The American Flag: The Sacredness of the Right

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

In his book The Righteous Mind, social psychologist Jonathn Haidt argues that sacredness – along with tradition, purity, and authority – is a morality that is often and highly practiced by Americans on the political right. This does not mean that Americans on the political left do not practice sacredness. They do; for example, they embrace and practice righteous indignation in conservation and environmental consciousness. However, sacredness in the form of patriotism, and sometimes righteous indignation of that patriotism, is emphasized in the practice and respect of the American flag by mostly the political right. Hence, banning or burning the American flag are examples of this disrespect, this desecration.

In recent news, Angie Hildebrandt, a property owner (of a condominium) and resident of Edina, Minnesota, was told by the Minnesota Condominium Association “to take her American flag down.” A mother of two young men, one serving in the United States Marine Corps. and the other in the United States Army, she refused to take down Old Glory by invoking the Freedom to Display the American Flag Act of 2005, which was signed into law on July 24, 2006 by President George W. Bush. In an interview with ABC 5 news in Minneapolis, she stated

It’s everyone’s right to fly this flag, including me.

But how is this event indicative of sacredness and conservatism? As Jonathan Haidt explains in his book

Sanctity…makes it easy for us to regard some things as ‘untouchable’…Why do people so readily treat objects (flags, crosses), places (Mecca, a battlefield related to the birth of your nation), people (saints, heroes), and principles (liberty, fraternity, equality) as though they were of infinite value? [T]he pyschology of sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. When someone in a moral community desecrates one of the sacred pillars supporting the community, the reaction is sure to be swift, emotional, collective, and punitive.

As Haidt illustrates, the Minnesota Condominium Association’s attempt to remove Angie Hildebrandt’s American flag, even in a subtle and unprovocative manner, provoked adversarial rhetoric and condemnation and accusations of non patriotism. It even evoked support in the community. Morality binds the community and the MCA threatens to break these bonds. In the case of Mrs. Hildebrandt, the community responded to the threat with moral binding by support and organized action. Hence, the community hosted a supportive event on July 18th in Edina, Minnesota for Mrs. Hildebrandt. And that is not all.

Photo Courtesy of KSTP/Tyler

Photo Courtesy of KSTP/Tyler Berg – Angie Hilderbrandt’s American Flag

The story gained legs and support through local conservative blog outlets such as Mad World News and Liberty First News a couple of weeks ago. In addition, Jack Tomczak, the co-host of the morning show Up and At’ Em, which airs on TwinCities Talk AM 1130, a conservative talk format, has been promoting the GoFundMe campaign; and also this morning, Angie Hildebrandt was invited on Fox & Friends to share her story.

But banning the flag, or the perception of banning the flag, is only but one part of the sacredness of this issue. This morality also helps to explain why conservatives become distraught at the sight, not to mention the possibility of, walking on the American flag or worse, the burning of Old Glory.

No doubt the shooting and killing of Michael Brown by that of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson provoked understandable outrage by local residents. To those Ferguson residents, it was just another example of the perceived continuation of systemic oppression by the system itself that predated the dawn of the Republic. To them, It was just another example of a young black man being murdered by a white man in a position of authority. To those residents, it was just another example of the continuation of policies that continue to disenfranchise one group of Americans for the benefit of another group of Americans. After the death of Brown, the residents of Ferguson took to the streets.

In their righteous indignation, they practiced their first amendment right in the ceremony of ultimate civil discourse – they desecrated the American flag. They burnt the flag in protest of a perceived system of oppression. And because of such perceived systemic oppressions based off of their own observations and experiences, they took the symbol of American exceptionalism, deemed it defunct as a symbol of freedom, and burnt it to a crisp.

Photo Courtesy of

Photo Courtesy of

As Austin Cline, an educator in agnosticism, atheism, and secular humanism and Regional Director for the Council for Secular Humanism and a former Publicity Coordinator for the Campus Freethought Alliance states,

Desecration is defined as violating the “sacredness” of something. Something is “sacred” when it is “holy” or worthy of worship, religious veneration.

