Sunday, October 25, 2020

One Nation Indivisible

A couple weeks ago I responded to a social media inquiry about why certain people choose to avoid the term "under God" in the United States Pledge of Allegiance. It's very simple I said, those words were not part of the original pledge when it was written in 1892, but were added during a period of religious fervor in the 1950's.* "But they're there now, why not just say them?" was the response. Well I said, some people simply don't believe in God and it goes against their beliefs to pledge to a God in which they do not believe.  

That didn't go over too well with my friend, a staunch, God-fearing Trump supporter.  

To him this president represents what many believe to be the traditional American values stated in the pledge that every American schoolchild is indoctrinated with from a very early age. But like every oath, pledge, anthem, prayer, or poem that is hammered down our throats as children, we sure enough memorize the words, but often overlook their meaning. 

Thinking about that discourse for several days, it dawned on me that much of the current division in our country can be illustrated in very simple terms, the way different people read the Pledge of Allegiance. 

To my friend as I'm sure to many, two words stand out above all: flag and God. That's why people on the extreme right venerate the pledge while those on the other side of the political spectrum tend to keep it at arm's length. After all, what other democracy in the world demands their children start their school day pledging allegiance to their flag and country? None as far as I know. 

Knowing this full well, this president has gone out of his way to publicly demonize people whom he sees as not paying the flag and other symbols of this country such as the national anthem, the respect they deserve. He personally has taken public displays of affection with the American flag to unheard of levels, often humping poor, unsuspecting flags as if they were porn stars.

This president is nothing if not fond of self-aggrandizing symbols. Perhaps the most indelible of these is his (in)famous stroll across the White House Lawn and through Lafayette Park for a photo-op of himself standing in front of St. John's Episcopal Church holding a bible. It took place during the civil unrest that was going on all across the country shortly after the death of George Floyd. In order to reach the church, the president's path was cleared by police and National Guard personnel using smoke canisters, shields, pepper balls and old fashioned billy clubs to bloody the heads of demonstrators, members of the press, and anybody else who got in their way.

To the president's admirers, the act was seen as heroic, a symbolic victory of the forces of good over evil, of law and order over the forces of chaos. Trump and his action were even compared to Moses' parting of the Red Sea.

To his detractors, it was stunt that symbolized a new low of abuse of power.

To examine this disconnect, a little deconstruction of the famous pledge may be in order:

I pledge allegiance to the flag...

Simple enough, the flag is an enduring symbol of this country, for better or worse. Armies have rallied around it and it covers the caskets of the fallen, 'nuff said. We have very elaborate (but non-binding) rules for the proper display of the flag, many of which are ignored by over-zealous flag wavers. Personally I share their respect for the flag, but don't feel the need to wrap myself up in it literally or figuratively to prove to anyone that I love my country. In that regard I feel a kinship with people in other parts of the world who love their own countries just as much as we do, yet find our obsession with our flag and flag related imagery to be rather peculiar.   

and to the republic for which it stands...

Needless to say, flags are symbols that represent movements, ideas, philosophies, organizations, religions, countries, you name it. Symbols are powerful things but they are certainly not more important than what they represent. In the case of the American flag, in one specific sense it stands for our system of government, the republic, a system whose governance is controlled by law makers and executives answering to the people, and democratically elected by the majority of them. But in order for a democratic-republic to work, the rights of the minority need to be preserved. The Constitution and its subsequent Bill of Rights, is a set of laws that in addition to setting up the framework of the government, sets boundaries to prevent the tyranny of the majority. The US Constitution, is a brilliant yet flawed document that has been the glue holding this nation together despite our differences, for well over two hundred years. It has served us well, so well in fact that we may have forgotten that a democratic-republic is only as strong as its weakest link. Sets of rules like these only work when everybody agrees to abide by them.

The current president makes no secret his disdain for the power and more specifically the lack thereof that our Constitution grants his office, especially the part about having to answer to the people. Most recently he has made it abundantly clear that he has little or no intention to assure a smooth transition of power as the Constitution demands should he lose the upcoming election, using the flimsy, thoroughly unsubstantiated excuse of "voter fraud." 

It is during times such as these when we realize just how precious and fragile our Constitution really is. 

one nation indivisible...

