Wednesday was Flag Day, and as they have for the past few years, Athens State University graciously hosted a program that included music and speeches to commemorate “The Grand Old Flag” and all that it symbolizes. To the dismay of some present at the ceremony, it was estimated that almost half of those gathered in the ASU Ballroom did not place their hand over their hearts during our national anthem. Why that was the case, I have no idea, but it made me curious as to the history of the hand-over-heart tradition.
So, I looked into it, and found that many of our traditions regarding flag etiquette go back to 1942, when we as a nation, as well as the rest of the free world, were in the fight of our lives. There became what was known as the U.S. Flag Code, which was written in 1942, and it has never been adjusted, amended or retired. It spelled out the protocol for how one interacts with the flag, others, and music in public settings where we say the Pledge of Allegiance and sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Interestingly, what we now think of as the proper way to salute the flag was not adopted until 1942, when it was apparent that we needed to abandon what was known as “the Bellamy Pledge.” The Bellamy pledge started in the late 19th century, and unfortunately was a dead ringer for the same motion used by Nazis to show their allegiance to the Fuhrer. Removing one’s hat and placing one’s hand over one’s heart (or a standard military salute for currently serving or former military personnel) quickly became our symbol of appreciation for the flag and all “for which it stands.” When it came to women, back in the day they were not required to remove their hats, due to the fact that hat pins were still in use. These days Emily Post says that women should remove hats if they resemble baseball caps, otherwise other types of hats may stay put if you are a gal.
There was a time in my life when I mirrored the actions of a former U.S. president during public ceremonies involving flags, and stood with my hands folded in front of me during the Pledge or the national anthem. I “abstained due to conscience,” and I understandably as well as rightfully made a lot of people mad. I was the Associated Student Body President at my Left Coast high school, and had been radicalized to the point that I was deeply ashamed of my country. I used such words as “sick” to refer to America, and would have actually been thrilled if it had been destroyed. Then I had a transformational experience with our Savior, and one of the things that took awhile to bloom was a sense of love for my country, the Constitution, and those who shed their blood for me. They died so that I could be an idiot if I chose to, and it was one of the most profound privileges of my life to live amongst them in Baghdad for three years in order to begin to say “Thank you.”
I imagine that some of the reason that a significant amount of people present on Flag Day didn’t put their hand over their heart was due to oversight or ignorance. One older vet at the Museum maintains that “[t]hey are just not taught to anymore.” That could very well be true, but here is my request for anyone who even marginally loves the Stars and Stripes: take a moment to learn how and why we touch our hearts when we collectively speak to a piece of cloth that once upon a time I would have rather burned. I think you might find that you will stand taller and your shoulders will be more squared away, and that is always a good thing.