The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Some American Typology: The Gadsden Flag

by Sean Johnson

I was cruising down the road recently when a hog passed me. Not one of the sweaty, hairy, toothy things that live in the brush; one of the rumbly, metallic, two-wheel things that live in the garage—all of its valves and cylinders and carburetors and handlebars being as rumbly and metallic as they could manage. There was, however, something sweaty, hairy, and toothy seated on top of the hog. As his ilk is wont to do, he had swaddled himself in many fine leathers. He was rumbling metallically along at too great a clip for me to know just how many and how fine were his leathers, but I did notice the colorful design on the back of his jacket: a fanged serpent ready to strike. Now, someone seeing such an image on such a fellow might very well assume that the Hell’s Angels had finally traded in their skulls and demon wings for a more traditional and historical Satanic sigil (after all, graphic depictions of the Devil don’t get more historical or traditional than the serpent). But, they would be wrong (and maybe a little right).

They would be wrong because, in actuality, what I saw on the back of the swaddled fellow was the Gadsden flag—a flag depicting a coiled snake and the words “Don’t Tread On Me” dating from the time of the American War for snake yellow field Dont Tread On Me rebelIndependence. Since its creation, when it was flown by the Colonial Navy’s flagship (there’s a pun there, somewhere, I’m sure), the flag has represented at least one aspect of the nation’s international demeanor: mess with the snake, get the fangs. More recently, though, it has sometimes been adopted to represent the demeanor of individual citizens or citizen groups over and against their own Federal Gov’t.

They may be a little right, or at least justified in their mistake, because the talking snake is an awfully evocative image and its adoption by an ostensibly Christian nation or ostensibly Christian citizens could be puzzling. Of course, I can understand why the serpent would say “Don’t tread on me;” he knows by heart the whole bit about having his head crushed and we shouldn’t be surprised if he tries to talk his way out of it, that’s part of his modus operandi after all. What’s harder to understand is folks self-identifying with the serpent. Now, I could get behind a flag depicting the serpent and the words “Tread on this:” or one depicting a lamb and the words “Tread on me,” or “Feel free to tread on both cheeks,” but being on the snake’s end of the head/heel interaction should be understood as historically and typologically undesirable.

In so much as the flag represents a struggle, it is the struggle for American rights. I can certainly support that struggle, but it is a heavily qualified support. Civil liberties are wonderful and we should strive to protect them, especially if we have a written contract that seemingly guarantees them, but the Gadsden flag helpfully demonstrates that the way of violent resistance and the way of the serpent are one and the same. One could even say that both are the “American way” and the flag’s use would support that. Because there has been historic confusion on the point, it is important to note that the American way and the Christian Way are not the same. Many empires have harbored and supported the Church, but none (no matter how they might try) can usurp the role of the Church in the life of the World or in the life of the individual. So forgoing the way of the serpent, while perhaps un-American, is not unChristian, and submitting to tyrants like so many saints of old is not a betrayal of the Gospel. But it is not enough to say that the Church and the nation are distinct, it has to be said that they are sometimes and in some places directly at odds with one another. To know where, one must look no further than the respective flags, images, symbols, and types they rally around. They are not neutral, and neither are you.

Christ he will crush the head of the serpent

Sean Johnson is a student of Literature and can’t help but understand the world through images and types; bear with him.

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14 thoughts on “Some American Typology: The Gadsden Flag

  1. Excellent, as always.

  2. Sean,
    While I appreciate the reminder that we should not self-identify with Satan or his kingdom, I am a bit cautious about the means by which you reach your conclusion. Herman Dooyeweerd (that later Kuyperian-based philosopher) cautions us that when we limit our understanding to a single mode, we tend to have an incomplete understanding of the thing itself.

    First, you give us no historical context about the genesis of this flag other than to identify its creator and its use in the early US Navy. Was Gadsden identifying with Satan or a hedonistic set of assumptions with this flag? Was he insufficiently Christian in his thinking in creating this? I would like to know more about the presuppositions surrounding the creation of the flag’s image.

    Second, a quick look at Wikipedia (to the extent it can be trusted) says that this flag is based on Benjamin Franklin’s first American political cartoon that depicted the early colonies as a divided (cut up) snake–this was also related to the idea that the rattlesnake was a unique American creature (like the turkey and bald eagle) that was able to defend itself when unnecessarily provoked.

