Missoula City Council—a segment of that august body, anyhow—seems to have decided it suddenly needs to decide whether to mandate recital of the Pledge of Allegiance at meetings. Mayor John Engen usually leads the Pledge. Sometimes, when Engen’s out of town, Council President Ed Childers doesn’t. Councilmen Don Nicholson and Jon Wilkins think he should. They think all future mayors should, and should have to. For Wilkins, a veteran, the Pledge is such an “emotional” issue, as he told the Missoulian, he’s apparently offendable not just by speech that’s said, but by speech that isn’t. That Wilkins’ emotionalism and Nicholson’s go-along patriotism, or whatever, are eating up hours with this exercise is as frustrating as it is pointless.
We’ve been here before, in 2002, when a local woman and her followers, apparently in the throes of post-9/11 authoritarianism, stormed Council chambers demanding what amounted to a loyalty Pledge. Council was smart enough then not to bow. We hope, and we’re pretty sure, this Council is smart enough to stay the course.
Freedom of speech debates generally revolve around what is said, what people are free to say, and where and how. That freedom is broadly interpreted, as it should be. The Pledge question is about what people are required to say, and that’s a different question entirely. Saying something comes with responsibilities. In an un-coerced society—the only sort worth living in—the right to not say something is string-free.
Never mind that the very debate perverts the meaning of the Pledge at its meaningful core.
“One nation, under God, indivisible.”
Not everybody in Missoula, never mind America, believes in the same God. That ought to be clear by now. The nation was just as clearly founded on the idea that that’s okay. That’s how open we once wanted to be. To use the Pledge of Allegiance to drive a wedge, to divide, as a litmus test of godly patriotism—which is the only thing mandating the Pledge could possibly accomplish—is un-American.
That’s okay too. Un-Americanism should be allowed. It just shouldn’t be allowed to win.
Council members and mayors should offer to lead City Council in the Pledge of Allegiance anytime the mood strikes them. Anyone who feels awkward about the sentiment, or its Constitutional implications, or even just the bald cheesiness of it—anyone, in fact, who just happens to be in a bad mood—should mumble in a lower register or whistle Dixie in their minds, just like some of us used to do in elementary school, unpunished.