IT'S A GRAND OLD FLAG
A Sermon by Sarah Oelberg on June 16, 2002
When I heard that the state legislature - both bodies - had passed a bill that would require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at least once a week in public and charter schools, I was appalled. First, that with all the really serious problems they had to deal with, they could take time for such a trivial matter. Secondly, because I agree with Jesse Ventura that patriotism should come from the heart. I was proud of him when he vetoed the bill, comparing a Pledge requirement to the indoctrination practiced by the Nazis and the Taliban. That takes guts. But it was also good sense. He is right that patriotism should be voluntary, otherwise it doesn't count for anything; that a patriot should show their patriotism through their actions, by their choice, and the best thing the school could do would be to make sure students know about the history and values of America. Being a patriot, Jesse says, means voting, attending community meetings, paying attention to the actions of government and speaking out as needed.
There are other good reasons for not having a requirement for school children to say the pledge. One is that it is illegal. There have been laws and there have been court cases, including a 1943 Supreme Court ruling that prohibits schools from forcing children to recite the pledge as part of their school day. Moreover, about 10 years ago, Minnesota lawmakers repealed a 1959 law that required educators to teach, on at least one day per week, "subjects and exercises tending and calculated to encourage and inculcate a spirit of patriotism in the students."
Why would they do a thing like that? It was part of an effort to eliminate obsolete and unneeded mandates. This was also part of Jesse's point - there is plenty of patriotism without mandating it! But there are other good reasons as well. Even though there was provision for students to opt out and not participate in the saying of the pledge, there have also been court cases, including one Supreme Court case I am very familiar with, which have concluded that, because of peer pressure and possible retaliation, elementary students do not really have the freedom to not participate in something which is mandated by the schools and accepted by the community as valuable or patriotic.
I remember well when the Champaign, IL schools required that students attend religious classes during school hours. Three options were provided: Catholic, Protestant and Jewish. Students could choose not to participate, supposedly. But the pressure to do so was so intense that only two children, Jim McCollum and one other, chose not to. Since all the teachers were involved in the religion classes, they sat for that hour (even though it was the last hour of school and they could have just gone home early) on a bench in the principal's office, known as the "naughty bench," so they could be supervised by the school secretary. The amount of ridicule they received was considerable. Jim's mother, with the help of the local Unitarian church, took the case all the way to the supreme court. My parents were very involved in this. Although it was basically a case involving the separation of church and state, several references were made in the various opinions to the concern about having programs in schools which separated children and pointed out their differences. Justice Frankfurter said, "It is the object of the public school that once a child crosses its threshold he is protected from separatism."
How does this case relate to the saying the pledge, you ask? There are religions, and children who belong to those religions, that prohibit idolatry, and their members cannot pledge allegiance to anything but God. Thus, children of these faiths have to refuse to participate in the pledge, which separates them from the others, and often causes them to be ridiculed, isolated, or even physically abused by other children. When an official government body like a public school says that something is required, and treated as though it is almost sacred, it essentially violates the constitutional principle of freedom of choice, because the pressure to accede to the mandate is so great and the consequences of not participating so potentially painful that young children really do not have free choice. It is the same principle as in the separation of church and state -- especially since the words "Under God" were added in the fifties, partly as a response to the McCollum case and others. By God, some people were determined (and still are) to keep God in the schools!
Many of the same arguments apply to frequently proposed laws to make the burning or desecration of the flag a federal crime. I remember when I was in Chicago there was an exhibit at the art museum and one piece was an audience participation piece which asked viewers to add something to the large canvas, using special markers provided. The only catch was, the artist had glued an American flag to the floor, so in order to reach the canvas, one had to step on the flag. Such an uproar! Such a call to arms! We must have a law forbidding such desecration of the flag! This is not freedom of speech, this is tantamount to treason!
Interestingly, the last time the Congress tried to pass a flag-desecration law, it got bogged down in trying to define what constituted desecration - was it burning it (but that is the way old flags are supposed to be disposed of), was it using it for nefarious purposes, was it wearing it or parts of it on one's body as clothing? It used to be that wearing the flag as clothing was considered desecration. Since September 11, we have seen flag clothing all over the place - including in places where one would have to sit on the flag! Which just goes to show, I guess, how silly the whole brouhaha was.
