Looking back, I can only imagine how creepy this sounded. But as a dutiful first and second grader, one of the first things my class would do was recite, in unison, the Pledge of Allegiance:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Now imagine 15 six-year-olds saying that all together in monotone. This is the beginning of a dozen post-apocalyptic, dystopian psychological thrillers. To be fair to the Pledge, anything a group of six-year-olds says in unison is enough to give me the willies. As I said, it’s how a horror movie starts.
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Anyway, aside from the general creep factor, I’d never thought much of the flag or the Pledge or any of it until about two-and-a-half years ago, when Colin Kaepernick, then a quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, didn’t stand for the anthem and the country went nuts.
It first started in the preseason, which holds about as much interest for me as curling (i.e., none), despite my borderline obsession with the game. Furthermore, Kaepernick was coming off shoulder surgery and wasn’t expected to play right away and his team was a dumpster fire anyway, so I wasn’t really paying attention.
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That all changed when cameras caught him sitting on the bench during the second or third game of the preseason and every talking head and person with a Twitter account weighed in. From some corners, there was support for his message and cause, while a great many others condemned him for attacking the flag and being fundamentally unpatriotic.
My reaction? Irritation. I like my sports and politics as I like my peanut butter and engine oil: about as separate as is humanely possible. I did not appreciate Kaepernick or anyone else mixing the two together, especially since he timed his protest to coincide with the most toxic presidential election in my lifetime that was already giving me a headache.
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But as I observed, and occasionally contributed to the debate, I noticed a disturbing shift happen almost immediately. The narrative quickly moved from Kaepernick’s original point about police brutality against minorities to the flag and anthem. Those who were furious at Kaepernick, and there are a great many, blasted him for being un-patriotic, for disrespecting the troops, and for hating America.
They wanted him kicked out of the NFL, they told him to go to another country if he hated this country so much, and how dare he not stand for the anthem. Even President Trump weighed in the following year, roundly condemning those who followed in Kaepernick’s footsteps in protesting, demanding that they be “fired.” More than a few sought to bring some sort of legal action against Kaepernick.
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My intention here is not to engage in a political debate. Instead, as I watched the debate grow more and more vitriolic on the two sides, I was increasingly disturbed by how personal people, especially Christians, took the treatment of the flag. It wasn’t enough that Kaepernick and his cohorts knelt, instead of simply sitting on the bench, as a way of showing respect while still making their statement. They had to stand at attention, hand over heart while the anthem was played. Otherwise, they were traitors and, from the way people talked, had personally insulted them.
That got me thinking more about the flag and the way we treat it. I was reminded of what I had been taught of the flag in grade school and Pathfinders, and I became even more uncomfortable. We had special flag raising and lowering ceremonies. We weren’t supposed to leave it in the dark. It was never to touch the ground. It was always supposed to occupy the highest station. Even destroying a flag required special ceremony. The flag was treated like a sacred object. But when I reread the Pledge, my fears were confirmed: we have worshipped the flag.
That is a rather audacious statement, I’ll grant. Most reading this are probably either a) confused, b) want to burn me at the stake for even suggesting such a thing, or c) a and b. What we do with the flag is not what we picture worship as being, at least not right away. Granted, we do sing songs in its honor but we don’t preach sermons about it and we aren’t gathering weekly to praise it. We don’t have churches to the flag we attend. However, what we do with the flag does remarkably, frighteningly line up nicely with how the Bible and it’s surrounding culture define worship.
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Separation of church and state is, as many know, a unique modern conception. However, what we often don’t realize is that often the state itself was the object of worship in the ancient world. Of course, those who have read my previous two articles will be on to the fact that state identity and worship were quite closely linked.
As was discussed in the article on the temple, temples were built and maintained by the state as a way of pleasing the god or goddess in the hopes that said deity would grant them blessings, something John Walton coined the “Great Symbiosis.”
While it is true that the individual citizens did not directly appeal to the city gods, they were expected to participate in festivals and swear their allegiance to the gods. Having lots of worshippers, especially those that provided goodies to the temple, went a long way in stroking the god’s ego, which was always important to keep them happy. Therefore, one was expected to worship his or her city gods or goddesses, even if it was from afar.
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Now I want you to picture yourself as a typical person living in, say Babylon. Your main god is Marduk, along with Ishtar and every year, you celebrate the akitu festival where Marduk’s statue is taken out and paraded around before being reinstalled in his temple. It’s a big to-do.
