Flag Day Principles of State Constitutions

When Stanley Hauerwas, the Duke University professor dubbed by Time magazine as "America’s best theologian," gave a commencement speech at a Mennonite college a while back, he said he was glad that no American flag was in evidence, for "the power of the flag is, by necessity, violent."

Hauerwas added, "Because there is no flag here, Goshen College is potentially a more truthful, and thus academically interesting, educational institution than those that serve such flags." But here’s a question to ask next week on June 14, Flag Day: Is a flagless institution likely to be more academically interesting than one that displays a flag?

I don’t doubt that Goshen is a fine college, and that its reasons for not showing a flag, couched as they are in Mennonite tradition, are far deeper than the anti-flag sentiments of the secular campus left. But even though flags may be on display in front of college administration buildings and at football stadiums, most major American universities these days are essentially flagless.

These days many professors sneer at patriotism. Many don’t want students to become defenders of the flag, so they kick ROTC off campus. Some prefer the president of Iran to the president of the United States. Does such conduct make a flagless institution potentially more truthful and interesting than one that displays a flag?

I suspect not. At some intellectually flagless institutions masses of individualists line up and take orders from the Noam Chomskys of the world. Flag-flying institutions are likely to have a broader diversity of thought. They may even welcome some professors who are neither liberal nor radical.

And some Mennonites ask a second question: Does allegiance to the United States detract from allegiance to God? Sure, the Declaration of Independence displays faith in God, and the Constitution assumes God, but since it’s not constitutionally explicit, is this a godless America?

Well, surprise: It is explicit in U.S. constitutions — not once but 50 times. State constitutions repeatedly refer to God. Here are five examples from the preambles of Revolutionary War constitutions:

— Georgia: "We, the people of Georgia, relying upon protection and guidance of Almighty God, do ordain and establish this Constitution … "

— Massachusetts: "We … the people of Massachusetts, acknowledging with grateful hearts, the goodness of the Great Legislator of the Universe … "

— Pennsylvania: "We, the people of Pennsylvania, grateful to Almighty God for the blessings of civil and religious liberty, and humbly invoking His guidance … "

— South Carolina: "We, the people of the State of South Carolina, grateful to God for our liberties, do ordain and establish this Constitution."

— Maryland: "We, the people of the state of Maryland, grateful to Almighty God for our civil and religious liberty … "

And here are five later examples:

— Minnesota, 1857: "We, the people of the State of Minnesota, grateful to God for our civil and religious liberty, and desiring to perpetuate its blessings … "

— West Virginia, 1872: "Since through Divine Providence we enjoy the blessings of civil, political and religious liberty, we, the people of West Virginia, reaffirm our faith in and constant reliance upon God … "

— Idaho, 1889: "We, the people of the State of Idaho, grateful to Almighty God for our freedom … "

— Oklahoma, 1907: "Invoking the guidance of Almighty God, in order to secure and perpetuate the blessings of liberty … "

— Arizona, 1911: "We, the people of the State of Arizona, grateful to Almighty God for our liberties, do ordain this Constitution … "

Notice how often the state constitution writers link God and liberty. They did not equate expressions of biblical faith with graspings for theocracy. They knew that an understanding that all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory leads to a separation-of-powers system of checks and balances, the opposite of a dictatorship.

They also knew that if we stopped invoking God’s guidance we would look to our own wisdom or to that of a Supreme Court grasping for supremacy, and we’d be in trouble — as we now are.