In Defense of Obama's Patriotism
A dissent on the pledge.
You've probably read about the viral—and misleading—e-mail accusing Barack Obama of refusing to put his hand over his heart during the Pledge of Allegiance. (The video, in fact, shows him listening to the national anthem with his hands clasped in front of him, although some consider that a sacrilege, too.)
The widely circulated e-mail seems designed to play upon Obama's previous public decision to stop wearing a flag lapel pin. To suggest there's a pattern there. If so, I would say all these pledge-and-pin, hand-and-heart, loyalty-ritual fetishists are misguided about American history, especially the importance to that history of the challenge to loyalty pledges. If it's a pattern in Obama's behavior, I think it's a courageous challenge to conventional wisdom on firm constitutional grounds (however politically self-destructive it may prove in the short run). When was the last time you saw a politician make that trade-off?
Does anyone else feel the way I do? Glad to be an American, privileged and grateful for its freedoms, but conflicted about pins, pledges, flag worshipping, and other rituals of compulsory or socially enforced patriotism, like the hand over the heart during the national anthem?
I certainly feel allegiance, though less to the inanimate flag than to "the republic for which it stands," but, paradoxically, the moment when I feel most rebellious about that allegiance is when I'm being forced by state or social coercion to pledge allegiance. The America I feel allegiance to isn't the America that requires compulsory displays of loyalty.
I mean no disrespect for those, especially soldiers and veterans, for whom the flag may be more than a symbol, but I think one of the things they fight for is a nation in which "allegiance" includes the right to dissent.
Maybe it's just that I'm not a demonstrative joiner type, but even back in junior high school, I felt resentful of those who thought that love of country must be recited upon request, with hand to heart, like the ritual kissing of the ring of a feudal liege (the root of "allegiance," after all).
In fact, the first public political act I ever engaged in was when, for some reason, I was motivated to be the only person who spoke up against a showing of a House Un-American Activities Committee propaganda documentary (Operation Abolition) at my high school. I just didn't like the idea of people arrogating to themselves the power to tell me what was American and what wasn't.
The state has the right to define what is legal and illegal, sure, but there's a body of law to define those terms, not mere subjective sentiment as with "American" and "un-American"—especially the way "un-American" has been used to taint any and all dissent.
And even more un-American than the original pledge—and even more patently unconstitutional in my view—is the phrase "under God," which Congress added to the pledge in 1954, to make it "to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all."
It was troubling enough as a secular loyalty oath, but adding "under God" made it a religious loyalty test. It's clearly unconstitutional, as is most school prayer, although the Supreme Court has so far avoided what will be an explosive decision by finding procedural grounds to reject the most recent suit against it.
Set aside the term's crass sin against humility in its boast of an implicit endorsement from the big guy in the sky, "under God" is an advertising slogan—"we've got God on our side"—rather than a visionary ambition like "liberty and justice for all."
Don't the people who want to force this God-added pledge down our throats realize that America was founded by religious dissidents fleeing a state church that forced religious oaths on them? Mouthing that pledge is truly un-American, an insult to the courage of the Pilgrims!
This is not a critique of the feeling of allegiance, just of the coerced Pledge of Allegiance. So don't accuse me of being un-American or a lesser American than you, just less enthusiastic about an essentially anti-American practice. This was, by the way, something I felt even before I knew the Nazi origins of the famous Supreme Court decisions on Jehovah's Witnesses and the pledge.
For those who may have skipped that day in your constitutional-law class, it's worth repeating that the pledge controversy began in Hitler's Germany when the Nazis sent thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses to concentration camps to punish them for refusing to make the Hitler salute to the Nazi flag on the grounds that they don't believe in swearing allegiance to any worldly government and didn't recognize Adolf as a semi-demi-divinity.
As a result, the American leader of the Witnesses denounced the hand-over-heart flag-salute American Pledge of Allegiance on similar grounds. The flag as false idol. It would seem to me other religions should have joined in.
The clash between the Jehovah's Witness pledge-refusenik parents and children and their school boards led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions. In the first 1940 opinion, Minnersville School District v. Gobitis, the court ruled 8-1 against the Witnesses. Justice Frankfurter came up with some constitutional mumbo jumbo about how symbols are supposed to help ensure national unity and loyalty and thus override religious-freedom concerns.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Barack Obama by Eric Thayer/Getty Images for Meet the Press.