Let’s say one year, you and your family are heading out to participate in the festival and you see your neighbor Frank (yes, a Babylonian named Frank) chilling outside his door. You ask him why he isn’t ready and he tells you, he doesn’t really feel like going this year. Maybe he’s mad at Marduk for something, maybe he’s protesting some new policy of the king, or maybe he just doesn’t feel like going and doesn’t care. Keeping the Great Symbiosis as your mentality, how do you feel about your neighbor not honoring Marduk?
Scared? Offended? Angry? All of the above?
Would you brand Frank a traitor, call him unpatriotic? Of course, you would! He is risking offending your city’s god, which puts everybody in danger. You would question his love for Babylon, her people, and everything she stands for!
Disrespecting the god was the same as disrespecting the city. The god was the ultimate symbol of a city or state. Some took this to the extreme of being synonymous with their god, such as Athens with Athena and Assyria with Assur. A “pious” person was not so much someone who was morally good, but someone who properly honored the city gods. Piety was essentially patriotism.
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But perhaps the most disturbing form of state worship that also has the most direct parallels to the flag comes with the Roman Imperial Cult.
When Augustus, then Octavian, came to power after a bloody civil war, he found himself in sole command of a vast empire stretching from Spain to modern Jordan, an empire as ethnically and culturally diverse as it sounds.
Before Augustus and the empire, the land held by Rome was really held by the families making up the Senate who went out and conquered, essentially as warlords. These held their territory through fear and brute strength, often relying on crucifixion. But now with an imperial system and power rooted in one man, such fear tactics and sheer force would not work. So how to control such a vast and diverse empire? For Augustus, the answer seems to have been the imperial cult.
While this was a novel idea in Rome, in other parts of the empire, ruler cults were not new. In Greek and ancient Near Eastern societies, rulers had been venerated as divine, or divine emissaries, or straight-up gods (hello, Egypt). Alexander the Great had begun to use the idea of an imperial cult with his own veneration to hold his empire together but died before it could get off the ground.
To be fair to Augustus, the cult wasn’t entirely his idea, but rather that of his friend Paullus Fabius Maximus, who started the cult in Asia Minor (modern Turkey), where the imperial cult was most commonly celebrated. But he didn’t exactly oppose the idea, only requiring that imperial cults be connected with Rome. Worship done to Caesar was to Roma et Augustus (or fill-in the current emperors’ name after Augustus), i.e. Rome and Augustus. Worship to Caesar was the same as worship to Rome.
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While flatly refusing divine honors in Rome proper, the emperors did not dissuade other provinces from building temples to them and offering sacrifices and such. Indeed, most often, the veneration of the emperor was the idea of the local populace, which seems odd. Why were these conquered people clamoring, even competing with one another to worship the emperor?
Listen to the words of one temple dedication:
and cult statue of Tiberius Caesar Augustus was set up in the gymnasium by him [i.e., Adrastus] at his own expense, the patriotic and unpaid and voluntary gymnasiarch and priest of the gods in the gymnasium, built the temple and statue at his own expense to his god [i.e., Tiberius].
Or this one:
We, ourselves and our children [swear] to harken and obey alike by land and sea, to regard with loyalty and to worship Tiberius Caesar Augustus, son of Augustus, with all his house, to have the same friends and foes as they, to propose the voting of divine honours to Rome and Tiberius Caesar Augustus…
Think about those words. Patriotic. Swear to harken and obey. Regard with loyalty and worship. Sound familiar? It should. Another way of saying would be, “I pledge allegiance…”
Reverence to the imperial image was just as important. It was required to be prominently displayed so that it permeated daily life as a constant reminder of the empire. It was “sacrosanct” so that even a slave could flee to the image and find sanctuary, while refusing to venerate the image of the emperor could result in one’s business being shut down or even loss of life.
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Again, this is eerily familiar to our treatment of the flag. The flag is to be treated with reverence and to be prominently displayed, looming over all other forms of representation. And while we may not execute someone for refusing to venerate the flag, it is significant that Colin Kaepernick has been blackballed from the NFL, a league that employs and has employed individuals who have beaten women, children, and even killed people.
And before someone protests that we don’t think the flag is really a god in the supernatural sense, neither did the Romans think the emperor had supernatural powers, like being able to control the weather and such. Rather, the emperor embodied the qualities of the divine. Specifically, the emperor embodied the virtues that defined the Roman Republic, such as victory, mercy, peace, and so on. As Everett Ferguson observed, “Rome was an abstraction but the divus Augustus was visible.”
