This week, an 11-year-old boy in Florida was arrested and charged with “disrupting a School Function and resisting officer without violence” during a confrontation with a substitute teacher that began when he refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The student told the teacher that he believe the Pledge was offensive and that the flag is racist.
Students in Florida are not required to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.
The incident has sparked a debate about the Pledge itself, and whether or not students should be required to recite it. It’s a question that for Christians, is particularly loaded.
First, it’s helpful to know the history of the Pledge of Allegiance. The Pledge didn’t originate as a government document and didn’t come from the founding fathers. It was basically an idea used to sell magazine subscriptions.
As this video from NPR explains, the Pledge was essentially a marketing ploy. Back in the 1890s, the publishers of a magazine called The Youth’s Companion started giving free American flags to readers who sold subscriptions. From there, they suggested that schools raise a flag on Columbus Day and have students read something special—that just so happened to be written in The Youth’s Companion. They hired a Baptist minister and copywriter to come up with something, and the Pledge of Allegiance was born. (Though, the words “under God” weren’t added until 1954.)
But considering the implications of the actual words—pledging your allegiance to a man-made flag—should Christians feel conflicted about reciting it?
In 2017, author and theologian Dr. Preston Sprinkle wrote an article for RELEVANT about the topic following the Colin Kaepernick controversy that looked at how the early church viewed displays of nationalism.
“Try blowing up your next Bible study by asking the question: Should Christians stand for the national anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance? You might just start a fight,” he wrote.
He explained that “the first Christians, however, would have gladly wrestled with these questions—and they did.”
“The early church’s relationship to Rome was a pressing issue, and Scripture speaks to it with profound clarity,” Sprinkle says. “Paul says that Christians should submit to the State (Romans 13:1-4), obey its laws (Titus 3:1), and pray for its leaders (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Peter says the same thing (1 Peter 2:13-14), and Jeremiah encouraged Jewish exiles to ‘seek the welfare of Babylon’ where they were living in exile (Jeremiah 29:7). Christians are to be good citizens … The apostles publicly refused to submit to Rome’s laws when they conflicted with the way of Christ (Acts 4:19; 5:29), and Israel’s wild-eyed prophets denounced the nations—including their own—for violence, oppression, and mistreating the marginalized (Amos 1-2). The fulcrum of the biblical story hinges on a revolutionary peasant-King who received the death penalty for treason.”
He also said that earlier Christians thought about patriotism much differently than modern ones.
“No Christian in the first 300 years after Jesus would have pledged allegiance to Rome during a church gathering,” he says. “Roman flags didn’t stand next to Christian flags in first-century house churches, and followers of Jesus viewed themselves as citizens of One: One Lord, One baptism, One kingdom of sojourners scattered across the earth as colonies of heaven. Christians in America are more like Israelite exiles living in Babylon than Jewish kings reigning in Israel.”
So should Christians pledge their allegiance to a flag? Would Jesus do it?
Here’s why Sprinkle says: “While Christians should submit to the state, pray for its leaders, and render qualified obedience to its laws, to pledge allegiance is a profoundly religious act. It’s a religious statement infused with divided loyalties and borders on syncretism. I think the burden of proof rests on those followers of the crucified Lamb to show that citizens of heaven can truly pledge allegiance to anyone other than Christ—and that’s something Christians need to think about deeply.”
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.