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Pastor Glenn McDonald: Cracking the Code

The United States Flag Code can be reduced to a single sentence: You’re doing it wrong.


It’s a good bet that most of your fellow citizens, even on America’s 248th birthday, aren’t actually aware that such a code exists. Specifically, it’s Chapter 1 of Title 4 of the United States Code, and represents federal law that is technically punishable by elected magistrates.


Nevertheless, in the words of Captain Barbarossa in Pirates of the Caribbean, “The [Pirates’ Code] is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”


We can all be grateful that the regulations of the Flag Code are rarely enforced. They’re more like guidelines or social etiquette. No one, after all, wants a federal agent making common cause with the local ants and raiding their Fourth of July picnic because of flag display violations.


Historians disagree as to whether Betsy Ross actually created the first American flag. What we know for sure is that the flag as it flies today, with 50 stars and 13 stripes, was designed in 1958 by a 17-year-old high school student named Robert G. Heft of Lancaster, Ohio.


Robert’s teacher gave him only a B-minus for his sewing project. But President Dwight D. Eisenhower was sufficiently impressed to choose his design out of 1,500 entries in a national contest. Thankfully, Heft’s teacher made good on her promise to raise his grade in the unlikely event that his design proved to be Ike’s favorite.


So, what do we learn from the United States Flag Code?


There are so many do’s and don’ts that it’s a near certainty you’ve been doing something wrong, probably for a long time.


For instance, whenever a flag passes by, you are required to stop, face the flag, and put your right hand over your heart. If you’re wearing a hat, you must remove it with your right hand and place it on your left shoulder.


As all Boy Scouts learn, the flag must be raised quickly but lowered slowly.


A flag must be displayed on or near the main administration building of every public institution (schools, post offices, and such). It may be flown from dawn until dusk, and must not be displayed outdoors at night unless it is illuminated. If inclement weather is approaching, the flag must be brought indoors. No other flag may be flown above it.


Can an American flag ever be displayed on a float in a parade? The Code says no.


Nor can it be draped or imprinted over the hood, top, sides, or back of a vehicle, train, or boat. So much for Peter Fonda’s famous American flag motorcycle in Easy Rider.


The Code stipulates that the flag must never be used for any advertising purpose, nor embroidered on cushions or handkerchiefs, printed on paper napkins or boxes, nor used as any portion of a costume. There go your table decorations for later today.


The flag should never be used as clothing, bedding, or drapery – a real damper on patriotic T-shirts. It must not be festooned, drawn back, or arranged in folds as bunting, but must always be allowed to fall free. Major League Baseball has clearly decided that World Series games should be exceptions.


The flag, of course, must never touch the ground. Nor should it ever be carried flat or horizontally.


Is it OK to wear a flag pin on your shirt? Yes, but only on your left lapel. As the Code states, “The flag represents a living country and is itself considered a living thing.”  That is why a lapel pin should be worn on the left side, traditionally associated with the heart.


There’s quite a bit more. Check out the details for yourself at 4 USC Ch. 1: THE FLAG (


The Flag Code seems disturbingly reminiscent of America’s tax code. Or the small print when you sign up for a new streaming service.


Or – and this is the worst thing of all – it can feel a whole lot like going to church.


Way too many congregations convey the message, even if unintentionally, that a relationship with God is all about do’s and don’ts. The bottom line? You’re doing it wrong. And God’s going to be mad at you unless you straighten up and fly right.


But Jesus did not come so we might follow the rules. He did not arrive with a bushel basket of additional commandments so we might have a lot more stuff to do.


“I have come so that you might have life – real, lasting life – and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).


It’s all too easy for love to become legalism. What began as heartfelt respect for the American flag – even imagining this inanimate object to be a “living thing” that represents the character and values of our nation – has gradually become a mind-numbing list of rules that, at least in some respects, compromises the simple joy of displaying our red, white, and blue banner.


The same thing can happen in our spiritual lives.


What begins as a love relationship with God, accompanied by myriads of joyful “get-to’s,” can slowly degenerate into a burdensome truckload of “have-to’s.” No wonder people walk away from church.


But it doesn’t have to be this way.


One of the anecdotes associated with the Kennedy White House in the early 1960s – and perhaps it’s just a story – concerns access to JFK in the Oval Office. Few people are ever empowered to walk past the Secret Service and drop in on the President of the United States.


But one of those who had that special privilege was “John-John,” the Kennedy’s young son. “My Daddy owns this place,” he is supposed to have said to one of the agents as he headed straight for his father’s lap.


You can’t do that unless you’re family.


God says to each of us, “You’re family. I would rather you come give me a hug than worry about breaking the rules.” 


That’s something to savor on this Independence Day, in which our flag reminds us to offer prayers of thanks that we can live in a free land.

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