    While I appreciate your caution against an un-Biblical hyper-individualism and our too-quick response for “my personal rights,” I would also caution that there seems to be less balance in your column about the responsibilities of duly elected civil magistrates to rise up against tyranny. As I understand this flag, it is geared more toward a Biblically-based response against tyranny. Again, I do not sufficiently understand the presuppositions of the flag’s creator to defend it–maybe this could be the basis for your next column.

    Finally, if this flag is a result of the popularly-read work at this time, Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, then the flag could have more of a Biblical, covenantal, and theologically reformed view than you seem to indicate. I would suggest the very thorough and thought-provoking work of my fellow-PCA member, Glenn A. Moots, Politics Reformed: The Anglo-American Legacy of Covenant Theology to add to your understanding. Another good basis for a column.

    May you continue to challenge our sinful, not-yet-sanctified hearts with your thoughtful and Biblically-centered essays.

    Yours,
    Mark Gring

  3. Joshua Butcher on said:

    Even if the flag isn’t reflective unbiblical presuppositions, it is certain a theological irony of history insofar as many of the Founders mocked the principle doctrines of revealed religion and embraced an ambivalent deistic hope in the future of human flourishing, that was, and rightly so, a cause of great anxiety among their ranks.

    One could also quibble about the wisdom of choosing a specifically regional image (the “american” rattlesnake) over a specifically Biblical image. Sean’s final point seems a good one this score: no image is neutral.

    • Joshua, I agree that not all the founders were orthodox believers and some of them did mock what we cherish. However, much of our contemporary history tends to be dismissive of what many of the founders did believe and the wonderful influence of the church on many of the people at the time. My research, reading, and study of several of these authors gives me great encouragement about their genuine belief and about the influence of the church. This is not to say they all were that way. I am also willing to disagree with the “ambivalent deistic hope in the future of human flourishing” that several of them displayed–especially around the time of the writing of our Constitution (what a disappointment that was after such a glorious beginning). So, I am willing to disagree with the use of the serpent as a sign if it can be shown that this was its basis. However, it can also be that sometimes “a cigar is just a cigar,” and that the serpent symbol is just a reflection of the shape of the coastline from New England down to the Carolinas. Again, I do not know the history sufficiently well to argue this with a degree of confidence needed but neither do I believe that Sean sufficiently convinced us, the readers, that this symbol can only (or mainly) be associated with Satan. Note that Moses uses the serpent on the stick in the wilderness and Jesus refers to Himself in relationship to this sign in John 3:14, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up,” and John 12 “If I be lifted up I will draw all men unto me.” Jesus does not equate Himself with the Mosaic serpent but neither is that serpent representative of Satan, only.
      I certainly agree with you and Sean, though, that “no image is neutral.” Certainly Kuyper, H. Bavinck, H. Dooyeweerd, H.R. Rookmaaker, Cornelius Van Til, and many other good reformed scholars and theologians have convinced me of these things–and not from a postmodern, subjectivist interpretation but from a solidly Biblical exegesis.
      Thank you for the discussion. These are good things to consider.

  4. Joshua Butcher on said:

    Mark,

    All well made points, and I gladly grant you all of them.

  5. Mark, thank you for your thoughtful comments (and I apologize for the time it has taken me to respond to them). While I fully understand the historical moment and mindsets that produced the image (I’ll happily grant that there were no satanists among them), I chose not to catalogue them exhaustively since my intention was to highlight what Joshua helpfully identified as the “theological irony” of their adopting the image–an irony that persists no matter how many and how good the original justifications were. I would bet, too, that the reasoned, principled, even Biblical motivations of Gadsden and other founders are not always clearly present in the hearts and minds of individuals who adopt the symbol today.

    I am glad that you emphasize the faithfulness of some of our founders. They were not all Franklins and Jeffersons–we owe the existence of our nation to some very obedient men who did great things in the name of God–I’ll happily concede and celebrate that with you.

    One area where I would want to push back is in what you call “a Biblically-based response against tyranny.” At the heart of this little article (and probably your issues with it) is the a priori fact that I have trouble identifying a clear Biblical program for responding to tyranny in the way the early Americans did. I’d love to hear more on that from you if you have the time. Either way, let me repeat how thankful I am for your interaction (and yours, Joshua). Cheers.

    • mgring on said:

      Sean
      Thanks for your reply and do not worry about the delay. I am currently between semesters and this discussion is a welcome reprieve from reading the thesis proposal and preparing my online course and other research I should be doing. Thank you for the excuse to take a break. I will have less time in the next few days to respond.

