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An essay donated by Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys:

How one person's symbol is another person's idol.

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During 2017-OCT, some NFL players started to "take a knee" during the National Anthem at the start of their football games. This action has raised as much controversy as the action taken several years ago by some black athletes who raised a clenched fist during the National Anthem before the start of their games.

President Trump has decided that this action is anti-American. It is a sign of disrespect to the flag, to the country, and to military men and women. Vice-president Pence performed his own act of defiance when he went to extreme measures to attend a football game in Indiana, and then walked out after the National Anthem as a protest against the players that took a knee. According to the CBS news, his trip cost the taxpayers between $120,000 and in excess of $1 million. 1

The head of the NFL has called for the owners to discuss the issue with the hopes that they will pass a rule stating that all players must stand during the National Anthem.

To me all this strikes me as "much ado about nothing."

The following essay was written in the summer of 2017 when similar issues were raised and could not be used at that time. I think the ideas discussed are the issues behind this current fuss. One person's symbol is another peson's idol AND one person's act of protest is another person's act of disrespect.

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Two definitions:

  • Idol: An image or other object worshipped as a God; a person or thing loved very much; an object of extreme devotion. In the Bible: a false God.

  • Symbol: something that stands for, or represents, something else.

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In a recent article on the Religion Dispatches website "What American Flag Worship Looks Like To A New Citizen," 2 Rosalind Hughes opened her piece by saying:

"Three weeks after I first moved to the United States with my family, and one week into our American public school adventures, my youngest daughter asked me, 'Mummy, did you know that we pray to the flag every morning at school'?"

Her daughter was referring to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, something many American school children do at the start of each school day.

She also mentioned comments from Will H. Mebane Jr., Interim Dean at St Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in Buffalo, NY that:

"The flag, the Pledge, and the Anthem were all idols, and that people seem often to be more interested in worshipping these idols than the cross of Christ."

My first thought was that he doesn't realize that the "cross of Christ" also meets the definition of "idol," as far as some people are concerned. One man's symbol is another man's idol!

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Two more definitions:

  • Religion: a set of beliefs, rituals, and symbols.

  • Worship: at its simplest definition means to show great honor or respect for something; at its extreme it means to idolize something!

When we "idolize" something we endow it with super extraordinary qualities, powers, and/or virtues. We make it something greater than, more exceptional than, what it actually is! We also pretend that any problems or flaws don't exist or are trivial, and unimportant.

There have been a couple of interesting articles recently on America's Civil Religion. To understand the articles you need to read them in light of the above broad definition of religion as a set of beliefs, rituals, and symbols. It is about the worship of a nation not a God. Another name for it might be American Nationalism or American Exceptionalism.

One related article is by Peter Larman on the Religion Dispatches website, titled: "American Civil Religion Is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion" 3 A third article is by Benjamin P. Marcus and Murall Balaji titled: "How Trump is reshaping American civil religion and what we can do about it." It can be found on the Religion News Service (RNS) website. 4 Both are worth reading.

One thought I had after reading the articles is that America's Civil Religion is divided into sects the same way Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have divided into sects. Each sect, in theory, worships the same "God" -- or in the case of civil religion "Nation." BUT they have very different ideas of what that God/Nation expects from us, and what that God/Nation can, cannot, or should do for us.

The article from Religion News Service states:

"At its most inclusive, American civil religion includes capacious BELIEFS in core American values (life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, justice for all); behaviors associated with national rites and RITUALS (Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving) as well as more quotidian practices (protests, public free speech, petitions for the redress of grievances, free religious expression); and experiences of belonging (citizenship by right of birth or naturalization)."

(CAPS were not in the original article)

I would add there is also the ritual of school children reciting the Pledge before school each day, and the singing of the National Anthem before sports games!

I would finally add it includes SYMBOLS such as the Flag mentioned above, Uncle Sam, the Eagle, the Statue of Liberty, and songs, including the National Anthem, America the Beautiful, God Bless America, This Land is Your Land, etc.

At its worst , or as the authors say in their piece

"At its most exclusive, American civil religion proposes beliefs that demand absolute allegiance to our government, behaviors that require a willingness to take up arms to maintain the social order, and notions of belonging grounded in specific religious and racial identities." 4

I would add that the emphasis is on maintaining the "status quo" which is actually a mythologized ideal from the past rather than the current reality. A second emphasis is on the belief "my country right or wrong" -- where the object of worship, in this case the Nation, can do no wrong and any criticism of its leaders or policies is seen as treason or blasphemy.

The authors go on to say:

"The recent surge of ethno nationalist rhetoric is the manifestation of a civil religion that inextricably connects American exceptionalism with white, Christian communities committed to the expulsion of immigrants and the establishment of 'law and order'." 4

I would add: at the expense of freedom and individual rights of the "others" -- those that don't fit the "profile" of the patriotic American and of themselves when they willingly submit to totalitarianism in exchange for promises to protect them from their "enemies".

I would say that for some folk, their version of the American Civil Religion has degenerated into Idolatry.

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  • Degenerated: decline in physical, mental, or moral qualities.

  • Idolatry: great love or admiration, extreme devotion for a person or thing, the worship of idols -- false Gods!

When this happens, the preservation of the institution (the Church, the Nation, the Business, the University) and its leaders becomes more important than the customers -- the recipients of services or buyers of products, and the workers -- the employees and volunteers that do the work of the institution, and the financiers -- the donors or investors!

Ultimately, this puts the survival of the institution in jeopardy when those customers and workers and financiers desert the institution in search of something better or when conscientious objectors turn to revolution to protect their rights.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Julianna Goldman, "How much did it cost taxpayers for Pence to go to Colts game?," CBS Evening News, 2017-OCT-09, at:
  2. Rosalind Hughes, "What American Flag Worship Looks Like To A New Citizen," Religion Dispatches, 2017-JUL-12, at:
  3. Peter Larman, "American Civil Religion Is Dead, Long Live American Civil Religion" Religion Dispatches, 2017-JUL-02, at:
  4. Benjamin P. Marcus & Murall Balaji, "How Trump is reshaping American civil religion and what we can do about it," Religion News Service, 2017-JUL-10, at:

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How you may have arrived here:

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Author: Contributing Editor Susan Humphreys
Originally posted on: 2017-OCT-14

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