The Republic for which it stands

March 19, 1996|By RAY JENKINS

MAHMOUD Abdul-Rauf has made his peace with Allah and the National Basketball Association. In the future, he will stand for the playing of the National Anthem at Denver Nuggets games, but he will pray. A relieved NBA says this protects the sanctity of its contract, which requires all players to take part in this little secular ritual.

So a happy compromise has resolved an ugly quarrel. But as the controversy played out, I remembered my own first encounter with the eternal dilemma of poor mortals who must choose between the God's commands and Nation's demands.

Boxcar children

The year was 1942. Three new children arrived at our little grade school in the rural South, and at once the poor tykes were relegated to the very bottom of a meanly structured social order. For starters, they had peculiar names. Their father was an itinerant railroad laborer, and they lived in a boxcar, of all things. They even looked pallid and sickly. If this were not enough, they weren't Baptists or Methodists, like all the rest of us; they were something called Jehovah's Witnesses.

The Great War was just getting under way in earnest, and even in our isolated community, we could feel an ominous sense of danger. The vile presence of Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini lurked in patriotic posters on the walls of our school. In this climate, the county school board adopted a policy that all children would begin the school day with the Pledge of Allegiance. To most of us, this seemed perfectly reasonable. But suddenly the word swept the campus that our three newcomers would defy authority; they would not salute the flag.

By this time I had come to know one of these unfortunates well enough that I spoke with him furtively about the situation. The boy was clearly terrified, but he babbled out that his father had told him that saluting the flag violated the Commandment that believers must not bow before idols, that if he saluted the flag, he would go to Hell.

Golden Calves

To me this idea seemed strange, because I'd always fancied idols to be Golden Calves around which wicked people clamored and carried on ritual dances.

On the first day we were instructed to rise for the pledge, the three boys obdurately kept their seats. The following day, they did not return to school; they had been expelled.

Many years would pass before I learned that this same little drama was being played out at the time all across the country. In fact, the issue reached the United States Supreme Court, which upheld the expulsions.

But when the justices began to read the stories of small children being denied education for their religious beliefs, the court took the extraordinary step of swiftly reversing its decision. After that, our Jehovah's-Witness children came back.

I was just a small child then, but I recognized instinctively that a pledge made under duress could not be a very reliable pledge. And that idea was eloquently captured in the words of Justice Robert Jackson in the second flag-salute case.

''If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation,'' Jackson wrote, ''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.''

So I hope that Mr. Abdul-Rauf will find peace in his prayers. As for myself, when I rise for the National Anthem at public events, I too will give a silent thanks to the gods of fate that enabled me to live in a country where I can stand up for the rights of even those who feel no allegiance to it.

Ray Jenkins is the retired editorial-page editor of The Evening Sun.

Pub Date: 3/19/96

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