Flag protests have broken out all over. Following Colin Kaepernick’s lead, NFL players have taken a knee or raised a fist during the playing of the national anthem. High school athletes have joined in. A Missouri state senator, Jamilah Nasheed, recently sat out the Pledge of Allegiance, as did a New York City councilman, Jumaane D. Williams.
Responses to these protests have been interesting. The band Kiss led their audience in the Pledge of Allegiance. Singer Paul Stanley said, “Patriotism is always cool.” Singer Kid Rock was less subtle. He referred to Kaepernick with an expletive while singing in front of a massive American flag. Less subtle still was an Alabama high school football announcer who suggested that anthem protesters should be shot.
As this unfolded, I’ve been helping to organize a Constitution Day event at Fresno State. One of my colleagues, civic education expert John Minkler, proposed starting the event with the pledge. Minkler sees the pledge as an affirmation of the social contract that helps stimulate reflection on patriotism and the constitutional system.
Student organizers were less enthusiastic about including the pledge. Some wondered whether the pledge was constitutional. They worried that the phrase “under God” seems to violate the First Amendment. They were concerned that the pledge seems to exclude non-Christians.
But the courts have allowed expressions of “ceremonial deism” such as the pledge – as well as “In God we trust” and other phrases. In 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decided against a Sacramento atheist, Michael Newdow, who claimed that the pledge was unconstitutional.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor explained in her opinion in that case that ceremonial references to God serve only to “solemnize an occasion” without endorsing any particular religion. She hinted that students who object to religious words can simply not say them, while participating in the rest of the pledge.
Students also are allowed to opt out of the pledge entirely. Recently in Chicago, a teacher tried to force a student to stand for the pledge. The teacher was reprimanded and the student was vindicated.
The pledge was invented in 1892. In the early days, people saluted with an open palm raised toward the flag. This looked like the Nazi salute. So in the 1940s people began covering their hearts instead of raising their hands. The words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954 during the anti-Communist era.
Since the beginning there have been protests. Jehovah’s Witnesses have refused to say the pledge, saying that flag salutes are a form of idolatry. In a 1940 case concerning Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Supreme Court defended compulsory pledging of allegiance saying, “National unity is the basis of national security.” But in 1943 the court reversed itself saying, “Love of country must spring from willing hearts and free minds, inspired by a fair administration of wise laws.”
At around this time, the American philosopher John Dewey suggested that the pledge had become a pale substitute for the reality of justice and liberty for all. He identified mistreatment of “Negroes,” anti-Semitism, and opposition to “alien immigrants” as significant problems.
Seventy years later, we are confronting similar issues. Those who protest the pledge and the national anthem likely believe that we need liberty and justice for all. But they believe we are failing to live up to that ideal.
If there is hope and common ground here, it lies in those underlying values. Justice, equality, liberty and respect for persons are essential values of a common human morality. Those values transcend any flag or religion.
Some criticize the pledge as a kind of nationalistic indoctrination. But the ethical ideals expressed in the pledge point beyond jingoistic patriotism and religious exclusivism toward cosmopolitan concern for liberty and justice for all.
Liberty and justice are fragile and complicated. They cannot be defended by shouted expletives or silent gestures. Rather, they require civil dialogue that seeks common ground and mutual understanding.
Liberty and justice are destroyed by violence and incivility. This is true whether you protest the flag or protest the protesters. Whether we recite the pledge or stay silent, whether we kneel or cover our hearts, we should always think carefully about our words, our deeds and our common humanity.
Vote for Democracy Forum: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Sept. 17. Students and community leaders discuss the future of our democracy. Sponsored by the Fresno County Civic Education Partnership, the Fresno Youth Commission, the Ethics Center at Fresno State and other community partners. For more information go to the Civic Education website: www.fresnociviclearning.com.