by Geoff Rector

There is nothing so foreign to Canadians as the American flag. Of course, we see it everywhere: waving venerably from every possible angle on CNN, flying above the door of every Canadian business hoping even in vain of making a nickel from American tourists, at the borders we cross every day by the thousands, and even from the houses of some Canadians who, well, just love the USA!!! It is ubiquitous, like much of American culture in Canada.

But again, there is nothing so foreign to Canadians as the American flag. This is because, unlike the Canadian flag, which in 1965, after years of negotiation and compromise, we agreed would designate the nation--what the linguists would call a sign of convention--the American flag is a sacralized symbol. It is an object of public veneration that focuses the belief systems of a quasi-religious cult of the nation.

That difference, between the sign that works by virtue of convention and the symbol that embodies a system of public ideology, gets to the heart of the differences between Canada and the U.S. It gets to the reason why Canada did not participate in the war on Iraq, and why Canadians are soon going to change the legal definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. But first, an anecdote.

Sometime in the mid-1990s, with Washington still abuzz with the 1989 U.S. Supreme Court decision protecting flag burning as a First Amendment right, I sat watching the news with my wife and mother-in-law. Out of the goggled silence of post-supper television, my mother-in-law suddenly objects to the sight of two zealous youths burning the American flag: "That's not right," she says.

My wife and I are astonished, and turn to gauge her sincerity. "No, they shouldn't be burning that flag," she says and, against what we both thought was only common sense, offers her unfathomable position that it should be a crime. "Look, these kids go down to some school or public library, steal a flag, and then burn it. That's terrible." But no, we counter, the flag was legally purchased on their way to the protest. "Oh," she says, "well there's nothing wrong with that."

The notion that the destruction of the flag might be a crime against "the People" or an "Indignity to the Nation" was so completely outside her frame of expectation that she had assumed the debate concerned property crime. The attitude, particularly the modest concern with property, is quintessentially Canadian. The notion of the flag as a symbol, embodying the ideals that constitute the nation, is totally foreign.

As different observers since Alexis de Toqueville have remarked, the U.S. is organized by a set of ideological tenets: liberty, equality, individualism, laissez faire, and so on. G. K. Chesterton wrote in What I Saw in America, for example, that "America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence." Chesterton and many others have suggested this national creed shades over into the realm of the religious: The creed is not only a matter of civic practice, but it is venerated, pursued with missionary zeal, and offers solace from fear.

Like most religions, the cult of the American nation, forged in the experiences of dissenting Protestant settlers and in the context of a War of Independence, carries with it a fear that borders on paranoia: a fear of foreign attack, a fear of enemies foreign and domestic. And like every religion, it can appear from the outside as irrational belief.

When Chesterton traveled to the U.S. in 1922--that is, just at the cusp of America's great arrival in international machination--the visa form posed him the question, "Are you in favor of subverting the government of the United States by force?" Since no one, regardless of their intentions, would answer "yes," we can see the question more as an expression of American fears than as an expression of bureaucratic interest. Much more lavish in the language of its paranoia is the "Oath of Allegiance" sworn by new citizens. In being naturalized into the great congregation of the democratic, the equal, and the free, new citizens are asked to state, "I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic... so help me God."

The same combo of idealism and fear is also found in American perceptions of the flag. Consider the language used in the debates surrounding the 1989 Supreme Court decision. On June 27, 1989, Congressman Bill Young of Florida spoke in the House in support of legislation that sought to reestablish "desecration of the flag" as a federal crime. He described the American flag as a symbol of "liberty, justice, and freedom" for "the nation," for the "suffering of those Americans who followed the American flag into battle," and, in an even more grueling abuse of sentiment, for "our children and grandchildren" who will be able to "work in the job of [their] choice and worship in the church of [their] choice" because of the ideals it embodies.

In 1997, during further debate, David Skaggs, a Democratic representative from Colorado who voted against recriminalizing flag burning, described the flag as an "exquisite symbol of our freedoms." He argued, "A few zealots misguidedly believe that flag desecration will further their cause.... But their idiocy provides no excuse for us to weaken the First Amendment. While isolated acts of disrespect for the flag may test our tempers, we should not let them erode our commitment to freedom of speech."

For both Skaggs and Young, the flag does not designate the nation itself, but symbolically embodies a set of ideals for and to the nation. And neither politician could separate these beliefs, which are supposed to be about domestic governance, from a fear of foreign conflict and attack. There are zealots out there. We must do battle with them to protect the beliefs for which the flag is a sacramental object, even if this means allowing the sacramental object itself to be destroyed. In this respect, Skaggs sees the flag as a Christ figure, calling us to veneration of the nation and to a national mission: Protect the ideals from the potentate and his zealots.

When New York and Washington were attacked on September 11, Americans drew immediately upon the idealism and the fear of their national religion, both to explain what happened and to find solace. Much of the rest of the world, in great sympathy with the U.S., saw the attacks as a perverted and horrifying response to American power. But many Americans, George W. Bush most notable among them, felt their values were under attack. "They" hate us because of "our commitment to freedom and democracy," they hate "our ideals"--these were common explanations of the attacks. And as a result, they sought solace in the renewed veneration of the flag. Its raising was the first task of rescuers at the WTC, and it soon flew from what seemed like every available projection. Vehicles official and private mounted flags on their windows, and the sale of flags soared as the suburban porch without a flag became morally suspect.

At the time, I was living in Manhattan and, perhaps frustrated in my own experience of shock, I didn't understand how veneration of the flag could possibly be an appropriate response to the attack. It was obviously giving people needed consolation and solace, but how? In retrospect, nothing seems more appropriate given the flag's sacred status. It reaffirmed the beliefs of the public religion, and its presence demonstrated that the ritual fear at its core had been experienced properly: The foreigners have attacked, and the flag is still there. Raising the flag consoles because it marshals a power against fear.