      I appreciate your “push back.” I cannot defend all the things the early Americans did or all of their attitudes because all of us who are in the sanctification process are incomplete–we are not yet what we will become in heaven. However, I am certain that the American War for Independence (which is how they name it) was, in principle and its general means, founded on a Biblical response to tyranny. This is not a new argument and not original to me. Let me gently remind you to read Abraham Kuyper’s 1898 Lectures on Calvinism, lecture #3, Calvinism and Politics where he does some comparison between the American “revolution” and the French Revolution. Please forgive my “professorial voice” when I state that you have an ethical obligation to be familiar with your blogsites’ namesake and his writings. The Dutch neo-calvinist theologians and scholars will give you mature and Biblical responses to your very thoughtful concerns.

      In fact, your “push-back” is similar to the questions raised by Calvin against John Knox’s urging that reformers stand up against unBiblical magistrates. My understanding is that Knox (who dealt with Bloody Mary’s tyranny) had a lived experience that demanded Biblical responses–but Calvin was reluctant to accept Knox’s injunctions. However, Beza, (Calvin’s successor) was still alive during the 1572 St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of the French Calvinists (Huguenots), which helped to change Beza’s opinion and the future direction the reformers took concerning the relationship between the church and the magistrate. The response from an anonymous French Calvinist, “Junius Brutus,” was Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos, written in 1579 (it has since been attributed to Philippe Duplessis-Mornay (1549-1623) and Hubert Languet (1518-1581). This is a lengthy “tract” that was influential and spurred other writings about a Biblical response to tyranny and was the basis for the American Independence (see Glenn A. Moots, Politics Reformed, 2010, University of Missouri Press).

      I would urge the readers to download and read Vindiciae Contra Tyrannos. It is divided into 4 different questions and then lengthy Greek, Roman, Old Testament and New Testament Biblical responses to those questions. It is mainly a Biblical study of the covenantal relationship between God, the magistrate, the church, and the people. The authors begin with an understanding of the covenantal relationship between God, church, magistrates and people. If “covenantal theology” is a confusing term, I suggest the reader obtain a copy of O. Palmer Robertson’s Christ of the Covenants and begin there to gain an understanding of this significant approach to theology.

      The Vindiciae authors condemn the idea of a mob response or a populist uprising based on individual rights. They argue, instead, that it is biblical to take up arms against a magistrate as long as it was based on a just cause (they do draw from Augustine if I remember correctly), the problems were attempted to be resolved through legitimate means available (if any) and the magistrate is given a reasonable time, and as long as the uprising is based on the leadership of a “duly elected sub-magistrate or over-magistrate.” This is NOT revolution in the way we think of these things from a 20th and 21st century perspective–this is a biblically ordered approach to addressing grievances against a tyrant. The authors also acknowledge (based on Romans 12) that there may be times when God calls His people to suffer and die–but there are also biblical injunctions to reject tyranny and remove the tyrant.

      The biblical removal of the tyrant is exactly what the American War for Independence was about. Note, Sean, the images and types that abounded during this war. The Scottish Covenanters and their presbyterian theological ideas dominate–even to the point of the British calling the American leaders a group of “black robed revolutionaries” because they were presbyterian preachers who wore the Genevan robe. Note also the changes in the states’ constitutions to include biblical ideas about government and Christian leadership–these were a direct result of the First Great Awakening and a subsequent result of this Biblical reformation was the American War for Independence. But it does not remain the dominant idea after the Declaration of Independence. The American Constitution is condemned by several groups, the Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America in particular, because it neither includes a reference to a triune God nor a clear understanding of the covenantal relationship that should be maintained.

      So, back to the Gadsden flag. It makes little sense for us to use it apart from its historical context but the context could be more Biblical than we tend to give it credit–again, I am not familiar with the presuppositions that helped to bring it about. However, the basis for a response to tyranny is not something that was ignored by Biblically-based men and women during the 204 years between the 1572 massacre and the 1776 Declaration of Independence. It is we who have the responsibility to know this material, preserve it, and thank God for the men and women who willingly sacrificed their lives for the sake of the Gospel, Christ’s kingdom, and for the freedoms we have been able to enjoy.
      In the words of the reformers, “Post Tenebras Lux.” May it be so for us.

  6. Joshua Butcher on said:

    Beza’s important contribution: http://www.constitution.org/cmt/beza/magistrates.htm

    The Contra Tyrannos: http://www.constitution.org/vct/vindiciae.htm

    Samuel Rutheford’s contribution is here: http://www.constitution.org/sr/lexrex.htm

  7. Mark Gring on said:

    Joshua
    Thank you for your diligence–which I woefully neglected–and offering these wonderful links.
    Let me add another link from an author from whom I have learned a good bit, Johannes Althusius and his workd Politica: http://www.constitution.org/alth/alth_01.htm

    The links from Joshua are a wonderful addition and worthy of being read. My hat is off to you! These exchanges are a boost to my thinking–an incarnation of “iron sharpening iron.”

