Conflict in the name of loyalty

ANDREW COHEN is CBS News' chief legal analyst.

LAST WEEK, while tens of millions of us were voting in the midterm elections, a small group of undergraduate politicians at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa voted to ban the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance at their student government meetings.

“Loyalty ought to be something the government earns through performance, not through reciting a pledge,” said one of three student “rebels,” Jason Bell, who ran for and won his student office, the news service Reuters reported, while wearing a “revolutionary-style beret,” whatever that is supposed to mean.

The ban -- passed by a 3-2 vote -- does not apply to other school groups or campus activities and was neither endorsed nor criticized by school administrators. But that didn’t stop the story from quickly causing the sort of “patriotic” hysteria that emerges when someone steps out of line, pledge-wise. One fellow student, for example, reportedly became so distraught by the announcement of the ban that she immediately began reciting the pledge. Another accused the student leaders of “anti-Americanism.” By the end of the week, the story was posted on the Christian Broadcasting Network website.


Because these students obviously have a little extra time on their hands, and with their holiday break coming up, I recommend that they all read Richard J. Ellis’ book, “To the Flag,” an excellent and little-known work that also ought to be required reading for every grown-up politician who might be tempted to finger-point in the debate over the pledge. “The words of the pledge,” Ellis writes, “have inspired millions, but they have also been used to coerce and intimidate; to compel conformity and to silence dissent.”

Indeed, as Ellis illustrates, the Pledge of Allegiance was created and promoted in the late 19th century, a period of intense social upheaval in this country as waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe came to the United States and upset the nation’s ethnic (Anglo-Saxon) and religious (Protestant) apple cart. It was designed as a paean to nationalism, but it quickly became a nasty, prejudiced test of patriotism during a time, much like our own, when fear and suspicion over enemies, foreign and domestic, gripped the country.

It is a mistake for anyone to place the pledge on a par with the Declaration of Independence, the preamble to the Constitution or even the national anthem when it comes to hymns that bring us together in voice and spirit. But people have long misunderstood and misapplied the pledge.

The dispute at Orange Coast College is mainly about loyalty to government and not the controversial words “under God” in the pledge -- the dispute that most recently has drawn our legal and political attention. But it doesn’t matter. Even before those words were added in the 1950s as a bulwark against communism, Americans were hurting each other -- literally -- in the name of the pledge.

In Pennsylvania in the 1930s, Ellis notes in his book, officials didn’t just expel students from school for not reciting the pledge, they whipped and choked and beat them too. School officials would report these students to government authorities, who then got court orders to separate the parents from their children, sometimes for years. Mobs of citizens persecuted Jehovah’s Witnesses and others who refused to recite the pledge. It took a 1943 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which declared that people had a 1st Amendment right not to be forced by the government into reciting the pledge, to stop the physical violence. But divisions over the pledge clearly remain.

So the rabble-rousing students at Orange Coast College are merely doing what their predecessor protesters have done for more than a century. And the folks who are criticizing them have a long history as well.


Never mind Ellis’ must-read book. Listen to what then-Minnesota Gov. Jesse “The Body” Ventura had to say when he vetoed a measure requiring public school students to recite the pledge at least once a week: “There is much more to being a patriot and a citizen than reciting a pledge or raising a flag.”