A topic that I don’t usually discuss much in a public forum, or with many acquaintances, is religion.
Although I am absolutely fascinated by religion and theological studies, I tend to keep my opinions to myself and to close friends. However, through my theological studies I have become aware of the way religion resonates within the fabric of secular ideas and concepts.
There seems to be no aspect of civilization that is not shaped in some way by a religious perspective or worldview and politics is uniquely vulnerable to extremely profound and, at times, zealous religious implications.Over the past few weeks a favored (and heated) topic of discussion has been and is the Confederate flag. While observing the debates and even wrestling with my own feelings on the topic, I can’t help but think about the nature of symbolism and the religious undertones which come with flags and identity.Let’s go back for a moment and touch on a religious concept woven into the very fabric of our nation: Manifest Destiny. Manifest Destiny is the idea that the United States was destined to spread from the east coast to the west coast and become a great nation. This mindset attributed to western expansion and violence against Mexico and Native Americans.The spreading from coast to coast can even be seen in the lyrics to America the Beautiful when it says “from sea to shining sea.” The physiological connection and patriotic sense one has when hearing these lyrics and looking at an American flag is clearly parallel to a religious connection.
This is the nature of symbolism. Symbolism brings forth emotions or connections one has and binds it with a physical object, person, or place which becomes a physical manifestation of their psyche.
These connections can be extremely prideful and spiritual but they can also be extremely hurtful and disturbing.
9/11 is a day that lives in infamy for most Americans. It is the day that over 2,500 innocent people lost their life because of a sick and depraved terrorist attack. Over the following months and years following that day, most Americans began to see Osama bin Laden as the embodiment of that fateful attack. Not only was he literally to blame for the deaths of these innocent Americans, he became a sort of symbol for the war on terror and a way to attach our anger to the physical world. This is religious symbolism to its core.
When the news of bin Laden’s death reached Americans, and especially New Yorkers, it’s not much of a stretch to say that millions had sort of a spiritually psychological response.
Without getting into a foreign policy debate, we know that not all soldiers, as an example, agree with every war we have been involved with. The Vietnam War saw a high number of soldiers who vehemently opposed the public policy yet served out of honor and duty. We see much of this today regarding the war on terror yet the brave men and women in our armed forces love their home and yes, the flag as well. Desecrating an American flag is very offensive and those who have served in the military take it personally. When people attempt to protest a war by burning or stepping on the flag they are essentially undermining and disrespecting a soldier’s service to their country. For many in our military, the flag embodies their sacrifice and service to their country, not a particular motive or policy.
The nature of symbolism is that it is closely tied to our individual perspectives and life experiences. The more drastic our experiences in relation to the symbol the stronger the connection we will make.
This is why the Confederate flag is such a heated topic.
To understand the perspective of millions of African-Americans who hate the Confederate flag one must make an attempt to see the symbol from their perspective. The Confederate flag has been used in connection to horrendous and evil acts perpetrated on the African-American community and against the civil rights movement as a whole. The Civil War is an ugly stain on our country as is the fact that African-Americans were literally bought and sold as property.
Even after slavery was abolished, racist hate groups continued to use the flag to represent their cause to disenfranchise minorities and undermine every bit of progress we have made in race relations.
Yes, all of this has gone on in other parts of the country, yet when the Confederate flag is used it is undeniable that the undertone is that the Confederate government was correct and justified to fight for the cause of slavery. This is a very real fact that cannot be ignored when discussing the flag.
The connection millions of Americans have to flag is the embodiment of slavery, murder, and disenfranchisement.
Now, my relatives go back mostly to southern Louisiana, where I still have family. I grew up in south Mississippi and I have family in Tennessee; I’m as southern as they come. With my roots being firmly southern I understand that not all southerners relate to the confederate flag as a symbol of racism or a banner for slavery.
To understand the southern perceptive please remember that when many southerners see that flag, they feel as though they are honoring the fallen soldiers (most of which disagreed with slavery) who fought for their home—the south.
Average Americans feel a deep honor and connection with the American flag without agreeing with every cause it was flown for. It doesn’t take military service for an American to feel an intense sense of pride when seeing our flag on Independence Day and hearing “And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air/Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.”
The lyrics to “The Star Spangled Banner” highlight war and the sacrifice of those who fought for their country, not a motive or policy. It is in this light that many southerners relate to the symbol of the confederate flag.
My point here is not to advocate any particular outcome. My goal is to bring forth the inherent religious undertones. If not “religious,” then certainty religious and spiritual parallels.
I believe what we need to insert more of into this debate is compassion. Attempting to shout down anyone who may disagree with the flag by saying “heritage not hate” is like telling millions of African Americans that their perspective and identity is inherently flawed and that yours is correct. It’s insulting and disrespectful. It is also counterproductive to label every southerner who may identify with the flag as part of their southern identity as racist.
If studying religion has taught me anything it’s that attacking someone’s identity will always be met with aggressive pushback. Someone whom you cannot relate to and who does not share your life experiences telling you that your perspective is invalid is like an attack on your very identity.
A study of religion shows the psychological connection millions of religious people have with various symbols. Symbols do not need to be religious in nature to have these connections.
I believe when discussing a symbol—like the Confederate flag—it is essential that we proceed with compassion and an acknowledgment that other perspectives are just as valid as our own
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