NATIONALISM IS THE reigning passion of our times, and an extroverted American Republic has been more willing to show its colors than any other nation in the world.

Even the most casual look at the landscape reveals how conspicuous and pervasive a role the Stars and Stripes plays in the American scene. Our national flag inevitably adorns every federal, state, county and municipal facility, and we find flags on or next to, as well as inside, museums, public and private schools, monuments and most office buildings, hospitals, cemeteries, apartment buildings and churches.

Parade routes and ceremonial spaces are festooned with countless flags and flaglike bunting. Surprisingly few factory or warehouse structures lack flags, and often the pole and associated landscaping are large, elaborate and obviously costly. A high percentage of service stations and fast-food establishments display the flag on poles, exterior walls or windows. Automobile dealerships seem to be in competition for which can fly the largest flag.

The flag appears on trucks and automobiles, farm silos, advertising signs and billboards, clothing and many a manly tattoo. Perhaps most revealing of underlying attitudes is the large number of private residences equipped with quite expensive flagpoles from which the national banner flies, sometimes constantly. In brief, it is nearly ubiquitous.

Ironically, this increase in the cult of the flag comes at the same time that the observance of national holidays has become perfunctory at best. During the infancy of the Republic, July 4 and Washington's Birthday were great popular festivals, the occasions for wild rejoicing and national glorification. Subsequently, Memorial Day, Lincoln's Birthday, Columbus Day, Flag Day and Armistice Day came to be holidays of considerable solemnity and patriotic import. Today these occasions pass unnoticed by many Americans. Their deepest meaning for most of us is as an extended weekend.

What's more, the United States used to support what amounted to an industry for the creation of patriotic paintings, monuments, sculptures, verse, fiction and music. That is no longer true.

What does this apparent schizophrenia tell us about American nationalism? Do we have any ideals left that the flag represents? And if not, why not?

Clearly, citizens confer upon the flag a bountiful fund of affection and awe and celebrate it in song, story and ritual. No less an arbitor of American values than Time magazine asserted in its 1976 bicentennial cover story that "for many Americans the flag is literally a sacred object -- a symbol so charged with emotion that people cannot look at and judge, even, whether or not the design is esthetically good or bad . . . . We were the first people to declare an annual Flag Day. Our children pledge allegiance to the flag . . . . Unquestioning loyalty to the flag has been considered a fundamental American principle."

Among some segments of the population flag fetishism has gone well beyond the threshold of hysteria. It may not be too extreme to argue that, as the organizing symbol of our nation-state and of the Americanism that may be its civil religion, the flag has preempted the place, visually and otherwise, of the crucifix in older Christian lands.

The flag and the red-white-and- blue color combination are so omnipresent in America that perceptual saturation may have set in. As I can attest from field experience, you need much concentration to see the full extent of their presence; but if you take the trouble, the degree to which our visual scene is punctuated by these symbols is truly mind-boggling.

The frequency with which the tri- color combination shows up is especially astonishing. I have found nothing like it in my travels through Canada, Mexico, Central America, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, France Belgium, Switzerland and Turkey.

What makes this so curious is that the historical career of the American flag has been radically different both quantitatively and qualitatively from that of other nationalistic items in American landscape and behavior. In the early decades of the Republic, the national flag was remarkably unimportant to the citizenry at large. It was far less popular than the eagle, Miss Liberty or the figure of George Washington. Surprisingly, it was many decades before its design and dimensions were standardized.

The largest collection of songs and ballads of the revolutionary period fails to include any reference to the flag even in its earliest versions. An analysis of some 2,500 Fourth of July orations delivered between 1777 and 1876 notes that the flag was seldom mentioned before 1845 and the Mexican War. As of 1794, the "Stars and Stripes had never been carried by our army, nor would it be for another generation to come," writes flag historian Milo M. Quaife. "We had no Navy to display it abroad, and while it floated over some merchant ships and over land fortifications, the vast majority of Americans never came in contact with a fort or with a ship at sea."

If the ascendancy of the flag began in earnest with the Mexican conflict (and perhaps also with the growing popularity of Francis Scott Key's "Star-Spangled Banner," after the War of 1812), "the start of the Civil War encouraged for the first time on a wide scale the display of the national flag," writes flag authority Whitney Smith.

"The cult of the national flag, as it has endured to this day was a direct outcome of the Great Rebellion . . . . In Boston two weeks after the attack on Fort Sumter, (an orator) spoke of 'the flag, always honored, always beloved (but now) worshiped.' The word was by no means too strong. And what had been a stern and solemn enthusiasm in wartime became a joyous delirium at war's conclusion. As one writer asserted: 'After the fall of Sumter (to federal troops) Cincinnati was fairly iridescent with red, white and blue.' Cincinnati was but typical of all cities, towns and villages over the length and breadth of the land."

But the climactic era of flag worship was still to come. Indeed, it was only in 1943 that the Flag Code, originated by voluntary associations, was legalized by Congress. Flag Day was first celebrated in 1877, but the movement to popularize the holiday did not really take off until 1890. Especially during the 1890s, organized zeal on behalf of the flag attained fever pitch.

In 1888, the influential mass circulation Youth's Companion launched sustained campaigns to install a flag over every schoolhouse in the nation and to adopt the Pledge of Allegiance universally. Shortly thereafter, the Grand Army of the Republic, a veterans group, labored mightily to enshrine the modern ritual now surrounding the flag -- including inducing civilians to salute it, something citizens had seldom done previously.

The evidence leads inescapably to these major conclusion:

The public display of the American flag and derivative items has increased mightily over the past two centuries. With perhaps hundreds of millions of displays already in place, it may still be increasing. This suggests some important changes in the collective emotional life of our citizenry, since the trends for other equally powerful expressions of nationalistic fervor have been precisely opposite.

