For God and country

July 03, 2002|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The 226th anniversary tomorrow of the signing of the Declaration of Independence will no doubt bring a special outpouring of patriotic sentiment because it will be the first such observation since the terrorism delivered upon America on Sept. 11.

Not since the bicentennial celebration of 1976, when Gerald R. Ford was president, has the sense of patriotism been at so high a pitch, except perhaps in those first days and weeks after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Then American flags blossomed everywhere, especially in New York, where hardly a storefront failed to display one, and car windows that usually are decorated with college emblems were plastered with images of Old Glory.

Display of the flag hasn't tapered off much since then. And recently, patriotism received a transfusion in the clamor in Congress and across the land against a federal court's decision that the words "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance were an unconstitutional infringement on the separation of church and state guaranteed under the First Amendment.

The message widely sent was that patriotism and religious belief go hand in hand, as the Declaration of Independence itself specified in stating that all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" (written by Thomas Jefferson as "inalienable" but mangled by some meddling copy reader in Philadelphia).

The declaration concluded that the signatories were "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions" to break free from the British crown, and were supporting the decision "with a firm Reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence."

That same sense of patriotism sustained in faith, unspecified by religious denomination, has survived in times of domestic turmoil and has been magnified in times of war. This was so even when, as in the Vietnam debacle, many of the nation's youth declared their opposition to "an unjust war" as a greater patriotism.

In most if not all other American wars, patriotism was expressed in united support for American boys and men, and later women, too, fighting to preserve what we like to call our way of life or extending it to others. In perhaps the worst of those wars, between the states from 1861 to 1865, each side claimed that God was on its side, but fealty to region and to cause was equally profound.

In both world wars, most Americans supported our forces and objectives, first to "make the world safe for democracy" in the "war to end all wars" and, when that goal fell short, to rid the world of the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini and the ruthless expansionism of imperial Japan.

In the Cold War, American patriotism took on such zealousness against "godless" communism that "under God" was inserted in the flag pledge and anti-Communist frenzy, in McCarthyism, threatened to erode liberty at home. But patriotism also sustained the policy of "containment" that checked the ideological and territorial ambitions of the Soviet Union.

Today, that same patriotism accompanied by faith, be it in a deity or self-confidence in the worthiness of that independence described by Jefferson, is flourishing in the face of global terrorism. President Bush has embraced it as the principal unifying force at home behind his war against terror, producing not only overwhelming public support for the effort but also for him as the nation's leader.

Attorney General John Ashcroft, however, in his zeal to combat terrorism and its perpetrators and in the name of patriotism, has stretched the responsible limits of his power. He has deprived suspects, or just those who may have information about them, of their civil rights through indeterminate detentions. And he has implied to Congress that any criticisms of his policies against terrorists could aid the enemy.

If Samuel Johnson, who said "patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel," were alive today, he might have had Mr. Ashcroft in mind. In general, however, patriotism still has a good name, and we are likely to see it in its best clothes tomorrow, as we celebrate again all that is commendable about us and our country.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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