Every few years, it seems, the issue of forced patriotism rears its ugly head in United States. Most recently, the issue surfaced again after a number of professional football players decided to “take a knee” rather than stand during the national anthem.
The players wanted to make a statement about racial injustice in America. They weren’t protesting the anthem for religious reasons, but an incident from 1940 during which a mandatory patriotic exercise was opposed on the grounds of religion is instructive.
Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to participate in flag salutes because they believe their primary allegiance is to God. Some public schools were expelling Witness children who refused to take part in daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and flag salute. (In those days, it literally was a salute. Students turned to the flag and thrust a stiff arm at it with the palm facing upward. The practice was dropped because it was deemed too similar to the Nazi gesture.)
The Supreme Court in 1940 ruled 8-1 in a case from Pennsylvania that Witness children could be compelled to take part in the flag ritual, even if it violated their religious beliefs. The result was a spate of expulsions from school for Witness children and attacks on Witnesses around the country.
Some of these assaults were truly vicious. In Kennebunk, Maine, a mob set fire to a Witness church (known as a Kingdom Hall) and burned it to the ground. In Richwood, Va., the chief of police led a crowd that rounded up some Witnesses, assaulted them and drove them out of town.
The high court seemed to realize it had made a mistake. Just three years later, after there had been some personnel changes on the court, it accepted a case from West Virginia that raised the identical issue. This time, the justices ruled 6-3 that public school students can’t be forced to participate in patriotic rituals if it violates their conscience.
The decision in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette contains an often-quoted passage penned by Justice Robert Jackson: “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.”
Professional football players are not public school students, and the gridiron protests revolve around the national anthem, not the Pledge of Allegiance. But we can learn something from those old Witness cases: Efforts to force people to be patriotic rarely succeed, and if an individual has a sincere, conscience-based objection to taking part in a patriotic exercise, it should be respected.
The Witness students in the 1940s didn’t try to stop anyone from reciting the Pledge and saluting the flag. They simply chose not to participate. The same is true for the football players today. The national anthem is still being played, but some players are choosing to go on one knee rather than stand. (By the way, that action is not done to show disrespect. In some Christian traditions, going down on one knee is considered a form of veneration.)
It’s worth considering the larger issue as well. Public schools used to compel students to take part in prayer and Bible reading. School officials may have thought this would increase piety, but forced religion rarely does that. It either breeds a simmering form of discontent or evolves into a meaningless ritual that young people simply get through as part of their school day.
So it is with forced patriotism. True patriotism is not found in an individual’s willingness to take part in a ritual or his eagerness to display a flag. Anyone can do those things. The true patriot has a harder task: He or she must embrace the values of our nation and its Constitution. And one of those values is respecting the right to dissent.
In matters of religion and patriotism, compulsion and force are always counterproductive. Sure, enough pressure and threats can be brought to bear to force a person to make an affirmation, say a prayer or take part in a ritual – but that never changes what’s in his or her heart.
Our nation learned that the hard way more than 70 years ago in the Jehovah’s Witness cases. Some professional football players are today teaching it to us again. We ought to listen.