The National Anthem as Idolatry

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The Problem

I am very bothered by the high school custom of standing before a sports event starts, putting your hand on your chest respectfully, turning to face the flag, and singing a song in its praise. This sure seems like outright idolatry, the kind that the Bible condemns so strongly. On the other hand, so many Christians do it and have done it for so long with so little comment that I have to wonder if I'm seeing it wrong somehow. I'll look for references on this, but googling turns up nothing useful. There are a lot of people who don't like America much and object to the National Anthem, and patriotism generally, on that basis. I have no objection at all to patriotism and love of country. People can talk about metaphorical idolatry with respect to anything whatsoever-- lust, food, new cars, Beethoven, great art, videogames, etc.--- because literally anything can replace God as a person's source of value and loyalty. No-- what I'm worried about is LITERAL IDOLATRY: worshipping images. That's, on it's face, is what we do when turn to the flag, try to feel respectful, and sing a song in its praise. Is there a way to overcome this prima facie case that apparent worship of a flag is actual worship?

Relevant Bible Verses

Here are various relevant verses:

Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth [generation] of them that hate me. (Exodus 20:4-5)

Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image, neither rear you up a standing image, neither shall ye set up any image of stone in your land, to bow down unto it: for I am the LORD your God. (Lev 26:1)

For thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God: Lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land, and they go a whoring after their gods, and do sacrifice unto their gods, and one call thee, and thou eat of his sacrifice. (Exo 34:14-15)

Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, Idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, Envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5: 19-21)

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it. Wherefore, my dearly beloved, flee from idolatry. (I Corinthians 10:13-14)

Little children, keep yourselves from idols. (1 John 5:21)

Also relevant is the "weaker brethren" passage:

Howbeit there is not in every man that knowledge: for some with conscience of the idol unto this hour eat it as a thing offered unto an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled. But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.bBut take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols; And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.Wherefore, if meat make my brother to offend, I will eat no flesh while the world standeth, lest I make my brother to offend. (1 Co 8:7-13)

A big issue is what it means to worship an idol. The flag is certainly an idol, a physical representation of the United States. The United States is not exactly a god, though. It is not a supernatural person, or a natural one. We do not makes prayers of petition to it, though we do make prayers of adoration and I expect some people make prayer of thanksgiving.

The Chinese Rites Controversy over the Centuries

The Chinese Rites Controversy may be helpful.

The debate discussed whether Chinese ritual practices of honoring family ancestors and other formal Confucian and Chinese imperial rites qualified as religious rites and were thus incompatible with Catholic belief.[1][2] The Jesuits argued that these Chinese rites were secular rituals that were compatible with Christianity, within certain limits, and should thus be tolerated. The Dominicans and Franciscans, however, disagreed and reported the issue to Rome.

Rome's Sacred Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith sided with the Dominicans in 1645 by condemning the Chinese rites based on their brief. However, the same congregation sided with the Jesuits in 1656, thereby lifting the ban. ...Clement XI banned the rites in 1704. ... In 1939, after two centuries, the Holy See re-assessed the issue. Pius XII issued a decree on 8 December 1939, authorizing Chinese Catholics to observe the ancestral rites and participate in Confucius-honoring ceremonies.

The decree Cum Deus Optimus of 20 November 1704 banned the rites. The 19 March 1715 Papal bull Ex Illa Die confirmed that, and in 1742 Ex Quo Singulari. A decree (not bull) of 1939, Plane Compertum, said that

Catholics are permitted to be present at ceremonies in honor of Confucius in Confucian temples or in schools; Catholic magistrates and students are permitted to passively attend public ceremonies which have the appearance of superstition. It is licit and unobjectionable for head inclinations and other manifestations of civil observance before the deceased or their images.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore says in Ancestors’ Veneration: Jul 2003:

5. On July 18-19, 1964, seven Chinese bishops in Taiwan, had an official meeting with Mgr. Joseph Caprio, Pronuncio, and unanimously agreed to issue the following instructions on Ancestors’ Veneration:

In remembrance of the deceased, the setting up of a tablet (bearing his name without the addition of superstitious inscriptions) by the family members is no longer forbidden. It is allowed to bow or prostrate in front of the ancestor tablet, photograph or coffin. Offering of fruits or food in front of the ancestor tablet or at the grave is no longer forbidden. Burning of joss papers for the deceased is forbidden, because of its superstitious character.

From the Liturgy Commission of Hongkong (thanks to Fr. Henry Siew), here is how the Memorial Rites for Ancestors are conducted (according to liturgical books published):

– Such memorial services can be held on All Souls, Quing Ming Day, Lunar New Year, after the Mass.

