There is an unfortunate myth circulating that U.S. policy ascribes religious meaning — particularly Christian meaning — behind the procedures and ceremonies used to fold the American flag. This is not true.
FFRF has been alerted to several instances where the “Meaning Behind the Folding Ceremonies of the Flag” script has been used. Most often, these occur at military funerals, but this script has also shown up at Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) events in high schools, and U.S. military recruitment brochures.
FFRF also complained in 2010 to the Secretary of the Army about spiritual programming in the Army that included the flag folding script. Army "Spiritual Fitness" training described the religious flag folding in detail but noted it was an "unofficial script" that was "popular among many patriots." After receiving FFRF's complaint, the Army removed the flag folding script from its online training.
The myth of the religious meanings behind the flag folding ceremonies is perpetuated in part by the American Legion, a non-profit organization, with considerable influence over flag etiquette.
No U.S. law or policy supports this “meaning.” Nothing in the U.S. Code outlines meanings behind the folding of the flag. See 4 U.S.C.A. §§1-10.
Furthermore, the U.S. military does not officially endorse this script, and has over the past several years issued statements to that effect. In fact, in September 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs issued a memo disassociating itself from this script. Unless the deceased soldier or veteran specifically requested this script to be recited at his/her funeral, it should not be automatically included in the service.
The religious meaning behind the flag-folding ceremonies has even been debunked by the popular “rumor” website, Snopes.
“The Meaning Behind the Folding Ceremonies of the Flag” script outlines many alleged and discredited "religious meanings” behind the folding of the American flag. This Christian narrative typically reads as follows:
“The first fold of our flag is a symbol of life.
The second fold is a symbol of our belief in the eternal life.
The third fold is made in honor and remembrance of the veteran departing our ranks who gave a portion of life for the defense of our country to attain a peace throughout the world.
The fourth fold represents our weaker nature, for as American citizens trusting in God, it is to Him we turn in times of peace as well as in times of war for His divine guidance.
The fifth fold is a tribute to our country, for in the words of Stephen Decatur, ‘Our country, in dealing with other countries, may she always be right; but it is still our country, right or wrong.’
The sixth fold is for where our hearts lie. It is with our heart that we pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
The seventh fold is a tribute to our Armed Forces, for it is through the Armed Forces that we protect our country and our flag against all her enemies, whether they be found within or without the boundaries of our republic.
The eighth fold is a tribute to the one who entered into the valley of the shadow of death, that we might see the light of day, and to honor mother, for whom it flies on Mother’s Day.
The ninth fold is a tribute to womanhood; for it has been through their faith, love, loyalty and devotions that the character of the men and women who have made this country great have been molded.
The tenth fold is a tribute to father, for he, too, has given his sons and daughter for the defense of our country since they were first born.
The eleventh fold, in the eyes of a Hebrew citizen, represents the lower portion of the seal of King David and King Solomon, and glorifies, in their eyes, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The twelfth fold, in the eyes of a Christian citizen, represents an emblem of eternity and glorifies, in their eyes, God the Father, The Son, and Holy Ghost.
When the flag is completely folded, the stars are uppermost, reminding us of our national motto, “In God We Trust.”
After the flag is completely folded and tucked in, it has the appearance of a cocked hat, ever reminding us of the soldiers who served under Gen. George Washington and the sailors and Marines who served under Capt. John Paul Jones and were followed by their comrades and shipmates in the U.S. Armed Forces, preserving for us the rights, privileges and freedoms we enjoy today.”
If you encounter this myth in U.S. military use, please contact FFRF.
Written by Rebecca S. Markert, Staff Attorney
Last Updated 10/4/11