Choose wisely: Freedom or Provocation

Do you remember Russell Tremain? If not, don’t worry; we’ll return to him shortly.

Emboldened by his raucous mob, President Trump demanded the instant termination of any NFL “son of a bitch” who doesn’t stand for the National Anthem. The national media has widely and substantially reported upon President Trump’s statement and the NFL’s response, and whether one stands with the NFL or President Trump, we need an honest discourse about patriotic fervor.

I began every school day quoting the Pledge of Allegiance. Every military member swears or affirms their duty to the United States of America to protect it from all enemies foreign and domestic, and each of us lives and breathes in a highly troubled nation where freedom is becoming an antiquated notion and our national symbols evolve towards idolatry. These symbols: our flag, our anthem, the Pledge of Allegiance, our monuments and other founding documents have risen above our citizenry. Where they once existed to serve and remind us that We the People belong to and seek a greater and more perfect union, they now stand above us demanding our reverence.

At least this is the sentiment that President Trump implied with his irresponsible statements and Senator Rand Paul reinforced from his appearance on Meet the Press where he urged that everyone must pledge their allegiance. So, we must now show our love of America, or else. The Supreme Court ruled in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943) that the US Constitution cannot compel patriotic expression upon anyone. Yet that is exactly what President Trump and others have instantiated among his supporters and our nation. If we don’t behave adequately, our leaders will take our children and force our hand under their tyranny. Okay, but isn’t this just reductio ad absurdum? America, surely, would never slide down this slippery slope. I wish I was wrong, but I’m not.

Russell Tremain was a nine-year old child whose religion disallowed reverence to any idol. His parents requested the school waive Russell from pledging allegiance to the flag, and the school refused, so the parents removed him from school. The state saw this as an illegal act and took custody of Russel away from his parents and forced him to pledge allegiance to the flag under the tyranny of state custody. But that was in 1925 and surely, we aren’t forcing patriotism upon anyone now. After all, we have the protection of West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette. I wish I was still wrong, but unfortunately, I’m not.

Anne Daigle-McDonald was a fourth-grade teacher in Florida in 2013. One day, a Jehovah Witness student stood out of respect for America, but he refused to place his hand over his heart, as that was a sign of idolatry. She forcefully manhandled that boy to put his hand over his heart. The official record has her saying:

“If you don’t want to say the pledge, you still have to put your hand on your heart and if you don’t want to do that, you should move out of the country.”

Sound familiar?

America is now more divisive than ever, but forcing patriotism is not the answer. Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy believed that “If patriotic sentiments are so proper to the nations, they should be permitted to manifest themselves freely, and shouldn’t be provoked by all kinds of exclusive and artificial means.”

Our Constitution sought to build a more perfect union. We still have much to build, but we must never forget that dissidents and protesters still love America, and their call should rally us to build a better union; a union more deserving of patriotic love. Anything else supports tyranny, and an America that supports tyranny is no America at all.

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