  8. Fortunately I am not burdened with any ethical onus of uncritical agreement with everything our namesake thought and wrote, excellent as he was. Regarding the scope of the original post I would note, first, that I was not explicitly condemning the War by criticizing the way some like Gadsden conceived of it, but as the war’s Scriptural warrant has become relevant to the discussion of the flag’s ‘historical context’ I will say a little more. What I find unsatisfactory about most defenses of violent resistance is the general failure or reluctance to distinguish sufficiently between particular nations/imperiums and the Church-as-Christ’s-imperium; that is, (even when the attempt has been made to ground it Biblically) the argument’s ultimate justification flows from civil citizenship (though the quaestio format helps disguise the rhetorical schizophrenia).

    Historically, I don’t find examples of otherwise great men wavering in the face of suffering to be compelling arguments. Nor am I, already familiar with the War for Independence and with the Church’s broader history of mixed-success in America (I mean success as an obedient moral agent, not success in proselytizing, etc.), ready to concede that even the overwhelming participation of clergy and their congregants constitutes a sufficient moral pedigree.

    I happily acknowledge and appreciate your encyclopedic exhortation; I hope to give these matters a lot more thought as time permits. I also happily leave you the inevitable last word. Please visit often. Cheers!

    • Joshua Butcher on said:

      Sean, you should check out an interesting radio interview Greg Bahnsen did on the topic of just war: http://www.sermonaudio.ca/bahnsen/Bahnsen_Iraq1990_WarJustifiedorNot.mp3

      Part of the difficulty in distinguishing between Church and State spheres is because they are mutually reinforcing–the purity of the Church aids the purity of the State, and vice-versa; similarly the impurity of the Church contributes the the impurity of the State, and vice-versa.

    • mgring on said:

      Sean
      I may be reading too much into your reply but if I insulted you, somehow, please forgive me. I did not mean to do such. I certainly do not want you, or anyone else, to take an uncritical acceptance of anyone’s writings–we should all strive, as you seem to be doing, to critique everything based on Scripture. As such, we begin with a presupposition of God’s sovereign providence over all things and all people. (Nothing, then, is even “inevitable” unless God has ordained it to pass.)

      I agree with you that there is a “…general failure or reluctance to distinguish sufficiently between particular nations/imperiums and the Church-as-Christ’s-imperium;… the argument’s ultimate justification flows from civil citizenship.” I would say, in my defense, that this presupposition is not one from which I operate. I understand from covenant theology and Kuyper’s sphere sovereignty that any challenge to the magistrate (I like the term “magistrate” better than the “state” because “the state” seems to imply an idolatrous relationship that attempts to replace God’s role) is legitimately done only based on the principles used by the OT prophets to challenge the magistrates–because they were violating God’s covenant.

      This Biblically justified basis for a challenge removes any perceived justification for armed resistance based on civil citizenship, individual “wrongs,” a preservation of the “fatherland,” or any other such idolatrous-based justification. Sphere sovereignty accepts a sharp distinction between the magistrate, church, and the family–as the basic unit of non-government and non-church entities. Neither of these spheres has the God-granted right to reduce the other’s realm’s sovereignty or to interfere in the other sphere without first convincing a duly-elected sub-majistrate that the other sphere(s) is violating God’s covenantal relationship. Hence it is not “the people,” the demos, Rousseau’s social contract, or anything other than God’s word that gives justification for any form of resistance–be it armed, passive, or other legally accepted means.

      Joshua, thank you for the link–an interesting argument from Bahnsen. Thank you both for an interesting discussion. May God continue to preserve and keep you.

  9. Oh not at all, I simply meant to signal my unambiguous departure from the thread, as it’s a busy season and there’s only so much time in the day. Again, though, excellent thoughts. I have my own cognitive unrest over certain brands of sphere sovereignty and over using the sometimes problematic intra-Israel priest-prophet/king relationship rather than Israel/Nations relationships to understand current Church/”magistrate” relationships, but the content of this discussion deserves a great deal more thought on my part. Who knows, the fruits of that contemplation may even bear fruit on this blog and lead to more thoughtful exchanges, Lord willing. Cheers.

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