Here's the part where "under God" was introduced in the 1950's, between the words nation and indivisible. Many people assume that our nation's motto is "In God We Trust", but it's not. The official motto of the Unites States of America is the Latin phrase "E pluribis unum", out of many, one. One of the several clauses of the First Amendment of the US Constitution states that Congress, (the branch of government responsible for making laws) shall not make any law "respecting an establishment of religion." Anyone who claims that the edict of "separation of church and state" can't be found in anywhere in the Constitution, needn't look further than the First Amendment. 

That said, over the years, some have taken this "establishment clause" to ridiculous extremes, as is the case with virtually all of the rights afforded to us in the Constitution. Nonetheless freedom of religion, one of the bedrocks of our nation's system of values, guarantees the right of people not only to practice the religion of their choice, but to also not practice religion at all if they choose. Moreover, religious freedom does not give anyone the right to impose their own religious beliefs on others,

So in that sense, the mention of God does not belong in a pledge which all Americans are asked to take. 

Be that as it may, my main objection is that the insertion of "under God" into the Pledge breaks up what I feel to be the crux of the entire statement, the phrase, "one nation indivisible." 

Another symbol this president likes to flaunt is the image of himself standing next to the likeness of Abraham Lincoln. The words "one nation indivisible" would have rung true to Lincoln had he been around to hear them. Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery but pragmatism  prevented him from being an Abolitionist. As such he would have been content to allow the dreadful institution to die out on its own rather than risk Civil War by forcing the hand of the Southern States to all out abolish it. On the other hand, Lincoln was dead set against the expansion of slavery into western territories that would become states such as Kansas. In accepting his party's nomination for candidate for US Senator from Illinois, Lincoln responded to three troubling acts of the US government opening the door to that expansion, which he felt would jeopardize his own state's status as a free state.

Lincoln began his 1858 acceptance speech in Springfield, Illinois this way:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing, or all the other. 
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new – North as well as South.

Clearly the latter option was not acceptable for Lincoln which made him anathema to Southerners who reacted to his 1860 election to the presidency by seceding from the Union. That as well was not acceptable to President Lincoln and as a result, we were plunged into a four year Civil War. 

As the deadliest war in US history was drawing to its conclusion in the spring of 1865, Lincoln in the role of the victor was conciliatory toward the enemy who was about to reenter the Union. Summing up his Second Inaugural Address delivered one month before his assassination, Lincoln said this:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

The whole point of the Civil War from the viewpoint of the Union was precisely to make this one nation indivisible. And the whole point of the Pledge of Allegiance was to bring home the point that the two bitter rivals who fought against each other in that war, would once again be united.  

Every US president since Lincoln has understood and appreciated this. Until Donald Trump that is who has every step of the way, worked tirelessly to divide this country for his own self interest. 

And now the real kicker:

...with liberty and justice for all.

These words are self-explanatory; they need no elaboration. We fought a Civil War over the ideals of those five words. Those words are what countless Americans fought and sometimes died for from the Abolitionists to those involved in the struggles that followed, promoting liberty and justice for people of color, for women, for workers, for the poor and the oppressed, and for other disenfranchised fellow countrymen and women. In the 1940's we joined a global effort to eradicate the menace of totalitarian Fascism and Nazism to promote liberty and justice around the world. Nearly 700,000 Americans gave their lives in World War II. Hardly a soul in this country did not contribute in one way or other to that effort.

In our day, countless individuals and groups continue the work of making those last five words of the Pledge a reality, rather than an abstract collection of  empty words memorized by rote. One might disagree with some of the methods of groups like Black Lives Matter and ANTIFA, but opposing what they stand for is tantamount to opposing all those mentioned above who came before them. 

The fight to end this current administration is not a struggle between Democrat and Republican, Right and Left, Liberal and Conservative, or Socialism and Capitalism. It is nothing less than a fight to preserve the values enumerated in our Pledge of Allegiance, ALL of them. That's why people from so many divergent ideologies and points of view have come together in this election in support of Joe Biden.

Because without our democratically elected republic, without our Constitution, without one nation indivisible,  without a truly United States and the aspirations of E pluribus unum, and especially without liberty and justice for all, that is to say the concrete things our servicemen and women fought and died for, the flag by itself stands for nothing.

* In the first line, the words "of the United States of America" were added to the pledge in 1924.

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