Amid controversy over quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s not standing for the National Anthem, a liberal evangelical clergyman blogged his own distaste for patriotic display in athletics. Lamenting the “liturgy of empire,” he recounted tens of thousands at a university football game reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and singing the National Anthem:
In case you didn’t catch my cynicism, I must confess that I’m somewhat conflicted about my American identity. It’s not that I don’t love my country. I do. But I don’t go in for the sentimental God-and-country shtick. I don’t sing the national anthem or say the pledge. I stand and take off my hat mostly to avoid being harassed, but I don’t put my hand over my heart. When my sons are next to me, I whisper, And now for a moment of forced patriotism. I’ve taught them to insert don’t after the word I in the pledge, although I’m pretty sure they ignore me. Patriotic rituals of this kind are my least favorite part of attending a game.
This clergyman described the pre-game patriotism as “unnerving and ominous in a Leni-Riefenstahl-Triumph-of-the-Will kind of way.” Riefenstahl of course was the videographer for the Third Reich, a genocidal totalitarian police state that murdered about 11 million and launched a world war of conquest that killed tens of millions. Did anyone else at this university football game think of her as they stood for the National Anthem?
Such disdainful critique of American populist patriotic “schtick” is increasingly common among a subset of evangelicals, among others, who’re embarrassed by traditional evangelical enthusiasm for America. Supposedly avid patriotism is idolatrous, and violent, and imperial, and arrogant and corrupting in countless other sinister ways.
Doubtless there are intelligent criticisms of American patriotic celebrations. But these contemptuous critics rarely if ever ponder the societal alternatives to enthusiasm for the nation. Suppose the 50,000 fans at this stadium who offended this clergyman with their devotion to America were instead indifferent to their country. Suppose instead they were fervid for their own competing tribes, political factions, ideological zealotries, ethnic groups, religious sects, or special economic interests. Suppose at this stadium instead of singing one National Anthem they broke into a cacophony of different regional or ideological anthems. And suppose this venting of rival loyalties, instead of concluding with silent reverence for one flag, ended in brawling riots that killed dozens if not hundreds of football fans.
Actually, this kind of murderous factional blood letting did transpire at sports events in the stadiums of ancient Rome and Byzantium, sometimes fueling wider and violent social and political stability. The infamous Nika riots in Constantinople, which started with rival chariot teams but had wider political ramifications, killed tens of thousands. This clergyman speaks of America as “empire,” but in real empires, competing tribal hatreds often flared and were imperially suppressed with even greater force.
It’s easy to get snooty over the perceived simplistic national loyalties of ostensibly common people. But people, sophisticated or not, will give their temporal loyalties to some identity or authority. And social justice activists should consider that reforming society requires widespread loyalty and love for that society. That over 320 million Americans live in relative peace and harmony with each other thanks to shared fraternal bonds as expressed in patriotic rituals like the National Anthem at football games merits more appreciation than disdain. Sneering at this domestic tranquility is a luxury much of fractious humanity does not have.
The alternatives to a common patriotism and national purpose have included Nazis and Communists brawling in the streets, Hutus and Tutsis murdering each other, Shiites and Sunnis waging fratricide, Baathists and ISIS terrorizing respective conquests, Hezbollah and Philangists dismantling a nation, Protestant militias and IRA terrorists fomenting discord for decades, Muslims and Hindus leveling respective villages, Catholics and Marxists massacring their way through a civil war.
There are presumably today displaced Syrians, Iraqis, Libyans, Somalis and Sudanese, among others, who wish their war torn nations could live together peacefully and with shared affection under one flag, one anthem and one pledge, expressed reverently at joyful sporting events and civic occasions.
Let’s pray that some day those nations do. And let’s pray that America long will.