In 1943, with the nation mobilized for war against fascism, schoolchildren in West Virginia were required each morning to salute the American flag. The purpose, seemingly unexceptionable - and in fact not objected to by many - was "teaching, fostering and perpetuating the ideals, principles and spirit of Americanism."
However, to Jehovah's Witnesses the flag was an "image," which, under their religious beliefs, their children were forbidden to salute. Students refused to do so and were expelled from school; parents were prosecuted; eventually, the case reached the Supreme Court.
There, in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, Justice Robert Jackson wrote for a 6-to-3 majority that the state could not compel children to salute the flag. Reversing a court decision from just three years earlier, Jackson wrote, in the midst of war, what remains one of the enduring statements of confidence in what truly makes America great. "To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine," he wrote, "is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds."
What brings this to mind, of course, is President Donald Trump's latest bilious eruption. The first inclination, when he starts calling people "sonsofb-----s" and waxing nostalgic for days when more concussions were inflicted for the entertainment of football fans, is to look away. It's embarrassing, after all, to have to explain to the children that we have a president who speaks so rudely. It's playing into the diversion he may seek when he finds himself flummoxed by Kim Jong Un or Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. And shouldn't we be worrying about more important things - health care, tax reform, the inundation of Puerto Rico, the dangers of nuclear war?
But then, when Trump tweets that players should "stop disrespecting our Flag & Country," it becomes clear: In some ways, there is nothing more important than his misguided understanding of how to truly respect the flag. Some NFL players have been participating in a fraught, challenging debate about race, policing and criminal justice, and Trump is offended by this. His response: fire the players who don't share his views. Demand conformity and uniformity.
He's not alone, of course. If he were, Colin Kaepernick would probably have a job by now. But the response to Trump's ugly tweets and threats, from players and team owners, reflects an encouraging consensus that the real way to respect the American flag is to respect the diversity of opinion it protects. As games began on Sunday, players, coaches and owners kneeled, linked arms and made statements in others ways. "Our players have exercised their rights as United States citizens in order to spark conversation and action to address social injustice," San Francisco 49ers owner Jed York said Saturday. "We will continue to support them in their peaceful pursuit of positive change in our country and around the world."
What's offensive here is not what Trump thinks about Kaepernick. At this point, honestly, who cares? But when the president uses his bully pulpit to declare some speech legitimate and some beyond the pale; when his response to protest is to question patriotism rather than engage on the issue of unequal policing - then it is Trump who "disrespects our Flag & our Country."
As Justice Jackson wrote three-quarters of a century ago, "If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, 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."