Posted by: Harold Knight | 04/06/2010

A Hypergraphic Vent: Antonin Scalia, Tea Baggers, and The Ten Commandments in the Crosshairs

A tidbit perhaps from John Ciardi (remember How Does a Poem Mean from high school?).  [Ciardi, perhaps] said that “having something to say” is no reason to write. [Ciardi] went on to say that one writes because one loves to write. At the time I had nothing to say but had to write. In fact, I had less than nothing to say because everything I wanted to write supported the Eisenhower Republicanism that, as its greatest achievement, inserted “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance.

What I should have been writing about was the absurdity of having a “Pledge of Allegiance” in the first place, particularly one that pledges allegiance to the flag, not to the country. But that’s what American “patriotism” is all about—venerating symbols, mostly the flag.

Think about it: “O Canada.” “Advance Australia.” “Ukraine’s glory hasn’t perished.” “Long Live Spain.” Allons enfants de la patrie. “Blessed be the land of the two rivers.” Most famously (or infamously), Deutschland, Deutschland über alles (the only one  with a tune written by one of western music’s greatest composers).

Most national anthems speak of the nation or its geography. “God Save the Queen” is different—praying for a person; but at least she’s the head of state, not an inanimate object.

Our national anthem is a hymn to the flag, a decidedly inanimate object. Nowhere does it mention the United States.  Our national anthem, adopted on March 3, 1931—long after the War of 1812, which it commemorates, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and the First World War—is an homage to the flag and to war, not to the nation. Like the Pledge. A symbolic statement about a symbol (just where is the reality?).

I refuse to say the Pledge.  The First Amendment  guarantees me the freedom (that is, the “natural right,” a right I’m endowed with by the Creator at birth, not by human government) to speak freely. “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech. . . .” And that includes the right not to speak. No one, believe it or not, can force me to say anything in this country [1].

Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (served 1941-1954) is one of my heroes.  In the 1943 case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Justice Jackson wrote the majority opinion. Jehovah’s Witness plaintiffs had sued the state of West Virginia saying the West Virginia law was unconstitutional which said that all public school teachers and pupils “shall be required to participate in the salute honoring the Nation represented by the Flag; provided, however, that refusal to salute the Flag be regarded as an Act of insubordination, and shall be dealt with accordingly.”

In declaring the West Virginia law unconstitutional, Justice Jackson wrote,

. . . .we apply the limitations of the Constitution with no fear that freedom to be intellectually and spiritually diverse or even contrary will disintegrate the social organization. To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary. . . . is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds. . . We can have intellectual individualism and the rich cultural diversities that we owe to exceptional minds only at the price of occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes. . . . If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein. [2]

I refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance for many reasons. It pays homage to an inanimate object, a symbol twice removed. I’m no good at making, much less keeping, pledges, so it would be a lie for me. If I believed in a religion, it would be some form of Christianity, and the holy book says, “Swear not at all; neither by heaven; for it is God’s throne. . .But let your communication be, Yea, yea; Nay, nay: for whatsoever is more than these cometh of evil “ (Matthew 5: 34,37). Besides, making a pledge to an inanimate object seems to me tantamount to the primitive act of making an idol of a piece of cloth.

All of that is, of course, blather. The real point is that “no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion.” Not Nancy Pelosi, not John McCain, certainly not Sarah Plugin or Rush Limberger or the Tea Baggers.

The students in my college classes don’t get it, for the most part. I trust that’s because no one has ever encouraged them to think about it. “No official. . . can prescribe what shall be orthodox.” That I am not exceptional  or much of an intellectual individualist is obvious. I do, perhaps, demonstrate “occasional eccentricity and abnormal attitudes.” But those characteristics do not grant me freedom of speech [and thought], nor does the Constitution. I have such freedom simply by virtue of being alive.

Justice Antonin Scalia does not agree. He says that, if a vast majority of the people believe something, it must be forced on me. In the 2004 case Mccreary County, Kentucky, et al. V. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, et al., (the court let stand, in an opinion written by Justice Souter,  a lower court ruling that a display of the Ten Commandments in the Mccreary Country Court House was a violation of the First Amendment establishment clause), Justice Scalia wrote

. . . . a spirited dissent to Souter’s opinion, noting that the nation’s coins say “In God We Trust,” that the Founding Fathers often mentioned God in their speeches and that the Supreme Court itself opens each session with someone saying, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” [He] said a public display is appropriate because the Ten Commandments are endorsed by the largest faiths. “The three most popular religions in the United States, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. . . .are monotheistic. . . .[and] all of them. . . .believe that the Ten Commandments. . . .are divine prescriptions for a virtuous life [3].

Justice Scalia doesn’t get it any more than my students do. It doesn’t matter if 100% of Americans, minus me, believes something. I have the right not to believe it. And I have the right (not because of the Constitution, but because it’s part of the natural order of things) not to be forced even to consider it, not to be confronted with it if I choose not to be.

Justice Scalia is just plain wrong. If displaying the Ten Commandments is appropriate because the Big Three Faiths endorse it (sidebar: he thinks faiths are “popular?”), then we ought to have a 28th Amendment to the Constitution. It would read, “It shall be unlawful for any resident of the United States to work at any task for remuneration on Saturday.”

If we endorse the Ten Commandments, why don’t we have laws proscribing activities on Saturdays? “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” If we endorse the Ten Commandments, we must follow the Holiness Code rules laid out in the Torah “as God commanded [us].” Look up the rules for the Sabbath!

We don’t endorse the Ten Commandments. Many people give lip service to them in order to “prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion,” as part of the same Tea Bagger mentality that wants us to force school children to repeat the lie day after day that this is “one nation, under God.”

[1]  For a history of the doctrine of “natural rights” see: Shepard, John W., Jr.  “The European background of American freedom.”   Journal of Church and  State 50.4 (Autumn 2008): 647(13). John W. Shepard (B.A., Mississippi College; M.A., Vanderbilt; B.D., Th.M., Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) was a Southern Baptist Missionary and a lecturer in Asian Studies at Baylor University.
[2]  “First Amendment Topics: West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette.” First Amendment Center. Web. 4 April 2010. <>.
[3]  Adair, Bill. “Supreme Court:  No Clear Rule on Religious Displays.” St. Petersburg Times (Florida) (National; Pg. 1A) June 28, 2005 Tuesday.


  1. Hi Harold,

    I remember I was standing in a high school auditorium in Des Moines Iowa when I just could not participate in the flag ritual any longer. I was 15. Years later I found out Paul also had stopped participating around the same time.




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