"When did the protocol of putting your hand over your heart during the national anthem change?"
It wasn't meant as a rhetorical question. My friend was curious. A wide-ranging conversation over an adult beverage or two about the presidential campaign - in my humble opinion, the only way to discuss it - turned to the now-notorious photograph of Democratic candidate Barack Obama sans right hand over his heart during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner" at an Iowa fundraiser in September 2007.
In the world of the Internet, nothing ever goes away, and Obama continues to be dogged for the Time magazine image that shows opponent Hillary Clinton and former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson at the same event, right hands placed over their hearts during the playing of the national anthem. (Only Richardson appears to be singing.) Obama's arms are down, his fingers are laced, and his hands are positioned below his belt buckle.
"Obama did not refuse to salute the flag," his defenders cried, citing the candidate's own remarks about the incident once the photo started circulating. "He just did not salute the National Anthem."
Therein lies the problem: the tradition for both is the same.
The protocol for how Americans should behave during patriotic and national observances and ceremonies can be found in the U.S. Code, an enlightening if dryly written compilation of general and permanent federal laws published by the Office of the Law Revision Counsel of the U.S. House of Representatives.
Scroll down to Chapter 3, Section 301 of Title 36 and you get to the part about what to do when the National Anthem is played.
If the U.S. flag is displayed - and it apparently matters not if this is an indoor or outdoor venue - everyone except "those in uniform" should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart.
Men not in uniform but wearing hats should "remove their headdress with their right hand and hold the headdress at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart."
Military personnel in uniform "should give the military salute at the first note of the anthem and maintain that position until the last note."
If the anthem is played at a venue at which no U.S. flag is displayed, "all present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed," the code states.
Of course, in a nation built on the foundations of free speech and freedom of religion, Americans can decline from following such protocols if they choose. Many a court case has been waged on behalf of Jehovah's Witnesses, who refuse on religious grounds to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and salute the U.S. flag. Witnesses take the Old Testament's prohibition against graven images and idolatry seriously. To them, Exodus 20:4-5 - "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image. ... Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them" - means no pledging loyalty to a nation or a nation's flag.
What appears to be universally understood is that it's appropriate to stand if one is able during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Standing during "America the Beautiful" is optional, as is during "God Bless the USA," even if it's Lee Greenwood singing it.
But be warned: you're bound to get some go-to-hell looks if you live south of the Mason-Dixon line and choose to stay in your seat during either.