color, but that gets lost in the shuffle), Kaepernick did intentionally use the occasion of the flag and the anthem to bring attention to the cause.   This rubbed many people the wrong way, including Donald Trump, who has commented or Tweeted about the NFL dozens of time since becoming President, framing the protests as disrespectful to the flag, anthem and the country.

This framing has been successful with a large segment of the American population – even though 73% of respondents in one poll said the players were trying to draw attention to racism, 40% of those questioned in the same poll (and half of white respondents) said that the protests were disrespectful to the American flag. The whole controversy has taken on an almost religious significance. Sometimes that statement doesn’t even need the qualifier “almost”: some prominent (white) Christian voices have condemned the protests, while Kaepernick himself, long before taking a knee, spoke often about his Christian faith guiding his actions (Eric Reid, another player who was among the first to join the protest, explicitly cited his own Christian beliefs for the decision.   Why are players, politicians and preachers taking such strong positions, and what’s the big deal with a flag (or an anthem, or even a mascot for that matter) anyway?

If you want to understand patriotism and religion, ask the French

Specifically, late French sociologist Emile Durkheim (keep reading: it’s worth it). Durkheim was well known for many ideas, but one of his works looked at a particular religious practice known as totemism. You’re probably familiar with the practice from the example of totem poles carved by certain indigenous peoples in the American northwest. More generally, totemism is a practice by which a particular clan or group believes in a spiritual connection between itself and an object – often an animal, sometimes a plant or even a geographical feature like a mountain or river – that comes to symbolize and is believed to protect the clan.

Even among societies that do not literally engage in totemism from a religious perspective, the concept has been adopted for more secular purposes, from the trivial (a mascot to represent a sports team, for example) to the political, including anthems and flags. Durkheim himself recognized this latter application. Just over a hundred years ago, Durkheim observed that it’s hard for people to feel passionately, much less act based on such passion, over abstract concepts like a country made up of people one will never meet. In order to arouse and channel those emotions, a symbol is needed, like a flag. He wrote:

The symbol thus takes the place of the thing, and the emotions aroused are transported to the symbol. It is the symbol that is loved, feared and respected. It is to the symbol that one is grateful. And it is to the symbol that one sacrifices oneself. The soldier who dies for his flag dies for his country, but the idea of the flag is actually in the foreground of his consciousness… He forgets that the flag is only a symbol that has no value in itself but only brings to mind the reality it represents. The flag itself is treated as if it was that reality.”

A Sacred Nation and An American Reformation

This powerful role played by the flag or other totems like the national anthem (which for the American Star Spangled Banner, serves double duty, since it’s a totem about another totem), this symbolism turned reality, is the reason why the national anthem is sung before professional sports games, and why it’s made to be such a big deal. While the tradition of performing or playing the anthem before professional sport contests evolved somewhat organically in America – punctuated by events such as wars or developments like the availability of sound system technology – the US government has also played a hand in enhancing patriotic displays at sports events, paying millions of dollars to NFL franchises and other sports teams to “sponsor” various military and other patriotic displays before or during games in recent years.

This conflation of the country, the military, sports, the flag and the anthem performs the totemic function Durkheim talked about. Political leaders are wise to play into it, as when President Trump continues to accuse the kneelers of disrespecting the country by disrespecting its symbols (regardless of whether they are actually doing either), or when Vice President Mike Pence stages a (very expensive) walkout to protest the protests. For Durkheim, totemism was the most basic form of religion, not because a clan worshipped an external object, but because equating the symbol with the clan meant that the clan was really worshipping itself, declaring itself holy.

Like Martin Luther (who has gotten a lot of attention on this site lately), the real danger of the NFL protests then, is not offensiveness but heresy: these protestors question the holiness of the institution of America itself by pointing toward America’s original sin, racism. And as is the case with heretics, Kaepernick has divided his audience between those who have devoted themselves to his message and those who would much rather eliminate or exile the messenger. As these groups continue to take their stands (so to speak) through this weekend’s Super Bowl, the struggle for and against a secular Reformation will continue.

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