Fear and religious idealism also got wrapped up in American arguments for the invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration justified the invasion as an ideological and pious duty, not just to the "American people," but to the international community, which has no contact with America's quasi-religious customs. Without this ideological "evidence," the material evidence in favour of invasion at that moment seemed simply insufficient. And Canada did not go to war.

Paul Cellucci, the U.S. ambassador to Canada, was distressed by this, told us publicly that we had abandoned our allies in the cry of alarm, that we just didn't understand how September 11 had affected Americans. He's right: We didn't. Even if we had, it was still insufficient reason to go to war against Iraq.

But for all the obvious deformities in the logic of Bush's arguments, caused by the interests of greed and naked power, Bush and Rumsfeld and Richard Perle also seem to sincerely believe that the military exportation of these religious beliefs in "freedom and democracy" can save the world and protect "the American people." And it is here, where military might meets self-interest under the sincere banner of national duty, that the sacral nature of American culture is both dangerous and alienating.

Canada is a scattered collection of regions formed by an act of political compromise, the Confederation of 1867. The country was founded on pragmatic negotiation: There was no national project, no national creed, and this continues to be expressed as a general suspicion of grand projects and romantic designs. This mistrust of idealistic motivations, of course, was a factor in the Canadian decision not to join the war against Iraq.

Ambivalence toward the grand project makes Canada wary of American idealism. When the American Revolution ended in 1783, the population of Canada almost doubled with the immigration of Loyalists: That rejection of republicanism has stayed with us as a suspicion of political idealisms. But we are also specifically unnerved by the U.S.: The Confederation of 1867 was largely motivated by a fear of Manifest Destiny, and the push to confederate the western provinces was driven by worries of American encroachment.

Thus, like the American flag, the Canadian flag embodies a culture of public governance and a fear of the outside world--in particular, the U.S. This is why Canadians are so careful to display the flag when they are traveling abroad. It is not an act of nationalist pride, but a sign calling out, "Hey, I'm here, I'm not American, and I'm not responsible." I sometimes think it should come with a tag that reads: "We're different! Ask me!"

And while it has some nationalist sentiment, the Canadian flag is a purely secular symbol. The flag does not embody a coherent set of political or ideological tenets and it cannot offer solace. It may be associated with things that characterize this political federation, such as socialized health care, or its people, but there are simply no sacral qualities to the Canadian flag. It is part of a coherent public culture in which we also assign no sacral qualities to the government, to the Constitution, or even the nation. These are all pragmatically negotiated and fully secular institutions.

One of the great fallacies of American belief is in its supposed separation of church and state. Never really separated, as we see in the appeals to God in the Pledge of Allegiance and in the oath of citizenship, American culture faces the larger problem of the homology between its state and the church. The cult of the American nation functions as a religion of public culture and in this respect exists as a twin to the church; and, as David Skaggs' notion of a Christlike flag demonstrates, the two have fed one another in both concept and language. But in Canada, the two are functionally separate and formally distinct: the one public and secular, the other private and religious.

American public life is saturated with religious worship: The president prays on TV, celebrities thank God for their successes at the box office, the university lawns host impromptu Baptist hootenannies. And the religious right in America can make persuasive appeals on public policy from religious grounds.

In Canada there are no appeals to God made in any official government ceremony. There have been six Canadian prime ministers in my lifetime, and I have never seen any of them pray on TV--to do so would be an outrageous violation of the taboos of Canadian public culture. This isn't necessarily because Canadians are any less Christian than Americans--although I have my suspicions--but because the state is truly secular. Religion is a strictly private matter, kept discreetly behind closed doors where, like sexual preferences, it is not the business of the state.

The analogy between religious worship and sexual habits is timely, as Canada prepares legislatively to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. In anticipation of that federal legislation, the province of Ontario has already granted marriage licenses to many same-sex couples. This is happening now precisely because of the generally secular nature of public culture and the particular history of our Constitution and its Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The Charter grants "equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination," and as both the Supreme Court of Ontario and the federal government now agree, this must mean that same-sex couples have the right to marriage, which is a civic ceremony. This particular decision, founded on the complete division of public and private morals, is also aided by the particular histories of the Constitution.

In 1982, our Constitution was repatriated by Prime Minister Trudeau, who had been responsible in 1967 for the decriminalization of homosexuality. Trudeau had famously justified that legislation with the dictum that "the state has no place in the nation's bedrooms." The dictum was persuasive, against lingering prejudices, because there already existed a culture that drew very strict distinctions between private morals, associated with troublesome ideologies, and civic practices. And when Trudeau died in 2000, it probably didn't surprise too many to learn that he had been a devout Catholic.

We still associate Trudeau's dictum with the Charter; and even now, as some people continue to argue against same-sex marriage on the grounds that it will undermine traditional or religious values, we know that the decision to give the civic rights of marriage to same-sex couples will stand, because there is no way for religious definitions of marriage to influence civic definitions. The Constitution and civic culture are simply too firmly secular and too radically distinct from religious practice.

So, as you did in numbers during the Vietnam War, give us your tired--exhausted by the president's gruesome masking of realpolitik behind the ideals of freedom and fear of the foreign zealot; give us your poor naturalized Pakistanis now caught by Homeland Security as "enemies domestic"; give us your stoners, who for matters of juridical convenience can now buy marijuana without fear of criminal prosecution; and give us your queers, so they can create a brand-new dimension to the Canadian wedding planner economy.