In ancient Rome, the Imperial cult was the worship of the Roman emperor as a god. It came to be at roughly the same time as Christianity. In the cult of the emperor, Caesar was revered as a deity. According to Harvey Cox, “This was what we might today call a “civil religion” — it had its holidays, processions, and holy sites throughout the empire. Adherence to it was required of all of the emperor’s subjects, wherever they lived and whatever other deities they also worshiped. It was the religious and ideological mucilage that held the far-flung empire together.”
Perhaps you see where this is going. There was a certain group that found the imperial cult, well, repugnant. They felt their own goals — bringing their god’s peace and justice to the world — were incompatible with this sort of devotion to a human institution, and the very institution that had killed their leader at that. Their reaction went like this:
Regarding worship of the emperor, Christians responded with an unequivocal “no.” They claimed that Jesus Christ was God’s kyrios (“anointed one” in Greek), but since kyrios was one of the titles attributed to Caesar, they refused to participate in the imperial cult. They were willing to pray for the emperor and for his health, but they stubbornly refused to pray to him or offer ritual tribute. They recognized that one could not be a follower of Jesus while also honoring a rival to the loyalty their faith in him and his Kingdom required; therefore, “not even one pinch of incense on the imperial altar.” This defiance of the political religion of the empire, which led their critics to brand them subversive, landed many of them in arenas with salivating lions.
— Harvey Cox in The Future of Faith
Now, you may be wondering, why am I asking if anyone still worships the emperor of a long-extinct empire? I maintain that this practice is still alive and well, just under a different name.
I have been interested in some of the debates about American institutions that choose to perform neither the national anthem nor the pledge of allegiance. Many of these institutions are Mennonite, and their reason for not participating in these two particular acts mirrors that of the early Christians refusing to worship Caesar: namely, their goal is to bring about God’s peaceful and just kingdom on earth, and no country, no human institution at all, can ever command greater loyalty than that cause.
Moreover, the American national anthem is a particularly violent one, celebrating the taking of life right there at the beginning. Not completely compatible with the ethics of a church trying to bring about a more peaceful world, right?
It is from that basis that many Mennonites, and our institutions, do not perform the national anthem or say the pledge of allegiance. For myself, when the national anthem is being performed, I will stand out of respect for those around me for whom the moment is important, but I do not sing. I am deeply appreciative that the United States, like many other countries, makes it legal to do this. I am heartened by the fact that I do not risk a confrontation with the lions over my religious stance today.
Goshen College, a Mennonite institution, recently decided to go back on a century of history (which goes back farther than the anthem itself, which was only adopted in 1931) and will now be performing the anthem, followed by a prayer, before select sporting events.
And by so doing, they fail both to act in accordance with the way of Christ, and to be a patriot. They fail to act for peace and justice by playing an anthem that supports and glorifies war and violence.
And they fail to be patriotic. Patriotism and nationalism are different things. It’s easy to be nationalistic — to get up there and sing a song that everyone wants you to sing. It is far more difficult to be patriotic. Being patriotic in the United States means using the freedoms we have to improve our country. Goshen ought to use its freedom to not observe the national anthem as a way to try to draw a line in the sand against violence, to suggest that our anthem fails to adequately recognize the character of the American people and who we want to be, and to suggest a better alternative. After all, those people who are venerated today as patriots — anyone from Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson to Martin Luther King — stood up to their fallible human governments to seek positive change.
Instead of a route both religious and patriotic, Goshen College has chosen one that is neither. I am deeply disappointed that 300 phone calls have apparently cowed their leadership. What have we come to when our ancestors braved the lions, and we give up our principles over the fear of… bad publicity?
Ah, Goshen, perhaps you are thinking that you could spare a few pinches of incense for Caesar after all?