by Dave Hintz
The summer before my senior year in college, I attended a small Baptist church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. During the July 4th Celebration Service, the pastor did something that struck me as a bit unusual: he had the congregation stand up and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Though I recited this pledge countless times in elementary school, it seemed a little out of place in a church.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America...” Various groups have questioned the legitimacy of reciting this pledge for a number of reasons. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, forbid all expressions of patriotism, reasoning that their hearts belong to one party only—not to a flag or a country. Christians too have questioned pledging allegiance to a country’s government, particularly those governments which permit or encourage evil. Would it be right for Christians to pledge allegiance to a Swastika under the Third Reich? To Communist China, that great persecutor of Christians? To the Dalai Lama, who is both a government ruler and a high Buddhist priest?
The Scriptures teach that Jesus’ stand vis-à-vis the government was neither rebellious nor a wholesale endorsement. In Matthew 22:15-22 the Pharisees laid a trap for Jesus, asking Him whether or not the Jews should pay taxes to Caesar. An affirmative answer would make Him most unpopular with Jewish nationalists desperate to break away from Rome, while a negative answer would prompt charges of treason, giving His enemies legitimate grounds to have Him arrested. Never one to be outwitted, Jesus asks them to produce a coin. Roman coinage, like our Lincoln pennies today, bore the likeness of the emperor as well as an inscription about his divinity. The Jews considered this to be blasphemous, for it was a graven image paying homage to someone other than Yahweh. Yet rather than addressing this point, Jesus surprised His accusers by commanding them to give to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s—in this case, the coins which bore his image—and to give to God the things that are God’s. Thus men, who are made in the very image of God, must humbly present themselves to Him.
A modern-day analogy might help us flesh out the implications of this teaching. Let’s say a Christian decides he will no longer pay taxes for two reasons: 1) Only God—and not the government—can tell a Christian how to spend his/her money; and 2) He wants to give his money to the church instead of the government. From Matthew 22:1-22 Jesus refutes both of these excuses. First, He makes it clear that it is okay for the government to demand certain things of its citizens; after all, the Son of God told the Jewish leadership that they must fulfill their obligation to Caesar and pay their taxes. Secondly, Jesus draws a distinction between the things of the government and the things of God. Giving to the government is not stealing from the Lord; rather, citizens must both fulfill their duty to the government and sacrificially give to the Lord.
When we apply these principles to the question of the Pledge of Allegiance, we see that it is acceptable for the government to ask us to pay homage to our country. To refuse do so reflects a certain lack of fealty to the government that God has placed over us. Second, loyalty to your country should not be confused with idolatry. When we pledge allegiance to the United States of America, we are not turning our backs on God, nor saying that our hearts belong to our country rather than to Him; we are merely demonstrating a loyalty to this country as opposed to Mexico, France, or Japan. Jesus allowed for such a distinction when He permitted giving to both men and God.
With this said, there may come a day and age in America when extenuating circumstances make it difficult to pledge our allegiance to this country. Many Christians refused to salute the Swastika in Hitler’s Germany, and in ancient Rome Christians refused to sacrifice to the emperor. It is possible that we, too, may someday face a situation in which loyalty to our government would mean disobedience to God. But until then, God gives you the freedom to tear up when singing the National Anthem, and recite the Pledge of Allegiance with hand over your heart. Just make sure that your affections for God and His Kingdom supersede your feelings of patriotism.