Since I'm lecturing tggp on politics and religion, I thought I should expand the thought:
The state always partakes of the sacred. We have theoretically split them apart here in the USA -- no state religion, no divine monarch -- yet somehow "flag desecration" is still a viable concept. You can't desecrate something unless it's sacred to begin with. I'm not saying this is good, or bad, it's just the way things are. Humans work the way they do, not how you think they should.
What I mean is: there is always an aspect to government that constitutes a civic religion. It has rituals, sacred places, heroes and demigods, a whole mythology. This is essential to its function -- otherwise, it would be nothing but a bureaucracy. This mythology is what makes it capable of being the object of the People's Romance. This is not exactly a new idea, but it suddenly popped into clarity for me. And it explains why I have the same complex relationship I do to both atheists (those who reject religion) and libertarian/anarchists (those who reject the state) -- I say "yes, I am in sympathy with you, but your rejection is simplistic, you don't understand how people and societies work".
I've recently been watching West Wing reruns with similarly mixed emotions. The show always struck me as hokey, sentimental, and enamored of yuppie/Clinton/workaholic values to an embarassing extent. Nevertheless -- it's a well-made show, most of the time, and one of the things it does well is provide insiders views on all sorts of obscure rituals of government, such as the procedures for clearing out the White House for a presidential transition. It takes a naive, civics textbook view of government and presents a mildly insiderish view of it, without cynicism. I'm not sure why I like the show, since my default setting is extreme cynicism bordering on paranoia, but maybe it's just a welcome relief, an anodyne.
To make up for it, I found this article which presents the black and bloody symbolic heart of nationalism in the best apocalyptic/academic mode:
Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion, Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle
Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime. The more usual arrangement elsewhere has been strongly forged links between spiritual and political power. This is because the only religion that can truly deliver the goods must have visible agency, worldly power... Wherever religion is fervently embraced, it follows in the minds of many believers that it is entitled to glory in missions of conquest that reflect God's will. Islam did this for centuries before European monarchies accomplished it for Christianity. And though religions have long survived and flourished in persecution and powerlessness, supplicants nevertheless take manifestations of power as blessed evidence of the truth of faith.
.... The social geographer Wilbur Zelinsky observes that the contemporary American flag has a visual power and presence for its believers that is comparable to the medieval crucifix. We agree. The flag in high patriotic ritual is treated with an awe and deference that marks it as the sacred object of the religion of patriotism. The flag is the skin of the totem ancestor held high. It represents the sacrificed bodies of its devotees just as the cross, the sacred object of Christianity, represents the body sacrificed to a Christian god.
The soldier carries his flag into battle as a sign of his willingness to die, just as Jesus carried his cross to show his willingness to die. Both the cross and the flag mark the border, the transformative point at which the believer crosses over into death. In both Christianity and nationalism the violently sacrificed body becomes the god renewed--in Durkheimian terms, the transformed totem. In Christianity the revivified totem is the risen Christ. In American nationalism the transformed totem is the soldier resurrected in the raised flag. On the basis of his sacrifice the nation is rejuvenated. As the embodiment of sacrifice, the flag has transforming power. Certain acts cannot be performed except in its presence. It must be kept whole and perfect, as holy things are, and ceremonially disposed of when it is no longer fit to perform the functions of the totem object.
Some citizens openly speak of the American flag as sacred. Can we disregard the impassioned testimony of others that it is not, and neither is the nation it represents? The answer lies in the ritual gestures that surround the flag...The sanctity of national symbols is protected by treating them gesturally as sacred, even while we insist in language that they are not. And when the god commands it, we must perform the ritual sacrifice, war, that sustains the group.
Cohesion in enduring groups is accomplished within a framework of violence as a structural rather than contingent social force, religion as the truth that we are willing to die for, and the re-presentation of society to itself through blood sacrifice rituals performed on the bodies of supplicants. The most powerful expression of this religious framework in the United States, and perhaps not only there, is nationalism. On the surface, we deny nationalism's religious attributes and functions in order to keep the the killing authority of the group from being challenged by sectarian faiths that have been stripped of the power to sacrifice the lives of devotees.
Heady stuff. It certainly helps to understand the appeal of red-state warriors, and the troubles sane urban cosmpolitans have in displaying patriotism and pulling the country together. Sending young men to die is good for you and good for the country's geist, apparently. But only when it works, and it hasn't worked properly in the last few wars.
[Update: didn't realize when I was writing this that Veteran's Day was imminent. That's one of the chief holidays (holy day) of the state religion, where the ritual sacrifice is celebrated and the sacred honor of the military is upheld and reinforced.
The epiphany behind this post helps me get outside of this ritual and be skeptical of it. Not that I have anything against veterans as individuals, but maybe holding them up as a holy warrior class is a bad idea. The results of the presidential campaign indicate that military service is not as big a deal as the right would like it to be.
I happen to be working at a startup run by Mercurians who don't have much to do with veterans or military culture, so no day off for me.]