Flag Salute, Voting, and Civilian Service
Flag salute. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that bowing down to a flag or saluting it, often in conjunction with an anthem, is a religious act that ascribes salvation, not to God, but to the State or to its leaders. (Isaiah 43:11; 1 Corinthians 10:14; 1 John 5:21) One such leader was King Nebuchadnezzar of ancient Babylon. To impress the people with his majesty and religious ardor, this powerful monarch erected a great image and compelled his subjects to bow down to it while music, like an anthem, was being played. However, three Hebrews—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—refused to bow to the image, even on pain of death.—Daniel, chapter 3.
In our age, “nationalism’s chief symbol of faith and central object of worship is the flag,” wrote historian Carlton Hayes. “Men bare their heads when the flag passes by; and in praise of the flag poets write odes and children sing hymns.” Nationalism, he added, also has its “holy days,” such as the Fourth of July in the United States, as well as its “saints and heroes” and its “temples,” or shrines. In a public ceremony in Brazil, the minister general of the army acknowledged: “The flag is venerated and worshiped . . . just as the Fatherland is worshiped.” Yes, “the flag, like the cross, is sacred,” The Encyclopedia Americana once observed.
The aforementioned encyclopedia more recently noted that national anthems “are expressions of patriotic feeling and often include an invocation for divine guidance and protection of the people or their rulers.” Jehovah’s servants are not being unreasonable, therefore, when they view patriotic ceremonies involving the flag salute and national anthems as religious. In fact, when commenting on the refusal of children of Jehovah’s Witnesses to give homage to the flag or to swear the oath of allegiance in U.S. schools, the book The American Character stated: “That these daily rituals are religious has been at last affirmed by the Supreme Court in a series of cases.”
While not joining in ceremonies that they view as unscriptural, Jehovah’s people certainly respect the right of others to do so. They also respect national flags as emblems and recognize duly constituted governments as “superior authorities” serving as “God’s minister.” (Romans 13:1-4) Hence, Jehovah’s Witnesses heed the exhortation to pray “concerning kings and all those who are in high station.” Our motive, though, is “in order that we may go on leading a calm and quiet life with full godly devotion and seriousness.”—1 Timothy 2:2.
Voting in political elections. True Christians respect the right of others to vote. They do not campaign against elections, and they cooperate with elected authorities. However, they remain resolutely neutral with regard to the political affairs of the nations. (Matthew 22:21; 1 Peter 3:16) What should a Christian do in lands where voting is compulsory or in a situation where feelings run high against those who do not go to the voting booth? Remembering that Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego went as far as the plain of Dura, a Christian, under similar circumstances, may decide to go to the booth if his conscience permits. However, he will take care not to violate his neutrality. He should take into account the following six principles:
1. Jesus’ followers are “no part of the world.”—John 15:19.
5. Jehovah viewed Israel’s desire for a visible ruler as a sign that they had rejected Him.—1 Samuel 8:7.
Civilian service. In some lands, the State requires that those who reject military service engage in some form of civilian service for a period of time. When faced with a decision on this matter, we should pray about it, perhaps discuss it with a mature fellow Christian, and then make our decision on the basis of an informed conscience.—Proverbs 2:1-5; Philippians 4:5.
God’s Word tells us to “be obedient to governments and authorities as rulers, to be ready for every good work, . . . to be reasonable.” (Titus 3:1, 2) With that in mind, we might ask ourselves the following questions: ‘Will accepting the proposed civilian work compromise my Christian neutrality or cause me to be involved with false religion?’ (Micah 4:3, 5; 2 Corinthians 6:16, 17) ‘Would doing this work make it difficult for me to fulfill my Christian responsibilities or even prevent me from fulfilling them?’ (Matthew 28:19, 20; Ephesians 6:4; Hebrews 10:24, 25) ‘On the other hand, would engaging in such service involve a schedule that would allow me to expand my spiritual activities, perhaps sharing in the full-time ministry?’—Hebrews 6:11, 12.
If a Christian conscientiously concludes that he could perform civilian service rather than go to prison, fellow Christians should respect his decision. (Romans 14:10) If, though, he feels that he cannot perform such service, others should respect that position as well.—1 Corinthians 10:29; 2 Corinthians 1:24.