For example, national heroes from Thomas Jefferson to Davy Crockett were the objects of intense veneration from independence through the last century. Every square in the Nation's Capital bears heroic likenesses. Yet today these mythologized heroes excite us hardly at all. And it is impossible to think of a single 20th century figure in America who commands universal devotion.

What are we to make of this contradiction? How can one account for the enormous proliferation of the national flag in a land where other modes of nationalistic celebration have dwindled or fallen by the wayside?

I believe the explanation lies in a distinction most present-day Americans can't make: the difference between a nation and a state.

It almost goes without saying that the present-day United States is a splendid example of the nation-state, a thoroughly modern institution. By definition, such an entity represents an intimate fusion between state and nation. But that does not mean that a nation and a state are the same thing.

A nation, for practical purposes, is a tribe of people, in some cases quite ancient in origin, who believe they possess a set of historical and cultural traditions that place them apart. A modern state is a recent invention, a lofty, impersonal abstraction that is fleshed out by a government.

The distinction between state and nation is most vivid when states inherit two or more nations and are less than successful in forging a homogeneous nation-state. Lebanon's inability to meld its seemingly endless tribes into a state is classic. But closer to home, Canada still suffers difficulties integrating its French-and English-speaking nations. Iran, Pakistan, India, Belgium, Yugoslavia and most of the newly independent African countries represent states that have had grave difficulty assimilating peoples who view themselves as nations.

Almost as traumatic can be a situation in which a nation is born before independence -- before the attainment of political sovereignty and the creation of the state. Ireland, Bangladesh, Poland and Italy fit into this category, although especially instructive is the history of the Israeli nation-state. The preexisting Jewish nation, although territorially fragmented, was intensely conscious of its nationhood and the possession of a particular history and cluster of ideals. Through the mechanism of Zionism, the state, or rather nation- state, of Israel has come into existence.

The process of nation-state formation is least awkward (but perhaps most difficult to observe) when nation and state have originated and ripened almost simultaneously and have hybridized in doing so. We can see likely examples of this in the cases of France, England, Sweden, Japan and perhaps Australia.

The thesis I wish to propose is that the genesis of a self-aware American nation preceded the origin of a sovereign state in 1776; that for the next several decades the concept of nation was more powerful than that of state; that thus the two processes -- nation-formation and state-formation -- were out of phase; and that fact explains the contradictory trends in expressing our patriotic emotions.

The historical evidence that

American nation-formation

and state-formation have been out of step is abundant. Indeed, it is something of a miracle that a unified American state appeared at all, survived and ultimately became omnipotent, given the aversion of early Americans to strong central authority and given their dread of the professional military. In fact, it was only with the Union's victory in the Civil War that the solidity of the American nation-state was finally assured, with the state firmly taking the upper hand.

Distinctly different sets of symbolic activities attend nation-and state-formation. For the earlier American nationhood we find a full complement of explicit testimony to pristine Americanism: the heroes and their utterances; the meaningful place names; the holidays and other special celebrations; the mottoes and the exuberant oratory; the monuments; the music and literature.

With the advent of a powerful American state by the late 19th century, symbols and modes of national celebration began to lose their vigor. Whatever symbols lingered did so weakly, either transformed or submerged under the symbolic trappings of statehood.

The new symbols have differed from the old as benefits the altered policy. Like other successful modern nation-states, the United States acquired its own self-generated momentum and an essentially amoral character. The essential raison d'etre for the state is nothing more than its sheer existence; the fact that it survives and functions is the only excuse needed for continuation and growth. The old symbolic underpinnings are called upon only infrequently and then in greatly modified form.

Since the totally evolved nation- state would function within a fundamentally content-free framework stripped of entangling ideas or principles -- a status not yet fully achieved by even the most advanced of countries -- one would anticipate that its symbolic accoutrements would display the same tendencies. That is just what we can observe today in the United States: content- free nationalistic behavior in flag worship, the sanctification of the presidency and the engagement in international sport, to take the more obvious examples.

Unlike many other national flags, that of the United States is not quite devoid of a message. The 13 stripes signify union, as does the field of stars, which has increased to our present 50. But whatever idealism the concept of union may have conveyed originally, it is likely that now it is simply synonymous with current definitions of statehood.

More significant than the numerology of the flag is its more central message, one writ large upon the American landscape. It is an identification tag and the easiest way for present-day Americans to find social meaning, to identify themselves in a world where other allegiances have lost their power and magic.

This is convenient to the modern state -- that is, the would-be perfected nation-state -- in that this state differs from its antecedents. It aspires to become the supreme claimant for the loyalty and love of its subjects.

In the 20th century, the state is no longer content to exact obedience and wealth from the indifferent or sullen masses through brute power alone. The state can now realize its mission most effectively if it monopolizes the deepest feelings of its population -- if it is regarded as the ultimate repository of social values.

Such an ideal communion between state and citizen comes to pass most readily if the state is able to identify and intertwine itself with a single preexisting nation or, when necessary, with the nation it has been obliged to create.

The general conclusion we can draw from observing the national flag in the American landscape, past and present, is that it seems to provide strong visual evidence of increasing spiritual as well as administrative domination by the central state. Most particularly, it demonstrates the voluntary participation by the general citizenry in our latter-day statehood.

Such celebration of statefulness stands in sharp contrast to the fading away or emasculation of the outward signs of an antecedent faith. These include the axioms and aspirations that had bound together the early, relatively stateless, American nation. Among the most revolutionary of these was that the state is created of, by and for the people and exists only to advance their well- being -- never the reverse.