Believe it or not, there used to be a day when the History Channel actually aired shows about history. As a part-time history nerd, I especially loved the shows having to do with church history, especially the early church period. What I’ve always loved about history has been looking at the past and how it intersects in relevant ways to today’s world. After all, as some historians might say, history repeats itself.
A few channels over from the History channel, you’ll find sports. In the past few weeks, the NFL season has finally started back up and I once again get to resume my jabs at all Patriots and Cowboys fans because my Dolphins are going nowhere. Of course, one of the biggest ongoing stories this season has been San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick’s silent protest against police brutality in the country by kneeling during the national anthem. This has gotten him lots of attention, both positive and negative.
Today, I’m not going to directly discuss the issues of police brutality he’s protesting against. Instead, my focus is on a strange historical phenomenon that some American Christians have embraced by criticizing his constitutional exercise of free speech and the implicit questioning of his allegiance and patriotism by refusing to stand for the national anthem. If you want the main point of this entire post in a nutshell, here it is:
Christians, especially Adventists, are unknowingly undermining their own religious freedoms and embracing a modern resurrection of the ancient Imperial cult of Rome by deifying American patriotism.
Practically speaking, it’s troubling to see Colin’s allegiance and patriotism questioned by his peaceful protest. “How?” you might ask. Here is where we begin.
1) Many ancient world empires viewed their founders as humans who became deities due to their remarkable achievements.
2) Rome adopted these same ideas and instituted a state-cult, where citizens had to show their allegiance to the state through public gestures at state-sponsored religious gatherings.
3) The United States of America is no different; we view our founders in godlike ways and deify our concept of Americana.
4) The NFL, which is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit and receives the same recognition and benefits as any church in the country, was paid by the Department of Defense to have players on the field to encourage military recruitment. Only very recently were players even on field during the national anthem.
5) By criticizing Colin Kapernick’s actions against standing during the national anthem, we implicitly force patriotism and external compliance to a now state-sponsored pseudo-religion.
The Roman Imperial Cult
One of the first points of conflict between Christians in the first few centuries after the life of Christ on Earth (what we would call AD) and the Roman state was focused on differing views about worship. During the days of the Republic, Romans viewed the elevation of man to divinity as a presumption. They adopted the ideas that the Egyptians, Persians, and Greeks before them had done by proclaiming the founders of their empire as human-deities.
A key term in the Greek (and later Roman) understanding of leader worship was “Apotheosis.” A quick Google search on this word reveals its definition:
The glorification of a subject to divine level; “to deify”; in Latin deificatio “making divine”; also called divinization and deification.
According to Roland Bainton, a well-renowned church historian, these beliefs led them to institute elaborate rituals of worshipping their rulers. While the worship of Rome’s emperors wasn’t forced at first, there came a point when public recognition of the Roman’s state deities became politically beneficial. He states that:
“Although the Roman government was declined to impose a religion upon its subjects, the need was felt acutely for one common religion, in addition to all the local cults, that would be practiced throughout the empire and thus act as a cohesive force.” Christianity, pg. 57, emphasis added.
In other words, public recognition of the state religion was used as a means to encourage patriotism among its citizens, a way to unite the various ethnic and political groups within the empire. Emperors varied greatly in their personal attitudes and devotion to this cult. Some emperors didn’t make a big deal about it, while others did. During the reign of some of the more devout emperors, all Roman citizens and their subjects were required to pay allegiance to the Imperial cult by offering public sacrifice or paying certain taxes, under penalty of imprisonment or death (except for the Jews. They had a pass, but that’s a totally different story).
The early Christian church walked a fine line between honoring the emperor versus endorsing a worldview that saw Rome and his position worthy of worship. This was a tension in the background of some of the New Testament epistles that discuss church-state relations.
The American Imperial Cult
What does the United States have to do with this? It should be noted that, although America’s civil religion has drawn heavily on Judeo-Christian values, it has never been a Christian nation. Actually, you may be surprised to find out that it has had its own low-key form of founder worship all along. For example, if you go to Washington, D.C. today, walk into the U.S. Capitol building and look up inside the rotunda, you’ll be see a painting called, “The Apotheosis of Washington.” Sitting among the heavens in an exalted manner, ascending and becoming a god, you’ll see President George Washington staring back at you in a deified mural that makes him look like the final boss in an American-themed Final Fantasy video game.
It’s not just in its public art that American Imperial worship took form either. From its earliest days, America has had a special view of itself, its leaders, and its destiny in relation to God’s unfolding work in the world. Consider these two of many possible points:
- Two of the Founding Fathers (John Adams and Thomas Jefferson) died on the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1826). This was deemed by many as an omen form God. When President James Monroe died a few years later on July 4, 1831, one writer noted that “Preachers mounted their pulpits to exclaim this was proof that America was the new promised land, the divine fulfillment of God’s will.”
- “Manifest destiny” was a widely held belief in the 19th century that U.S. settlers venturing west were divinely elected to expand its territory across the North American continent. This meant that, at times, neighboring colonial holdings and countries were viewed as obstacles. Harvard University press released a book in the 80’s entitled Race and Manifest Destiny by Reginald Horsman entertaining the idea that implicit beliefs about the racial superiority of the majority W.A.S.P. (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) population also played into this idea of divine calling. So, the “enslavement of the blacks and the expulsion and possible extermination of the Indians” was seen as a justifying byproduct of “inferior races that were doomed to subordinate status or extinction.” Reginald Horsman. Race and Manifest Destiny. pp. 2, 6.
