The American flag has truly come into its own in recent weeks, replacing suction-cupped Garfields as the accoutrement of choice for our cars.
Everywhere you look, the flag is hanging out of car windows _ unless there is a football game and the local team flag takes precedence. Local television news anchors have made flag lapel pins as much a part of their on-air image as their look of sincere concern. And the flag can be seen conspicuously waving in the background of American-made car ads that exhort you to be patriotic and buy a car.
I don't wave the flag, I wave principles. More than a swath of fabric, our country is represented by a set of ideas that have been culled from the best of the Enlightenment. So for me, patriotism is most profoundly exhibited by calling the government to the carpet anytime it defies the principles upon which our nation was founded: When it denies unpopular groups freedom of speech or religion, doesn't respect limits on police powers or fails to treat every person equally under the law. (Of course, it's hard to sell a car with that.)
Don't get me wrong, I respect the choice of those who show their love of country by displaying Old Glory. But at this time of renewed patriotic fervor, we have to be careful that flag waving doesn't become flag raving.
In the not too distant past, our flag was used as a tool of persecution, particularly against Jehovah's Witnesses and particularly by members of the American Legion.
In the early and mid-1940s, as World War II raged, a wave of anti-Witness violence swept the country. Jehovah's Witnesses were targeted because their religion forbade them from paying homage to anything but God, which meant they couldn't participate in the Pledge of Allegiance. Witnesses also inflamed communities with their avid proselytizing and open criticism of other organized religions.
Adding to the combustion was one of the worst rulings of the century by the U.S. Supreme Court. In June of 1940, the court ruled that Lillian and William Gobitis, two Jehovah's Witness children, had not had their religious freedom rights violated by a Pennsylvania school district's policy of compulsory flag pledging, even though the children were expelled for refusing to participate. In the shorthand of the day, the Gobitis decision was translated into: Even the court says they're traitors. And it soon became "open season" on Witnesses.
Americans were skittish about the Axis powers operating a spy network inside the country. (In the same way we are now worried about terrorists in our midst.) Rumors circulated that Witnesses were German spies and members of the elusive Fifth Column, sometimes backed up by fallacious press reports. The fact that they wouldn't salute the flag was seen as evidence of their disloyalty.
Some of the worst atrocities have been documented in the book, Judging Jehovah's Witnesses: Religious Persecution and the Dawn of the Rights Revolution, by Shawn Francis Peters. For example, in Litchfield, Ill., carloads of Witnesses were set upon by townspeople, with members of the American Legion leading the way. Men and women were pulled from their cars, the men beaten. A flag was draped over a car hood, and, when Witness Robert Fischer wouldn't salute it, "vigilantes grabbed his head and repeatedly slammed it against the flag-covered hood." According to eye witness reports, the chief of police sat watching and did nothing.
During the 1940s there were thousands of reported incidents, coming from nearly every state, of destruction of Witness property, burning and looting of Kingdom Halls, brutal beatings and floggings when Witnesses refused to salute the flag, and in one case castration. Police typically did not intervene in the attacks or investigate later. Instead, local sheriffs would often arrest and charge the Witness victims. Even our Justice Department turned a blind eye.
By 1943, the Supreme Court had had enough. It reversed the Gobitis decision in the case of West Virginia State Board of Education vs. Barnette. In a ringing opinion, the court said Jehovah's Witness children and others have the First Amendment right to refuse to participate in a flag salute."Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much," wrote Justice Robert Jackson. "That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order."
As schools across the country react to the Sept. 11 attacks by reintroducing morning pledge exercises, it is worth remembering the way enforcement once got seriously out of hand.
The flag should be a symbol of America, land of liberty, pluralism and tolerance. But too often it has been hijacked by commercial interests to hawk goods, by politicians to hide behind and by bullies to justify violence against those who are different. To avoid any confusion, I'm sticking to principles.