To those protesters in the streets, the United States flag was no longer worthy of sacredness or respect. It was viewed a symbol of oppression. Needless to say, this desecration of the national ensign was met with righteous indignation of those of the conservative right. Recalling Haidt, the protesters in the eyes of conservatives were committing a great sin. The protesters were committing an act of immorality, which was perpetuating the destruction of the community. Was this concern connected to the current policies of policing in black neighborhoods? Probably not. But it was a concern for how Americans were supposed to act during civil discourse and the desecration of the flag was not one of them. Not only was the act met with condemnation from conservatives and those in the conservative media outlets, but the “communist” association was evoked. As Top Right News reported on November 30, 2014,

[The protesters] displayed Marxist flags, and shouted ‘the only solution is a Communist revolution!’…And then they did a truly vial act: they burned an American flag and taunted the troops while doing it.

Although the addition of the “Red Scare” is nothing new in the United States, which derives from the middle part of the 20th century and has been used to devalue other prominent civil rights movements, it adds another level of desecration and disgust in the eyes of those who perceive the national ensign to be a symbol of sanctity, sacredness, and morality, and those Americans are mostly conservative. If a person, or group of people, burns the American flag, he is a communist. Communism is antithetical to the perceived view of American sacredness and the American flag is its symbol, and it is the symbol of freedom and liberty. This is why the conservative news feeds ignite when an organization is attempting to ban a flag by direct or indirect means, or when a group of Americans are practicing their first amendment rights in the act of desecrating the American flag. Chances are liberal news feeds will not light up in the case of a flag banning or in the case of a flag burning. A quick Google search will illustrate this fact.

It should be recognized that some Americans on the political left can also be patriotic. They can also emphazise and practice sacredness beyond environmental issues. They can value and respect the American flag and what it stands for in the traditional view of American exceptionalism. To state otherwise would be incorrect and inaccurate. It would be a blanket statement, an absolute position. This recognition of the national ensign would be an example of liberals and progressives practicing a conservative morality. But it should also be recognized that just as “liberals” can value the sacredness of the flag, conservatives can devalue and disrespect the flag; for example, veteran Michelle Manhart and her desecration of the flag during her spread in Playboy.

Photo Courtesy of Playboy - Veteran Michelle Manhart

Photo Courtesy of Playboy – Veteran Michelle Manhart

In April of 2015, Mrs. Manhart interupted a flag desecration protest at Valdosta State Univeristy, in Georgia, by students protesting police brutality against American men, women, and children of African descent. During the course of the altercation, she attempted to take the flag away. But after the scuffle and as soon as the event went viral, it was quickly discovered that she posed for Playboy in 2007 (See photo).

In the aftermath, many conservative media outlets neglected to point out the hypocrisy in Mrs. Manhart’s actions. That was left to the liberal media outlets. They took full advantage of the mishap and hypocrisy.

Sacredness is not always perfect and neither is morality. The Playboy spread (which includes a video of the altercation) by Michelle Manhart is a perfect example of conservative hypocrisy. Although the photo is visually appealing (Who am I kidding! Wow!) it breaks conservative morality across the board: sacredness, tradition, authority, and purity. There is nothing pure about that pose. The flag is desecrated by the very fact that it touches the ground (deck for you marines and sailors) and the act is devoid of respect of tradition and authority. This is indeed not an act of porn. It is an attempt to illustrate art. But in its attempt to respect combined with artistic intent, it desecrates and sacredness is lost.

Make no mistake, the very recognition and respect of the national ensign is a conservative moral and they practice this morality in greater percentages and at higher rates than liberals. But it should be noted that liberals do practice this morality but at lesser statistical values.

For good or for bad, this is the reality of the moralities; this is the reality of the current environment of American politics and those who participate in the political process. Yes, it seems black and white, but that is the reality of modern American civil discourse.

Matt Johnson is a writer for The Systems Scientist and the Urban Dynamics blog; and is a mathematical scientist. He has also contributed to the Iowa State Daily and Our Black News.

You can connect with him directly in the comments section, and follow him on Twitter or on Facebook

You can also follow The Systems Scientist on Twitter or Facebook as well. 



Copyright ©2016 – The Systems Scientist

1 reply »

  1. Reblogged this on Urban Dynamics and commented:

    Originally published in July of 2015, this article delves into the different perspectives of how the American flag is viewed and how it should be treated. As a means of applying some science and rational to this issue, Jonathan Haidt and social psychology are utilized to help explain and provide context for the possible why. This will continue to be an issue.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s