Of Flags And Folly

Real Patriots Defend The U.S. Constitution

Real Patriots Defend The U.S. Constitution

Real patriotism consists not of merely waving flags or decking homes, businesses and public buildings with yards of red, white and blue bunting. Real patriotism is the courage to stick your neck out and even risk community disdain for the purpose of defending our Constitution.

Some of those serving in our national leadership today don’t seem to understand those principles. Instead, we suffer a glut of politicians who trade on the symbols of patriotism in a shameless bid for votes.

Consider recent developments in Con­gress. Prodded by the Religious Right, the House of Representatives is considering a so-called “Pledge Protec­tion Act” that would strip the federal courts of their ability to hear cases involving the Pledge of Allegiance. At the same time, the Senate is debating a constitutional amendment to ban “desecration” of the American flag.

In 1943, a group of Jehovah’s Witnes­ses stood up for the right of their children not to be forced to salute the flag in public schools. They took this action during wartime. It was also a period when many Witnesses were being assaulted because of their belief that flag salutes elevate government over God.

Ruling in their favor in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnette, Supreme Court 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.”

Had the Pledge Protection Act been in place in 1943, Walter Barnette and the other Witnesses would have had no right to bring that case in federal court. Yet the principles expressed in the majority opinion are just as relevant today as they were in 1943. We are a better country with the Barnette ruling. In that decision, we learned that our nation is strong enough to tolerate dissent.

Likewise, our nation’s commitment to freedom of expression is powerful enough to encompass the small number of people who choose to burn flags every year. Real patriots understand this.

Real patriots also understand what Congress is doing now and why. Mea­sures like the Pledge Protection Act and the flag desecration amendment are introduced during election years to play on emotions and to motivate the far right.

And that raises a final difference between phony patriots and real patriots: Real patriots understand that the one thing that can never be excused is an activity that these days is the favorite pastime of phony patriots: placing our fundamental freedoms at risk to score cheap political points.