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How the American flag can unify us during a divisive time


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SALT LAKE CITY (Deseret News) — Less than an hour after Neil Armstrong took his “giant leap” in 1969, he and fellow Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin unveiled a plaque. “We came in peace for all mankind,” it proclaimed, alongside a photo showing all the continents of the Earth. Moments later, they planted an American flag into the lunar dust coating the Sea of Tranquility — a decision, in light of coming for “all mankind,” that was heavily discussed and contested.

In a post on writer Bruce Watson’s American history blog, “The Attic,” he explains that debate raged at NASA over whether to plant the American flag or the United Nations flag. Perhaps even no flag at all. The universe beyond our planet had been declared neutral, and Americans didn’t want to be viewed as colonizing the moon. But since the lunar landing was a distinctly American achievement, made possible by thousands of people of diverse backgrounds from across the country, NASA decided the plaque would “dilute any jingoism,” in Watson’s words, and chose to go ahead with planting the stars and stripes.

Long before and since, the American flag’s history is one of unifying and dividing people. Its meaning is up to individual and changing interpretations. Post Civil War, the banner was used to signify what it meant to be an American. In the early 1940s, veneration of the flag conflicted with religious liberty in two landmark Supreme Court cases. It was coopted by liberal and conservative causes throughout the 20th century. And this year, ahead of a presidential election, flying the flag (or not) has been read by some as a signal of partisan loyalties.

“Flags have no intrinsic meaning,” flag expert Ted Kaye said. “They’re just pieces of cloth. They only have meaning that we attribute to them.”

Flags, he added, are supposed to be “for all.” They’re supposed to unify. But this July Fourth, questions about whether the American flag is a unifier — or can become one again — swirl throughout the country.