Yes, manifest destiny was seemingly informed by racist attitudes towards other cultures. This isn’t ancient history either. The effects of many of these views are seen even today in real ways.
As a case in point, consider the fact that Ruth Odom Bonner, the special guest invited to ring the bell in honor of the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History in Culture in September 2016 was the daughter of a man born a slave.
We’re literally two or three generations removed from a time when people were legally categorized as property rather than human beings. Don’t forget that.
This may sound like an emotional appeal. Granted, this connection of racism and patriotism does hope to illicit emotion, but it’s not illogical. It’s based on historical precedents and well-documented facts.
Return of the Roman-American Imperial Cult
Now let’s consider the historical parallels of Rome and America.
- Both considered their origins as divinely guided.
- Both implicitly (and in some cases explicitly) described and viewed the founders of their nation as divine.
- Both compelled their citizens into forced patriotic gestures to honor the state.
“WAIT!” you might interject at point #3. No one is forcing anybody to do anything! The Bill of Rights allows us to believe what we want and have free speech!
You’re right, I jumped the gun there. However, as Adventists, we believe that Bible prophecy points to #3 happening in the future. Revelation 13 talks all about how the “spirit of the sea beast” (interpreted as the spiritual successor of the religious Roman-state church) will be the same as the earth beast (the religious American-state church). Forced worship doesn’t happen overnight. It begins slowly when people start to compel others against their conscience in an outward practice of coerced compliance as a show of “unity.”
Just like the Imperial cult of ancient Rome, what America needs to begin this practice is a cohesive force that will galvanize national allegiance and patriotism while combining forms of religious rituals for a state-sponsored cause. Enter the non-profit organization of the National Football League. You read that right, the NFL is a 501 (c)(3) and has the same non-profit legal status as any recognized church in the U.S.
Now we come back full circle to Colin Kaepernick’s protest. Consider a point that sports columnist Stephen A. Smith said recently while commenting on Kap’s protest:
“Until 2009, no NFL player stood for the National Anthem because players actually stayed in the locker room as the Anthem played,” Smith said, relaying what he’d heard from a friend. “The players were moved to the field during the National Anthem because it was seen as a marketing strategy to make the players look more patriotic. The United States Department of Defense paid the NFL $5.4 million between 2011 and and 2014, and the National Guard $6.7 million between 2013 and 2015 to stage on-field patriotic ceremonies as part of military recruitment budget-line items.”
Blogger Ryan Glasspiel notes that:
The first part of what Stephen A. was talking about has been written about recently by Tom E. Curran of CSN New England, and Josh Levin at Slate. The NFL, after much negative press, announced this past May it would refund a portion — less than 1/6th the reported revenue — for acts of “sponsored patriotism.”
No one is minimizing the sacrifice of service men and women who have bled and died for the freedoms we enjoy today. Yet, the freedoms that we hold dear become jeopardized the moment we start to question the allegiance of sports figures who peacefully protest by suggesting that “real Americans would stand for the national anthem.”
So, when High School principals tell their football teams: “You will stand, and you will stay quiet. If you don’t, you are going to be sent home,” it’s resurrecting Rome’s Imperial cult. Or when former NFL coach Mike Ditka, and others like him, say about Kap’s non-violent protest, “If they don’t like the country, they don’t like our flag… get the hell out,” it draws a fictional line in the sand between compliance and allegiance. As Adventists, we have been told all too well of the consequences that a state that promotes coerced or mandated acts of patriotism will lead to.
You can call this a slippery slope. However, all you need to change our country forever is a massive public support of something for a few months. Consider that the 26th Amendment (giving 18-year olds the right to vote) to the Constitution was ratified a little over three months after it was suggested. Therefore, even with the divided state of our country, history shows that public opinion of a matter can quickly change given the right conditions.
That is why, if you support religious freedom and liberty of expression, you should support, respect, and even encourage Colin Kapernick’s peaceful protest even if you don’t agree with what he is protesting against. To not do so undermines the very liberties which America claims to hold dear. I used to think that the Lamb-like beast speaking like a dragon was a matter of the future. However, I’m starting to wonder if the second beast in Revelation 13 has been speaking like a dragon all along but, it’s only now that I’m starting to notice.
You might not really even care about football, but let’s look at another major event happening soon: the Presidential elections. It’s been incredible to see the vitriol of some in this election. It’s like they’re scared we are literally about to vote Satan into the White House. Let’s keep it real for a second: two matters that you usually don’t discuss in polite company (politics and religion) are the very subjects that many Christians like to talk about on social media and in person. If Christians are sharing their religion like they share their politics, we’re in deep trouble. How in the world do we expect to change feelings, values, and opinions on matters that are of eternal consequence when we get bent out of shape because somebody dissed your candidate? When you forget that God still sits on the throne, it is easy to slip into emperor worship that deifies of your view of an ideal America.
History is our witness. If there is any history that we should strive to repeat, it’s that of the early Christians who saw this world as a stop on the journey to their real home: Heaven. They refused to deify Roman ideas or concede the state absolute power if the commands to comply to an act of patriotism were opposed to Divine laws and principles. Like Peter addressing Jewish authority, if that day comes for us to take a knee while everyone call us to stand, may we have the bravery to say, “we must obey God rather than men.”