We Do Ritual Right


We’ve all heard the rumors about President Obama not properly saluting the flag, and while the whole thing was clearly taken out of context by people who were grasping at straws to discredit the guy, I have to wonder why it would be such a big deal if he really didn’t. Are we really going to judge the President of the United States on his willingness to, as it were, do the Hokey Pokey? It got me thinking about the nature of ritual in general, and why humans not only crave it but disparage those who don’t take it seriously. Another charge frequently leveled against the President is that he’s secretly a Muslim, which kind of seems opposed to that other one, as Muslims are very much into ritual. At one point, religion was pretty much all about ritual, and in some ways it still is. With the Romans and other societies, certain religious rituals were mostly just ways of demonstrating loyalty to the Emperor.

In nations where there’s a separation of church and state, there can often be a religious sort of reverence for symbols and rituals even though they’re not directly related to any particular religion.

If the Constitution gives us freedom of religion, shouldn’t that also include whether or not we want to worship the flag?

You hear every once in a while about the nation trying to pass an amendment against flag-burning, and while I certainly don’t have the desire to burn any flags, attaching such importance to a symbol that it’s an exception to the First Amendment strikes me as setting a dangerous precedent. Sure, for some people the flag is more than the sum of its parts, just as books and objects are in various religions. Still, ultimately, it’s a symbol. Someone burning it isn’t burning the country itself. I’m not in favor of burning the Quran either, but some countries make that punishable by imprisonment or death. Book-burning is a terrible thing, but a capital crime it very much isn’t. Still, even if you aren’t motivated by respect not to burn symbols other people hold dear, you should avoid it just because you don’t want any violent retribution.


The thing is, I’m hardly against ritual. As someone who’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome and obsessive-compulsive disorder, I can say that I’ve made up plenty of rituals for my own life that would be totally meaningless to anyone else. I know they’re ultimately pointless, but they bring me a sort of comfort. And I think a lot of religious and patriotic ritual also bring comfort, as well as a sense of belonging. I would think an almighty deity would have more important things to worry about than how many times a day you pray, but I think people who follow such rituals feel more connected to the divine. And sometimes it’s a secret handshake of sorts, letting you feel that you belong to a community and other people recognize one of their own. This certainly relates to the Obama thing, as the thread running through attempts to discredit the President is that he’s Not One of Us. I think it’s interesting that the Protestant Reformation, while certainly not totally removing symbolism or ritual from Christianity, definitely tried to downplay its importance. Protestants moved to have the Eucharist considered symbolic instead of actual cannibalism, and there certainly isn’t as much choreographed movement in a Protestant service than in a Catholic mass. It seems like some Protestants, however, have tried to make belief into a ritual of sorts. I’ve made the point over and over again that you can’t just make yourself believe in something you don’t, and surely God would know if you’re faking it. But I’ve occasionally seen mentions of prayers that non-believers should pray in order to convert, basically magic mantras in a form of Christianity that’s supposed to only be about faith.

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3 Responses to We Do Ritual Right

  1. Joe says:

    I think you well delineate one of the big problems of organized religion, particularly Christianity, which is scripturally free of rituals and the trappings of religion. But people tend to prefer easy methods to make them feel holy, even if they’re spiritually empty. Loving your neighbor as yourself is hard. Taking responsibility for your actions is hard. So, in a faith that’s all about relationship (with each other, with God), people pervert and revert to pastors and priests (to take their responsibility) and rituals and rules (to take the place of love).

  2. caelesti says:

    I remember when I was in Girl Scouts I though it made no sense to pay “respect” to an object, but after studying religions & cultures more I came to realize that it was a ritual object, being reverent towards it was symbolic of being reverent to the country. In addition to separation of church & state, the expectation that the President be Christian is actually rather bad for Christianity, since it’s usually such a watered down “generic” form of it that’s supposed to be paid lip service to. Christianity was supposed to be about sincere faith and not conforming for the sake of social approval.

    • Nathan says:

      With saluting the flag and such, I think a lot of the point isn’t so much that you do it for yourself, your country, or your God; but rather that you do it for the people around you who DO think the symbolism is important.

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