What So Proudly We Hail: Flag Day in 2023

When I was a boy in Los Angeles, school opened with our pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stood, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. This would be followed with the singing of a patriotic song: “There are Many Flags in Many Lands,” with its cheerful assurance that there was no flag however grand, like our own Red, White, and Blue; “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” directly addressed to the emblem of the land I love; “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean,” which pointed out that our banners make tyranny tremble, when borne by the Red, White, and Blue; “America the Beautiful” which advised us to lift high the Cross and unfurl the Flag, hoping that they might forever stand; and of course, the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

But it was not only in school that I was taught to revere the Flag! At church, it stood in the sanctuary to the right of the altar, with that of Vatican to the left — both flags lent a bit of sacredness by the revered spot in which they stood. When I joined the Boy Scouts, I was initiated into the secrets of Flag etiquette. Moreover, when becoming a tenderfoot, I learned the history of the flag: its origins in Queen Anne’s flag, the colonial red ensign; the outbreak of the revolution adding the white stripes to form the Grand Union flag; the declaration of independence resulting in the Congress replacing the Union Jack in the corner with the white stars and blue field, representing “a new constellation;” and the addition of a new star for every state admitted to the Union, at last reaching 50 in 1960, the year of my birth. Along the way, we were taught the flag’s nicknamesthe Star-Spangled Banner, of course; the Stars and Stripes; and perhaps most poignant of all, Old Glory.

Certainly, the flag was a central object of the American Civic Religion, alongside the Liberty Bell and original copies of the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution. The Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia, The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore, and nearby Fort McHenry were sacred to its memory. The “Americanism” programmes of such organisations as the Elks, the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, and the Veterans of Foreign Wars focused on its significance. Of course, where other, major pillars of the National faith had their holidays — Washington’s and Lincoln’s Birthdays, Memorial Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Columbus Day, Veterans’ Day, and Thanksgiving — so too did lesser ones: Constitution Day, Law Day, Loyalty Day, Armed Forces Day, National Guard Birthay, even Arbor Day. It was among these latter that Flag Day took its place.

There are a number of towns and institutions that claim to have begun the observance, which commemorates the day in 1777 when the Congress created the new flag. One of the leading contenders is Waubeka, Wisconsin, where in 1885 schoolteacher Bernard Cigrand inspired his students to start the first parade in honour of the observance. Other places claim to have done it first, but Cigrand’s school is now the Flag Day Americanism Centre, and the town still turns out in force for its parade. The day even merited a volume in Robert Haven Schauffler’s excellent “American Holidays” series of books.

But much has changed since my childhood and youth; Norman Rockwell and Irving Berlin are long gone; so too is Kate Smith, singer of the latter’s “God Bless America” — even her statue was an early casualty of the Woke stupidity. Despite the best efforts of most of the above patriotic organisations and the Hereditary Community, American exceptionalism is fast being replaced with the new narrative that this is the worst of all nations — born in genocide and built on slavery.

For myself, I must admit that I early on lost my faith in the national civic cultus. Being of French-Canadian descent myself, I was only too aware that Jefferson had denounced the Quebec Act, which gave my fathers our freedom, religion, and laws, in the most Orwellian terms possible. Early on, I saw the resemblances between the American and French Revolutions, and sympathised with the Loyalists, who were first abused and then exiled purely for remaining loyal to the government under which they had been born (the unrest in my 1960s childhood made their plight seem particularly poignant). Where the revolutionary propagandists saw an evil tyrant in George III, I saw a benevolent man trying desperately to improve the lives of his subjects and weaken the oligarchy under which his countrymen laboured — and who was sympathetic to Catholics in the bargain.

So does any of this mean that I am gleeful in seeing so many sacred cows of my childhood destroyed? By no means. To be honest, I wish the King had succeeded in his reform programme, and that he and his successors down to the newly crowned King were able, in the words of Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph to Teddy Roosevelt, to protect their people from their politicians. But none of that lessens one whit the love I have for my beloved country — and indeed, her flag. It is not as important to me that the British colonists were the hereditary enemies of my people-by-blood for a century and a half util they defeated us, as it is that from the time we came South to the States in the 1880s the new country has done well by us. The revolutionaries are not heroes to me personally, and I have sympathy for both adherents of the Lost Cause and the victims of Jim Crow. But I recognise that the efforts of the Revolution and the War between the States are worthy of commemoration: Valley Forge, Gettysburg, and even San Juan Hill (a battle in a manifestly unjust war) have inspired generations of my countrymen. We did not begin in 1776 or 1783, but in 1567 and 1607, when St. Augustine and Jamestown were first settled; Canada and Mexico are truly our sister nations, as much as Spain, France, and Great Britain are our parents.

The flag represents for me not some abstract notion about freedom, but a concrete reality: its diverse peoples and amazing terrain — the land God willed from all eternity that me and mine should be born in. But the great love I feel for her gives me — and every Catholic American — a tremendous burden. The deepest patriotism we can muster is best shown not by simply saying how wonderful these United States are, wonderful though they may be. It is by trying to bring them to Christ, that He be truly King of this realm, and that the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, dedicated to our national Patroness, become the spiritual home of all Americans that we truly show our love of the flag and our fellow citizens.