This being the time of year we traditionally celebrate our freedom and our flag, our thoughts are commonly turned to a united feeling of pride in our country and all that we enjoy.
But in speaking with one young man about the flag, I asked him if he knew what it meant or stood for. It was a sad thing to learn from his own lips that he didn't know.
It would be an easy thing to cast an accusing stone at his ignorance, but before anyone does such a thing, first take this little quiz:
1) What do the thirteen stripes stand for? (This should be an easy question.)
2) What do the stars stand for and why are they white?
3) What do the colors red, white and blue represent?
4) Why is our banner called a "standard" of liberty?
Most people of our nation can tell that the stripes of our flag represent the original thirteen colonies and the stars represent the 50 states of our great Union, but little else can they reveal about the "standard" they claim to pledge allegiance to.
Before revealing the meaning of our standard, it might be appropriate to define what a standard is. We use the word "standard" in reference to many things. For example: We often refer to a ruler as being a "standard" of measurement. Most automobile makers claim their cars are a "standard" of excellence. We use gold as a "standard" for our currency. So, what does the word "standard" mean?
The word "standard" can have more than one meaning, but we'll deal with only two for the moment. First - a standard is something we can measure all other things of like kind by. For example: Gold is a standard among all other metals because it's enduring qualities far surpass all other metals. Gold does not canker, rust or decay, so as a "standard" of currency, it becomes a wise choice and a stable one as well.
The second definition of a "standard" is that of a creed or, in other words, a set of principles we live by - such as the teachings of Christ are the "standard" of Christianity.
Years ago when warring nations or peoples went to battle, they carried a flag or "standard" with them. On the flag was drawn or painted a symbolic representation of the cause for which each side fought. The cause was their "standard". It was a representation of how they measured life and the creed by which they sought to live.
The person chosen to carry the banner into battle was called the "Standard Bearer". It was a great honour to be called to such duty, for it was the duty of the "standard bearer" to keep the flag flying throughout the course of the battle. This was done so that during the battle, soldiers could look upon the flag as a reminder of the cause for which they fought. It helped to strengthen the resolve and motivation of the soldiers (hopefully on to victory).
But the honours of "standard bearer" were not without risk, for at every turn he became the object of heated aggression. It was the earnest desire of the enemy to cause ones standard to fall. In felling the flag, the enemy strove to show ones cause or creed was unfruitful - not strong enough to stand against attack or brutal force. In their eyes, it was not just a flag which fell - not just a mere piece of cloth, but the cause, creed and standard of the people which had proven itself unworthy. (This is where flag etiquette originated and why we never let our flag touch the ground.)
So, what does our banner represent? The meaning goes much deeper than colonies and 50 states. After all, we are 50 states all united under one government of our own free will and choice!
And the colors? The red of our flag represents courage - the courage to do what is right and just. It also reminds us of how our freedom was ransomed - by the shedding of blood.
Blue symbolizes integrity - not only in our dealings with each other, but with all people everywhere. It also reminds us to stand boldly on the side of truth and to be loyal to our people and the cause of freedom.
White is for "One nation under God". It also stands hand-in-hand with the other colors of our banner in reminding us that our motives in all things must be pure and self-sacrificing.
Stars were chosen to represent our 50 states, the lands of our inheritance, and the Constitution by which we are governed unitedly - in hopes that they may shine forth forever bright as an ensign to the world. These stars are white to signify purity and that our brightness of hope rests with God.
The early uniforms of our military, being chiefly blue or white, were also reminders to the wearer of why and how we serve - with courage, integrity and principle.
While many nations strive for peace, it should be observed that our Founders strove diligently to erect a tribute to it's source. Even if one does not believe in God, it must be acknowledged that the virtues of loyalty, integrity and unmitigated service to others make a noble bastion against the swelling tides of uncertainty in this war-torn world.
All the early patriotic songs of our country make reference to these noble attributes. One of my favorites, The Star Spangled Banner, is, to me, appropriately called our National Anthem. Anthems are hymns of praise to God and the song acknowledges that it is by his very hand our freedom endures.
Like all good songs, there's unually a story or experience which inspires it. The same is true of our National Anthem. The Star Spangled Banner was a poem written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812 when Key was taken prisoner on board a British Man-O-War. He'd come on board to negotiate terms for the release of another prisoner, having been granted permission by President Jefferson to do so. While the Admiral of the fleet thought Mr. Key's intentions admirable, negotiation was not the intention of the British, and they immediately set sail for Fort McHenry.
The seige lasted all night. Francis Scott Key recorded what he could see of the battle through a port hole of the ship - "the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air", but more than anything else he cared to know whether or not the standard of his beloved America was still flying.
The morning came at length. It was the Admiral himself who came to release Mr. Key from his cell and, without explanation, told him he was free to go. Thrilled at the prospect of being released alive, Mr. Key didn't stop to ask questions. He was conveyed to shore in a dinghy, then made great haste towards Fort McHenry in order to congratulate the American soldiers on their victory.
The scene which greeted his eyes upon entering that fort was one of death and ruin. A sombre air hung over the remains, and as he looked beyond the men who were striving to recollect themselves, he saw, to his amazement, the reason the American standard was still flying. Even though the British admitted defeat, it was not without price on the part of the Americans.
During the course of the battle, the British had succeeded many times in leveling our flag by repeated sprays of cannon fire. And each time the standard fell one or another of those brave American soldiers left all security behind to run out and hoist it again. The flag was still aloft by reason of being planted firmly in a mound of dead men - men who knew what the fight was all about; men who knew why they were there and why they were willing to die - so that their cause, their creed, their "STANDARD" might live on. To quote the words of one defender of liberty: "In memory of our God, our religion and freedom, and our peace, and our wives, and our children."
When we gaze upon that flag this 4th of July, let us reflect upon what it truly means. As we gaze into the night sky to watch "the rockets red glare, the bombs bursting in air", may our hearts be turned with increased commitment toward the safety and preservation of all she represents. Let us remember our own Pledge of Allegiance to this great Standard of Liberty with better understanding of what we've pledged ourselves to, henceforth to live better and more worthy of her hand.