Importance of Patriotism
As the red-scare crisis was fading in the 1960s, new political and social interests became articulated on issues such as civil rights, feminism, and poverty. According to Tyack, anti-war and Civil Rights movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s influenced education, especially the teaching of history (Tyack 2003). Social historians focused their attention more on marginalized groups like racial minorities, women, and working class when they reconsidered the American culture and history. The longstanding democratic leadership and the New Deal policies gradually became replaced by “New Right” conservatives led by Ronald Reagan, providing policy alternatives to Americans outraged by the social upheavals and waves of multiculturalism. Thomson argues that culture wars that began in the 1980s still last today as a reaction of neoconservatives to social and economic issues opposed or ignored by the New Deal advocates (Thomson 2010, 112). Such issues included opposition to the advancement of women and minorities, denial of bi-lingual education, disapproval of same-sex marriage and gay rights, and opposition to abortion amongst others. Neoconservatives have also addressed questions of race, ethnicity, and multiculturalism and their influence on national unity and American identity. Thomson states that culture wars are “about values, religion, ethos, and ethics” in an ever-changing society (Thomson 2010, 115). Similar to Thomson, Hunter emphasizes that culture wars are conflicts over religious questions; however, he distinguishes between private culture and public culture. Hunter argues that struggles over public culture, such as public education or the Pledge of Allegiance, are vital for the national identity because the flag and the pledge as “symbols express the meaning of citizenship, patriotism, and disloyalty” (Hunter 1991, 52). In addition, he insists that “public culture consists of the shared notions of civic virtue and the common ideals of the public,” embodying the best for the public welfare in a Republican country (54-57). He repeatedly explains that culture wars mirror “a struggle to achieve or maintain the power to define reality” (62). In this belief, the postmodern idealism facilitated the backlash by neoconservatives who sought national identity based on traditional values such as patriotism, responsibility, hard work, and self-restraint. It is not surprising then that multiculturalism has been playing a pivotal role in culture wars by igniting the anger of tradition-inclined Americans who desire to “preserve traditional family values and social norms” (Levine 1996, 24). Levine contends that these tensions were reinforced by the continuous concentration on the failures of America, by the conservatives and traditionalists, highlighting the social and political institutions and civic expressions.
One of the examples of these culture wars directed against flag salutes and pledging occurred in 1988 when George H.W. Bush’s presidential campaign attacked Michael Dukakis for vetoing mandatory pledge legislation in Massachusetts that would have required school teachers to lead students in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and imposed penalties on those who refused to do so. While Dukakis insisted that the bill was unconstitutional, Bush saw it as a matter of patriotism. Although Dukakis explained that “the highest form of patriotism is a dedication and a commitment to the Constitution of the United States and the rule of law,” the legislature overrode his veto. Nevertheless, the measure was proved to be unenforceable, adding more to the controversies over pledge mandates that still requires legislative actions today.
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Mandated pledges had never been advocated before as much as they were after the terrorist attacks in the United States on 11 September 2001. The events at the turn of the twenty-first century sparked public support for formal expression of patriotism and society’s negative criticism against opponents. However, struggles over pledge mandates, Westheimer argues, can rather be described as a “continuation of the culture wars of the late twentieth century,” especially between multiculturalism and national unity, than as a controversy over the most effective “forms of civic and patriotic education” (Westheimer 2007, 165-166). For neoconservatives and traditionalists, the proud expression of love for the country and the belief that the United States is the greatest country in the globe are key elements of American identity; however, postmodern and multicultural impacts have weakened such meanings due to Americans’ associations with “cultural imperialism” (Vandivinit 2002, 171). Some Americans have used the rejection or praise of the flag and the pledge in their political agenda that resulted in further culture war battles.
Hardly after 9/11, when the country was at peak at mourning and patriotism, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2002 that the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance supported religion that is why they were unconstitutional. This decision confirmed the culture wars that resulted in some Republicans of Congress to recite the Pledge outside the Capitol. Michael A. Newdow, an atheist, challenged the requirement of students, including his daughter, of the Elk Grove Unified School District to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He insisted that the mandated recitation was unconstitutional because the phrase “under God” endorsed religion. Since the panel of the Ninth Circuit agreed with Newdow’s ascertainment that the school district had violated the Constitution, the school district turned to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004), the Supreme Court reversed the Ninth Circuit’s decision, insisting that Newdow did not have standing to bring the case because he was the noncustodial parent.
Nevertheless, the Court did not investigate the question of the constitutionality of the Pledge. Only three Court members, Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, and Justice Clarence Thomas, addressed the constitutional issue that made this case one of the most debated church state cases after 9/11. They all supported the claim that “under God” does not amount to a prohibited religious affirmation. Chief Justice Rehnquist insisted that “reciting the pledge, or listening to others recite it, is a patriotic exercise, not a religious one” (Finkelman 2006, 162). Sandra O’Conner called the Pledge an expression of “ceremonial deism,” arguing that the phrase “under God” is merely “ceremonial, and it does not offend the Establishment Clause” (Castagna 2013, 13). Insisting that the Pledge lacks specification of any particular religion, and its religious content is minimal, Justice O’Conner did not deny that legislators have had “sectarian ends” when place the phrase in the Pledge. However, Kao argues, the repetition of the phrase “one Nation under God” has only a patriotic meaning, and it had lost the religious affiliation (Kao 2007, 183). While Justices Rehnquist and O’Connor declared the Pledge constitutional, Justice Clarence Thomas called for rethinking the Establishment Clause, that is “a federal provision, which, for this reason, resists incorporation” (Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow 2004). Although Justice Thomas supported the current wording of the Pledge, he initiated a case that the Court should strike down saying “under God” to “remain consistent with constitutional precedents” (McCarthy 2005, 95). In his article, Kao reinforces the interpretation of Newdow’s litigiousness as a representation of the ongoing civil wars over the role of religion in public life, more certainly in public schools, “given our longstanding constitutional commitment to the principles of religious free-exercise and non-establishment” (Kao 2007, 184). Simply because the religious phrase has been used over time does not make it less religious, but it can influence school children’s religious beliefs or their perception of what the government instills as the correct belief.
In conclusion, these court cases illustrate not only the role of the Pledge as a symbol of patriotism and national unity but also how political interests and wartime atmosphere helped to stimulate support for pledge mandates in public schools. In addition, they imply a complex cultural struggle asserted by cultural conservatives that reaffirm a more traditional national unity and American identity that had become diverse for some degree. The symbolic power that the legislations exercised via pledge-mandates and the notion of patriotism provided a politically advantageous starting point for opponents in the culture wars that used pledge mandates to gain greater power and support to their political agendas. For students, however, pledge mandates meant the deprivation of their First Amendment Rights or at least the limitation of their civil liberties in public schools. For many Americans, the Pledge of Allegiance possesses sentimental values and a patriotic prestige that during wartime, emphasizes a national honor to service members and veterans. In this sense, showing patriotism is honorable that holds the nation together as a whole.