The Religious Fervor of the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem

by , September 17, 2016

Give The New York Times’ David Brooks credit for referring to the aesthetic trappings of American nationalism as "religion." Well, a civic religion, but a religion none the less. He’s right that is qualifies as one, even if he’s blissfully, happily accepting of its dangers, and is in fact mourning patriotism’s decline.

Brooks has provoked some well-earned scorn for his column which condescendingly scolds San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and all who would dare to "take a knee" instead of stand in the theologically-appropriate stance for the National Anthem. However, it’s not just that a lazy pundit is lecturing a black man about his choice to protest what he considers racism in the American justice system. Brooks’ gooney embrace of collective nationalistic rituals is shallow, and optimistic in the most disturbing sense of the word. He’s not alone in cheering for patriotism, but he’s not putting up even a slightly intellectual defense of it; more a collectivist and nationalist one.

First, all patriotic actions are the same. The National Anthem, with its bombastic third stanza about killing slaves, is equal to the Pledge of Allegiance, a robotic, moldy 19th century socialist loyalty oath that children in public school say most often. Waving a flag is cheering a soldier, and if we stop any of it, Brooks is concerned that our nation will stop improving itself. He has written a mildly interesting act of pundit contortionism, but that’s it. At its core, the piece is merely New York Times-speak for pure tribalism. If you do not stand, you are not in the in-group, and therefore cannot help to make that group better. It’s "you can’t sit with us" dressed up as deep thoughts.

Never mind that Kaepernick has made the reason for his protest quite clear. He’s thought about it, even if it’s not likely to get him anywhere, or even if you disagree entirely or in part with his reasoning. To Brooks, uniformity and nationalistic solidarity must come first. And then, well, somehow we’ll get to fixing the problem once we all agree that we’re in this together. Brooks is part of a particular, tedious subgroup of pundit who is just dying to have a grand national purpose again, but he is not alone in his dangerous fondness for collectivism and patriotism.

A common, confused critique of actions like Kaepernick’s is that darn it, soldiers died so he would have the freedom to not stand for the National Anthem. Pretending that that statement is itself factual (somehow), it is still unsatisfying. Were we as Americans not supposed to exercise the rights to protest and free speech that the troops reportedly died for? And why is critiquing America while being free to do so in a way you might not be in other nations, again, intended to be an argument against that act of protest?

A piece in Foreign Policy is headlined "Colin Kaepernick is Lucky He is Not Japanese." The writer makes a stab at making Kaepernick seem foolish for protesting, because he hasn’t been punished the way a 60-something Japanese teacher has been for her decades of refusal to stand for her country’s national anthem. The teacher, Kimiko Nezu, has spent 40 years having her pay docked, and her actions critiqued. She’s gotten death threats. But into her retirement, she did not stand because of what Japan did during its colonial fever during, and prior to, World War II. She is still engaged in lawsuits over how she was treated. The piece contains a fascinating piece of Japanese history that many Americans may not know. It also makes a strange, halfhearted try at scolding Kaepernick, even though Nezu says she agrees with his efforts.

The article does, arguably, make a subtle case for America. This nation doesn’t have its people stand for the National Anthem before watching a movie (just sports events). And it doesn’t punish adults for not standing for the Pledge, it merely contains teachers who dock the grades of high school students who are following their conscience.

Intense social pressure and bad grades being superior to, say, prison doesn’t make them a good response to opting out of this "civil religion" of which Brooks writes so lovingly. If America is so great, does it need a ritualized reminder? Does any nation call for such limited, narrow praise and celebration, when nations, history, and people are always going to be more complicated than that?

It’s easy for some people to ignore questions, and to feel good, or at least satisfied by ritualized patriotism. Perhaps not engaging in it only alienates these people, and makes them feel more imperiled. However, some of us don’t feel comfortable with those displays. Furthermore, I’d argue that they perpetuate the reason why they make me so uncomfortable. And isn’t that their purpose? To celebrate America sans all nuance? To cheer the military at sporting events, even at millions of dollars of cost to the taxpayer? (Yep, the NFL and college football both get paid by the military for patriotism, which offends even the ostensibly pure of heart politicians who love flag. Now nobody’s happy.)

Americans don’t just forget wars quickly, or atrocities on their nation’s collective head. We even forget how much we forgot. Nobody wants to remember how the Dixie Chicks nearly lost their careers for speaking out against President Bush on the eve of the Iraq war (talk about conservatives needing safe spaces). It’s uncomfortable to recall cheering on the war when now it is officially A Bad Thing. Yet, people did. The regular people cheered the war, then tired of it. The "intellectuals" were reduced to writing self-aggrandizing mea culpas on the tenth anniversary.

We don’t need or want to be reminded of America’s failings, but we must be told again and again that the nation is good and right. Kaepernick has done a shameful thing, even though before 2009, the NFL played the song before the players took the field, thereby preventing this terrible controversy. (We don’t seem able to remember that either.)

Why do we need to harp on America’s goodness so? Are we trying to convince it, or ourselves? Why is the military financially and rhetorically tied so closely to schools, sports, and Hollywood in our country? All of this means – at least to some of us – that these little actions are charged with much more meaning. Kaepernick should be able to play football without having to worry over ruining his career because he feels uncomfortable standing at attention for the the National Anthem. They made it political, not Kaepernick.

Symbolism is either important, or it isn’t. Some people argue that standing for the Pledge, or the National Anthem doesn’t translate to support for everything the US has ever done. But it’s intended to be a show of tribalism, isn’t it? Just as Brooks said, it’s supposed to say that we’re all in this together. Not as human beings, but as residents of the same state, who are supposed to react to soldiers as if they’re Christ dying for their America-centric sins; who should treat America’s freedoms as an excuse not to exercise them, for fear we offend the gods.

Just like any other human activity, this kind of seemingly harmless ritual of thanks or praise starts to warp when it reaches the size of the US. We teach children the Pledge, because they are supposed to be loyal to America’s nicest picture. We insert nationalism and patriotism into sports and other entertainment so that we can never forget that it is good, and we wouldn’t be able to watch football at all without our troops.

Not going into a tizzy over people’s refusal to participate in nationalistic communion would be a great first step towards making America better than it is. Not concerning ourselves about who is sitting or standing would help to rob these rituals of their religious power, which is why we must worry, worry, worry.

Lucy Steigerwald is a contributing editor for Antiwar.com and a columnist for VICE.com. She previously worked as an Associate Editor for Reason magazine. She is most angry about police, prisons, and wars. Steigerwald blogs at www.thestagblog.com.

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