The Flag as a Gag

The House of Representatives has, in this session of Congress, approved a Constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning. Forty-nine state legislatures already have taken action indicating their willingness to approve such an amendment when Congress sends it to them.

The only thing currently standing in the way is the Senate, which on December 12 by a three-vote margin rejected the amendment. Supporters of the constitutional amendment said they hope to gain those votes in the next election.

This movement to defend the flag follows two Supreme Court rulings (one in 1989 and another in 1990) that protected flag-burning as a form of political expression--the one form of speech most clearly intended to be protected by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

This kind of rallying to the flag (as well as to religion) is not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s the cross and the flag were used as props in the "anti-communist" movement of that decade.

The Eisenhower campaign was billed as a "crusade." A "god" float was included in the inaugural parade. President-elect Eisenhower composed and read his own prayer for the occasion. In the same period the words, "under God" were included in the pledge of allegiance to the flag.

Constitutional amendments were proposed in that era, to declare the United States to be a Christian nation. One amendment provided that non-Christians, such as Jews and others, be required to take an oath that was different in form and content, and presumably directed to a different deity, from that to be taken by Christians.

Dennis Chavez, senator from New Mexico, was moved to challenge the abusive use of religion, and he spoke on the Senate floor, defending both his Spanish forbears and his religion, in declaring, "My ancestors brought the cross to America and you have made a club of it."

George Bush invoked both flag and god in his campaign of 1988. While George was asking the people to "read his lips," his wife reported that she and George knelt each night, and prayed out loud--a clear discrimination between people and deity.

When Bush made an issue of Michael Dukakis' action as governor on a "pledge of allegiance" issue, no rhetorical response comparable to that of Senator Chavez's was elicited. It should have been challenged, at least, by the simple observation that the persons who seemed most ready to show the flag were automobile dealers, especially those selling Japanese made cars; by persons running roadside stands, who in the South generally display the Confederate flag; and by persons who have two or more homes, with the flag usually shown at the country or ocean or lakeside establishment. One seldom sees the flag, flying Barbara-Fritchie-like, out of the windows of apartments on Fifth Avenue in New York, but they are everywhere in evidence, in places like South Hampton, Cape Cod and lesser watering places.

The flag "defenders" should be reminded that both flags and oaths are and have been respected and treated seriously in Western Culture.

The traditional sanction of the oath was the Deity. This, in times when taking the name of the lord in vain was looked upon as a grievous fault.

The taking of an oath, to flag or deity, should be limited to important decisions and commitments, and should be a matter of dignity and solemn affirmation. Children should not be conditioned to take an oath casually, nor should it be used as a device to establish order at the beginning of a school day.

It has been the tyrannies, the absolute monarchies, the totalitarian states and the governments of those civilizations that are uncertain of themselves, and that exist in fear of collapse, that have made oath taking, and recognition of signs and symbols a regular, rigid and universal requirement. For example, in the Nazi period in Germany, each time a citizen met another on the street, he took an oath of allegiance, or declared his allegiance to Hitler and Nazism, with a sign and the words, "Heil Hitler."

Respect for oath taking was strongly held to by the founding fathers. The conservative Alexander Hamilton, for example, opposed the expurgator oath designed to root out the Tories in New York State. The oath, he said "was to excite the scruples in the honest and conscientious and to hold out a bribe to perjury. Nothing" he said, "can be more repugnant to the true genius of the common law than such inquisition into the conscience of men."

The members of the present Congress, in the tradition of George Bush and others, are again exploiting patriotism and loyalty in advocating and propagating this Constitutional amendment, a matter even more serious than frivolous and unreflective oath taking. It is an action that does more than just erode or chip away at the First Amendment. It is a frontal attack, running in the face of de Tocqueville's assertion and Jefferson's and George Mason's belief that freedom of speech and of expression is the first and fundamental condition for establishing and maintaining a free democratic. government and society, a position recognized and honored in the court decisions.

If one were to reach for rhetoric, approaching that used by Dennis Chavez in his defense of a religious symbol, the cross, one could charge that the advocates of this amendment are prepared to take the flag, the symbol of freedom, generally, and specifically the symbol of freedom of speech and of expression, and make a gag of it.

Eugene McCarthy was U.S. Senator from Minnesota from 1958 to 1970. He ran for president as a Democrat in 1968 and as an independent in 1976. His most recent book, A Colony of the World: The United States Today, was published in 1992 by Hippocrene Books.

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