Legislating patriotism shows ignorance of ideals

Decades ago, during the height of the civil rights movement, George Wallace told Congress it could pass as many laws as it wanted, but it could not legislate what he and the rest of the American people think. In a way, that statement echoed the principles put down on paper by Thomas Jefferson. It is neither within a legislature’s rights nor abilities to regulate how a free people ought to think. And history shows the folly of attempts to the contrary.

Given its recent behavior, the state Legislature is in dire need of some remedial history and civics lessons.

Legislators approved bills last week requiring students in public schools to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at least once per week. Rep. Mark Olson, R-Big Lake, reasoned his fellow House members should support the bill because “anti-patriotism has to stop.” So instead of introducing a bill that might help alleviate any of the actual problems facing Americans, thus giving people more reasons to believe in their nation, he and 113 other House members decided to simply make it illegal to not regularly voice support of the country.

Unfortunately, this willful ignorance is not relegated to Minnesota. State legislatures across the nation are passing similar bills, presumably hoping to bolster a generation’s support for the government without the tediousness of actually doing something to which the people could lend their support. In Missouri, Democratic Sen. Ted House embodied this legislative sloth when he told Associated Press reporter Kathryn Masterson, “It’s a quick and easy way to start thinking about what it is to be an American.”

We suggest Sen. House take a walk through the political science section of any academic library before he comments on the topic again. The thousands of pages of theories and stories – born of past generations’ toil and sacrifice – testify to the fact that thinking about and acting on “what it is to be an American” is anything but “quick and easy.”

Being an American is not cooking a microwave dinner or watching a television program. It takes serious, heartfelt effort in both action and thought. Likewise, mandatory recitation – even of something with the depth of the Pledge of Allegiance – will not teach young people what it means to be an American. In fact, forcing such recitation cheapens and degrades the pledge by substituting meaning with regulation. Students certainly should not be discouraged from proclaiming their patriotism or allegiance, but by the same logic that makes reciting the pledge a meaningful act, they must not be discouraged from critical examination of that to which they are pledging their allegiance.

For some, that critical thinking will lead to disagreement with what the U.S. government is doing and make some students not want to say the pledge. How a person deals with those views, however contradictory to his or her own, is a true test of that person’s support of the ideas and principles upon which the United States was founded.

And it is a test state legislators should be ashamed they failed.