In addition to being primary election day in Virginia this year, June 14 is Flag Day, commemorating the adoption by the Continental Congress of what became the Stars and Stripes so familiar to Americans.
Timed for the occasion, the Washington Post ran a review of a new book on the history of the American flag on Sunday, June 12. Historian Richard Ellis reviewed Marc Leepson's Flag: An American Biography. In his Book World review, Ellis wrote:
The many different meanings Americans have attached to their flag are conscientiously explored in Marc Leepson's new "biography" of the American flag. In the early years of the republic, Leepson reminds us, the flag carried little of the emotional freight that it bears today. The Star-Spangled Banner waved over military forts, naval ships and commercial vessels, but ordinary Americans back then would not have dreamed of flying it themselves. Gradually the flag became a more important symbol in American life, but not until the fall of Fort Sumter in 1861 did it become the preeminent patriotic symbol that it has remained to this day.About a year and a half ago, I weighed in on a controversy regarding the American flag: the proper place of the Pledge of Allegiance. This article was published in the Metro Herald on October 17, 2003:
Leepson's narrative of the development of Americans' flag fetish includes a number of tales well worth telling, especially the late-19th-century fabrication of the myth that a seamstress by the name of Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag. But the story sags at times under the weight of dates and facts, as well as occasionally lifeless prose. In describing an 1865 Civil War victory parade, for instance, Leepson notes that Washington, D.C., "still mourning President Lincoln's assassination, did not go all out during those two days in the flag-display department however."* * *
Leepson concludes that the "simple fact is that -- despite its changing meaning over the years -- since 1777 the American flag has symbolized the values and ideals upon which this nation was built." He is perhaps guilty of overstating his case here -- it is difficult to reconcile this "simple fact" with his own earlier observation that "in the post-Revolutionary War era, the flag, as a symbol of the nation, played a minor role" -- but he is surely correct that throughout most of American history the flag has represented not only a nation but a set of ideals.
We know now that the U.S. Supreme Court decided, precisely a year ago (on June 14, 2004) that it is still permissible for schoolchildren to say the Pledge of Allegiance despite the presence of the phrase "under God." The Court did not rule on the merits of the case, however, noting merely that Michael Newdow, who brought the original lawsuit, lacked standing to do so. Speaking for the Court, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote:
MESSAGE TO SUPREME COURT: PLEDGE ALLEGIANCE TO WHOM?
To the surprise of many, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider an appeal of a ruling last year by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that said the presence of the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance creates an unconstitutional mixing of government and religion. The Ninth Circuit's decision in the case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow was met with ridicule and disdain when it was issued, and observers of the judicial scene thought the Supreme Court would want to avoid getting involved in this rather emotional argument, better known for its heat than its light.
Needless to say, conservative groups and their spokesmen weighed in fast with their views. When the appeals court ruled, some called for the impeachment of the judges who voted against the phrase "under God." Others welcomed the Supreme Court's taking on of the case as a sign that an obstacle has been raised to those who would destroy our common culture.
Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told the Baptist Press: "The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that the pledge is unconstitutional is outrageous even for the looniest of all the federal appeals courts in the land." Jay Sekulow, an attorney with the American Center for Law and Justice, added: "The Pledge is part of an American tapestry of time-honored and historically significant traditions that has come under attack."
These conservatives might not be so eager in their remarks if they knew the history of the Pledge of Allegiance and its intended purpose. While most of us today view it as benign or sentimentally patriotic, a look at its origins illustrates the sinister -- one could say "un-American" -- features underlying the Pledge.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines "allegiance" as "the obligations of a vassal to a lord." Similarly, Black's Law Dictionary defines it as "obligation of fidelity and obedience to government in consideration for protection that government gives."
Writing in the May 2001 issue of the journal The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, published by the Foundation for Economic Education -- one of the oldest pro-freedom think tanks in the United States -- author and activist Jim Peron reports that the author of the Pledge of Allegiance was Francis Bellamy, a Baptist minister and socialist agitator who was the cousin of Edward Bellamy, author of the socialist utopian novel, Looking Backward (1888).
Francis Bellamy composed the Pledge for a magazine called The Youth's Companion, which first published it on September 8, 1892, and promoted it vigorously. As Peron relates the story, "Bellamy, like his cousin, wanted to use government schools to help promote a socialist agenda. He felt that one way of encouraging this agenda would be the teaching of state loyalty. To this end he wrote a pledge, which students across the country were asked to take. With a few minor changes this pledge is what is now called the Pledge of Allegiance."
Peron goes on to note that "Bellamy attempted to accomplish several goals with his Pledge of Allegiance. He saw it as a means of inculcating support for a centralized national government over the federalist system of the Founding Fathers." Moreover, Peron writes, Bellamy "originally toyed with the idea of making the Pledge more openly socialistic, but decided that if he did so it would never be accepted."
Why not? Because the American republic was founded on constitutional principles that are antithetical to socialism and its parallel, feudalism, in which the citizen is a mere vassal to a superior lord. The Pledge of Allegiance stands on its head the American commitment to universal but individual rights of "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" (as Thomas Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence). In its place it puts fealty to the will of the state and the subjugation of the individual to an amorphous "society."
Whether or not reciting the Pledge of Allegiance in government schools is unconstitutional will be decided soon by the U.S. Supreme Court. But conservatives who view the Pledge as sacrosanct should not be too quick to condemn an "adverse" ruling without first thinking about the implications of the history and the text of the Pledge itself. If they do, they might realize that they are supporting something quite at odds with what they hold dear about America.
While the Supreme Court hears this case and decides how to rule, we citizens have an opportunity to reflect on the Pledge's implications, as well. The unsettling conclusions we draw should lead to deeper wisdom and a better appreciation of individual liberty as promised by the Constitution.
Richard Sincere is author of Sowing the Seeds of Free Enterprise and The Politics of Sentiment, among other works.
In our view, it is improper for the federal courts to entertain a claim by a plaintiff whose standing to sue is founded on family law rights that are in dispute when prosecution of the lawsuit may have an adverse effect on the person who is the source of the plaintiff’s claimed standing. When hard questions of domestic relations are sure to affect the outcome, the prudent course is for the federal court to stay its hand rather than reach out to resolve a weighty question of federal constitutional law. There is a vast difference between Newdow’s right to communicate with his child–which both California law and the First Amendment recognize–and his claimed right to shield his daughter from influences to which she is exposed in school despite the terms of the custody order. We conclude that, having been deprived under California law of the right to sue as next friend, Newdow lacks prudential standing to bring this suit in federal court.The issue has gone away -- for the moment. I only wish the conservatives who are the most vociferous proponents of the Pledge would realize how anti-American "pledging allegiance" is.
Because it is a social ritual, I still participate in Pledge ceremonies as a matter of courtesy. This is simply a matter of respect for the people I am with, much the same as bowing one's head when a dinner party host says grace (even if you are a non-believer) or standing for the singing of "O Canada" before a game at which an American baseball team is playing the Montreal Expos -- er, that is, the Toronto Blue Jays. (I guess they don't still sing "O Canada" at RFK Stadium for Washington Nationals games.)
But being polite does not necessarily suggest approbration as much as it does mild toleration and considered resignation.