November 12, 2007
From Liberty Street


John Turner

The recent mini-brouhaha over Senator Obama's supposed failure to place his hand over his heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance -- a false charge, by the way -- reminds me of the confusions I used to experience when I was called upon to repeat this patriotic dictum.

I never understood why the flag came first, before "the republic for which it stands." As a child I would reflect that the order appeared to make the flag more important than the country, and that scarcely seemed right. But that was a minor puzzle compared to the glaring contradiction built into the heart of the commitment.

I was supposed to be promising to be loyal both to a nation and to liberty and justice for all people. But much of what I was taught in school told me that no nation ever had or ever would deliver liberty and justice to all. It was the nature of nations that in moments of stress, fear, and excitement they frequently committed injustice and took away liberties. So, which was it? Was I pledging support for the nation, no matter what? Or was I pledging devotion to liberty and justice? Which was more important?

At about the same time I would be troubled whenever I heard Stephen Decatur's famous apothegm discussed admiringly. If you were for your country right or wrong, that meant that sometimes you would be for the wrong. That didn't seem sensible. Clearly, it was immoral. Did being a good American mean that you had to be immoral?

It's surprising that these childish questions, which must have occurred to millions, have never achieved open discussion in a country which claims to be a champion of free speech. It's almost as though simply raising them would be considered a crime.

Suppose Senator Obama had said, "I don't recite the Pledge of Allegiance" because it makes no sense to me" -- a thing no politician would dare to say. Would that disqualify him for public office? It's clear that it would produce huge headlines throughout the nation and be the lead-story for days in all the television news shows. He would be drummed out of the presidential race posthaste. The irony is that bringing such a simple truth to light would be a far more valuable contribution to the health of the nation than anything he could possibly do as president. But don't expect any major politician to make us that gift. None of them love their country that much.

The sad truth is that the behavior of the nation has been twisted into knots because greeting card sentiments are held as sacred, and regularly put forward as more important than sensible policy. It's not too much to say that the United States has been paralyzed in determining what to do about Iraq by little twirls of magnetized plastic printed with the slogan, "Support our Troops." Support them to do what, for god's sake?

What we're struggling with is a classic case of idolatry. A nation is not a thing to be worshipped. It is rather a tool to be used to help us conduct our common affairs. When we transform it into a god we run a severe risk of causing it to become monstrous. Our allegiance is flowing the wrong way, from the people to the nation rather than from the nation to the people. The nation should be the people's servant, not the other way around.

Since I'm not a politician, I can be bold and say the nation does not automatically get my allegiance. Rather, my allegiance goes to the qualities the nation is supposed to serve, the fabled liberty and justice for all, along with intelligent policy and generous behavior. When the nation is in line with what's right, it gets my support, not my allegiance. When it's wrong it gets my criticism. That's how democracy works. It is not a process of either obedience or worship.

I would just as soon see the Pledge of Allegiance go the way of other garbled sentiments such as the white man's burden and the glory of empire. In the same classroom where the confusions first came upon me was a little girl who would not repeat the pledge because she was a Jehovah's Witness. I didn't understand then how right she was -- in that respect, at least.


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