Honoring the National Anthem—Standing and Kneeling

What do national symbols really stand for?

Posted Sep 29, 2017

I’ve always stood for the national anthem. But the first time I can remember doing so wasn’t in the U.S. and it wasn’t for the "Star-Spangled Banner." My wife and I were in Kenya, as Peace Corps Volunteers. Kenya had gained its independence in 1964, a year before we arrived.

We were in the Kisii Cinema, a grand name for a storefront that had crates for seats and a sheet for a screen. When the Kenya national anthem played, Lyn and I stood up and sang the words in Swahili. Others didn’t know what to do; some stood but none sang, not even the English words.

Why had Kenya adopted an anthem? The same as every other country: to have a unifying symbol around which all citizens can gather. Politics may divide us but our common lot in one country binds us. Symbols, such as flags and anthems, remind us that we are citizens of one country and that our welfare depends upon one another.

Disrespecting these national markers is viewed by many as disloyalty verging on treason. But for some using these symbols as a form of protest is affirming the common ties. It is making the point that the national ideals haven’t yet been achieved; that the ideals are being hurt by actions of those in power.

Kneeling or locking arms during the national anthem may be offensive to some. And the message it was originally meant to convey may get lost in the protests over the protests. But the use of the anthem as a way of calling attention to the gap between the reality and the ideal is a confirmation of patriotism, not its rejection.

Patriotic symbols are misused when they stand for certain groups rather than moral values. In a democratic society, the anthem shouldn’t be a stand-in for the military or the police, as is often said. Rather, the anthem needs to remind us our foundational values—freedom and justice for all—principles that hold up the quest for the common good.

When enforcers of the law are valorized by anthems, we are no longer standing for values that inspire our loyalty but for individuals. Those who are heroes need honoring, too, but to conflate the national anthem with heroic deeds of some diminishes the real value of national symbols.