Coercive Patriotism

March 1, 2001 • Commentary

Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, it has been said, and never was that more true than when politicians intrude. Even the most genuine love of country is perverted by government attempts to force unwilling citizens to engage in public displays of national affection.

Virginia’s Fairfax County, home to many federal employees, has long featured a moderate Republicanism at odds with the more conservative variant dominant farther south. But it is a Fairfax Republican, state Sen. Warren Barry, who has embarked on a crusade to make Virginia schoolchildren spout the Pledge of Allegiance or else.

Barry has proposed to mandate that kids say the Pledge of Allegiance, and suspend those who refuse. He would allow an exception for students with specific philosophical or religious objections. But, then, he has no alternative, since the First Amendment of the Constitution requires no less.

Barry says he wants to hit students who “just don’t feel like saying it.” They offend his sense of right and wrong, he told the Washington Times.

The Pledge has long been a favorite patriotic symbol. And, state and local governments were not always sensitive to minority sentiments.

For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses were persecuted even though their faith forbids them to say the pledge; the U.S. Supreme Court first dismissed their pleas for relief. Only in a second case did the Court finally decide that a free society could not properly require a free people to verbalize a belief they did not share.

Still, then‐​Vice President George Bush used the issue in 1988 to help defeat Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. No one could seriously argue that Dukakis wasn’t patriotic, but the fact that he didn’t want to force his state’s teachers to say the pledge was viewed as somehow suspect.

Similar in nature are concerns about flag burning. A cretin occasionally destroys a flag and politicians promise to make it illegal. After the Supreme Court ruled that flag burning was political speech protected by the First Amendment, legislators rushed to propose amending the Constitution.

They have failed to do so only because some conservatives, such as Kentucky’s Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell, put fidelity to the Constitution and its principles ahead of political expediency. And, because the American people have sensibly decided that flag burning is a nonissue.

Such common sense hasn’t worked its way down to Barry in Richmond, however. The Senate quickly passed his bill, though it then ran into some resistance in the Statehouse.

Barry wanted to prescribe the punishment of students who refused to do as told. When the House Education Committee voted to let local school boards decide how to enforce the law, Barry temporarily withdrew his bill.

Why, he raged, his legislation had been watered down by a committee of “spineless pinkos.” To let communities set the standards would mean “the school board would immediately have parents at their doorstep asking them to water it down.” So much for the idea of local autonomy.

Heck, if saying the Pledge of Allegiance is so important, why just suspend students if they don’t join in? Kick ‘em out of school. Fine them. Toss them in jail for a few days.

The question is, what is so important about the pledge?

Barry says, “There are certain principles like patriotism that I don’t think there is any way to compromise.” True enough, but that argues for serious, thoughtful, well‐​argued efforts to foster genuine patriotism. Not punishments designed to elicit empty, formalist proclamations of patriotism.

Indeed, presumably for Barry’s purposes, it isn’t enough to simply say the Pledge of Allegiance. One should say it with feeling and emotion. The words should burst forth. A hand should be over the heart or perhaps raised in adoration toward the flag.

Thus, if Barry is serious, he should propose a range of offenses and punishments. Failure to say the Pledge of Allegiance with appropiate hand motions: warning letter. Failure to say the pledge with enthusiasm: suspension. Failure to say the pledge: expulsion. Mocking those who say the pledge: jail.

The best argument for saying the Pledge of Allegiance comes from the freedom not to do so. What makes America great is not a willingness to demand obedience to every arbitrary dictate advanced by one government official or another. What makes America great is the recognition that the most fundamental values of faith and patriotism cannot and must not be coerced.

There’s good reason for Americans to be patriotic. There’s good reason to transmit that value to young people. But forcing students to say the Pledge of Allegiance, or engage in any other such formalistic expression, is an insult to the patriots who have fought so long and so hard to keep America free.

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