Sunday, July 3, 2011

When Patriotism Doesn't Look Like Patriotism

There are no greater symbols of patriotism and national pride than the American flag and Pledge of Allegiance. Conversely, there is no greater expression of this nation’s real strength than the right to refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag and nation for which it stands. 

The original Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by the Baptist minister and Christian socialist Francis Bellamy. Bellamy’s Pledge succinctly captures the ideas of his first cousin, Edward Bellamy, who was the author of the American socialist utopian novels, Looking Backward (1888) and Equality (1897).

So yes it’s true: the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a Christian socialist Baptist minister to idealize utopian socialist values.

The Reverend Francis Bellamy believed the middle class could create a planned economy that would provide political, social and economic equality for all. His radical ideas forced him from the pulpit when his congregation rebelled over the tenor of his socialist sermons. In 1892 Bellamy served as chair of a committee of state superintendents of education in the National Education Association. As chair he prepared a program for the public schools' quadricentennial celebration for Columbus Day in 1892. Bellamy program included a flag raising ceremony, a flag salute, and the recitation of his Pledge of Allegiance.

Now here’s what’s possibly even more interesting: Bellamy’s original Pledge never mentioned God. Here’s the original Pledge: “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Bellamy considered placing the word “equality” in the Pledge (to read as “with liberty, equality and justice for all”) but decided against it because the state superintendents of education were against equality for women and African Americans and they wouldn’t approve the recitation of the Pledge with the word equality in it.

In 1923 the National Flag Conference, under the influence of the American Legion and the Daughters of the American Revolution, changed the Pledge's words from “my Flag” to the more specific phrase “the Flag of the United States of America.” Bellamy disliked this change but his complaint was ignored.

Thirty-one years later, in 1954, Congress bowed to a national campaign by the Catholic Knights of Columbus to insert God into the Pledge. And thus, by an Act of Congress, the Pledge became both a patriotic oath and a national public prayer.

Bellamy's granddaughter told his biographer that Bellamy would have resented this second change. Bellamy, who had been pressured into leaving his beloved ministry because of his socialist sermons about equality and justice, eventually moved to Florida and she said he stopped attending church in Florida because of the racial bigotry he found there.

So, it seems, Christianity gave Bellamy no moral shelter to preach his Christian socialist beliefs about human equality and denounce the pernicious bigotry that tainted both his church and society.

I suggest Bellamy and his life and beliefs might be something to think about…but here’s something else to think about if you’re pondering the blessings of your American liberty this holiday weekend: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (319 U.S. 624, 63 S. Ct. 1178; 1943).

Which is where I bring in Mr. Barnette and Justice Robert Jackson.

Barnette may very well be the most important case about religious liberty and the American flag to ever be decided by the Supreme Court and, however irritating you may find the Jehovah’s Witnesses when they ring your door bell, you should know you have those folks to thank for helping to secure your liberty one screw tighter.

Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to salute any flag or take any pledge of allegiance to any nation or human being because they believe these actions violate God’s laws. They take literally the 1st Commandment injunction “Thou shall have no other gods before me” as well as Exodus 20 verses 4 and 5 which admonishes “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; thou shalt not bow down thyself to them nor serve them.”

Witnesses consider the flag to be a graven image and a pledge to any image or nation blasphemous. (I might add here that this refusal to salute flags and take loyalty oaths caused them untold misery and even death in Nazi Germany, but that’s a separate issue for another discussion).

The Witnesses’ refusal to allow their children to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance caused bitter resentment in the 1940’s. After all, we were a nation at war and, very much like today, Americans wore their patriotism on their sleeves, lapels, and I suppose even then as decals on their bumpers. This was hot-button explosive stuff.

Seventeen states passed statutes requiring school children to salute the flag – and provided for their mandatory expulsion if they did not. Children of Jehovah's Witnesses were being expelled from school and officials threatened to send them to reformatories if they did not return to school and salute the flag and say the Pledge. Parents of such children were sometimes jailed and threatened with prosecutions for causing delinquency.

