By Harriet P. Gross
Maybe you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that there might be bits of both Judaism and Christianity tucked into a major ritual involving our U.S. flag — which of course we should all be flying tomorrow, in honor of the flag itself.
The flag’s Stars and Stripes design was adopted on June 14, 1777, but it took many years until a public school teacher in Fredonia, Wisc. proposed the calendar date as an annual “Flag Birthday.” In 1885, a New York City teacher planned a ceremony for his school’s students, which the State Board of Education liked enough to adopt, and the idea caught on when Philadelphia’s Betsy Ross House, the birthplace of the flag, joined the celebration in 1891. President Woodrow Wilson finally proclaimed a national Flag Day back in 1916, but America had to wait for 1949, when Harry S. Truman signed the Act of Congress to make it truly official.
So where does faith come in? Well, if you’ve ever seen a military funeral, in person or on TV, you’ve watched the Color Guard carefully fold the ceremonial flag in 13 slow motions. Many people assume the number stands for the original 13 colonies, but the flag’s own stripes represent that. Each fold has a popular meaning today, with the first representing life, and the second standing for life after death, a belief resonating in different ways with every major religion. Fold 3 honors all those who gave their lives in defense of our country and the pursuit of peace; Fold 4 reminds us that it’s God we turn to in times of both war and peace, for we are always in need of divine guidance.
The fifth fold is for America itself, to remind us of the words of early U.S. Navy patriot Stephen Decatur: “Our country, may she always be right. But right or wrong, still our country.” Fold 6 is for our own hearts as we place our hands over them while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, while Fold 7 is a tribute to all the U.S. Armed Forces.
The eighth fold speaks to everyone who has entered the Psalmist’s “valley of the shadow of death” and hoped for light at the end of that terrifying tunnel. Folds 9 and 10 pay tribute to mothers and fathers who have shaped their children’s characters, then sent them off to defend our country.
Our Judaism shines brightest when the honor guard makes its 11th fold to represent the seal of King David and Solomon, for the glory of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And Christianity comes with Fold 12, dedicated to its trinity of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The final fold puts the flag’s stars uppermost, a reminder for us to look toward the heavens and remember our nation’s motto: “In God We Trust.”
When the flag is completely folded, with ends tucked in, what is presented to the living survivors of our honored dead has taken on the shape of a tri-cornered hat. This recalls the head coverings of soldiers who fought with General George Washington and the sailors and marines who served under Captain John Paul Jones. The whole flag has then become a symbolic testimony to the rights, privileges and freedoms we enjoy today as “one nation, indivisible under God.”
Well — that’s the script provided on a website called USA Patriotism. The Independence Hall Association (USHistory.org) offers several others, one of which has a famous quotation to go with each fold. Our government hasn’t made any of these several popular interpretations official, but I for one like the idea of finding in this flag-folding ritual some traces of the faith(s) that have guided America since its founding. Church and State are separate, but basic beliefs may still have some power to unite us. And so does the American flag. Please fly yours proudly tomorrow on Flag Day 2013!