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'The seriousness with which Americans take their flag and national anthem is unusual'

Trump continues to exploit this sensitivity to try and boost his popularity, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

DONALD TRUMP’S DECISION to disinvite the Philadelphia Eagles from coming to the White House to celebrate their Super Bowl victory is the latest twist in the saga over NFL players protesting during the playing of the American national anthem.

A press release from the White House stated that the Eagles “disagree with their President because he insists that they proudly stand for the national anthem, hand on heart, in honor of the great men and women of our military and the people of our country.”

It was clear that many Eagles players were not planning on attending because of their dislike of the president. Trump tried to connect this to the anthem protests, despite the fact that no Eagles player took a knee while the anthem was played during the season.

American nationalism

But for Trump, there is great political advantage to be had in pretending that players are offending the religious sensibilities of the American public. Not its Christian sensibilities, but those of the one true and universal religion of the United States: American nationalism.

Anyone who has ever spent time in the United States knows it is a very nationalistic country. The abundance of flags, the regular playing of the national anthem, and the constant reference to “the greatest country in the world” are quite striking. All nations have national pride, but the intensity and sincerity of it amongst Americans is a degree different to that of most countries.

Some might feel this is conflating nationalism with American “patriotism.” There are many eloquent explanations for the difference between “nationalism” and “patriotism.” But none have matched the pithiness and truthfulness of the one offered by British sociologist Michael Billig, who observed that it is “patriotism” when “we” do it, but “nationalism” when “they” do it.

Artificial differences?

Nationalism and religion are often lumped together as the worst examples of the irrational ideologies that create artificial differences between people. But few people appreciate that both are almost identical.

Nationalists simply replace crosses with flags, prayers with anthems and church holidays with national holidays. Nationalism doesn’t just resemble religion, it is directly modelled on it.

This model of nationalism has been adopted around the world, but the seriousness with which Americans take their flag and national anthem is unusual. One theory is that, as America does not have an ancient past to act as the bedrock of its national identity, it is more reliant on the flag and anthem as concrete expressions of Americanness. Thus the flag and anthem are treated with great reverence.

The American veneration of the national flag is remarkable when compared to other countries. British and Irish supporters often write messages on their national flags when they bring to sports events. Irish fans especially have pushed the boat out a little further in recent years, with bawdy jokes and even nude images appearing on the Irish tricolor.

Not everyone in Ireland is happy about it, but there is none of the white-hot rage that would inevitably come forth should someone dare take such liberty with the Stars and Stripes.

Link between anthem and military

The same is true of any perceived disdain of the national anthem. The argument made by those who are offended by players kneeling is that it is disrespectful to the men and women who serve in the American military.

The White House statement about cancelling the Eagles visit made this very point. But what is remarkable is how this link between the anthem and the military is universally accepted by Americans.

The connection between the military and American identity is all the more unusual when one considers that most of the founders of the United States believed that large, permanent armies were dangerous, and deliberately avoided creating one. In their eyes, an army was the tool of the tyrant, the very thing that would be used to suppress the liberty of the people.

For this reason, the United States traditionally only mobilised large armies in emergencies. As late as 1939, the American army was estimated to only have been the eighteenth largest in the world, a smaller fighting force than that of Portugal, Belgium or the Netherlands.

The Second World War and Cold War, changed all of this. Not only did the United States quickly create the world’s most powerful military, it was willing to use it to prevent the spread of communism around the world. The nation founded by men who viewed a permanent army as a threat to their liberty became the nation that saw its massive military as the only thing defending its citizens’ freedoms.

American soldiers

Some Americans criticised this interventionist foreign policy. In response, a discourse was developed to silence these voices. To criticise the deployment of troops in a foreign country became the same thing as criticising the troops themselves, which was tantamount to criticising America. By collapsing the distinction between America and its soldiers, defenders of American foreign policy were able to label its critics as “unpatriotic.”

To this day, Americans speaking publicly go to great pains to insist upon their unwavering support and admiration of American soldiers. To equivocate in any way on this topic is to invite suggestions that one’s patriotism (or faith) isn’t pure or deep enough.

This is at the heart of the turmoil that has roiled the NFL over the anthem protests. In the dogma of modern American nationalism, America, its symbols (the flag and anthem) and its military are the Holy Trinity, one and the same. To commit “blasphemy” against one is to commit it against them all.

Trump continues to exploit this sensitivity to try and boost his popularity. On Monday he insisted that players who stay in the dressing room while the anthem is being played (something allowed under the rule changes the NFL introduced a few weeks ago) are being just as disrespectful as people kneeling.

So long as there is political gain to be made from it, Trump will depict himself as a crusader against the “heretics” of the American nation.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor for Irish History and Culture at Drew University, New Jersey.

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Caoimhín De Barra
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