– An appropriate table is set up, with a Crucifix, an ancestors’ tablet, fresh flowers, candles & incense bowl.
(a) All bow once to the ancestors’ tablet at the beginning of the rites.
(b) The main celebrant or the head of the family gives instruction on the meaning of the remembrance.
(c) Intercessory prayers.
(d) Offering of gifts: flowers, fruits, wine.
(e) Offering of incense. If the group is small, all participants will offer incense in order of seniority.
(f) Final prayer.
(g) The whole assembly offers three bows.

Those who have the charge of souls will examine how far the changing customs and ways of thinking have affected the individuals, families and ethnic groups that depend upon their priestly ministry, so as to be in a position to instruct them in conformity with the Church’s teaching. In carrying out this enquiry, it will be necessary to bear in mind that:

The older generation of Christians, brought up in the old discipline, are not the best judges in this matter.

A great diversity in the appreciation of the religious content of the Rites and Ceremonies can be encountered in one and the same family. This appreciation varies even further according to the different provinces of China from which the faithful originally came, and according to the education they have received.

On account of the pastoral ministry of the priest and because of his incompetence in this matter, those questioned may easily believe that it is their duty to reply that the rites are tainted with superstitious practices.

The best opportunity to clarify doubts on these matters is through the confessional and in the course of religious instruction.

The Protestant Reaction to Ancestor Rites in China

Robert Morrison wrote two papers in the Chinese Repository on ancestor rites in Japan in the 1830's.
Morrison, Robert. 1832. "Worshipping at the Tombs," Chinese Repository, 1 (5: September).
Morrison, Robert. 1833. "Tombs of Ancestors," Chinese Repository (12: 499-503, April).

Lo, Lung-Kwong (04/2003). "The Nature of the Issue of Ancestral Worship among Chinese Christians". Studies in World Christianity (1354-9901), 9 (1), p. 30 says:

In the nineteenth century there were two missionary conferences (1877, 1890) held in China which paid a great deal of attention to the controversy.

In the first conference (1877) almost all participants condemned the Chinese ancestral worship as an act of idolatry which must not be participated in by Chinese Christians. Only a few raised questions such as whether missionaries had the right to compel the Chinese to give up their way of honouring the dead, and the practical issue for Chinese Christians who might lose their right of inheritance if they refused to participate in the rite. The most positive response was proposed by T.P Crawford and C. Goodrich, that an effort of developing Christian rites to replace ancestral worship should be pursued.

In the second conference (1890) a report from a thorough study on the issue done by W.A.P. Martin aroused hot debate. In the report Martin agrees that there are some idolatrous and superstitious elements involved in Chinese ancestral worship, but claims that there are positive elements as well. The origin of the rite lies in some of the best principles of humanity, which include a wish to communicate with departed parents. The three levels in the rite, which include 'posture', 'invocation', and 'offering', are not necessarily equivalent to idol worship, but rather reflect a pattern of Chinese daily living. He suggests that the Westerners' offering of flowers to remember the dead has the same meaning as the Chinese offering of meats and vegetables.

Thus it would be better to work according to the principle of clearing out the unacceptable elements but preserving the good ones, so that the rite could be modified to the extent that it is in harmony with the Christian faith. However, his accommodation approach was not welcomed by most participants. Nevertheless, the situation was not as one sided as in 1877. Some prominent missionaries did express their support for Martin. They suggested that missionaries must learn how to differentiate religious and non-religious elements involved in the rite. It is unfair to identify ancestral worship simply as idolatry. The opponents proposed a strong resolution against Martin's report.
The stance concerning the rite as heretical idolatry, as propounded by missionaries, still prevails among most Chinese Christians even till the present today. The position toward the rite among most of the Protestant churches is almost the same as that of Catholics in the eighteenth century.

Professor Lo and other non-Christian or pseudo-Christian scholars do not take the theological issue seriously. They see that most Chinese are insincere in worshipping their ancestors and conclude that it is not idolatry. They see that a ban on idolatry impeded conversion and conclude that the ban was unwise. They do not discuss the views of the opponents of ancestory worship in any detail whatsoever.

