Patriotism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Many people equate patriotism with standing and singing the Star-Spangled Banner, deifying the American flag, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I have problems with all three.

I applaud football players who exercise their free-speech right to kneel during the Star-Spangled Banner in protest of racism, despite disapproval of many fans. Those who disagree call such a protest unpatriotic because this song is supposed to unite us. But there’s a little-known reason why we only sing one stanza of the song: Composer Francis Scott Key was a pro-slavery racist. The third stanza decries the runaway slaves working for the British army and openly celebrates the murder of such former slaves.

The American flag is a symbol that represents different things to different people. I rarely agreed with former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who President Trump admires, but I thank Scalia for his key vote in the decision that flag burning is constitutionally protected speech under the First Amendment. Compare that with Trump’s tweet: “Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!” Criminalizing flag burning, however unpatriotic most Americans consider it to be, is an unconstitutional attack on our cherished freedom of speech.

Our public schools train students to salute the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance whether they understand it or not, because simply regurgitating the Pledge daily supposedly makes them more patriotic. That strategy succeeds if patriotism just means obediently following orders of those in power. Although we tend to view our founders as role models, we act more like them when we question the old order and try to improve it.

Adding “under God” to the Pledge in 1954 turned a secular pledge into a religious one, and caused me to feel less patriotic when I no longer believed in any gods. Understanding and discussing the Pledge of Allegiance, whether under God or not, would be a significant improvement over mindless regurgitation. I previously wrote about how I would like to see public school teachers turn the Pledge of Allegiance into a meaningful patriotic exercise.

In fact, starting the school day with discussions about our Bill of Rights would be educational and might lead to informed, active citizenship. Understanding our Constitution and working to make our country better is definitely patriotic — a lot more so than merely reciting pledges and prayers, or waving flags.

Now we have Roy Moore, twice removed Alabama judge and senatorial candidate, a so-called patriot who unabashedly believes (and ruled from the bench) that his Christian version of the Bible trumps the U.S. Constitution. That’s protected speech for private citizens, but not how a judge or a senator should make decisions. Moore refused to take a Ten Commandments plaque off the walls of his courtroom, and wants to criminalize homosexual behavior and bar Muslims from serving in Congress. I’m reminded of a quote attributed to Sinclair Lewis: "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."

Here’s how I plan to show my patriotism regarding September 30, International Blasphemy Rights Day, a day to promote freedom of belief and freedom of expression. On this day, we stand in solidarity with atheists, religious minorities, and dissidents abroad who are persecuted for challenging religious norms and authorities. According to the 2016 Freedom of Thought Report, in 43 countries blasphemy is a criminal offense punishable by prison time. In 6 countries, blasphemy is considered a capital offense and those convicted can be sentenced to death. We can all ask our representatives, as did I, to support House Resolution 349 condemning and calling for the repeal of global blasphemy laws.

Wouldn’t it be great if most Americans knew about these blatant human rights violations and publicly protested them to promote freedom of conscience internationally? I think doing that could really help us make America great again.

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