Actually, I am getting tired of seeing the flag everywhere. It wraps the actions and budget of the Administration, it waves at us from the news networks - especially the Christian ones, it is being hawked by street vendors in hundreds of different designs. Corporate America and Madison Avenue have learned that the flag sells! They are exploiting patriotic sentiment for private gain. I am also tired of seeing faded and browning newspaper flags still stuck in house windows; tattered flags fluttering and flapping on pickup trucks; and, frankly, flag designs in clothing. Come on, if you want to show your patriotism, show the flag a little respect!
Our devotion to the flag is rather unique among the countries of the world. All nations have a flag, of course, and it is used for official purposes and in wartime, but no other nation that I am aware of has an equivalent to our Pledge of Allegiance. Most countries don't have flag-desecration laws, including such nationalistic countries as England, France, and Japan. But then I guess that if you have had wars fought in your own front yard, you tend to shrug off minor irritants. There are some other countries that do have laws protecting their flags. Poland, for example, has a law that states: "Whoever insults, damages or removes a publicly displayed emblem, banner, standard, flag, ensign or other symbol of the Polish state or of an allied state or of a foreign state or the symbol of the international workers movement shall be subjected to the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 3 years."
Interesting that it includes not just their own flag, but flags of other nations. It is also against the law in Poland, by the way, to broadcast insults to ethnic, racial and religious groups, or for "publicly insulting, scoffing at or degrading a group of people or an individual person by reason of their race, ethnic or racial affiliation." Perhaps we could learn something from the Poles! Poland isn't the only country that has laws against defacing flags or other national symbols. So does Germany - and Russia. I don't know why that doesn't surprise me.
I also wondered, when the legislators claimed that saying the pledge would be used to teach students the true history of our flag and what it means, just which stories would be taught. Would they be taught the myth that Betsy Ross stitched and designed the first flag -- she did not, her grandson made up that story. No one individual designed the flag; in fact the first design was simply the basic British Union Jack divided by white stripes. The second flag substituted stars for the cross in the corner square. The red, white, and blue colors came from the British flag, and, contrary to what it says in the Boy Scout Handbook, the blue does not represent justice, the white is not for purity, and the red is not for bravery.
Although Americans cherish their symbols of patriotism, they haven't always loved them. From early congressional debates, for instance, it is quite clear that the only reason the founders adopted a national flag was because the navy needed one for identification when sailing into foreign ports. The bill providing for a national flag consisted of a single sentence, and when a bill was introduced in 1794 to add two stars because two states had been added to the union, it was dismissed as "a trifling business, which ought not to engross the attention of this house."
Nor was there a universally accepted and used design for the flag until rather later in our history. More than a year after its adoption, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, in a joint letter, said it "consists of thirteen stripes, alternately red, white, and blue." Perhaps their ignorance was because the flag was seldom seen. In the art from the Revolutionary War, there is not one single depiction of the American Flag; we think it was in common use then because of paintings of the Revolution made in the 19th century. Only one Revolutionary war hero, John Paul Jones, fought under the Stars and Stripes. Soldiers did not go flagless, they had battle flags to boost their spirits. But artists even in the 19th century knew that pictures with flags sell, so, pictures counting more than words, we believe that Washington crossed the Delaware flying a flag, the boys on Bunker hill fought under a flag, and the famous painting "the Spirit of '76," featuring the flag and three haggard patriots with fife and drums has become one of the great American myths that ties our patriotism to sentimentality.
The founders would probably be pleased to see that the flag is respected today. But I doubt they would understand it being worshiped. Richard Shenkman, who has corrected many of our historical myths in his book, I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not, from which I got much of this information, claims flag worship is a modern development. A hundred years or so ago only a few self-appointed flag defenders conceived of it as a sacred object. Schools were not required to fly the flag until 1890. Americans did not begin pledging allegiance to the flag until 1892, when a magazine wanted to sell more flags, and came up with the idea of writing and printing a pledge in the magazine as a gimmick to help sales. It worked; the flag business boomed, and the tradition of having flags in every classroom and having kids say the pledge began.