…and to the republic for which it stands, one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
Eerie, isn’t it? The flag embodies the abstraction that is the United States, just as the Roman emperor embodied Rome. We have imbued it with the qualities of this nation, just as the emperor was imbued with the divine qualities of Rome.
While we may not go as far as the ancient Romans in enforcing venerating our symbol, so far as I know, we aren’t executing anyone for not standing for the anthem or saying the pledge, at the core, we are still worshiping the flag and by extension the country. The emperor cult was fundamentally about pledging loyalty and allegiance to the emperor, who was the physical manifestation of Rome. Is that not what the anthem ceremony and the Pledge of Allegiance are all about? Loyalty and allegiance?
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Loyalty and allegiance are, from a biblical perspective, the core of what worship. The two Hebrew words for worship are “to serve” and “to prostrate,” the same actions one would give to a king. This is in large part why YHWH was so against Israel having a king because He alone was to receive loyalty and allegiance. This is also why Christians refused to venerate Caesar and his image. Jesus Christ alone is Lord and worthy of loyalty and allegiance. There was a price for their defiance, yet it was one that they willingly paid.
Think carefully of what it means to stand for the anthem and to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Are we not fundamentally declaring our loyalty and allegiance to the flag and thereby to the United States, which is by its very nature an act of worship? To do so is to violate the 1st and 2nd Commandments!
Let me be clear: this does not give us license to ignore the laws of our nation and to act as if they don’t matter. Paul and Peter, among others, insist that we obey the laws of our countries and endeavor to live peaceful lives as upstanding citizens. But there is a definite limit to this.
As Christians, we cannot swear loyalty and allegiance to anyone but Christ and Christ alone. As Jesus said, we cannot serve two masters. While said in the context of money, the same principle applies to our allegiance to country.
For me, I cannot say the Pledge of Allegiance, nor can I stand for the anthem. While I will not tell you what you ought to do, examine carefully your conscience. Do you swear loyalty and allegiance to anyone or anything besides Christ? If so, tread carefully for you are on shaky ground.
Ferguson, Everett. Backgrounds of Early Christianity. 3rd-Kindle ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Horsley, Richard A. “Introduction.” In Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society. Edited by Richard A. Horsley. Harrisburg: Trinity International Press, 1997.
Jeffers, James S. “Slaves of God: The Impact of the Cult of the Roman Emperor on Paul’s Use of the Language of Power Relations.” Fides et historia 34, no. 1 (Wint 2002): 123-39.
King, Philip J., and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. 1st ed. Library of Ancient Israel. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Walton, John H. “The Temple in Context.” In Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament. Edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton. Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2018.
Warmind, Morten Lund. “The Cult of the Roman Emperor before and after Christianity.” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 15 (1993): 211-20.
Winter, Bruce W. Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015.
 Police brutality against people of color, in case you’re wondering.
 John H. Walton, “The Temple in Context,” in Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, ed. Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber, and John H. Walton (Grand Rapids: Baker Academics, 2018), p. 351.
 There were never any Babylonians named Frank. None at all.
 Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd-Kindle ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 182.
 Richard A. Horsley, “Introduction,” in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, ed. Richard A. Horsley (Harrisburg: Trinity International Press, 1997), p. 10-11.
 James S. Jeffers, “Slaves of God: The Impact of the Cult of the Roman Emperor on Paul’s Use of the Language of Power Relations,” Fides et historia 34, no. 1 (Wint 2002): p. 129. Cf. Ferguson, p. 202.
 Bruce W. Winter, Divine Honours for the Caesars: The First Christians’ Responses (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2015), p. 29-36.
 Jeffers, p. 130-31.
 Ferguson, p. 202.
 Winter, p. 83. Emperor Tiberius went so far as to melt down any statuettes of him in the city of Rome.
 Jeffers, p. 131.
 Winter, p. 82; emphasis supplied.
 Winter, p. 83; emphasis supplied.
 Horsley, in Paul and Empire: Religion and Power in Roman Imperial Society, p. 21-22.
 Morten Lund Warmind, “The Cult of the Roman Emperor before and after Christianity,” Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 15 (1993): p. 213.
 Winter, p. 286-89, Ferguson, p. 594.
 Winter, p. 51-52.
 Ferguson, p. 209-211.
 Philip J. King, and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 1st ed., Library of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 319. I will expound more on worship in an upcoming article.
 For readers outside the U.S., just substitute similar ceremonies for your country.