Flags and Religion
PATRIOTIC fervor often causes persons to manifest an ardor and zeal that resembles religious devotion. This influences them not only to give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s but at times even to give Caesar that which belongs exclusively to God. Such persons might be said to confuse religion with politics. A common example of such patriotic fervor is the devotion that many tender to the flag of their nation.
Note, for example, what the Encyclopedia Americana, Vol. 11, page 316, has to say about human attitude toward such flags: “The flag, like the cross, is sacred. Many people employ the words or term ‘Etiquette of the Flag.’ This expression is too weak, too superficial and smacks of drawing-room politeness. The rules and regulations relative to human attitude toward national standards use strong, expressive words, as, ‘Service to the Flag,’ ‘Respect for the Flag,’ ‘Reverence for the Flag,’ ‘Devotion to the Flag.’”
And as regards saluting the flag, this authority, among other things, has the following to say: “In the United States the salute with the right hand, while the person stands at attention, is the common and accepted method. The uncovering of the head is also recognized as a salute. Placing hat above the heart or hand on left breast is also esteemed reverential.”
That such devotion to the flag should be customary is not at all surprising in view of the fact that “early flags were almost purely of religious character,” according to The Encyclopædia Britannica. That authority and others show the development of flags. In the hope of assuring victory pagan soldiers at first carried their idols and carved images with them into battle. Then they made miniatures of their carved idols, which they placed on the end of staffs. Later they painted representations of their idols on cloth and fastened these to the staffs. Thus is seen the evolution from carved idols to modern flags.
It was because of this fact, no doubt, that the Jews of the time of Christ had such an antipathy to national emblems. To them such emblems were a violation of God’s command: “You must not make for yourself a carved image or a form like anything that is in the heavens above or that is on the earth underneath or that is in the waters under the earth. You must not bow down to them nor be induced to serve them, because I Jehovah your God am a God exacting exclusive devotion.”—Ex. 20;4, 5, NW.
Thus history tells of the time Pilate transferred the headquarters of his army from Caesarea to Jerusalem. Of course, the soldiers took along their standards that bore the image of the emperor. Knowing the Jewish temper, they cautiously brought these standards into the city at night, hoping to avoid an uproar. But when the Jews discovered these standards in their holy city of Jerusalem they stormed down to Pilate at Caesarea in large crowds, demanding that these standards be removed. On the fifth day of the discussions Pilate had the Jews suddenly surrounded by Roman soldiers threatening them with death if they did not break off their entreaties. However, the Jews vowed they would rather die than allow the desecration of their sacred city by such idolatrous emblems. Pilate found it expedient to yield.
Early Christians were likewise extremely careful to avoid even the suspicion of compromise with the state or secular rule as regards their devotion. Regarding the Christians of the first three centuries Neander, foremost authority on that period, states: “While they showed the most conscientious obedience to the government in everything which was not against the law of God,” thus willing to give to Caesar the things belonging to Caesar, they refused “to pay any of those species of veneration to the emperors” that were in vogue then, such as offering incense to the busts of the emperors.
To what extent modern patriotism can become religious ardor and the things belonging to God be given to Caesar can be seen from the following report that appeared in the Diario de Justiça, February 16, 1956, page 1906, Federal Capital, Brazil:
“In a public ceremony presided over by the vice president of the [Military Supreme] Court, on the 19th of November, honors were shown to the Brazilian flag. Exactly at 12 o’clock, the national emblem was hoisted on the principal mast of the Supreme Court building.
“After the flag was hoisted, Minister General of the Army Tristao de Alencar Araripe expressed himself concerning the commemoration in this manner:
“‘In expressive symbolism human ingenuity has decreed that, under the protection of the flags, millions of beings live, with the eyes of their spirit and heart turned heavenward, full of confidence, faith and hope.
“‘It should be said that they, the flags, form a great canopy suspended above the vastness of our fatherland under whose protective shadow the people live happily, make progress and consciously affirm the sovereign right and safety of a respected place in the friendly relationship with other peoples.
“‘In this beneficent role the flags have become a divinity of patriotic religion which imposes worship, commandments and services and dispenses favors and benefits. The flag is venerated and worshiped, every moment of one’s life, with profound, pure and almost inborn sentiments of love, gratitude and respect, and with the visible manifestations of a ritual which, far from being mere convention, has infused itself into our habits of life, as normal and spontaneous obligations, in its highly affective aspect.
“‘The flag is worshiped, just as the Fatherland is worshiped, not with the mere rationalism of a devotion calmly accepted and exercised, but in the paroxysm of a passion which leads us to an unrestrained and unconditional veneration for all the good, the grand and the useful that the Fatherland expresses. The flag is venerated, just as the Fatherland is venerated, giving to it all of oneself and placing above one’s own self even the sacrifice of one’s life, in order that they may be magnified and glorified.
“‘Worship, veneration, sacrifice, mark well the divine essence of this symbol and of the sentiments which unite men through love for themselves and through dedication to the common good. It is fitting that on this day, consecrated to the unforgettable divinity—the national flag—emphasis be given to this worship and this veneration which is not just homage, but is, above all, prayer, supplication and reaffirmation of obligations assumed. Prayer that from its Power there may radiate exhalations to stabilize the unity of all Brazilians for the greatness of Brazil and the greater happiness of its people.
“‘I pray that the Flag may always be the lofty and worthy Flag of a Brazil respected and happy.
“‘Reaffirmation of obligations assumed, both publicly and within our very inmost being, to comply each one with his role as Brazilian, so that by means of the effort of each one there may hover above the skies of Brazil the immense canopy that guarantees our blessedness as a nation and as free and happy men.
“‘Be eternal, Flag of Brazil.’”
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, emphasized that while giving Caesar’s things to Caesar we must also give God’s things to God. And what are God’s things? “Exclusive devotion,” namely, “You must love Jehovah your God with your whole heart and with your whole soul and with your whole mind and with your whole strength.” (Mark 12:30, NW) Would not, therefore, one’s veneration and worship of the flag, “every moment of one’s life,” and that “in the paroxysm of passion” that is “unrestrained and unconditional” be a giving to Caesar the things that belong exclusively to God? Think it over.