Tag Archives: civil religion

Why Does The National Anthem Matter?

A lot of folks in the U.S. are upset with Christina Aguilera for missing a step in singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl last Sunday.  As she was singing, she replaced one line with an earlier line, apparently realized it halfway through and changed the verb in the earlier line to the correct verb.  In short, not a difficult mistake to make.

But why is it so important?  American typically watch videos of celebrities screwing things up so they can laugh at them.  Celebrities screw things up all the time and we love it.  Why is it so different to screw up the national anthem?

Well, one difference is that the National Anthem is a ritual.  That is is a ritual is inarguable, however you interpret the ritual.  It is a ritual because it is enshrined in law how to act during the ritual.  The U.S. Flag Code states:

During rendition of the national anthem when the flag is displayed, all present except those in uniform should stand at attention facing the flag with the right hand over the heart. Men not in uniform should remove their headdress with their right hand and hold it at the left shoulder, the hand being over the heart. Persons in uniform should render the military salute at the first note of the anthem and retain this position until the last note. When the flag is not displayed, those present should face toward the music and act in the same manner they would if the flag were displayed there. (src)

There are a number of ways this ritual can be understood.  I am convinced, following Carolyn Marvin and David Ingle, that it is a totemic ritual.  In the imagery of the anthem, the flag stands as a totem or talisman of power, the presence of which guarantees that the British (in this case) cannot overcome the Americans.  As Marvin and Ingle put it in their Blood Sacrifice and the Nation,

During the British bombardment of 1814, Francis Scott Key was moved to model in poetry the flag’s endurance under fire. The battle for the death defying Star-Spangled Banner was ritualized as a creation-sacrifice guaranteeing the nation for eternity and illuminated by the regenerative dawn.

Now, I think Marvin and Ingle go too far, and rely too much on Weber’s account of a sociology of religion.  They argue not that Key meant this, historically, but that sociologically this is what his lyrics must have meant.  I reject that kind of social science.   Nevertheless, I do think their basic reading of the ritual is right: “The patriotic statement that Americans are an unconquerable people, common at times of totem peril, is a deadly serious statement of totem faith. The totem wards off evil and protects from harm.”

That is why it is a grave sacrilege for Christina Aguilera to flub a line.

As an iconoclastic Christian, I of course do not recite the Pledge of Allegiance or sing the national anthem.  But looking at the legal structure of the ritual, I wonder if standing is not as much a part of the ritual as singing.  Many of my fellow iconoclasts and “Jesus Radicals” say that they stand, not out of fidelity to the nation but out of respect to those around them, but now I am rethinking that.

What do you think?  Is the performance of the national anthem a ritual Christians should distance themselves from?  If so, is standing an important part of the ritual?  What do you do?  If not, how do you understand the ritual of the national anthem in a way that is not problematic for Christians?