The Spectator

In Defense of Obama’s Patriotism

A dissent on the pledge.

Barack Obama

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.

Last time I read the Constitution (I admit it’s been a while), I didn’t find anything like that, even in the penumbra of the penumbra.

But Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, in what has become a celebrated dissent, treated even the pre-“Under God” pledge as a kind of religious ritual mandated by the state, designed to advance “conformity” rather than “religious liberty.”

And then he added this great line:

History teaches us that there have been but few infringements of personal liberty by the state which have not been justified, as they are here, in the name of righteousness and the public good, and few which have not been directed, as they are now, at politically helpless minorities.


And then three years later, a different Supreme Court (a couple of new justices) reversed itself in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, and speaking for the new majority, Justice Robert Jackson wrote:

If there is any 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.

Yes! The pledge is a kind of forced confession of orthodoxy. No, not water-boarding, but coercion nonetheless. Especially for peer-group-pressured school kids. Even if they have the right to opt out. In past school-prayer cases, the court has resisted the idea that the state should be implicated in even the social coercion or propagation of religion.

Busybody school boards and bombastic anthem peddlers at ball games should let people find their way to allegiance in their own fashion rather than making “allegiance” an implement of state power used to extract oaths.

Is it possible—is it conceivable—that at great risk to his political ambitions Barack Obama is doing things like doffing the flag pin and putting his hands at his sides during the anthem because he is being honest about the inner reservations he may feel at such practices?

Not the pledge. He’s told an affecting story about how his grandfather taught him to put his hand over his heart while taking the pledge.

Still, that picture in the viral e-mail of Obama listening to the anthem while standing—looking all casual, with hands clasped—next to two people with hands over their hearts, could be taken two ways. It could suggest that he doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with the anthem, but it’s not as deserving as the pledge of hand over heart. Or it could be a way of saying that sacralizing a song with hand to heart is akin in meaningfulness to wearing a flag lapel pin. And that he’s not going to disguise his attitude for superficial political considerations. That, in a way, he’s saying, “If you reject me for being honest about this, it’s your loss as well as mine.”

It’s probably too much to hope that it’s all that deliberate. That he feels it’s worth making a point, starting a debate about real patriotism, rather than faking it for the sake of making it. If he does, though, his argument is intellectually superior, however politically inopportune. And not a distraction from “real issues” like the war, because arguments about what is and what isn’t “American” and “un-American” are being thrown around indiscriminately in that debate.

 Justice Harlan Fiske Stone was in an 8-1 minority when he dissented and called the pledge for what it was. Now we revere his words. As we do Justice Jackson’s “fixed star” analogy. I’m sure Obama, a Harvard law school student, is quite familiar with these decisions and the thinking behind them.

Is it too much to hope that’s what’s going through his mind? Maybe. But Obama’s all about the audacity of hope, right?