“Render Unto America What Belongs to America”: What Jesus and Tradition Would Say About the National Anthem Debate


Happy 4th of July! I wrote this article a while back and think it is appropriate to publish now for Independence Day. This debate is still going on, as evidenced by Megan Rapinoe of the US Women’s National soccer team as the World Cup is currently going on. I wrote this specifically about the national anthem debate, but it can be applied to any act of patriotism today. We need to be proud of our heritage and our country, and Jesus actually commands us to give it the respect it deserves when He says in Mark 12:17 “Render unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar.”

I hope you enjoy it.


“…Our continent falters, because it is lost and frightened; lost, because it no longer knows who it is, having cut itself off from its cultural and religious roots… feeling ashamed of its own traditions, symbols, and rites.” These words by Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, an Italian cardinal and archbishop of Genoa, Italy, apply very well to the current debate in America over behavior during the national anthem. Several athletes have begun to choose to kneel, raise a fist, or perform some other kind of protest during the anthem instead of taking the traditional stance of standing with one’s hand over one’s heart. They are doing this mainly in response to the treatment of people of color by police officers and other public officials. But is it really justified to deny respect due to a country to protest something that takes place inside that country? And what would Jesus say about this debate and what side would He take? Given His response to a similar situation in the Gospel of Mark, it seems as if He would encourage us to respect the national anthem and to get back in touch with our roots, as Cardinal Bagnasco alludes to.

Mark 12:13-17 tells of some Pharisees and Herodians who approached Jesus and asked Him if it was lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar. They were doing this in an attempt to catch Him in His speech, knowing that there would be consequences no matter what answer He gave. Knowing this, Jesus did not give a straight answer but instead asked for a Roman coin to look at. He asked them whose inscription was on the coin. “Caesar’s,” they answered. So Jesus replied, “Repay unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Looking at this passage, we must first consider what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. Jesus’ answer to the Jews’ question suggests that since Caesar’s inscription was on the coin, it was right to pay the census tax because the currency belonged to the country, which was rightfully Caesar’s. Furthermore, all authority over nations comes from God, according to entry 1899 in The Catechism of the Catholic Church. And Romans 13:1-2 says, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those that exist have been instituted by God.” The CCC also says in entry 2240 that this submission and co-responsibility to the common good binds citizens to the responsibility of paying taxes. However, the Catechism also points out that there is a limit and says in entry 1903 that authority is only legitimately exercised when it seeks the common good of the group over which it has authority and uses morally licit means to get it. Thus, citizens are obliged by conscience, says entry 2242, to disobey civil directives that are contrary to the demands of the moral order, the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospels. These are things that belong only to God and are what Jesus refers to when He says to repay to God what belongs to God.

You may wonder why, since conscience dictates that we go against something that violates the rights of every person, kneeling or other kinds of protests during the national anthem to protest the treatment of people of color should be frowned upon. To answer this, we need to understand what a civil directive is. A directive is an official or authoritative instruction, so a civil directive applies this to society and its issues. Standing and putting your hand over your heart during the national anthem differs from this because it is a way to show respect, which is an innate value in society. A civil directive is basically a law. There is no law in government that explicitly tells us to respect others and our country; it is just implied because of our God-given nature and the gifts that He has given us. Respect is also a natural expectation of a civil society. Thus, taking the stance of putting your hand over your heart while standing is not a directive and therefore does not satisfy the conditions in entry 2242 of the Catechism.

Another thing to consider is why, while it is noble to want equal treatment for all people, protesting and bringing attention to this cause during the national anthem is inappropriate. To understand this, it is important to note the distinction between paying respect to a country as a whole and disapproving of something that is going on within that country. Of course there are disagreements and things that people don’t agree with in this country; that happens everywhere. But this is where we live. We are blessed to make our home in this great country regardless of whether we agree with its policies and citizen conduct or not. Think about something in this country you disagree with. We’ll use abortion as an example. It has been legal since 1973. Have you ever seen anyone protest during the national anthem or any other tradition that shows respect for America on account of this disagreement? No, of course not. People may not agree with the law, but they will still show respect for the country because they know that the people working inside the country are at fault, rather than the country itself. This can be applied to the treatment of people of color by police officers and public officials. This would be the fault of people inside the country and have no effect on the respect that America itself deserves.

This leads to the discussion of the values and principles that America was founded on. This will help highlight the reason why it deserves the respect of standing respectfully during the national anthem. The Declaration of Independence tells us that all men are created equally and are given unalienable rights to them by the Creator, e.g. life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. This is important to point out because it proves that the American lifestyle has always been based on the equal treatment of all men, not just some with the exception of, for the sake of this argument, people of color. This also applies to the rest of the statement, meaning that all people have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, including people of color. If this is something that America as a country has always stood for, regardless of the conduct of some, then why shouldn’t it be given the respect that that conviction deserves? There is nothing immoral there. The statement even mentions God as the giver of these rights! It would be something different if the country was indeed founded on the false and immoral principle that people of color do not deserve fair and equal treatment and therefore could be treated any way citizens desired to treat them. It would be in that situation that it would be appropriate to not show allegiance and respect during the anthem because the establishment of the values and principles it represented would have been an abuse of power by our founders.

Now that we have an understanding of the argument from a more secular perspective, let’s return to the Gospel of Mark and apply it there. Imagine that Jesus was approached by a current athlete who asked Him if it is lawful to stand with one’s hand over one’s heart during the American national anthem. Following the outline of the story in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus responds by asking the athlete to bring him an American flag. Once the flag is brought, Jesus asks the athlete, “What is on this flag and what does it represent?” The athlete responds, “The 50 stars represent the 50 current states and the 13 stripes represent the original 13 colonies.” Jesus would reply, “Render unto America what belongs to America and to God what belongs to God.” You see, the flag represents the country as a whole, both the original 13 colonies brought in by the founding fathers and the 43 that have been brought in (lawfully) since then. It is a celebration of what this country has become, and continues to be, as a whole and the home that we have built here. It has nothing to do with citizen conduct and people who break the law. All countries unfortunately have that problem, but it doesn’t change the greatness of that country. So, let’s all reverse the trend that Cardinal Bagnasco points out and acknowledge our roots and be proud of
our traditions.

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