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Flags and Religion

Last modified: 2013-12-01 by rob raeside
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Worshipping of Flags

Most flags by their very nature assume religious significance. In most countries civil religion mingles with patriotism in some sort of veneration of the flag. Americans have a pledge of allegiance to their flag which invokes the name of God.

The Palio in Siena is not only an annual horse race, it is the ancient flag bearing an image of the Virgin Mary which the competitors seek to display in their local church. The horses are blessed in the churches before the race.

When companies of German Landsknechte were formed, troops swore in the name of the Trinity to observe the terms of service, and the Ensign swore to defend the Colour to the death. If any crime brought reproach to the Company, its Colour could not fly again until the reproach was wiped off either by the acquittal or condemnation of the alleged criminal. Acquittal or the fulfillment of penance was often marked passing the Colour over the individual's head. Flags were thus imbued with powers of absolution.

The sanctity of military standards is often evoked by quoting the Scripture: "They shall be as when a standard-bearer fainteth." (i.e. when the standard falls, the cause is lost). Because of their importance as symbols and the sacrifice of human life that attended their defence, it was inevitable that military standards took on religious significance. Roman standards were the religion of the army, and in camp they were erected on altars. The fact that the Union Jack is composed of the crosses of three saints certainly adds to its religious significance. In the British Army, the presentation of new Colours is considered a solemn religious ceremony. Military regulations provide for Church of England, Presbyterian and Catholic versions of the ceremony depending on the unit (e.g. English, Scottish and Irish), to be officiated by the appropriate clergy. Upon retirement from service the Colours are laid up in the local church or cathedral in another religious ceremony suited to standards which had been consecrated.

See also Nazi pages on significance of Blutfahne.

T.F. Mills, 21 November 1995


Flags in Sanctuaries

For most Americans, the stars and stripes is not a sign of temporal power, i.e., an expression of the authority of the federal government. This is something I've thought quite a lot about since joining FOTW but I'm still not sure I've sorted it out, so bear with me. As I see it, the display of a national flag can be intended to convey several distinct messages. The same display may express more than one of these messages. However, different countries tend to emphasize these messages in different ways, sometimes emphasizing one interpretation to the exclusion of others:

  1. The person flying this flag is acting under the authority of the sovereign the flag represents. (People who are not representatives of that authority (i.e., private citizens) have no right to fly this flag; "don't you dare fly the Union Jack at sea unless you're one of HM ships!")
  2. The place where this flag is flying is under the authority/sovereignty of X. Flags representing other sovereigns may not be flown. ("Just because Slobovian air forces are flying out of a base in Ruritania doesn't mean they can fly the Slobovian flag; that would be an assertion that it's their base, not Ruritania's.")
  3. The person flying this flag owes allegiance or obedience to the sovereign the flag represents. Its display is an expression of loyalty or submission.
  4. The person flying the flag wants to show respect, hospitality, genealogical connection, linguistic facility, etc., etc., having to do with the country the flag represents. ("The Polish flag in the chancel of St. Stanislaus Church represents the ethnic origin of its founding members.")
In the United States, people tend to gravitate to messages 3 and 4. I don't mean that this is anything one does consciously, it's just part of the culture. Flag laws and practices elsewhere are more consistent with messages 1 and 2. In other words, an American Baptist congregation that puts the S&S inside the church is not asserting the government's temporal power over the church (message 1) but expressing the allegiance that the members of the church as U.S. citizens owe to the country. Likewise, a Catholic church that displays the papal flag or a synagogue that displays the flag of Israel is not asserting Vatican or Israeli territorial sovereignty over the property (message 2), merely religious allegiance (message 3) in the first case and ethnic or political sympathy (message 4) in the second. In a different cultural context, all these messages could obviously be misinterpreted.

Joe McMillan, 6 February 2003

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Judaism

Judaism doesn't have a flag. There are flags mentioned in the Bible; these are described, to some extent, on the Israel pages. In addition, the flag of Israel functions as a sort of "Jewish Flag" around the world. For example, many synagogues in the US fly it alongside the US flag, and it seems to have more than just an Israel-related significance there. The history of this usage is tied up with the history of the Israeli (originally Zionist) flag; conversely, the history of the flag in a national sense is tied up with symbolism in Jewish religious history- the prayer shawl, the Star (Shield) of David (originally a more secular symbol), the Menorah, and so on.  It must be noted that synagogues in Israel never use the national flag.
Nathan Lamm
, 14 January 2001

The flag is the flag of the state of Israel and is not used as a religious symbol in Israel.
Dov Gutterman, 17 January 2001

Forgot to point that out- entirely correct. I remember Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz once pointing out that while synagogues across America feature the Israeli flag, Israeli ones never do. I don't recall his exact point, but here're some ideas of mine:

  • American patriotism in general causes this- unlike many other countries (including Israel?) we have flags all over, play the national anthem at sporting events, etc. etc. I guess the American flag is expected (some synagogues have it only), so the Israeli flag follows naturally, only later taking on religious significance. I
    wonder if Catholic churches outside the US fly the Vatican flag, as they do here (alongside the US flag).
  • Once in Israel, constant reminders (or boosts to Zionism) aren't needed (sort of like Meir Kahane changing his movement's symbol from Blue-White to Black-Yellow when he moved to Israel- discussed here earlier).
  • Related to the above: A weakness in religion covered by blatant appeals to Zionism? (And yes, I include all movements, including Orthodox, and yes, I think of myself as a strong Zionist- and yet I can't excuse what sometimes is painfully obvious.)

Nathan Lamm, 17 January 2001

With respect to the matter of the display and flying of flags in churches some time ago, I raised the issue of whether this was a matter of concern in Judaism also, that is, if there were similar concerns with respect to synagogues. I have thus far written to three Jewish religious bodies in the UK requesting information as to whether they had specific policies regarding flags in synagogues. John Lowe had done some admirable ferreting in what is known as the Responsa literature and found some interesting material, and in my e-mails to the two Orthodox bodies in the UK I asked whether they considered themselves bound by the opinion voiced by one leading expert in Halacha (Jewish religious law), the late British Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, whose views interestingly enough are considered definitive in the American Orthodox Jewish community.

I have received a communication from Rabbi David Jacobs, the Administrator of the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain. Rabbi Jacobs points out that as the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain (or RSGB) is not a monolithic body, as is its American equivalent the Union for Reform Judaism or the United Synagogue in the UK, it is not in a position to issue policy statements of this nature. The RSGB is purely a federation of synagogues (not to be confused with the Orthodox Federation of Synagogues mentioned above). Individual synagogues and congregations can decide matters of policy such as this for themselves. There are 42 member synagogues in the RSGB, not all of which own their own buildings, and Rabbi Jacobs has never heard of any flags of any kind being flown or displayed in any of them. Some synagogues hold an AJEX Shabbat, honoring members of the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and Women, the British equivalent of the Jewish War Veterans in the US; at that time the local AJEX chapters may bring their flags into the synagogue, either to the sanctuary or else displayed elsewhere in the building, at which time they may be accompanied by the Union Jack and/or the Israeli flag.
Ron Lahav, 26 January 2005

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