A furor over the Pledge of Allegiance in normally laid-back, progressive Madison, Wisconsin, illustrates the frightening level religious hysteria has reached since the Sept. 11 terrorist acts.
While pious patriots are fearful of the "enemy without," I'm fearful of many of the 1,000 people who attended a raucous local school board meeting on Oct. 15.
It all started when the school board voted very sensibly on Oct. 8 to direct principals to play the national anthem to comply with a new state law mandating that Wisconsin schools offer the Pledge of Allegiance or the national anthem daily. Teachers and parents had urged the board to avoid recitation of the religious Pledge of Allegiance containing the words "under God."
After daily editorializing by the morning newspaper, which called the vote a "ban" on the Pledge, Rush Limbaugh and Rush "wannabes," as well Christian radio stations around the nation, urged followers to inundate the Madison school board with hate emails and phone calls. More than 20,000 emails were received over a few days' time.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott McCallum released a statement denouncing the school board and those citizens uncomfortable with the Pledge as "oddballs":
". . . some people are looking for ways to diminish our belief in God and country. It is disheartening, but in a free country you have patriots and you have the freedom for a few oddballs who place politics above patriotism." (When the school board scheduled an "emergency" hearing to reconsider the vote, I fleetingly considered carrying a placard saying "Proud to be an oddball.")
The die was cast when the meeting was called to order: the room erupted as hundreds in attendance stood and violently screamed out the Pledge of Allegiance. It was deafening and, to me, frightening. Many remained standing for some time, chanting "USA, USA." A chorus of "amens" ended the pledge, and would later resound in praise of speakers condemning the school board.
Students spoke first. I marveled at the poise of those who stood up in that hostile crowd, one only in 6th grade, to sincerely explain why the Pledge of Allegiance makes them uncomfortable. I marveled further when a fragile nonagenarian, a retired school board member, gently but tartly pointed out there are far better ways to educate about patriotism.
The school board listened patiently to about 166 people in more than nine and a half hours of testimony. Much of it was abusive, from out-of-towners, home-schoolers or others not directly concerned, and was rife with religious references.
A low, roomwide growl greeted the announcement of my name as a speaker. When I thanked the board for its vote, several yelled at me to "shut up." I read the cartoon reprinted below (receiving some applause), displayed a replica of the original secular Pledge of Allegiance, and condemned a shocking email sent to the Board that had been copied to me, in which the man mourned the fact that the terrorists had not turned their planes into the Madison School Board instead of the Twin Towers.
Although the "antis" were a "not-so-silent majority," as one young university student quipped, many thoughtful citizens, parents, teachers, and professionals urged the Board not to hedge on their no-pledge vote.
But at 2 a.m. the beleaguered board voted to pass the buck, to let principals decide whether to use the Pledge or the anthem. Only one school board member stood stalwart, the unflappable Bill Keys, who said he would not want any child to be the target of the kind of abuse the school board had taken over this issue. One silver lining: schools were instructed to preface every Pledge or anthem offering with a disclaimer that students are free not to stand or participate.
For many of us in this state that produced Joe McCarthy, the experience was an unwelcome taste of McCarthyism 2001-style.
Read this Pledge of Allegiance carefully. It used to hang in many public school classrooms before Congress inserted "under God" in the Pledge in 1954.