a Sermon by Rev. Sarah Oelberg at Prairie Unitarian Universalist Society, Madison WI, July 18, 2004
I don't know about you, but after Memorial Day, D-Day, Flag Day and four days of celebrating our nation's independence, I am tired of seeing and pledging allegiance to our nation's flag. However, I am sure that in the months to come, as we face a contentious election, we are destined to see much more of the flag, and candidates wrapping themselves in it in order to get elected. Patriotism seems to be measured by how much one loves and honors our flag.
What does it mean when we pledge allegiance to the flag? What, exactly, in this political climate particularly, is the significance of the pledge? First of all, why to the flag, rather than to the principles that make this a great nation? It is interesting to note that in former times when our nation was at war, patriotism was strong, but it was expressed through communal and individual sacrifice. People bought war bonds, rationed supplies needed to fight the wars, and did without luxuries for the cause. Now, although we are asked to make sacrifices, nobody really expects us to. There are no war bonds to buy, instead we are running the country into great debt for the war. Instead of rationing, the president encourages us to go out and spend to "keep the terrorists from winning" and help the economy. Large tax breaks are given to the rich. Perhaps this is part of the flag phenomenon: there aren't other good ways to express our patriotism.
A couple of years ago, the Minnesota legislature passed a bill that would require the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at least once a week in all public and charter schools. Fortunately, then governor Jesse Ventura vetoed it, saying that patriotism should come from the heart and comparing a Pledge requirement to the indoctrination practiced by the Nazis and the Taliban. That took guts - it is amazing how good he looks in retrospect! He was right that patriotism should be voluntary, otherwise it doesn't count for anything; that people 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 said. 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. This ruling, ironically, was because there are religions, and children belonging to those religions, that prohibit idolatry, and their members cannot pledge allegiance to anything but God. But, when children of those religions "sat out" the pledge, they were ridiculed, isolated, and even physically abused by other children, and accused of being unpatriotic. 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.
This principle was clarified in a case in 1948 in which I was involved. 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 a couple of others, including me, chose not to. Since all the teachers were involved in the religion classes, the dissenters 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. 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." In both these cases, the pressure applied by the mandate is so great and the consequences of not participating so potentially painful that young children really do not have free choice.
This is also basically what Michael Newdow was arguing in his protest over having his daughter compelled to repeat the pledge with the words "under God" which were inserted in the fifties as a response to Communism - a godless state. Those words do officially make the United States a nation which claims to be protected by God, which, as we have seen lately, can lead to all kinds of excess. Newdow's argument was that, by including the words "under God," the government forces a nonbeliever to either say something which is not true, in the form of a prayer, or to refrain from repeating the pledge of allegiance to the nation. The two should definitely be separate. Even atheists can be patriotic! Newdow also found it presumptuous that the legislature and the president, or for that matter even the Supreme Court, has the power to determine which nations are under God. A nation chosen by God lends itself to the arrogance to believe that it can ignore the conscience of other nations because it is appointed by God. Hitler had "God is on our side" on the belt buckle of the SS troops. Bin Laden claims the legitimacy of his actions because God, or Allah, is with him.
We should also be wary of the 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! Now we are hearing this again.
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 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. I was appalled to receive in our local newspaper last week a full page flag print with the admonition to show my patriotism by posting it on my front window. The only problem was, the backside was full of brightly colored advertisements, which showed through in the light. Is this the new symbol of patriotism - the flag superimposed over ads? Perhaps it is. 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. One exception I know of is Poland, which 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 Minnesota legislators claimed that saying the pledge would 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. 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, the 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. One reason we have such devotion to the flag is because, as a nation, we do not share devotion to a single ethnicity, religion, culture or geographic region. America, the melting pot, needed something to hold people together.
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. This is why the Patriot Act following September 11 is such a travesty.
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 jobs which were once safe are now going overseas, and all of us need 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 rest of the summer with its two political conventions and the olympics, where we will see more American flags than there are mosquitos in Wisconsin. Ponder the real meaning of the flag, and of allegiance, as we endure the coming election cycle.