Americans did not begin saluting the flag until around the Spanish-American War in 1898, and the salute then was to extend the right hand, "palm up and slightly raised." This was dropped during WW II, because it was too similar to the Nazi salute, and Congress ordered the salute to be crossing the right hand over the heart. Flag Day was not nationally observed until 1916. The flag code, prescribing the proper way to treat a flag and dispose of it, was not approved by Congress until 1942 and did not become part of federal law until 1976, when Americans were so concerned about the desecration of the flag during the Vietnam War protests. Odd that now, in our new post 9/11 patriotism, we think we are honoring the flag by, in fact, violating many of the provisions of the flag code, and displaying it in ways considered treasonous when it was done as a protest.
If Americans did not embrace the flag early on, once they did, they went at it enthusiastically. There was plenty of reason. "Hordes of immigrants" from Europe, with strange names and incomprehensible languages invaded the U.S., and it was believed that flag rituals were needed to ensure the newcomers' loyalty. It is interesting to speculate what the descendants of those early immigrant would think if they knew that the rituals they now hold so dear were originally developed to curb their ancestors. Would they be so quick to condemn new immigrants, and to wrap themselves in the flag to spew invective and venom at them, as happened in a letter to the Worthington paper this March, when a man wrote that the U.S. culture is an English-speaking one, and anyone who does not speak English, or for that matter, is not a Christian, should leave. I am sure the writer of that letter considers himself a great patriot -- probably has tattered flags flying from the four corners of his pickup truck.
According to a recent poll, 93% of Americans consider themselves patriotic. But what exactly does that mean? Who is a patriot? And what does patriotism demand of us? Samuel Johnson said that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. There are some who fear that our new devotion to patriotism is leading us away from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the very foundations of our country, the very documents and ideals that make our country worth being patriotic about. Dan Rather said that patriotic fever has "run amok" in America, squelching dissent and discouraging journalists from asking tough questions of government, and eroding our basic civil rights. Patriotism is not about saluting a flag, or pledging allegiance to a symbol; it is about upholding a set of principles upon which our nation is founded. Freedom and human rights are, or ought to be, the real source of national pride.
At its best, patriotism is a force which can stir America to fight for freedom, to inspire Americans to serve in the military, in government, and in our communities. It has helped us to defeat fascism, and motivates us to counter terrorism. It is a common sentiment that ties together people of different races, religions, and ethnicities to work for a common cause. It means living up to the ideals our country stands for. But sometimes there can be too much of a good thing. Too much patriotism and national pride can give rise to extreme nationalism. National unity can yield to oppression of dissenting views. I hope we will never again see times when people had to prove their loyalty by taking oaths and kissing flags and making false promises. Nor should we have to say a pledge every day to prove our allegiance.
I worry sometimes that our devotion to patriotism might lead us down a path toward isolationism. Our world is increasingly globalized. Countries around the world are connected by satellites and fiber optics. Global trade means steel workers in Ely MN have to worry about the banking system and stock market in Japan. Environmental issues like climate change and global warming transcend national boundaries. We have responsibilities far beyond our borders; indeed, we have obligations throughout the world which, if we do not meet, may have serious consequences for everyone. It is increasingly apparent that we are not just citizens of America, but of the world. Is it still appropriate, then, to continue to pledge our allegiance to a flag which stands as the symbol of only one country - our nation?
It was not just the United States which was injured by the events of 9/11; it was the whole world. Everyone's security has suffered; everyone's well-being has been threatened. We cannot put our nation above all others in either our suffering or our response to it. Anyone who has traveled abroad recently, or followed the news stories of our officials who have, or listens to or reads the foreign press, knows that the store of international goodwill is fast being depleted - partly because we seem to think that our wounds, our needs, our flag exist on a higher plane than those of anyone else.
George W. Bush, speaking in a presidential debate on October 11, 2000, said, "If we're an arrogant nation, they'll resent us. If we're a humble nation, but strong, they'll respect us." I wish he would remember those words today.
Adlai Stevenson once called patriotism a "national responsibility" that consists not of "short, frenzied outbursts of emotion, but the tranquil and steady dedication of a lifetime." Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: "When a whole nation is roaring patriotism at the top of its voice, I am fain to explore the cleanness of its hands and the purity of its heart." Can our current call to the flag stand up to such exploration? Think on these things as you enjoy the fourth of July and the rest of the summer.