Why Ban Flag Burning?

Evaluating Arguments for Bans on Burning the Flag

Demonstrators burn a flag
Ron Wurzer / Getty Images

Although the connections may not be obvious, there are significant ties between efforts to ban the burning or desecration of the American flag and Christian Nationalism. Nothing profane can be desecrated, thus the very idea that the flag can be desecrated is derived from the belief that the flag is sacred in some fashion. This belief is most actively promoted by Christian Nationalists, for whom true patriotism and true religion have been fused into an anti-democratic political movement.

Flag Burning and Flag Desecration Is Offensive

The most popular argument for bans on burning or desecrating the American flag is that they offend people. It’s been a long time, though, since people have widely supported government suppression of politically unpopular speech. Freedom of speech means nothing if speech can be banned because it offends enough people. If we can ban burning a flag, why not ban burning someone in effigy? If we can ban desecration of a flag, why not ban desecration of the Bible, cross, or Qur’an? 

People Disapprove of Flag Burning and Desecration

Supporters of bans on burning or desecrating the American flag may insist that such bans are the will of the people and are only struck down by “activist” courts. This is a specious argument because it presumes that government has the authority to limit people’s liberty in this manner. The purpose of judicial review of laws is to prevent governments from overstepping their proper authority. Not everything that the people “wills” should become law. 

Flag Burning and Flag Desecration Are Not Real Speech

One argument which has consistently failed in the courts, but continues to be offered, is that burning or desecrating a flag is an action, not speech, so is not covered under the First Amendment. This is nonsense and if true, would allow the government to ban “mere acts” like flag waving. No one seriously believes that speech is limited to words because we use symbols and actions to communicate every day. Speech acts may require more scrutiny than words, but they are still speech. 

Flag Burning and Flag Desecration Incite Violence

If supporters of bans on flag burning and desecration can’t convince people that such acts aren’t real speech, they argue that it is speech which incites violence and therefore can be banned. It’s true that incitements to riot can be banned, but the threat has to be immediate and intended—the government cannot ban speech which leads to violence because it’s unpopular. If that were true, violent factions could get any speech suppressed by rioting at appropriate times.

Flag Burning and Flag Desecration Dishonor Veterans

Given how much members of the armed forces must or may be called upon to sacrifice, no one wants to be seen as dishonoring them. This makes the claim that burning the flag dishonors veterans an appealing one, but the claim is what actually does the dishonoring. No one fights and dies for a piece of cloth, they do so for the ideals which the flag stands for. Attempts to undermine those ideals, including the right to protest and attack the government, are what dishonor veterans’ sacrifices.

Flag Burning and Flag Desecration Are Anti-American

Some say that burning and desecrating the flag should be banned because they are anti-American. Even if we ignore the possibility that some burn the flag to protest when the government acts contrary to American values, rather than in opposition to American values themselves, so what? America isn’t truly free if people aren’t free to express anti-American ideas—and if America isn’t free, then being anti-American should be a virtue rather than a vice.

The American Flag Is Sacred

The word “desecration” implies that the American flag is sacred, but not many supporters of bans on flag burning and flag desecration come right out and acknowledge that this is what they believe. Not only is the idea that the flag is sacred inadequate to justify bans on desecrating it, but in fact, the assertion itself undermines the cause. Any declaration that the flag is somehow a religious symbol, even implicit, is unconstitutional because the government lacks the authority. 

The American Flag Embodies the American Nation

It has been stated in American laws regulating the use of the American flag that it embodies the American nation and as such is a “living thing.” Supporters of bans on flag burning and desecration may argue that such acts are thus attacks on the American nation as a whole, but this presumes that the law can determine which ways of viewing the American flag are politically acceptable and which can be suppressed as politically unacceptable. 

The American Flag As a Cultural Symbol in the Culture Wars

The so-called “culture wars” in America are a conflict over who will determine the nature and boundaries of American culture. In the past, American culture was heavily (though not exclusively) determined by traditional Protestant Christianity. This shifted dramatically over the course of the 20th century, with the most rapid developments occurring in the final decades. For traditionalist Christians, conservative in their religious, social, and political outlooks, the changes involved in these shifts have been an unmitigated disaster.

Efforts to ban burning or desecrating the American flag have been important to conservative Christians fighting their culture war. No one is trying to simply stop people from burning a piece of cloth. For Christians, the flag is a symbol of America—and for them, America is a Christian Nation. It is a country blessed by God and which has been given by God a task to civilize, democratize, and Christianize the planet.

Burning the American flag is thus perceived not just as an assault on patriotism, American values, and American traditions, but also American Christianity and even God’s purpose for the American people. Desecrating the flag is perceived as transforming it from a sacred symbol of something holy into something more profane, less revered, and less significant.

The earliest laws protecting the American flag were aimed at its use in commercial advertisements, something deemed a low and unworthy purpose. Those laws were attempts to define what the American flag could mean to people; the same is true of proposed laws and constitutional amendments today. It is not a physical flag which people are trying to “protect,” but the meaning they invest in it. Other meanings created by other people are deemed inferior, unworthy, and in need of suppression in order to gain some control over American culture through force of law.

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Why Ban Flag Burning?" Learn Religions, Sep. 16, 2021, learnreligions.com/why-ban-flag-burning-arguments-249993. Cline, Austin. (2021, September 16). Why Ban Flag Burning? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/why-ban-flag-burning-arguments-249993 Cline, Austin. "Why Ban Flag Burning?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/why-ban-flag-burning-arguments-249993 (accessed May 30, 2023).