The Morton Grove (Ill.) Park District requires the members of its board to stand, salute, and recite a loyalty pledge written by a socialist.
It’s not mandatory, exactly — that would clearly be illegal. But it’s still indescribably creepy. The claim is that this formal recitation of a loyalty oath is somehow an expression of patriotism. That’s obviously not true. Patriotism means love for one’s country, and coercion cannot coexist with love.
We all know this. A father is about to leave for work and he says to his young children, “Come give your daddy a hug.” If that’s an invitation, then we know that the children’s response is genuine and heart-felt. But if that’s a command — if it carries implied consequences of punishment for a failure to comply, then we cannot believe any display of apparent affection that may follow. An invitation allows for love, a command eliminates the possibility of it.
Plus, again, it’s just plain creepy. Creepier still would be imagining such a scene in which the father commanded his young children to recite an oath of love and loyalty to him.
And yet, somehow, the idea that local officials must stand, place their hands on their hearts, and “pledge allegiance” to America is presented as something patriotic. Here again, I think, the distinction between an invitation and a command is essential. If the ritual of pledging allegiance to the flag is presented as an invitation to express one’s patriotism, then it might not be harmful. But if this ritual is commanded, required, or even just expected, then the whole business takes on an entirely different meaning — it’s no longer possible for this to be an expression of love for country, only an expression of compliance to a demand for obedience.
And in the Morton Grove Park District, it seems to have been the latter. This was confirmed by Park District Commissioner Dan Ashta — who also happens to be “an attorney who focuses on constitutional law.” One way to determine whether the recitation of the pledge was an invitation or a command would be to find out what happens if one declines to participate. So Ashta declined.
And, in return, the local American Legion post ended its practice of supporting the park district with an annual contribution of $2,600. If everyone doesn’t participate in the loyalty oath, the Legion says, then everyone will be punished — Ashta, the entire park district, and the community of Morton Grove. (So maybe, then, “contribution” isn’t quite the right word for the conditional support the Legion had been providing the town.)
“Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States,” said Alvin Owsley, American Legion Commander. To be fair, though, that was way back in 1923, and the Legion hasn’t openly advocated fascism for years. They stopped inviting Mussolini to speak at their annual convention after 1930, and most of us weren’t even born the last time they lynched a trade unionist, so let’s let bygones be bygones. Nowadays, the right-wing veterans group is mostly known for running a pretty good youth baseball league and for occasional spastic eruptions of political activism in support of enforcing a Barton-esque form of Christian hegemony.The American Legion’s decision to punish the citizens of Morton Grove for full compliance with the loyalty oath left the park district with a bit of a funding gap. Happily, however, area resident, teacher, and Patheos blogger Hemant Mehta quickly provided a solution. Hemant raised about $3,000 from his readers and contacted the park district to see if they would accept this donation. They said yes, so he sent them a check.
But they never cashed the check. It seems that, still stinging from their punishment by the American Legion for insufficient demonstration of loyalty to godandmurkah, the district had second thoughts. They might be punished again if they were seen taking money from atheists — even from Friendly Atheists.
Hemant discusses the whole story here: “We Raised More Than $3,000 for the Morton Grove Park District and They Rejected It.” And Jonathan Bullington reported on the affair for the Chicago Tribune: “Park district returns donation to atheist blogger.” From Bullington’s report:
In an email to Mehta, Park District Executive Director Tracey Anderson said the Park District board “has no intention of becoming embroiled in a First Amendment dispute.”
The email also says Park District officials do not want to appear “sympathetic to,” or show a perceived position for or against, “any particular political or religious cause.”
Now that the horses have bolted, Anderson wants to get that barn door shut. Good luck with that.
Hemant is still trying to ensure that the people of Morton Grove benefit from the funds he raised for them:
After giving this some thought, here’s what I’m doing with the money ($3,088.03): I’m sending it to the Morton Grove Public Library. The money was meant to support the people in the community, after all, and if the park district doesn’t want it, then I can think of no other place more deserving of the donation.
If the library also turns out to be reluctant to accept a gift from friendly atheist neighbors, I’ve got an idea for a possible next step: Our fellow Patheos blogger Scot McKnight is also a Chicago-area guy. Maybe Hemant could use that Patheos connection to launder his donation through more socially acceptable religious hands? The park district could take the money and tell the American Legion it came from a respected theology professor at North Park Seminary.
That might work — as long as the Legionnaires don’t read what McKnight has to say about empire criticism and political theology. “Jesus Is Lord, Caesar Is Not” seems just as likely to frighten the American Legion as the sight of a parks commissioner refusing to say “Hail, Caesar.”