“We don’t say the pledge of allegiance.”
I remember my father telling me that when I first started elementary school. Now, he did not say this as a black man in America, born in a negro hospital in the segregated south, but as a Christian, one who will without hesitation proclaim that patriotism is a sin. When my father talked about patriotism he was not referring to pride in our country nor the desire to serve it, but instead the undying allegiance to it that seems to be the expectation of every citizen. As Christians, we know that we should only declare allegiance to God, and yet so many Christians have embraced a sort of civil religion — one that dangerously blurs the line between politics and religion, and yet is incredibly hard to notice because we have been taught that America and Christianity are inextricably intertwined.
Indicative of the historically cozy relationship between Christianity and our country are the results of a 2015 Public Religion Research Institute report, which revealed that only 14 percent of Americans think that the United States was never a Christian nation. While there is nothing inherently problematic with this belief, it becomes troublesome when we then conclude that advancing America’s interests is the same as advancing God’s. Nineteenth century Americans were gripped by the idea of “manifest destiny,” an ideology holding that God had destined white Americans to claim North America as their own. Claiming, as God’s chosen people, a divine right to the land that others occupied, America began a war with Mexico in 1846, killing 25,000 Mexicans and passed the Indian Removal Act, seizing over two billion dollars (in today’s dollars) worth of land and forcing the original inhabitants to resettle. What in retrospect is blatant theft and racism in order to increase America’s social, political, and economic influence was at the time truly believed to be God’s will, simply because it would increase America’s social, political, and economic influence.
This reflects a willingness to advance America’s interests at the expense of others or God’s commandments, a willingness that hasn’t faded. This willingness to advance America’s interests at the expense of others or of God’s commandments has not faded. If you’ve talked to me about this upcoming election, you know that I believe the overwhelming white evangelical support for Donald Trump — 78 percent according to the latest Pew Research Center poll — puts toxic patriotism on full display, promoting an ideology in which the torture of suspected terrorists and their families can be supported in the face of what Jesus tells us is one of the two most important commandments: “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” How can we so often put America above God and our neighbors, and still feel so confident that we are doing the right thing?
For starters, our civil religion imitates Christianity in a way that makes it easy to confuse the two. The way we describe the Constitution echoes our beliefs about the Bible, a perfect document, one that is as relevant today as when it was first written. Recently, former Republican House Majority Leader Tom Delay said, “Jesus destroyed Satan so we could be free and that is manifested in what is called the Constitution of the United States.” Just as the cross symbolizes our faith, the flag to which we pledge allegiance symbolizes our country, and our attitude towards the national anthem mirrors our attitude towards songs in church, sacred songs that prompt us to stand when we hear them.
Of course, what I’m getting to is Colin Kaepernick, the San Francisco 49ers quarterback quarterback who is refusing to stand up for the Star Spangled Banner, saying, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.” Since his decision, he has become the most hated player in the NFL, with team owners comparing him to a former player who attempted to murder his pregnant girlfriend. And honestly, this is not surprising, even if only because of the strength of America’s civil religion: 55 percent of Americans that actually believe that Kaepernick’s reasons for protesting are legitimate, still think that he should stand for the Star Spangled Banner.
This is largely because most Americans associate the Star Spangled Banner with the military, which is a, if not the, fundamental part of our civil religion. A 2015 US News & World Report headline read, “Americans Have Lost Confidence… in Everything,” before noting that the only institutions that Americans have not lost confidence in are small businesses- which makes sense because they are made up of members of the community- and the military, which has the average highest confidence rating of any institution in America, political or cultural, since 1973. This is notable especially considering that many of the wars America has participated in since that time, including the Vietnam War, War in Afghanistan, and the Iraq War, are considered by the United Nations, most legal experts, and most international leaders to have violated international law.
However, while these actions have decreased American military legitimacy abroad, it has done nothing to harm opinion of the military at home. In fact, when we are actively involved in a war, confidence in the military increases — whether or not the war violates international treaties. Even more telling, the men and women who deploy these troops receive a boost in approval ratings, known as the “rally around the flag effect,” whether or not they are sending the troops to risk their lives for a war that is just, necessary, or winnable. Simply evoking the troops induces major shifts in the public opinion of American citizenry, and therefore appearing to be on the side of the military through lip service and allusions to their sacrifice is more important than a comprehensive understanding of what it means to stand with our soldiers and our veterans.
The backlash to Kaepernick’s actions becomes even more predictable after considering that only 43 percent of Americans supports the Black Lives Matter movement that Kaepernick’s actions express solidarity with. A recent ESPN poll revealed that 70% of Americans think that Kaepernick should stand for the Star Spangled Banner, with the majority in each of the 50 states saying “I disagree with his reasons, and he should stand.” However, what is very interesting is that the same ESPN poll also measured international support for Kaepernick, and the results were very different, with less than 25 percent of countries saying that he should stand.
It is definitely worth noting that the international view of American police brutality also differs greatly from our own. In 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Council criticized the United States, claiming that that the excessive use of force against African-Americans is a regular occurrence and that the institutional responses to police brutality regularly display a high level of structural racism. Amnesty International, the Nobel Peace Prize winning human rights organization, stated in a June 2015 report that all 50 states and Washington DC fail to comply with international law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers. When taking this into account, the message from the majority of international citizens seems less like, “The American flag is no big deal because it’s not my flag,” and more like “Why do Americans care more about symbols of people’s freedom than their actual freedom?”
What is clear about our conception of patriotism it is more about blind allegiance and adherence cultural norms than it is about justice. Our patriotism blinds us to social ills in order to preserve a narrative about America that allows us to continue to pledge allegiance without harming our conscience. Nicholas Kristof, a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, published an op-ed this summer titled “A History of White Delusion,” which noted that in 1962, 85 percent of white Americans believed black children had equal educational opportunity, a claim which was most definitely false. Martin Luther King Jr., who only ranks behind Mother Teresa among the most admired people of the 20th century, is viewed favorably by 94 percent of Americans. He only had a 32 percent favorability rating in 1966. While we are highly attuned to injustices that occurred in the past, we are often willfully blind to injustices that occur in the present.
Given that reality, boiling down patriotism to an infatuation with symbols is not only false, but also dangerous. A true patriot realizes that continuing to push America to fully embody the principles it was founded on, to fully recognize the rights that our military members fight everyday for us to have, is not disrespectful, but instead one’s duty. True disrespect is clinging to our injustices, and justifying our apathy with their names. A true patriot knows that respecting the flag is less about standing up for it, and more about standing up for what it is meant to represent. And if we as a nation come to embrace a more holistic view of patriotism, and grow to hate injustice as much as we do those who point them out, more people would be proud to stand up for the flag as well.