During this fall season, some professional football players in the NFL are protesting the persistence of racial injustice in the United States by kneeling on bended knees in silence during the singing of the national anthem during the opening ceremonies of their ball games. These protests have provoked an outrage from millions of fans over this disrespect to flag and country. In this contretemps, the last two lines of the first verse of our national anthem are poignant:
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
The question mark at the end is worth noting because, today, the answer is far from clear.
The essential goal of the ritual observances of standing to honor the flag and singing the national anthem is to show respect and honor for the sacrifices of those who have safeguarded the freedoms of our society. As such, both have become almost sacred symbols of identity for the American nation. Thus, any public breaches of these rituals should be unthinkable. When such protests do become thinkable, and even doable, the whole purpose of the nation is in danger of being lost.
Nations like ours, in fact, are both mighty, but fragile, accomplishments. They are mighty because they are communities built around plural groups grounded in “common histories of shared experience,” as observed by Ernest Renan, of 19th century France. As a species, humans originally roamed the earth in small bands based on the endogenous, or blood ties, of family. But ties of kinship were insufficient to provide the basics of survival: defense and sustainable livelihoods. To secure the basic viability as a group, humans needed to cluster around larger groupings of exogenous ties; that is, of ties beyond blood and family.
One of the clearest explanations of this fundamental transition of group loyalties from endogenous to exogenous sources was offered by Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), better known as the father of psychoanalysis, in his books “Totem and Taboo” (1913) and “Civilization and Its Discontents” (1930). In them, he noted that the fundamental barrier that needs to be overcome in this transition was being able to achieve the same level of sacrifice for the common good in exogenous groups that could be intrinsically counted upon in endogenous family groups. To succeed, exogenous groups needed to construct a founding “story” of national purpose that was embodied in a totem guaranteed by set of taboos. A totem was a physical symbol (like a flag) and/or a ritual (like singing a national anthem) to which the whole community pledged their lives. Taboos were violations of the totem that, left unpunished, would weaken the family-like loyalty upon which the strength of the exogenous community depended.
Taboos often clustered around touching. Thus, when the sacred totem of the Hebrews, the Arc of the Covenant, containing the stone tablets of the Ten Commandments, began to totter at the edge of a cliff, a non-priest, ritually “unclean,” commoner reached out to steady the sacred totem. For his efforts, he was struck dead by God, as soon as he touched it. Thus, in Freud’s words, the Holy Awe of the totem was thereby ensured by the Holy Dread of the taboo. In fact, agnostic as he was, Freud conceded that “only religion can answer the question of the purpose of life.” In so doing, religion provides the steel fiber required for guaranteeing the willingness to sacrifice for the common good in exogenous groups like nations. Indeed, the founding “story” of a nation remains politically powerful as long as its plural citizenry is willing to die for it. If, today, the totem is no longer seen as sacred, and violating it is no longer dreaded, then the unity of our plural nation is under threat by this fall’s bended knees of protest.
Across our land, school children still start their days with this:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the Republic for Which it stands, one Nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.
If this pledge cannot be a commitment to a common purpose for all Americans, our exogenous ties will become fragile indeed. Lest we lose heart, there is a better way forward: to Make America Great Again, every citizen should bow down on bended knees — in prayer.