Americans are debating whether it is disrespectful for professional football players to kneel during the national anthem before games.
While many points of view have been proffered, one thing that hasn’t been mentioned very much is the religious angle behind the flag flap.
This includes one of the football players behind the controversy: San Francisco 49ers strong safety Eric Reid.
It was Reid who started the whole kneeling thing, together with former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
“My faith moved me to take action,” he wrote last month about his decision in the New York Times.
Citing James 2:17, which states that faith without works is dead, he said he knew he needed to do “what is right” about the deaths of so many black men in the U.S.
Kaepernick himself has been open about his Christian faith.
He has been quoted as saying “my faith is the basis from where my game comes from . . . I think God guides me through every day and helps me take the right steps and has helped me to get to where I’m at.”
But before Reid and Kaepernick kicked off the national controversy, two small American Mennonite schools took their own anthem actions.
In 2011, Goshen College, a small liberal arts Mennonite school in Indiana, decided not to play the anthem before sporting events on campus.
Citing their traditional Mennonite pacifist convictions, the school at first decided to just play an instrumental version of the anthem—no more mentions of warlike rockets and their red glare.
But later they decided to drop the anthem altogether, replacing it with America the Beautiful, followed by a prayer.
For Goshen alumnus Mark Schloneger, the decision was the right one.
Mennonites, he wrote on the CNN website, “recognize only one Christian nation, the church, the holy nation that is bound together by a living faith in Jesus rather than by man-made, blood-soaked borders.”
“Following Jesus and the martyrs before us, we testify with our lives that freedom is not a right that is granted or defended with rockets’ red glare and bombs bursting in air . . . I love my country, but I sing my loyalty and pledge my allegiance to Jesus alone.”
Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia also doesn’t play the anthem before sports events, or fly the U.S. flag on campus.
On its website, the university states that the practice is “rooted in deeply-held historical beliefs that God is ruler of all nations, not just ours, and that our allegiance to God as such transcends all nationalities, even our own.”
But all of this anthem protest was made possible long before Mennonites and football players, thanks to another religious group—the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
For members of that church, standing for the U.S. anthem—or any country’s, including Canada—or saluting a flag, is against their beliefs. It is seen as compromising their primary loyalty to God.
They won the right not stand for the anthem in in the U.S. in 1943 following a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The court ruled it was unconstitutional for a local school board in West Virginia to expel Jehovah’s Witnesses children from school because they wouldn’t stand for the anthem or pledge allegiance to the flag.
In making the ruling, the court stated that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
Mennonites and Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t the only groups who have concerns about anthems and flags. The Amish and Quakers also feel that way.
For Canadians, this seems a bit strange—we respect our flag and anthem, but most don’t revere them the way many Americans do theirs.
But the point being made by people acting out of their faith in the U.S. is still worth considering: No matter what religion you belong to, where is your ultimate allegiance?
At the end of the day, that may be one of the more important questions being raised by America’s flag flap.
From the Oct. 21 Winnipeg Free Press.