Gregory Lee Johnson turned up in Dallas, Tex., for the Republican National Convention in 1984. To show his contempt for the policies of the Reagan administration, Mr. Johnson burned an American flag, while other demonstrators shouted approval. A Texas criminal court convicted Mr. Johnson of flag desecration, but in June 1989 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that conviction by a vote of 5 to 4. The court ruled that burning a flag during a political protest amounted to expressive conduct within protection of the First Amendment.
The justices were agreed, however, that the flag is a unique symbol of nationhood and national unity. It has, said Justice William Brennan in his opinion for the court, a deservedly cherished place in our community.
For Americans the flag serves much the same symbolic function that the crown serves for the British. It must be admitted, though, that for a banner supposedly signifying national unity, the U.S. flag has provoked plenty of discord and continues to do so. This has been particularly true when it is a question of the daily recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in public school classrooms.
The most recent tensions have been stirred by the words under God, which Congress added to the pledge in 1954. In California, Michael Newdow, M.D., an atheist, sued to have these words removed from the pledge, as recited by his daughter in kindergarten. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Dr. Newdow, but on June 14 of this year the U.S. Supreme Court overturned that decision by a vote of 8 to 0. Five justices, however, joined in that decision simply because they considered that Dr. Newdow lacked standing to bring the case. The child’s mother is not married to Dr. Newdow, and it is she who has charge of their daughter’s education and is in favor of recitation of the pledge with the words under God retained.
Dr. Newdow told reporters that some of his atheist friends will be bringing similar lawsuits of their own. Perhaps they will, but in the meanwhile millions of school children will be saluting the flag. This is a good time, therefore, to ask schools and families just how they think the pledge can best be handled.
Most adults do not know exactly what children think about the flag salute, nor do they remember exactly what recitation of the pledge meant to them when they were second graders. It is a fair guess, though, that saluting the flag is a simple, routine way of bringing students, especially the younger ones, to ordera signal that now is the time to quiet down and allow the teacher to talk.
If that is the practical purpose of the salute, it should not be hard to replace it with a substitute that would do as wella song, perhaps, or a reading of announcements for the day. If that were done, the ritual of the pledge could be made more effective by using it less often. It could be reserved for general assemblies or important occasions.
At these times, the pledge would have more significance if there had been beforehand some instruction about the history of the flag and its meaning. In all such teaching, it should also be made clear that recitation of the pledge is voluntary.
What about the words under God? From the point of view of religion, it is not very important that they be retained. Americans believe that the state has been created by men and women, not by God. All the same, the presence of God in the life of the country is implicitly recognized in the U.S. Constitution, even though the word itself does not appear. For instance, in certain circumstances the swearing of an oath is required, and its formula includes an invocation of God, with alternatives available for unbelievers.
In any case, it is beneficial to have the state acknowledge the existence of the beliefs of the majority of its citizens while recognizing at the same time the absolutely equal civil rights of those who do not believe.
The existence of this religious faith in the life of the national community was once underscored by Justice William O. Douglas, an inveterate liberal. In the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clauson, the court authorized released time for the religious instruction of public school students during school hours, but away from public school buildings. In delivering the court’s opinion, Justice Douglas said in part: We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.... We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to and throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.
To which words many, if not most, Americans are likely to say amen.