Patriotism and Religious Freedom
AT TIMES of national crisis and international tension governments step up programs that are designed to rally the support of the populace. Patriotic ceremonies are urged in the public schools, and the national anthem is frequently played. Yet it is at such a time, when nations are ready to fight to maintain their freedom, that they are most prone to trample underfoot within their own borders the liberties that they seek to preserve. It is a dangerous time. “One of the reasons why our times are dangerous,” as pointed out by historian Arnold Toynbee, “is that we have all been taught to worship our nation, our flag, our own past history.”
Anyone who does not join in giving expression to such veneration of the nation, regardless of his reason, is viewed with suspicion. Patriots may denounce his conduct as disrespectful, even dangerous to the welfare of the State. Such was the lot of the early Christians. Far from being a menace to the State, they were outstandingly law-abiding. Yet they could not conscientiously participate in the patriotic rites of the Roman Empire. In commenting on the matter, The Book of Culture says: “The Christians, however, strong in their faith, would take no such oath of loyalty. And because they did not swear allegiance to what we would to-day consider as analogous to the Flag, they were considered politically dangerous.”
The position of Jehovah’s witnesses today is the same as that of the early Christians. They, too, are well reported on by the authorities of the land because they lead clean lives and obey the laws. But they do not participate in patriotic ceremonies. For this some speak evil of them and stir up opposition to them, as the Romans did to the early Christians. Others, inclined to take a more tolerant view of the situation, nevertheless wonder why Jehovah’s witnesses take the stand they do. After all, what objection could there be to saluting the national flag?
SALUTING A FLAG
It is easy for one to be swept off his feet by emotion, but Jehovah’s witnesses look to the Bible for guidance. The Scriptures make it clear that, to please God, one must “flee from idolatry.” (1 Cor. 10:14) It is also well known that the second of the Ten Commandments says: “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) Yet national emblems bear such likenesses, and they are viewed as sacred, which means that saluting them takes on a religious significance. As pointed out by Arnold Toynbee, it is worship that is given to the flag; and, bearing this out, the governor of Virginia in the United States not long ago declared: “I not only respect, I worship the flag of my country.” In the light of these facts it can be seen that it is not out of disrespect for the flag, but out of obedience to Jehovah God, that Jehovah’s witnesses refrain from saluting the flag.
But, someone may protest, how can you say that flags come under that Scriptural prohibition when the Bible itself shows that even the Israelites had ensigns or standards around which their three-tribe divisions gathered while in the wilderness? (Num. 2:2) In this connection the comment made in McClintock and Strong’s Cyclopædia is of interest. After discussing the Hebrew words used, it says: “Neither of them, however, expresses the idea which ‘standard’ conveys to our minds, viz. a flag.” Furthermore, they were not viewed as sacred, nor were any ceremonies associated with their use. They simply served the practical purpose of signs, showing the people where to gather.
Standing while the national anthem is played carries with it a significance similar to saluting the flag. In fact, the flag is frequently displayed when the anthem is played, so that, to Jehovah’s witnesses, participation in one ceremony would be comparable to participation in the other.
In this connection the Bible records an incident that is very much in point. The third chapter of Daniel reports that in ancient Babylon King Nebuchadnezzar set up an image, a symbol of the State, and commanded the people to worship it when certain music was played. It was in effect a patriotic ceremony, and participation was viewed as evidence of loyalty. Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, three faithful Hebrew servants of God, refused to participate, not because of any disloyalty to the State but because they reserved their worship for Jehovah God, who requires exclusive devotion. When officials took steps to punish them, Jehovah unmistakably demonstrated his approval of the course of his servants by delivering them unsinged from the fiery furnace.
Oftentimes national anthems are, at least in part, hymns or prayers that have been set to music. They give expression to petitions or praise to God. For that reason, as reported in the New York Times of August 30, 1962, after the United States Supreme Court had ruled that school officials could not compose a prayer and then have the students repeat it as part of their school activities, the school board involved in the case wanted to adopt part of the national anthem as the official school prayer.
Since the matter of prayer is involved in the national anthem, what the Bible has to say on this subject is also pertinent. It is true that there are many religious leaders who regularly in their churches pray for the various institutions of the world and who would therefore see nothing amiss in a patriotic anthem that expressed like sentiments. However, those who are governed by the Word of God cannot pray for the perpetuation of a system that the Bible shows to be out of harmony with God and for that reason due to pass away. (Jas. 4:4; 1 John 2:17) They recall God’s command to his prophet Jeremiah, who lived in the midst of a people who professed to serve God but whose society was permeated with stealing, murdering, committing of adultery, false swearing and idolatry: “Do not pray in behalf of this people, neither raise in their behalf an entreating cry or a prayer nor beseech me, for I shall not be listening to you.” (Jer. 7:9, 16; 11:14; 14:11) The situation today is not at all unlike the one that prevailed in Jeremiah’s time, and Christians wisely take note of God’s specific command regarding prayer under such circumstances. They also are aware of the precedent that Jesus Christ set when he said: “I make request, not concerning the world.” (John 17:9) Therefore, it is not out of any self-righteousness on their part, but in imitation of Christ and out of obedience to God that Jehovah’s witnesses refrain from indicating their participation in the sentiments of the occasion by standing when the national anthem is played.
Of course, it is true that not all national anthems include petitions to God. Some are war songs extolling the country and recounting the nation’s fight for independence or the wars fought to preserve its sovereignty. But this does not change the situation as far as the Witnesses are concerned. They cannot exult over the wars of any nation. They are governed by the inspired scripture that says: “Though we walk in the flesh, we do not wage warfare according to what we are in the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly.” (2 Cor. 10:3, 4) They submit to the judgment of God that requires his people to be at peace. As foretold at Isaiah 2:4:God “will certainly render judgment among the nations and set matters straight respecting many peoples. And they will have to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning shears . . . neither will they learn war any more.” All this emphasizes the fact that, being Christians, Jehovah’s witnesses are no part of the world.
This is as Jesus said it would be. With reference to his followers he declared: “They are no part of the world, just as I am no part of the world.” (John 17:14) But their endeavoring to live up to that Christian standard is no reason why they should be deprived of religious freedom.
FREEDOM OF WORSHIP
It ought to be borne in mind that saluting the flag or standing at attention when the national anthem is played does not in itself prove one’s loyalty to the nation. Those who seek to subvert the interests of the State are often the first to disguise their aims by a display of patriotism. But Jehovah’s witnesses are not engaged in any such clandestine political activities. They are sincere, open and aboveboard. Their position is solely a religious one.
Jehovah’s witnesses do not interfere with the program of any nation in fostering patriotism. They do not contest the right of others to engage in these ceremonies, if they choose to do so. They do not petition that patriotic exercises be excluded from the schools. They only seek freedom to worship God without molestation, which the law provides.
Rather than furthering the interests of the State, when officials seek to force Jehovah’s witnesses to violate their religious principles by participating in patriotic rites, such officials dishonor their country. As well pointed out by the Supreme Court of Colorado in 1944, endeavoring to force one to violate his conscientious belief does not foster respect for the compelling authority or devotion to the nation that he represents, but produces a contrary effect. (Zavilla v. Masse) Those who thus seek to deprive others of religious freedom show that they themselves lack respect for the laws of the land that uphold such freedom.
Clearly, then, it is in the interests, not only of Jehovah’s witnesses, but also of the State to uphold religious freedom—and that even when patriotism is involved.