One missionary said in 1877

As to ancestral worship, it is unquestionably the real religion of the Chinese. We are sometimes blamed by men who know very little about its nature because we proscribe the observance of it. But we have no alternative, this worship of deceased ancestors is a subtle phase of idolatry, and as such cannot be tolerated in the Christian Church. Still we must act with great tenderness in dealing with tliis question. Ancestral worship contains two elements — the one a powerful religious element, and the other a beautiful human element. Dr. Yates has brought the former before us this morning in a very graphic and forcible manner. The latter which consists in filial reverence however, ought not to be forgotten by us. It demands our respect and consideration. The religious element is Anti- Christian and must be opposed; but it should be opposed with all gentleness, and regard to the feelings of those concerned. A brother has asked what is the practice of the Missionaries of the London Mission in regard to ancestral worship and other superstitions. Other Missionaries will answer for themselves but so far as the missionaries of the L. M. S. in Hankow, Wuchang and Hanyang are concerned, 1 can say positively that they have always been heartily opposed to all such things, and have never given them any sanction whatever.

Pastor E. R. Barrett, Shanghai, said in 1877:

In this matter we need to carry the convictions of the native Christians along with us. Arbitrary rules forbidding ancestral worship will surely be of no avail unless our native brethren sympathize with us. It is perhaps sometimes necessary to create a conscience on this question, but until the church members have a conscience about it, it seems to me outside legislation will be positively injurious because the reason of it will not be understood. Some time ago my teacher — a graduate — was converted to Christ. After his conversion he asked me if it was wrong to continue worshiping his ancestors. I answered him that he must decide himself and not trust to me; that I believed he was desirous of obeying Christ, and doing all that Christ commanded as much as I was, and therefore he must pray aud seek guidance and then decide whether it was right to continue this custom. I told him also that most foreigners judged it to be wrong, but some held a different opinion, and tliouglit the practise harmless, and that he being well versed in the meaning of Chinese customs as well as a Christian, could judge which opinion was correct better than I who had only lately come to the country. A fortnight elapsed after which he came to me and s^id he had spoken to the head of his own family guild (who was a heathen) about the actual meaning of wox'shiping one's ancestors, and had talked with the native pastor of the church who is also a graduate, and the result was that after prayer and thought about the matter he deemed the practice was opposed to Christianity, and therefore not allowable. And from that time he has not wavered in this opinion, and has suffered mucli persecution in consequence.

A missionary said at the 1890 conference:

The opposite view is given by Dr. S. Wells Willlams, as follows-- "That the worship rendered to their ancestors, by the xxx Chinese, is idolatrous, cannot be doubted, and it forms one of the subtlest phases of idolatry, essentially evil with the guise of goodness, ever established among men," We think Dr. Williams' position is undoubtedly correct, for the same Chinese word is used to designate this worship and the dfdsfs worship of idols ; the same forms of worship are observed ; the prostrations, the bnrning of incense and candles and the ofierings of food. Were farther proof needed, it might be found in the following extracts from a prayer of Taokwang, April, 1832: "I presume to come before the grave of my ancestors . . . Cherishing sentiments of veneration, I look up and sweep your tomb. Prostrate, I pray that you will come and be present, and that yon wiU grant to your posterity that they may be prosperous and illustrious . . . Always grant your safe protection. My trust is in your divine spirit. Ferverently I present the xxxon five-fold sacrifice."

Another pastor at the 1890 conference said:

The worship of emperors and sages, as well as other idolatrous worship, which officers of government must perform, effectually bars the sincere native convert from holding office in China. The school teacher also will generally lose his place or at least most of his scholars, when he takes down the name of the god of literature from the wall and protests against, or even omits, the accustomed worship which parents expect will lie paid to this god by both teachers and scholars. And yet this name must be taken down whenever the teacher has control, and he must stand clear of any countenance whatever of the worship of the sages.

Yet another pastor at the 1890 conference said:

But in the periodical services at the family cemetery this objectionable element shows itself, the worshipper saying, "We have come to sweep your tombs to show our gratitude for your protecting care, and now we beseech yon to accept our offerings and make our posterity prosperous and happy."

And someone said

The Mahommedans in China allow no ancestral worship. They discard the tise of the tablet, all burnings for the nse of the Mahommedans libations, offerings, prayers, thanksgivings, prostrations, and they do not observe the festival of Ch'ing-ming.

The Malabar Rites Controversy

"Les meilleures causes embarrassent les juges, si elles manquent de bonnes preuves: Père Norbert’s Militant Historiography on the Malabar Rites Controversy" by Paolo Aranha is about the history of the Malabar Rites controversy in India in the 1700's. This was not about idolatry, but about ritual purity, so it is probably not useful to illuminate the flag-as-idolatry issue except to show how tempting it is to abandon doctrine to make converts. It seems the essential problem is that the missionaries were obeying caste and other contact restrictions and preventing some Christians from receiving sacraments as a result, to avoid offending local custom.