Your religion of choice is a long way from being America’s Falun Gong. For all our complaints and concerns, religious adherents here have a comparatively easy ride. Students in our public schools can wear a crucifix or a hijab, and no one’s sacred scriptures have been legally declared hate speech. It’s a free country if you’ll make cupcakes for everybody except the alt-right.
There is even a belief system in the United States that receives virtually no criticism. Its ceremonies are reverently conducted, emotionally evocative, expensively outfitted, and socially mandatory. That belief system is patriotism.
American religious types have good reason to love their country: hymns about lions’ gory manes did not originate here. But that doesn’t mean we can get lazy about it. Eventual atheist conservative Max Eastman argued that patriotism is a religion. “For there is nothing more copiously able to bind into its bosom the multiple threads of human impulse, and establish that fixed and absolute glorious tyranny among our purposes, than military patriotism. You will see how everything that was erect in this country bows down to that sentiment.”
Everything, Max? Isn’t that taking things a little far? On the other hand, back in my AWANA days, vexillifera were instructed that the tip of the Christian flag had to be held a little lower than the tip of the American flag. AWANA is a children’s group of the most stalwart variety of evangelicals, not, say, United Methodists.
More recently, Super Bowl L’s pregame show probably excited worship planners nationwide by finally engineering and executing the perfect “Blended Service.” Vested liturgists and traditional hymnody offered their appropriate subordinate support to the charismatic high priest of the culture, Lady Gaga, as she offered our sacrifice of praise.
The sanctuary was also perfectly appointed, since it is among our athletes that the social expectation of demonstrative personal devotion to the state has been made most clear: Gabby Douglas and Colin Kaepernick bad, Brandon Marshall good. Gabby got in trouble for forgetting to fold her hands during prayer time, while Colin got exactly the attention he wanted by flipping off the teacher. Brandon, on the other hand, got an extra gold star on the Good Boys and Girls chart from a nation of Sunday school superintendents.
You Can Always Worship America
There is one piety people will always be free to express: devotion to the state. But we should also ask how free we are not to express that piety, or if we are allowed to express it in ways with which we are comfortable rather than the emotive, nearly superstitious ways the state prefers.
Eastman argued that he and others like him felt “We can not stand up when the national anthem is played, not because we have any theory about it, but because the quality of the emotion expressed is alien and false to us. We cannot partake of the communion and be true to ourselves. And so many of us do not go to these meeting-places at all, or we come in late, or otherwise we try to avoid the acute discomfort of sitting quiescent under the scowling malice and ignorant suspicion of a mob indulging its fixed and habitual emotion.”
Is such an unpatriotic sentiment allowed in America now? Has it ever been? Eastman, reporting from 1917, noted that the crowd of his contemporaries who felt this way was philosophically disparate, including normally un-allied parties such as Christians, atheists, and socialists. Ye shall know them by their dangling hands when the flag goes by, and frown at them.
The most significant tolerance of perceived un-patriotism in living memory was the shunning of Vietnam veterans, universally understood today to have been not okay. Now, no matter what we think of the current military action, we pin flags on our lapels and sing our support of the troops. The Selective Service has not been activated since Vietnam, so there’s a case to be made that members of the military are in no greater need of encouragement from the general population than anyone who serves his country by being an honest worker, considerate neighbor, and dutiful citizen. But at the end of the day, it’s God bless America no matter what.
Speaking of God, we should point out that not all Christians, atheists, Socialists, and other likely candidates for lacking a natural or typical sense of patriotic piety do lack that piety. In fact, Christianity is also the biggest provider of syncretists to the religion of patriotism. For example, here are the lyrics to James Otto’s “Soldiers and Jesus”:
To me they’re both heroes for the path that they chose
One fights for my life, one fights for my soul
There’s only two people whose ever died for me
Laid down their lives just so I could be free
They both went through hell bared crosses and shells
And both got back up again after they fell
They never pick a fight but their there to pick up the pieces
God only knows where we’d be without soldiers and Jesus
The sacrifice described in this song is not to be diminished on this side of divinity. But putting it into parallel with the all-atoning sacrifice of Jesus is more than the piety of many Christians is able to bear.
Even without exploring the various qualifications that may apply to the service of an individual soldier, Christian theology allows no equivalence between any human being’s life and sacrifice, and that of the God-man Jesus Christ for damned humanity. Nevertheless, “Soldiers and Jesus” is a huge crowd-pleaser in the Christian population. Someone besides Jesus has been winning even tiny, dry, frigid Christian hearts.
Big Government Needs You to Worship It
We are blessed to live under a state built on the premise that freedom of religion makes for better citizens. But the ruling class that operates any state is more materially powerful than religion. Those in power are too self-preserving not to appropriate humanity’s natural religious impulse for its own benefit. The state needs offerings, servants, property, and martyrs to secure its future. The best way to get these pricey assets is through personal adherence to the cause.
Whereas the state is necessary for human society, the question is how much state taxation a society will bear. How much of our income for a sturdy public bridge? How much of our brainpower for politics rather than industry and the arts? How many of our convictions for shallow tranquility? How many of our sons for a hundred yards of ground? How many of their limbs for a stretch of dirt road? How many of our sisters and daughters captured by militaries whose prison guards haven’t heard about affirmative consent?
How much more easily do people pay these taxes to an entity they are socially rewarded to fear, love, and trust?
A good state is a huge gift from our gracious God. Our state was founded as a good one that allows us the free practice of our religion. But we are subject to that allowance. An inalienable right can still be stolen. The only religious freedom any state’s subjects can count on is their freedom to worship the state.