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Words from Winterbilt

Standing v. Kneeling

Shannon Bohrer

(12/2017) I know it is sometimes difficult to keep up with the news. A large reason is that what is said on the news one day can change, sometimes very quickly. A bipartisan group put forth a health care bill and the President praised it. The following day the President dissed it. It is not just that the President changed his mind; both parties have histories of changing positions.

Recently there has been one divisive issue that has many on both sides – actually holding their positions. The issue is standing or kneeling while the national anthem is played. One side has the positon that to not stand is unpatriotic and is disrespectful of the flag, which represents our country and also disrespectful of the military. Conversely, the other side says that protesting, by kneeling, is patriotic, and is an exercise and a right under the first amendment.

A little history could be helpful with the issues around this topic - because some of the controversies are not new. The Star-Spangled Banner became a National Anthem by a congressional resolution in 1931. In 1931 there were no rules of behavior when the anthem was playing. A few rules were developed in 1942, indicating that those in uniform would salute, while others just stood. In 1998 a distinction between those in uniform and military was added. Some of the changes were thought to address the confusion, between what we do when hearing the National Anthem and what we do when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. There were differences.

The Pledge of Allegiance is an expression of allegiance to our Flag and to the United States of America and is related to the controversies. The pledge was composed by Rear Admiral George Balch in 1887. It was later revised, in 1892, by a Baptist minister; Francis Bellamy and then later adopted by Congress as the pledge in 1942. The words "under god" were added in 1954.

During the last century when the national anthem was playing most people just stood with their hands at their side or with their hands together in front. During this time period, when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance people stood and held their hand, or hat, over their heart. It was only after 9/11, that people starting using the same custom(s), standing with their hand or hat placed over their heart. There is nothing wrong with using the same custom, but I do think some there is some confusion – as if both are the identical.

Controversies with both the National Anthem and the Pledge of Allegiance are not new. There have been numerous court cases with challenges to both. The courts have affirmed the rights of individuals to not stand during the National Anthem. The courts have also affirmed that the words; "Under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance does not endorse a religion by the government. Jehovah’s Witness members do not sing the National Anthem and many do not stand. To the Jehovah’s Witness, standing is "an "ethical decision" and individuals must make their decision on their "conscience." Basically, the courts have affirmed individual first Amendment rights to free speech, meaning that if individual are forced to stand, their First Amendment rights are being infringed upon.

When Francis Bellamy wrote the Pledge, he was also preaching that Jesus was a socialist. Francis Bellamy’s cousin, Edward Bellamy, was a well-known socialist that opposed capitalism. Francis’s views were allied with his cousins. They believed in nationalized education, nationalized industry - all run by the government – basic elements of socialism. Their intent was to replace the federalist view of sovereign states with a strong central government, a socialist government. To that end some thought the pledge was created for that objective.

The objections to the "Pledge" were well known and documented. A large objection was that our republic was built on the freedom to dissent. The United States of America should not require citizens to pledge their allegiance to a flag or a document. The objection was reinforced with the first amendment which ensures one’s right to not speak or stand. The pledge was seen to be "… a form of speech in the context of the ritual of pledging allegiance." The ritual pledging, while thought to be patriotic by many, was also thought by some to be indoctrination, not unlike communism and/or even fascism. We should not question authority, to do so is unpatriotic. Or, is it sometimes patriotic to question authority?

From my perspective, related to these issues is the display or misuse of the American Flag. I remember the controversies about the display, misuse and burning of the American flag in the late sixties. Protest of war in Vietnam, protest over too much government; the "Pentagon Papers" and the "Church" hearings, just to name a few. To protest, people would display an American flag in an improper manner, like letting it touch the ground, wearing it as a head ban – and worst of all, burning it. All of those improper acts were characterized as being un-patriotic. Members of congress tried to pass laws that made it illegal to burn an American flag. The courts disagreed, again citing the first amendment, the freedom of speech.

Today, you can purchase shirts, bandanas, hats and dresses that resemble an American Flag. Times have changed to the point that you see celebrities and entertainers wearing American Flags at events that are deemed "Patriotic." Fifty years ago it was unpatriotic. There is a U.S. Flag code, part of which states "The flag should never be used as wearing apparel…"

So, is it patriotic to stand with one’s hand over the heart, or is patriotic to kneel as a dissent? An argument could be made that the answer is dependent upon one’s perspective. Another argument could be made that both positions could be patriotic. What could be more patriotic than upholding the first amendment and allowing every citizen to have his/her own views – and voice that view. These controversies are not new and I predict will reappear again.

The United States of America was created from dissent. Armed rebellion that created and then ensured our freedoms; including free speech. Instead of both sides complaining about the other, maybe, just maybe we should be celebrating the freedom, to protest, the freedom to have both positions and the freedom to disagree. That is a large part of what makes America great. After all, one of the lines in the National Anthem is "… the land of the free..." Should we not embrace our freedom? The last line in the Pledge of Allegiance is "… with liberty and justice for all." If – we all don’t have our freedom, how can we have "…liberty and justice for all"?

Read other articles by Shannon Bohrer