The Witnesses filed lawsuits asserting that these statutes unconstitutionally restricted freedom of religion. Mr. Barnette, who had two young daughters expelled by the West Virginia School Board, was one of the Witnesses who filed a lawsuit.

Prior to the decision in Barnette, the Court heard Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940) and held that a state statute mandating compulsory flag salute was indeed constitutional. Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the opinion for the Court and said “freedom of religion is not absolute and some compromises may be necessary in order to secure the national unity which is the basis of national security.”

This was not a unanimous decision. Justice Stone disagreed with his fellow Justices in Gobitis and he wrote a powerful dissenting opinion. The next case before the Court was Jones v. Opelika (1942). The majority of the Justices on the Court still upheld the statutes but the divide became wider; in Opelika, Justices Black, Douglas and Murphy joined Stone in dissent against the Court’s decision.

In 1943 Justice Rutledge replaced Justice Byrnes and the scales were now tipped. The next case before the Court that challenged a compulsory flag salute statute was the Barnette case and it was about to make legal history.

Mr. Justice Jackson wrote the majority opinion of the Court in Barnette and his words are among my all-time favorite words in American history. They are best savored in the light of history – and Justice Jackson knew his history – as well as the realities of his day. Jackson wrote a scathing and brilliant rebuttal to any person or nation who might argue that national security can be found in the coercion of its citizens. Jackson wrote that Rome could not coerce Christians to be pagans and the Inquisition could not make the world Catholic and Russian Stalinists could not force national unity with the threat of Siberia; Jackson begged the question about how America could say it was morally and politically different from fascist Germany or Japan if it embarked on a road that coerced shows of patriotism.

Here are a few excerpts from Justice Jackson’s opinion in Barnette:

“Those who begin coercive elimination of dissent soon find themselves exterminating dissenters. Compulsory unification of opinion achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard.”

“To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous instead of a compulsory routine is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.”

“We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes.”

“The very purpose of a Bill of Rights was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities and officials and to establish them as legal principles to be applied by the courts. One's right to life, liberty, and property, to free speech, a free press, freedom of worship and assembly, and other fundamental rights may not be submitted to vote; they depend on the outcome of no elections.”

“But freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.”

“If there is a fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. If there are any circumstances which permit an exception, they do not now occur to us.”
And finally, in overturning the decision in Gobitis and affirming that the Virginia Board of Education had violated Barnette’s constitutional rights, Jackson stated: “We think the action of the local authorities in compelling the flag salute and pledge transcends constitutional limitations on their power and invades the sphere of intellect and spirit which is the purpose of the First Amendment to our Constitution.…”

Robert H. Jackson (1892-1954) was a leading American lawyer, judge, and writer. He served as a United States Supreme Court Justice from 1941 until 1954. During 1945-46, Justice Jackson was the architect of the international trial process as well as chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg War Crimes trials in Germany. In 1954, once again serving as a Supreme Court Justice, Jackson participated in the Court’s unanimous decision in the landmark anti-segregation case Brown v. Board of Education. Shortly thereafter, Jackson suffered a fatal heart attack and died on October 9, 1954. He was only 62.

The Jackson Center is the global source of information on the life, words, work and legacy of Robert H. Jackson. The Jackson Center, through its comprehensive, ever-developing digital archive, makes primary documents, film, audio, photographs and other resources on Jackson, the legal profession, the Franklin Roosevelt Administration, the Supreme Court of the United States, constitutional law and international law available around the world. See:

Credit for research about the Pledge of Allegiance and Robert Bellamy should go to John Baer for his excellent work The Pledge of Allegiance, a Revised History and Analysis; Annapolis, Md. Free State Press, Inc., 2007.

History does not seem to record much about the life of Barnette; however, his daughters participated in a seminar in 2006 cosponsored by the Robert H. Jackson Center and the Supreme Court Historical Society. Interestingly, one of Barnette's daughters, Gathie Barnette Edmonds, reported that her own son had once been sent to the principal's office for not saluting the flag.

And so the beat goes on...

Have a safe and happy Fourth.

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