Racial Equality

True Patriotism, Like True Faith, Can’t Be Forced

  Rob Boston

A new poll indicates that a majority of Americans see no problem with compelling young people to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools.

The results, issued by Rasmussen Reports, show that 61 percent say children should be required to recite the Pledge every day. Twenty-eight percent opposed the idea, and 11 percent were undecided.

Rasmussen, which has a reputation for leaning to the right, didn’t ask Americans if they are aware that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that public school students can’t be compelled to recite the Pledge. The case, West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, was brought by Jehovah’s Witnesses who argued that flag salutes are a form of worship, and worship, they say, belongs only to God. (It’s important to note that the Witnesses did not object to the phrase “under God” in the Pledge. Those words were not part of the Pledge in 1943.)

While the poll does show that support for mandatory Pledge recitation has dropped – it stood at 77 percent as recently as 2008 – it’s discouraging that after all this time, many Americans still don’t grasp a simple fact: forced patriotism, like forced prayer, is an oxymoron. Sure, given enough pressure, a young person can often be compelled to mouth some words or go through a ritual. But that will never change what’s in his or her heart.

During my travels for Americans United, I’ve met many people who attended public schools before the Supreme Court struck down mandatory prayer and Bible reading in 1962 and ’63. Some speak movingly of the pain of being pressured to take part in a religious exercise that was not their own, but others do something else: They roll their eyes as they recall the formulaic, by-rote nature of the exercise. Many of them regarded it as just something they had to get through to proceed with the day.

For believers, prayer is serious business. It’s an attempt to communicate with the most awesome power in the universe. Many people simply can’t summon up those feelings on command every morning at 7:45 or turn their religiosity on and off like a light switch.

Similarly, a feeling of true patriotism can’t be summoned on demand. Expecting every young person to have a patriotic experience on a daily basis is likely to turn the exercise into mere formula and empty ritual. Yes, most kids will chant the words, robot-like, without thought and without meaning. Where does that get us?

In its Barnette ruling and in the subsequent school prayer decisions, the Supreme Court protected freedom of conscience and the right to dissent. That’s important. Americans would do well to embrace the spirit of those rulings and abandon once and for all the noxious idea that true faith or patriotism can ever spring from compulsion, pressure or force.


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